In the constellation of Eridanus, 60 million light-years away, is a tiny galaxy that is keeping itself busy while it orbits the Milky Way. This beautiful photo of NGC 1140, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, isn't just colorful, it also reveals some secrets about what exactly this dwarf galaxy is up to.
The bright, white-blue dots within the body of the galaxy are young, hot stars brimming with energy, and as they seem to be so plentiful, it appears this is a cosmic nursery that is positively overrun with new stars.
The dwarf galaxy is undergoing something known as a starburst – a sudden, rapid creation of stars. Even though the galaxy is small, it still packs a punch; the rate of new stars being created is the same rate as the Milky Way, which is 10 times larger than NGC 1140.
Galaxies such as this one can support such intense starbursts because they have a bountiful supply of primordial gas. Primordial gas contains mostly hydrogen and helium, which are the lightest elements and the best for star formation. Primordial gas is of much interest to astronomers since it is similar to gas that would have appeared in the early universe, shortly after the Big Bang. And our origins never fail to fascinate us.
Unfortunately, it's quite difficult to turn back the clock and find out how galaxies were created from the first primordial gas in the young universe. Early galaxies are found very, very far away and are often difficult to see, especially in such detail as this.
This makes galaxies like NGC 1140, which is relatively close but resembles those early galaxies, so important. It allows astronomers to peer through a rare window into the past.
But this impressive star formation may be the beginning of the end for little NGC 1140. It's flourishing with stars now, but when these stars grow older, some of the larger ones will start to explode in a supernova explosion. These powerful events blow off the outer layers of gas of a star. The galaxy is so small that this gas may be blown out of the galaxy and stop any more new stars from forming.
It's going to be a short, intense life for NGC 1140.