See the ‘Sparkling Snow Globe’ Galaxy Captured by the Hubble Space Telescope

The new, holiday-inspired image features UGC 8091, an “irregular” dwarf galaxy in the constellation Virgo

Black backdrop with sparkling areas
Data from the Hubble Space Telescope produced this new image of the galaxy UGC 8091. ESA / Hubble, NASA, ESA, Yumi Choi (NSF's NOIRLab), Karoline Gilbert (STScI), Julianne Dalcanton (Center for Computational Astrophysics/Flatiron Inst., UWashington)

Even space telescopes like to make merry during the holiday season: The Hubble Space Telescope has imaged a galaxy that looks like a “sparkling snow globe,” according to a statement from NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Astronomers used data collected by Hubble between 2006 and 2021 to create a new image of UGC 8091, a dwarf galaxy located roughly seven million light-years from Earth.

Situated in the constellation Virgo, UGC 8091 does not have an elliptical or spiral shape, which makes it an “irregular galaxy.”

“The stars that make up this celestial gathering look more like a brightly shining tangle of string lights than a galaxy,” according to the statement.

Irregular galaxies come in varying shapes and sizes due to encounters with neighboring galaxies or internal activity. For instance, a spiral galaxy might lose some of its material and become misshapen as it passes by another galaxy with stronger gravity. Or, two galaxies might collide and morph into one larger, misshapen system.

Sometimes, irregular galaxies look like small groupings of stars, while other times, they form into rings or the shape of a toothpick. They often contain a mix of younger and older stars, as well as large quantities of dust and gas. Since UGC 8091 is a dwarf galaxy, scientists estimate it contains roughly one billion stars. That may seem like a lot, but it pales in comparison to others—including the Milky Way, which hosts more than 100 billion stars.

Such irregular systems make up roughly 20 percent of nearby galaxies, according to NASA. For comparison, scientists estimate that some 60 percent of local galaxies are spirals and another 20 percent are elliptical.

The data used to create the snapshot came from Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 and its Advanced Camera for Surveys. In addition, NASA and the ESA combined views from 12 different camera filters—which captured light ranging from the mid-ultraviolet to the red end of the visible spectrum—to produce the image.

The red blotches in the image represent excited, glowing hydrogen molecules in hot, energetic, young stars. Older stars—which add to the sparkly “snow globe” aesthetic—are also visible, along with distant galaxies in the background.

Holiday comparisons aside, scientists have been using the Hubble Space Telescope to study UGC 8091 because they’re curious about the behavior of dwarf galaxies billions of years ago. They want to know more about the role these celestial bodies played in re-heating hydrogen that cooled in the aftermath of the big bang.

They also want to better understand what dwarf galaxies and their stars are made of, in hopes of discovering “evolutionary links between these ancient galaxies and more modern galaxies like our own,” per the statement.

Astronomers are also using UGC 8091 to investigate star formation in galaxies with low levels of heavy elements.

“Despite how small and misshapen they look, dwarf irregular galaxies turn out to hold a great deal of information about our universe,” according to the ESA.

The Hubble Space Telescope first launched more than three decades ago. Since then, it’s sent back a “bounty of incredible interstellar images, providing an unparalleled look deep into the cosmos and adding critical knowledge to our understanding of space,” wrote Smithsonian magazine’s David Kindy in 2021. Today, its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, continues to do the same.

Together, the pair of telescopes recently imaged MACS0416, a group of galaxies that astronomers are now calling the Christmas Tree Galaxy Cluster, “both because it’s so colorful and because of these flickering lights we find within it,” Haojing Yan, an astronomer at the University of Missouri, says in a statement. “We can see transients everywhere.” And other telescopes recently captured a Christmas tree of their own: a cluster of stars, gas and dust that appears to glow green.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.