I’ve got one of the coolest jobs in the universe, well at least the Alpha Quadrant. As an astronomer working as the visualization scientist for NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope I have the privilege of sharing with everyone some of the most amazing datasets acquired by some of our most advanced telescopes. These are the sensor arrays of today, and they lead the way to discovering the wonders of our universe.
In the coming months I’ll be posting updates on some of the coolest science results and images I’ve run across, along with the occasional Star Trek science tidbit.
As sciences go, astronomy has a delightful perk. While any good research project should be grounded in data, the observational data collected by astronomers straddles the line between revelation and wonderment. The sensors utilized by astronomers are telescopes that span the spectrum of light, and today routinely reaches far beyond the limited rainbow accessible to our human eyes.
Looking back to the year 2012 we find that astronomers have released a delightful cross-section of imagery that has enabled their science. Here we consider a tiny sample of that visual legacy. These are just a hint of the many spectacular images of the last year. If you would like to explore more on your own try the new AstroPix Archive website that collects some of the finest imagery from telescopes across the world and beyond.
This colorful swirl peers out of the page like the Eye of Sauron, but it gives us a look into the future fate of our own solar system. The Helix Nebula, or NGC 7293, is the glowing remains of the outer layers of a sun-like star near the end of its life cycle. Someday our sun will also swell into a red giant and shed its outer envelope to form a swirling beacon like this to mark its final days.
The view of this “planetary nebula” falls outside of visible light. It includes the ultraviolet data from NASA’s Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX), rendered in blue, along with the infrared glow seen by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, rendered in greens and red.
There are a number of intriguing tales locked within the unique colors seen in this image, but one of the most striking is the vibrant magenta hues seen at its very center. This color is a combination of strong emission at both far ultraviolet light (blue) and mid infrared light (red).
The ultraviolet glow comes from the Earth-sized stellar remnant at the heart of the nebula, known as a “white dwarf.” This compact object is the surviving core of a star that has exhausted its nuclear fuel, Though no longer burning, it is still extremely hot, pumping most of its light out in the ultraviolet.
Conversely the infrared glow comes not from the white dwarf, but what is likely a disk of dust left over in the wake of the star’s destruction. Astronomers theorize it may have been generated by surviving comets in the system.
When viewed over the course of a human lifetime, the universe appears eerily static and unchanging. But really this is an illusion caused by the dizzyingly fast ticks of our biological clocks when compared to the stately slow tocks of the universe at large. Even galaxies, which seem to be eternally frozen in a variety of beautiful spiral forms, each as unique as a snowflake, are truly whirling dynamic vortices that are ever changing… a wonder that would take millions of years to fully appreciate.
Sometimes this dynamic swirling can become strikingly apparent even in a single snapshot. Galaxies that are in the throes of gravitational interactions somehow hint at the ongoing kinetic motion we can only imagine. In this image of the interacting galaxy pair known as Arp 273, the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has captured such a moment in time.
These two galaxies are in a billion year pirouette, twirling around one another and in the process, throwing off spiral streamers of stars. Bluish regions in this visible light image are dominated by the glow of massive young stars that forming in the gaseous shock waves triggered by this dance.
The Orion Nebula, or M42, is one of the most famous features in the sky. While it is one of the few nebulae that can be identified with the naked eye, no telescope on Earth could ever show this region of star formation like this. In visible light we see the glow from hot, ionized gas that has been heated by the light of massive stars that have formed in the last few million years.
This infrared view shows the other side of this nebula. Built from observations made from ESA’s Herschel Space Observatory and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, the vividly colorful glow comes from the thick dust clouds at the core of this nebula which, in visible light, are only a sooty opaque darkness.
The blues represent the shorter infrared wavelengths seen by Spitzer (8-24 microns) while the greens and reds are longer wavelengths observed by Herschel (70-160 microns). Here color becomes a kind of cosmic thermometer, ranging from the warmest clouds in blue to the coldest in red. The bright red spine of dust running from top to bottom represents the dense, dark core of the cloud that will likely spawn new generations of star formation in the future.
Dr. Robert Hurt (@AstroRobLA) is the visualization scientist for NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope project at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA, overseeing data visualizations and illustrations for public communications for that and other missions including Kepler, WISE, GALEX, and NuSTAR. He also produces the Hidden Universe podcast series.
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