Archive for the ‘astronomy’ category

The Most Exciting Sentence I’ve Read This Decade…

March 18, 2014

…Would be this one:

 We find an excess of B -mode power over the base lensed- CDM expectation in the range 30 < ` <  150, inconsistent with the null hypothesis at a significance of >  5 δ.

That’s from the abstract to this paper, released yesterday, in which the team using the BICEP microwave detector at the South Pole reports on their analysis of three years of data taken from 2010-2012.

So what’s that all about?  It’s the best evidence yet that a fundamental pillar of Big Bang cosmology is right, that a concept named inflation does in fact describe what happened within the first instant of the formation of our universe.  Here’s how Alan Guth, the inventor of the idea describes it:

This theory is a new twist on big bang theory, proposing a novel picture of ho the universe behaved for the first minuscule fraction of a second of its existence.

The central feature of the theory is a brief period of extraordinary rapid expansion, of inflation,  which lasted for a time interval perhaps as short as 10^-30 seconds.  During this period the universe expanded by at least a factor of 10^25, and perhaps a great deal more. [Alan Guth, The Inflationary Universe, p. 14.]

Guth’s initial version of inflation theory has been refined significantly since its origins in the late 1970s, and in its modern form inflation has become part of the basic toolkit of cosmological investigation.  The universe we observe doesn’t make sense unless something occurred to explain, for just one example, the way the universe looks basically the same everywhere, when viewed on the largest scale.  Inflation as the idea has evolved has become the best available explanation (though there have been competing models) for this and other observed cosmological properties.  But the challenge has been to find some tell-tale sign that shows* that inflation actually happened.

It’s been clear for a long time where such signs might lie:  in the cosmic microwave background (CMB),  a snapshot of the cosmos taken at a moment called “recombination,” when the universe cooled down enough to permit electrons and protons to come together to form (mostly) neutral hydrogen atoms.  Photons — light — that up till that moment had been embraced in electromagnetic dances with charged particles were then unshackled to fly freely through space, carrying with them the traces of where they’d been just before that liberation — which came just 380,000 years after the big bang.

J.M.W._Turner_-_The_Beacon_Light

Over time (13.8 billionyears), thatextremely hot (energetic) spray of light has cooled to 2.7 Kelvins — 2.7 degrees above absolute zero — and is now detectable as those very long wavelengths of light called microwaves.  This  microwave background was identified in 1965 as a generalized blur covering the entire sky; increasingly sophisticated measurements have revealed more and more detail.  Over the last twenty fiveyears those observations have turned into a probe of what happened between the big bang and the flash of the CMB itself:  each newly precise measurement constrains the possible physics that gave rise to the details thus revealed.  Step by step, each new level of detail narrow the options for what could have occurred during the big bang era — and the chain of events that lead from cosmic origins to us becomes increasingly clear.

In the 1990s,  improving resolution of CMB images revealed spots on the sky where there is slightly more energy in that microwave background — corresponding to regions in the early universe with slightly more matter-energy than surrounding regions.  Such variations account for why there are lots of galaxies full of stars in some places, and vast voids in other:  over millions and billions of years, gravity can work on very slight variations in initial density to sort matter into that kind of pattern.

With the advance of both space and ground based microwave imagers, it’s become possible to sample the CMB in vastly greater detail, and thus uncover much more than the simple (easy for me to say) evolution of structure in the universe.  For example, CMB researchers have identified several acoustic peaks in the background — literally, the ringing of the early universe, pressure waves produced by the interaction of light and matter in the very early universe.  The particular properties of those peaks reveal basic facts about the universe — and help distinguish between different theories about how we get the cosmos we inhabit from the big bang whose traces we see in the CMB.

Before today, the state of play was that CMB results were most consistent with the  predictions of inflation, compared with other candidate ideas.  At the same time though, observations that are consistent-with are not the same as direct observations of the cosmological equivalent of the miscreant’s fingerprints on the knife.  That’s what the BICEP results deliver.

In simplest terms:  modern theories of cosmic inflation say that immediately after some tiny perturbation occurs that marks the birth of a universe, it gets pulled apart by inflation — which you can think of as negative gravity, a gravitational field that stretches space-time.  The inflationary episode is so powerful that it expands the infant universe by orders of magnitude in fractions of a second — as some say, inflation provides the bang in the big bang — and it’s so violent that as space-time undergoes such wild tugs, ripples form.  Those ripples are gravitational waves — predicted by Albert Einstein, inferred from the behavior of pulsars, but never detected directly.  An observation of such primordial fluctuations, variations in the strength of the gravitational field from point to point in the early universe, would offer the first direct glimpse of traces of an inflationary episode marking the birth of our cosmos.

And that’s what BICEPs results contain:  the team led by John Kovac at the Harvard – Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Clem Pryke at the University of Minnesota, Jamie Bock at Caltech/JPL, and Chao-Lin Kuo of Stanford and SLAC report the detection of the signature of gravity waves in the CMB with the properties corresponding to those predicted to be produced by inflation.

In slightly more detail, the BICEP experiment observed a particular pattern of polarization in the light (microwaves) of the CMB that inflation would be expected to produce.   (Many more details:   web resources from the BICEP team and partner institutions;  quick semi-technical gloss on the results from Sean B. Carroll;  Matt Strassler’s take; Dennis Overbye’s account in the NYT.)

One key caveat before the wind up:  this is one result from one group.  It is reported with great confidence (that five sigma claim).  But something this big needs independent confirmation — data from the Planck satellite for example, or more ground based observations from other microwave detectors.  This isn’t yet a done deal.

Such confirmation (or disproof) will come fairly quickly — a few years at most.

In the meantime, assuming the data do hold up, what would that mean (forgive me) more cosmically?

At the very least:  that we now understand in previously unattainable detail how our current habitat emerged from nothing (or better, “nothing”).  That the idea of a multiverse — other patches of space time that underwent an inflationary episode to form island universes of their own — has now gained a boost (if one patch of space-time can inflate, so could others)….

…or to put in mythic terms:  there is grandeur in this view of life (the cosmos).  Paraphrasing an old friend, astronomer Sandra Faber, with this new, richer, more fully realized picture of the birth of the universe we have once again enriched that creation story that only science tells, the one that connects the earth we inhabit today with a process of cosmic evolution that we now can trace back all the way to just the barest instant this side of the point of origin.

A good day.

*To a close approximation — this is physics.  You want certainty, become a mathematician.

[Thanks to Dr Katherine J. Mack of the University of Melbourne, aka @AstroKatie, who helped make sure no egregious errors slipped through.  Any mistakes, major or minor, that remain are mine, all mine.]

Image:  J. W. M. Turner, The Beacon Lightc. 1840

PS:  Bonus video showing one of the founding architects of inflation theory receiving news of the result:

A Bit of Multi-Spectral Awesomeness For Your Delectation

July 9, 2013

This image has been around for a bit, but I just stumbled on it — so here you go:

719590main_Grid-Sun-orig_full

Per the NASA write up, this is a collage of images from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, mostly showing measurements of light at particular wavelenths, w. a bit of other information as well.

I want my own quilt  made to that design.

As the linked material says, the point isn’t just pretty pictures.  It’s that the characteristics of the light (electromagnetic radiation) detected up and down the spectrum reveal very specific details of the processes the produced each particular emission.  See, e.g., the wonderful story of the element that was, then wasn’t, coronium.

One more thing:  this image, or rather the investment required to make all the images that go into this collage, is an example of the kind of nice thing it will be harder and harder to get the longer our current Republican party remains in existence.  Just sayin…

We Are Stardust

May 29, 2013

Via Phil Plait (aka the Bad Astronomer), this gorgeous view:

CentaurusA_LRGB_120hours_3215x2406-X3

This picture of the active galaxy Centaurus A was made by Rolf Olsen, an amateur astronomer in New Zealand.  I can’t do better than Plait does in explaining why this sight is not simply beautiful, but astonishing:

The detail is amazing, and you really seriously want to embiggen it; I had to shrink it a lot to fit it on the blog. Going over the details at Olsen’s site just amazed me more and more.

First and foremost: He took these images with a 25 cm (10”) telescope that he made himself. That’s incredible. A ‘scope that small is not one you’d think you could get this kind of image with, but persistence pays off. It took a total of 43 nights across February to May of 2013 to pull this picture off.

Centaurus A is  a very interesting object — the product of galaxies in collision, it has a massive black hole gobbling up stuff in its center.  As Plait notes (with awe!), Olsen with his very modest-sized home-made telescope was able to resolve the tell tale jets that the black hole produces (see Plait’s piece for the close – ups).  I’ve done a little bit of star gazing, and I worked with Tim Ferris on the development of his Seeing in the Dark film — a kind of love note to the amateur astronomer community, so I have some sense of the skill and sheer stamina of those folks who spend night after night staring up.  And even with that as context, I can say that what Olsen does here is truly impressive.

So enjoy. Stare at that image (do hit the link for the big version — and check out Olsen’s gallery).  Note that in the shock of collision you likely get ramped-up star formation.  In star formation, you get planets.  With enough heavy elements (i.e., enough generations of stars aborning and flaming out), you get the basic chemistry of life.  Not saying there’s anyone looking back…but (allowing for the time lag)  you never know.

Consider this a cosmic open thread.

Image: Rolf Olsen, 2013, used by permission.

Just Because I Can

January 2, 2013

I’m doing what I shouldn’t here:  troll baiting.  In the version of this post up on Balloon Juice, a relentless troll whinged about the use of false color in rendering astronomical images both interpretable and beautiful.  What follows is (a) stuff I wanted to get off my chest and (b) an excuse to post some cool astronomical images.  Enjoy:

I love astronomy.  I’ve made a couple of films about telescopes, observatories, and the exploration of deep space made possible by the extraordinary instrumentation created over the last couple of decades.  Observational astronomy has undergone a true revolution in my lifetime, and we know more about our universe by direct examination now than we did before, say 1950 by an almost incomprehensibly wide margin because of the two great changes rung in by that revolution.

One of those is astronomy’s gain from the tide that lifts all boats — the incredible rise in precision engineering and the science behind it that underpins  so much of modern life, from the digitization of experience to the transformation of medical diagnostics to the tying up of the globe into an unprecedentedly swift, safe and reliable transportation network and so on.

The other truly transformative move in 20th century astronomy was (at least largely) specific to the domain of sensing, remote and direct alike:  the realization that it is possible — and important — to look up with detectors that can capture signals from anywhere on the electromagnetic spectrum from gamma rays to radio waves — and not just in the realm of the visible that has defined astronomy from Og the caveman to Hubble (and a little beyond).

Nothing new in any of this potted history, but there’s a bit of method to my madness.  The exploration of wavelengths longer than what humans can see (infrared-radio) and shorter (ultraviolet-gamma) has led to utterly new views of the universe, and insight into a whole range of physical phenomena that observations within the range of human sight could never yield.  For a quick gestalt on that point, take a look at this:

mwmw_8x10

I’m not sure how easy it is to pick up the identifiers to the left of each image — but the image shows us what our galaxy looks like when examined at different points along the electromagnetic spectrum.  When we go out on a clear night (preferably at altitude, away from a city), we see something that looks like the third strip from the bottom.  Looking at that, we have essentially no idea of what’s going in the sky — all the signal to be seen everywhere else up and down the picture.

Crucially, there’s a ton of science in (or enabled by) these various views.  Emissions of light from some object are signals of some physical process happening to produce that electromagnetic emission.  If a star or a galactic center or whatever is pumping out a ton of gamma-rays, that tells us a lot about what’s happening to produce so much light at such high energies — and the same applies up and down the spectrum.

But there’s a problem, or rather a feature of the observations that lead us to the insights available only when we have a multi-spectral grasp of our surroundings.  We don’t see X-rays.  Nor radio waves, nor any light that doesn’t fall within what’s called, for obvious reasons, the optical or visual band of spectrum.  To render those images interpretable, to make them available for communication to each other, we need to perform an act of translation.  That’s what’s going on above, when you see images labelled “gamma ray” or “radio continuum” with your own eyes, dressed up in lively shades of red and yellow, purple and blue.

To some (and now I’m getting to it) such coloring is a lie, propaganda with which NASA and space scientists in general trick us into paying for the observatories in space and on earth that generate the data behind the fibs.  To sane people, it’s what you do to help you think about and understand what it is you’re looking at/for.  And if as a field there is a value placed on aesthetically rich translations of the invisible into the seen?  Well, it might be because so many astronomers were first moved to make the night sky their home by images like this:

saturn-voyager

Which is what Saturn looks like in the optical range, as observed by the Voyager II spacecraft.  (Personal note: I was hooked on stuff in the night sky from the time I saw Saturn through a large telescope at Oakland, California’s Chabot Observatory.  I was about 10.  The sight of the rings swinging into view as I sat at the eyepiece has never left me.  Public cultural goods are good.)  There’s not much science in that picture, except for the deep pleasure it offers, sufficient to move many more than one into a life’s work.

All of which is prelude to one last image.  A commenter troll in this thread spent inordinate amounts of time and blather complaining about the terrible trickery and deceit involved in Hubble Space Telescope imagery, because, after all, the only thing that comes back off that instrument are strings of 1s and 0s that reflect measurements in various bits of the optical and near infrared chunks of the spectra.  The colors are “false” — which is to say not what a naked eye would see, if it had the light gathering capacity of a 2.4 meter-mirror and the ability to stare, unblinking for the requisite amounts of time.  The naive American public must, it seems, be protected from twin illusions of knowledge and beauty, lest it thus be gulled into funding more such instruments.  Or something.

To which, at long last, I say simply, get a life.  Or perhaps more in keeping with the tone of this establishment: copulate yourself with vigor — and an oxidized agricultural implement.

To put that into visual terms, let me offer up for your viewing pleasure an utterly falsely rendered picture that is both sublime and filled with the raw material of insight:

A star between 100 and 150 more massive than the Sun, about 7,500 light years from Earth.

This is a picture of the giant star Eta Carinae, and it’s a photoshop:  the blue image is from the Hubble Space Telescope, and shows the relatively cool remnants of an eruption in 1840 that blew off about 10 solar masses, leaving between 100 and 150 times the mass of our sun behind.  The orange imagery is a false coloration (a lie!) of x-ray data gathered by another NASA orbiting observatory, the Chandra X-Ray telecsope.  That shows what happens when fast gouts of material from the explosion smash into surrounding gas and dust, collisions that heat that shroud to upwards of a million degrees, which is what produces the energetic x-ray emissions.  The shape of those observations marks the limit of the region in which this desperately unstable star is interacting with its environment.

Eta Carinae attracts a lot of attention because it is a prime candidate to go supernova — and if/when it does, we’ll have almost scarily front row seats for the show.  The composite image above isn’t “necessary” for the investigations of its properties.  But it does provide a synoptic view of what’s going on right now, and it sure is pretty.

Which is what we know on earth, and, if not all we need to know, than at least a fine goad to get after the rest.

Your Tax Dollars At Work

January 1, 2013

NASA’s Picture of the Day for January 1, 2013:

716720main_hubble_new_year_full_full

Here’s the image caption:

The Hubble Space Telescope captured a spectacular image of the bright star-forming ring that surrounds the heart of the barred spiral galaxy NGC 1097. In this image, the larger-scale structure of the galaxy is barely visible: its comparatively dim spiral arms, which surround its heart in a loose embrace, reach out beyond the edges of this frame.

This face-on galaxy, lying 45 million light-years away from Earth in the southern constellation of Fornax (The Furnace), is particularly attractive for astronomers. NGC 1097 is a Seyfert galaxy. Lurking at the very center of the galaxy, a supermassive black hole 100 million times the mass of our sun is gradually sucking in the matter around it. The area immediately around the black hole shines powerfully with radiation coming from the material falling in.

The distinctive ring around the black hole is bursting with new star formation due to an inflow of material toward the central bar of the galaxy. These star-forming regions are glowing brightly thanks to emission from clouds of ionized hydrogen. The ring is around 5000 light-years across, although the spiral arms of the galaxy extend tens of thousands of light-years beyond it.

Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble

Just think:  if the Teahadists have their way, none of the engineering or aspiration that made the Hubble possible would see the light of day (or night) in the future.  Just sayin’.

June 4, 2012

Can’t say how much I chortled in glee at this report (by old friend Dennis Overbye).

It seems that one of our deep spook agencies, the National Reconnaissance Office (AKA the other NRO) somehow managed to accumulate not one, but a matched pair of Hubble-class space telescopes.  These now belong to NASA.

What’s coolest is that these instruments were optimized for a particular task — reading the label on my undershorts — but it turns out that the design choices made to enhance the two ‘scopes capacities as ground surveillance tools are also nicely tailored for two of the key observational goals of the next space observatories.  The instruments are much shorter than the Hubble, which gives them a wider field of view.  That wide angle capacity — useful indeed if you’re sitting a few hundred miles up and trying to pick out details at Parchin or Houla – turns out to be just fine for some serious astronomy and cosmology:

The two telescopes have a 94-inch-diameter primary mirror, just like Hubble, but are shorter in focal length, giving them a wider field of view: “Stubby Hubbles,” in the words of Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, adding, “They were clearly designed to look down.”

Dr. Grunsfeld said his first reaction was that the telescopes would be a distraction. “We were getting something very expensive to handle and store,” he said.

Earlier this spring he asked a small group of astronomers if one of the telescopes could be used to study dark energy.

The answer, he said, was: “Don’t change a thing. It’s perfect.”

Even bigger advantages come, astronomers say, from the fact that the telescope’s diameter, 94 inches, is twice as big as that contemplated for Wfirst, giving it four times the light-gathering power, from which a whole host of savings cascade. Instead of requiring an expensive launch to a solar orbit, the telescope can operate in geosynchronous Earth orbit, complete its survey of the sky four times faster, and download data to the Earth faster.

Equipped with a coronagraph to look for exoplanets — another of Wfirst’s goals — the spooky Hubble could see planets down to the size of Jupiter around other stars.

Caveats: the instruments themselves account for only a relatively small fraction of the cost of actually launching and running an observatory in space.  And Dennis has his snark meter set (subtly) on eleven when he writes that “responsible adults in Congress, the Office of Management and Budget and the Academy of Sciences have yet to sign one.”  But still, given the years of starvation predicted for the space science side of NASA, this is the first news in a while that gives me the sense that we’re in with a chance.

I’ll admit, it’s been hard for me to see much good in the news lately.  But this story reminds me that it ain’t all bad; far from it.  We can build unbelievably cool stuff — not bad for a bipedal ape (or a thinking radish).  And sometimes, it seems, a tool built to study the darkness of the human condition can in fact turn around, and capture the light that pierces the expanse through which we journey on our pale blue dot.

Image:  Gerard Dou, Astronomer by Candlelight, c. 1665

“Who is the worst science writer?” “Gregg Easterbrook” “Who is second?” “Ah, Your Majesty, there is no second.”*

October 22, 2011

[Fair warning:  this post is merely the scratching of a pet peeve.  No grand significance here.  You have been warned.]

I don’t know why, but I still, more or less as a reflex, skim Gregg Easterbrook’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback column over at ESPN.  (No linky, ’cause I’m kind — but it’s easy enough to find if you are so moved.) 

That Tuesday habit is one I really should break, not least because even a quick scan robs me of five minutes I’ll never get back.

But the real reason to give the column a miss is because it is depressingly often larded with nuggets like this:

A Cosmic Thought: Last week researchers announced they had found, in a South African cave, evidence of painting 100,000 years ago. The previous oldest evidence of painting was from 60,000 years in the past; the famous Lascaux cave paintings in France were made about 17,000 years ago. The latest find, in South Africa, shows both that our ancestors were experimenting with iron oxides to make permanent paint 50 millennia in the past: all that time ago, they painted inside caves, seeming to hope their work would last long enough to be seen by distant descendants.

Each time telescopes improve, the universe is revealed to be larger, older and grander. Each time anthropology makes an advance, the human experiment is shown to be older and more complex than thought. Who can say where the cosmic enterprise may be headed?

A bit of backstory.  Easterbrook has been around a long time, promoting a technological optimist’s view of a lot of problems facing us.  He’s been a climate change scoffer — Naomi Oreskes, (whom I interviewed this week – podcast available here) called him out for deeply misleading writing on global warming as far back as 1992, when he put professional denialist Fred Singer’s words in the mouth of the enormously distinguished climate researcher Roger Revelle — all in an attempt to paint Al Gore as a (not yet fat) environmental extremist.  (See p. 194 of her excellent book, Merchants of Doubt.)

Easterbrook is also one who pulls cards from the bottom of the deck when it comes to science and religion.  One tactic he’s used fairly often  is to chip away at the authority of science as a measure of the material world by stray snarking at all that science doesn’t know.  Things like dark matter (who knew!) and dark energy — what? 95.3 % of the mass-energy density of the universe is made of stuff we can’t see? — all add up (for Easterbrook) into a sly case that maybe scientists don’t know as much as they think they do…which leaves room for more supernatural speculation.

That’s the old God of the gaps argument in defense of faith.  It’s a semi-regular source of fun in my science writing class to bring in a scientist to talk to our graduate students about what it’s like to be on the other side of the notebook — and in such sessions we’ve regularly found Easterbrook’s classic bad faith advance of this tired old trope in this Wired feature  serving as a “don’t-do-this” example.

And here it is again, more subtly framed than usual.  I got nothing against Easterbrook’s noting that there are ongoing discoveries in paleo-anthropology, though I have a bit of a problem with his fatuous statement that these ancestral paint works, amazing as they are, reveal any desire of early homo sapiens to communicate with us.  The past is a foreign country, Gregg.  They do things differently there.

But anachronism is a venial sin.  More serious is Easterbrook’s cleverly un-ostentatious transition to the power of telescopes to reveal cosmic riches. It’s a subtle move, but the effect is to link human aspiration with some kind of cosmic teleology, a goal to which we and the universe aspire.



He’s still retailing gaps and God:  look, Easterbrook says, every time we chip away at our ignorance, we find more wonders.  All that we don’t know is evidence of … he doesn’t quite say. But the implication is clear:  it’s an enterprise, it’s cosmic, and it’s heading somewhere.

As a matter of fact, he’s wrong.  The history of astronomy since Copernicus is one that continuously deflates the idea of human centrality in the universe (which is what makes his anthropology-cosmology faux transition so egregious).  The suggestion of a goal, especially one in which (by juxtaposition) human ingenuity is implicated, gives the game away.  And most of all that phrase, “the human experiment,” is a tell.  If we are the objects of experiment, who is the experimenter?

And that’s what makes Easterbrook’s the worst kind of science writing in my book:  the goal of this writing is not to illuminate, but to emphasize false mysteries, to conflate hugely disparate ideas and discoveries, all to advance an argument that theologians themselves have long disparaged.

I suppose, amongst those we read and mock as needed, he’s hardly the worst.  But he gets my goat, so there.

*referencing this, for those among us with little interest in holes in the water into which you throw money.

Images: Francisco de Goya, The Inquisition Tribunal, between 1812 and 1819

Michelangelo Buonarroti, The Creation of the Sun and the Moon(Sistine Chapel ceiling) 1512.

A Little Post-Lunch Star P*r*o*n (Entirely SFW)

June 8, 2011

Have a look at this latest bit of cosmic eye candy to cross my desk:

What with all the wretchedness that comes from too deep an immersion in the craptastic nature of our politics these days, it is sometimes necessary (for me) just to stop, look up, and enjoy the view.

This is an image of the star-forming region Messier 17, alias the Omega Nebula or the Swan Nebula.  It is the first released pic from data taken by the European Southern Observatory’s new survey telescope, the VST.  It’s not large, as modern telescopes go — 2.6 meters in diameter, or roughly half the diameter of the venerable Palomar 200 inch Hale Telescope.  But it’s been designed as an instrument to make surveys of significant portions of the sky with very high resolution and optical/image quality.  The ‘scope boasts active optics, and delivers its photons to what sounds like the coolest instamatic ever made…with initial results as you see above.

Prom Night In The Cosmos/My High School Wasn’t Like This

March 31, 2011

A bit of (not quite) random beauty — and a lovely story parsecs from politics — for your morning pleasure:

(Link to a big  tiff here.)

The story:  This image is the winner in the second annual contest the Gemini Observatory runs for Australian high school students, in which teams identify objects in the night sky that could yield images of both scientific interest and sheer gorgeousness.  The students have to submit an essay defending their choice of object, and this year’s winners, five young women from the Sydney Girls High School, proposed taking a picture of a system of colliding galaxies* with the following scientific rationale:

“If enough colour data is obtained in the image it may reveal easily accessible information about the different populations of stars, star formation, relative rate of star formation due to the interaction, and the extent of dust and gas present in these galaxies.”

As the Gemini press release went on to report, the team also argued for, in essence, the transformative value of art  in the form of the artistry inherent in great works of science:

When viewers consider this image “in contrast to their daily life,” the team explained, “there is a significant possibility of a new awareness or perception of the age and scale of the universe, and their part in it.”

The data for this image were gathered by the Gemini South telescope — an eight meter monolithic mirror telescope of exceptional optical quality — using one of its primary instruments, a multi-object spectrograph in its imaging mode, serving as a camera.

As for the analysis of what we are actually seeing above, the Gemini press office writes:

The primary galaxy in the image (NGC 6872) exemplifies what happens when galaxies interact and their original structure and form is distorted. When galaxies like these grapple with each other, gravity tugs at their structures, catapulting spiral arms out to enormous distances. In NGC 6872, the arms have been stretched out to span hundreds of thousands of light-years—many times further than the spiral arms of our own Milky Way galaxy. Over hundreds of millions of years, NGC 6872’s arms will fall back toward the central part of the galaxy, and the companion galaxy (IC 4970) will eventually be merged into NGC 6872. The coalescence of galaxies often leads to a burst of new star formation. Already, the blue light of recently created star clusters dot the outer reaches of NGC 6872’s elongated arms. Dark fingers of dust and gas along the arms soak up the visible light. That dust and gas is the raw material out of which future generations of stars could be born.

So, who cares if our current politics is a social-engineering test-to-destruction experiment?  In galaxies far, far, away, they’re getting ready to restart the tape and try again.

You may consider this a cosmic open thread.

*For more images of colliding galaxies — surely some of the coolest objects in the sky — check out this collection of Hubble images.

Why You Should Want To Be An Astronomer…

March 27, 2010

You get the chance to make images like this one:

This is the Owl Nebula — a planetary nebula* visible in the Northern Hemisphere in the constellation Ursa Major.  It gets its name from the two dark “eyes” visible more or less along the center line of the image, which to the poetic soul that lives in skywatchers, gives it the look of an owl’s face.  It was made at the Gemini North telescope, an eight-meter class monolith at what is perhaps the best single observing site for optical astronomy in the world, the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii.

The image was produced for the observing program of an atypical user of a major telescope:  Émilie Storer, a student at Collège Charlemagne, Pierrefonds, Quebec.  Storer was this year’s winner of an annual competition sponsored by the Gemini Observatory, asking high schoolers to write an essay about their favorite object in the sky, and why one of  the Gemini telescopes should observe it.

In this case, Storer’s choice prompted Gemini’s scientists to create the best available large-telescope data set on this planetary nebula, and thus reveal significant structure within what had previously been thought to be a quite simple ball. Details in the Gemini Observatory press release.

I’ve long been a fan of planetary nebulae — you can see a couple in the opening sequence to a film I made, and, as of this writing, 204 more in the archives (search for “planetary nebula) of the invaluable Astronomy Picture of the Day archive.  They are beautiful to look at, and, the more you know about them, poignant too — a terribly short lived passage in the life of a star, an eruption of splendor, swiftly to be eclipsed by a dwindling of the light.

And I’ve long been a fan of big telescopes on big mountains, and anything that gets people to know and love them.  I’ve made a couple of films centering on large ‘scopes, and have spent a lot of time trying to remain sufficiently oxygenated to remember when to turn the camera on and when to call “cut.”  I have a particular affection for Gemini North, as it happens, because I had the enormous good fortune to go to the Corning factory in upstate New York as they were finishing and shipping the eight meter mirror blank off to France for polishing.

What I saw was twenty ton contact lens, slumped into the rudiments of its curved shape, and through the generosity of both Corning and the Gemini team, I and my collaborator Larry Klein were able to make one of the most spectacular purely visual scenes we’ve ever shot — images of the giant blank, lit blue from below, being gently swept by a pair of moon-bootied men, to be followed by the amazing slow dance of lifting the mirror up and into its crate.  Doesn’t sound like much on the page, and that film “Cathedrals of the Sky,” is almost unobtainable now, but trust me, it was great.

But I digress.  This is just a post for a weekend to give kudos to Ms. Storer and to the Gemini Observatory — and to enjoy a break from the craziness that has overtaken this blog and our country.  Here, after all, is a glimpse of genuinely beauty that could not be less implicated in any trouble and strife here on the mote of dust we call home.

*Planetary nebulae, despite the name, are the products of a late phase in the life cycle of certain stars.  Larger stars — above 8 times the mass of the sun — tend to blow up in spectacular events called supernovae.  Lighter stars at the end of their lives don’t undergo the cataclysmic collapse and explosion of their massive  cousins (as long as they are not part of a distinct class of stars below 1.38 solar masses that under very specific conditions produce what are known as type 1A supernovae).  Instead, as such stars begin run out of hydrogen as fuel for fusion reactions and begin to burn helium (while remaining hydrogen stocks continue to fuse).  As the stars core heats up as the more intense helium fusion reactions take over, it becomes less stable (the actual dynamics are ferociously more complicated than this cartoon) and the star begins to blow off its outer atmosphere in a series of concentric shells.  Those expanding spheres of gas form the beautiful shapes and colors we detect as planetary nebulae.


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