Why You Should Want To Be An Astronomer…
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.