Archive for the ‘Cool Images’ category

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:


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:


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:


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’.

Luck Favors The Prepared Mind

April 14, 2012

I grew up in Berkeley, California.  I’ve watched the Golden Gate Bay Bridge* in every season, in every weather.  I have never seen anything like this. (Copyrighted photo at the link.  Well worth a click, even if, horribile dictu,**it leads to the Daily Mail.)

Perhaps an open thread might gratify?

*I actually do know the difference.  I could see the Bay Bridge, but not the Golden Gate, from the house in which I grew up in Claremont Canyon.  But +3 (bourbon *2 plus Cotes du Rhone), one’s fingers can do the talking with no help from the brain. Apologies all….

**Absolve me, Magistra Small.  The sins I’ve committed through crap Latiny are none of your doing, oh greatest of my high school teachers.)

Bonus pic:

Image: Yoshitsuya Ichieisai, The Lightning Bolt, c. 1865.

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.

I Haz One Happy. I Haz One Sad.

January 5, 2011

Two links I’ve been saving for everyone’s delectation.

The happy?

This extraordinary video mashup of something like 270 films released in 2010, coming in at six minutes running time.


Just great stuff.

And the sad?

This collection of genuinely beautiful photographs of the ruin that was Detroit.  The artfulness of these images is just marvelous.

The subject…it breaks my heart.

Image.  J. W. M. Turner, The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last Berth to be broken up, 1838

(The link between image and post is a little allusive, I’ll admit, but it’s there (in my own mind, if nowhere else), and I do truly love this painting.  I’ve made pilgrimages to see it.)

Because You Can Never Know Enough About Your Turkey’s Genome

November 24, 2010

Cross posted at Balloon Juice

For your pre-Thanksgiving edification, I give you this delightful photo-feature on the genetics of tomorrow’s feast.

I’ll add just one note of unmerited self-satisfaction.  Emily Anthes, the writer of this piece, is an alumna of the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing — which I have the honor of directing.  She’s been doing great work since she left us (and before)  and it is part of my Thanksgiving Day treat to take pleasure in such outcomes.


So as not to be unseemly in this public space, I’ll just stop with the advice that you would be wise to keep an eye on Emily.

Image:  Pieter Claesz.“Still Life With Turkey Pie,” 1627