Photo: Heart and Soul Nebulae Reveal Star Birth in the Cold Dust

By Joseph Calamia | May 24, 2010 4:18 pm


What do you see in this image?

“One is a Valentine’s Day heart, and the other is a surgical heart that you have in your body,” said Ned Wright of the University of California, Los Angeles, who presented the image May 24 at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society. [Wired]

This infrared image is from WISE, more technically known as the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, a NASA space telescope launched on December 14, 2009. Orbiting Earth at an altitude of 326 miles, WISE snaps an infrared picture every eleven seconds. This one, of the so-called Heart and Soul nebulae, is made from 1,147 of these images stitched together.

The Heart and Soul nebulae are over 6,000 light years away, in the constellation Cassiopeia. To capture beauties like these, WISE needs to stay cool enough that its own heat doesn’t distort the infrared images. For this reason, it carries a chunk of solid hydrogen, cryogen, that keeps the on-board telescope at about 17 degrees Kelvin (minus 429 degrees Fahrenheit). With its sensitive infrared vision, WISE can see the cool and dusty crevices of nebulae, where gas and dust are beginning to clump together to form new stars.

Having already taken about 960,000 images, the mission promises more pics like these for about four more months, until its cryogen supply runs out. Though this isn’t the first time we’ve seen these nebulae, WISE certainly has a unique perspective.

“WISE is the first survey capable of observing the two clouds in a uniform way, and this will provide valuable insight into the early solar system,” said astronomer Tommy Grav of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., who presented the information at today’s meeting.  []

Related content:
80beats: A Hot Piece of Hardware: NASA’s New Orbiter Will Map the Entire Sky in Infrared
Bad Astronomy: A WISE flower blooms in space
Bad Astronomy: When a star struggles to be free of its chrysalis
Bad Astronomy: What does a nebula look like up close?

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA


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