Through the Looking Gas

By Phil Plait | August 14, 2006 2:09 pm

The Large Magellanic Cloud is no cloud– it’s a galaxy in its own right, even if smaller than our Milky Way and in orbit around it. But it has everything that makes up a galaxy– lots of stars, gas clouds, dust strewn here and there. Since it’s close to us, relatively speaking, that makes it a favorite target for astronomers. We get to see more detail than in other galaxies that are farther away.

But I have a sneaky suspicion there’s another reason we look at it so much. Check this image out:

Wow. Gorgeous, eh? If you want to see a much higher-res version, try this one, but be warned, it’s 3900×2500 pixels!

Looking at that image, I think that if I were to use Hubble to observe star-forming regions, I’d target the LMC as well (hey wait a sec– I worked on a project that did). Astronomers are human too, and have an eye for art.

The team who observed this patch of sky were looking to investigate how stars form, and how they coexist in such a chaotic region. There’s much to be learned from all that, of course, but sometimes I like to sit back and let the picture itself overwhelm me. This one does that, and for more than one reason… despite the thickness of the gas and dust in that cloud, and the overall traffic jam that is the LMC, there is a subtlety to this image that might escape you at first. I’ve zoomed in on one section. See if you see it:

See those fuzzies in the picture? Those are galaxies, seen right through all the garbage floating in the LMC. We’re peering through our galaxy to see another, and then poking right through that one to those beyond.

Last night I was visiting friends who live out in the country. We went outside, on their deck, to see if we could catch sight of any stray meteors. The Milky Way was up and glorious (despite the fog here). Details were obvious, and right through the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan, the milky stream of starlight is bifurcated, split right in half by a dark lane, sometimes called the Great Rift. This is dust in our Galaxy in a thin ribbon, blocking the light from stars behind it.

Here I am in a monster galaxy, and I can’t even see the center of it due to intervening dust. Yet if I pick my spot in the sky carefully, my gaze can penetrate through two galaxies and into the abyss beyond.

Astronomy affords us a perspective on things that sometimes other fields of science — of any human thought — might not give us. That’s one of many reasons I like looking at astronomical pictures like this one from Hubble, and also why it’s good just to get out under the stars and see what there is to see.


Comments (9)

  1. Amen Phil.

    We just had nearly 300 people at our observatory’s public night last Saturday, and I’m sure each and every one of them were “taken” by the wonderful things we showed them through the telescopes, and just casual constellation tours outside the building.

    And even though sometimes we may become complacent about what we observe, the enthusiasm of the public can bring us back to the realization that everything out there has a “wow” factor. The amazement of the people who got to see Uranus and Neptune through my scope shows that even while I am “familiar” with those planets and their look through the scope, they are something wonderful to the new observer.

    And there are times when I just like to leave the telescope, lay on the ground, and just look up.. and wonder…

  2. gar

    Nothing in the night sky bores me, even after 41 odd years. I’ll even stare at the moon for moments at a time in wonder. Thanks for the great pic!

  3. Shawn S.

    Pictures like this make me wonder why some folks feel they need magic in their life. Reality like that is every bit as mysterious, wonderous, and mind-blowing as they wish it were. They’re just lazy! I used to be one of ‘them’ and what turned me to reality was a friend’s insistance that I read a book called “A Brief History of Time”. This led to harder things like “The Elegant Universe” by Brian Greene and “Quantum Reality” by Nick Herbert. After those reads all the woowoo crap I was into just paled in comparison. Somehow I managed to avoid going the route of those silly fools who buy into the ‘quantum consciousness’ nonsene.

  4. Evolving Squid

    There’s a bunch of very cool face-on spirals in there. I didn’t count them, but there are definitely hundreds of galaxies easily visible.

  5. jess tauber

    Me, I like the sinusoidal chains of stars in open clusters- assuming that’s what we’re looking at. Seems to be an open question- some people say its all coincidental alignment of stars at many different distances, combined with human propensity to detect patterns, others say its for real, with various forces conspiring to create helical structures.

    As for the former explanation, if its mostly coincidence, then why don’t we see other patterns (zigzags, straight lines, graph lines, etc) just as often?

  6. icemith

    Now, let’s see. If I enlarge this little Galaxy that was obscured, a few hundred times, I wonder if there will be another galaxy visible through that, and then if I enlarge…. just wondering.


  7. Evolving Squid

    Now, let’s see. If I enlarge this little Galaxy that was obscured, a few hundred times, I wonder if there will be another galaxy visible through that, and then if I enlarge…. just wondering.

    Possibly, to a point, but because it’s a photograph and there’s an upper limit to how much information is in it. In a digital representation, the smallest unit it the pixel and you can blow a single pixel up to the size of Wyoming and it will still be uniform.

    In a film print, the limitation is the grain of the film, and the same style of enlargement limit applies.

    The only way to see more would be to use a telescope to photograph an area on higher magnification.

  8. Gary Ansorge

    Gee, quantum consciousnes,,, trying to get a peek into this universe thru a really small key hole,,,

    “Hey, get that stick out of my I,,,”
    Said to a physicist at the CERN labs,,,

    GAry 7

  9. icemith

    Evolving Squid Says:

    “The only way to see more would be to use a telescope to photograph an area on higher magnification.”

    Yeah, that’s what I meant. I didn’t quote a method, just the desire.

    But it is, would you not agree, a case of ” … dogs have flees, with littler flees upon them, ad infinitum”!

    And that ties in with another subject in the last few days, (Phil, how is the newly acquired Pup settling in? Does she bring you your slippers yet?


    PS, Don’t know what happened, but my comments did not up-load before the timeout, so I was able to add a couple of things. Hope it is not a double post. And where can I find out exactly how to do Quotes correctly and use italics etc?


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