Treasure in the dust

By Phil Plait | February 21, 2007 10:00 pm

The Universe is a dusty place. Search for the word on my blog and you’ll see why: stars blow it around, supernova distribute it across galaxies, it blocks us from seeing down to the interesting bits of planetary atmospheres, and on and on.

The Milky Way is lousy with it. When we look in the plane of our flattened disk galaxy, we can’t see very far because it’s like looking across a smoky room. Anything past a few hundred light years is totally blocked. So what are we missing?


If that doesn’t impress you, click it and download 2000×2000 pixel version. If that doesn’t impress you, close this window, shut down your computer, go find a nice hole in the ground and lie down. You have no pulse.

This gorgeous face-on spiral galaxy, called IC 342, is a mere 11 million light years away, making it one of the closest big galaxies (closer ones are in our local group of galaxies, including the Andromeda galaxy). You hardly ever hear about it because it’s buried behind all the garbage in our own Galaxy. It takes a dark sky and a sensitive telescope to see it at all.

IC 342 is part of a group of galaxies called the Maffei 1 Group. It has several nice galaxies in it, but again they are so obscured that you never see anything about them. If they were located in a different part of the sky, they would be every bit the equal of M51, M81, and M33, their much more famous cousins. As it is, they are relegated to the back pages of astronomy texts.

This image was taken and processed by my bud Travis rector at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a master at this sort of thing. The image was released as part of a consciousness-raising event about light pollution, which I am all for. I wish I could have attended, but mundane life interceded.

With dark skies we can peer past the dust bunnies in our galaxy and see what lies beyond. This is only one reason we should be aware of light pollution, but it’s a good one.


Comments (36)

  1. This is, indeed beautiful but I’m curious as to how the image cleanup worked.

    In my line of work I deal with various kinds of image tweaking all the time but there are a number of things that are really hard to correct with any fidelity, “hazing,” basically the same problem telescopes have looking through interstellar minutia and stellar dust but on a micro scale, is one of those things.

    How does your colleague do this, exactly?

  2. I found this lonely little guy in the lower left corner of the huge image:

    I can’t help but think that if it could talk, it would say something like “Hey, I’m a face on spiral too! I have a cool bar! Aww man… they always gawk at IC342.”

  3. On a more serious note… is that image taken in visible light, or is it a composite of false-colour images?

  4. How wonderful it would be if we were able to photograph our own galaxy from outside!

    I often imagine intelligent life in another galaxy, looking at ours through their telescope-equivalents, and wondering if there’s any intelligent life their, and realizing that even if there is, our two species are unlikely to ever be able to meet…

  5. antaresrichard

    I can’t even peep past the neighboring condominium with its maximum output of unshielded landscape and security lighting. The end to that dominion is what I’d sorely wish to see.

  6. This is very nice, but part of the reason people don’t care about dark skies is not that they’re short of pretty pictures. The reason they don’t care is because they don’t want to get mugged on the way home, and they don’t want people burgling their houses.

    What the dark sky lobby needs is not pretty pictures, it’s proper crime prevention statistics and smarter lighting technology.

    If you ask me…

  7. Kullat Nunu

    Too bad the Maffei galaxies are so obscured… Maffei 1 is the closest large elliptical galaxy.

  8. Kullat Nunu

    This is very nice, but part of the reason people don’t care about dark skies is not that they’re short of pretty pictures. The reason they don’t care is because they don’t want to get mugged on the way home, and they don’t want people burgling their houses.

    Most of the light pollution can be prevented by blocking the light from escaping into the sky. In fact, sensible lighting planning improves visibility since there is much less glare. It is also economically and environmentally wise, since any light that goes into the sky is simply wasted.

  9. DrFlimmer

    I am happy! I have a pulse :) !

    A very nice pic and there is even a version with 4000x3960pix :) very very nice, indeed!

  10. Grand Lunar

    So this is what all that dust is hiding? It’s a galactic conspiracy! J/K, of course.

    Very cool, and very stunning, indeed! Zoomed in, you can see galaxies are also present in the background. A lot of galaxies. But many of you probably already saw that.

    The awareness of light pollution is in desperate need in my hometown.
    Only the brightest stars are visible.
    What needs to be done is what I saw in Arizona; those fixtures placed over lights that prevent (or at least minimize) light pollution. More stars are visible from Phoenix than here in For Lauderdale. A lot more!

  11. Melusine

    If that doesn’t impress you, close this window, shut down your computer, go find a nice hole in the ground and lie down. You have no pulse.

    Lol. But so true. It’s a beautiful image, and in fact, I clicked on a few images on Travis Rector’s site, and they’re fun – you can zoom in on various sections of the object. Really, people should check out his site. Very nicely done!

    One thing about light pollution, say in Houston, is that people don’t know what they’re missing until you point it out. I’m just thinking about when I showed this security guard Mizor and Alcor from the top of a parking garage here. He didn’t realize there were “double” stars – he thought it so cool…”see one star, now see two…” We have to find a way to make people care, and pretty pictures on the Internet isn’t going to work alone. Maybe a roving band of aastronomers…

    Off topic notes:

    I just got my coffee table book, Postcards From Mars by Jim Bell. Oooohh, very, very nice! Pictures always look better on large, good quality paper. I haven’t read the text yet (since I just got it yesterday), but I’ve read other articles by Bell, and I like his style.

    Also, The Planetary Report, from The Planetary Society is all about going back to the Moon. There’s a short article to begin with by Buzz Aldrin. You can go to to become a member and get these reports.

  12. Astrogirl

    Wow! I just got lost in the full size of the 4000x3960pix! There are lots of things to see poking around that one. Some galaxies in the background are obvious, and then some are barely able to be seen. Words fail me…

    You just have to check it out for yourself!

  13. Melusine

    Yeah, the 4000×3962 is fantastic to look at blown up on my big screen at work. However, then I do see the optical artificact of stitching in the very upper right-hand corner in the glow of the star. Minor, of course, in an otherwise perfect picture. I want a spaceship!

  14. Melusine

    That should be “artifact…” Can we please just accept that words are misspelled due to typing unless the whole post is unintelligble?

  15. SLC

    Somewhat off topic but Prof Plait might want to join the chorus of folks bashing Conservapedia.

  16. Melusine

    That should be “unintelligible”…for Pete’s sake….going back to work now… :-/

  17. Gary Ansorge

    Get a dog, preferably a Chow. I have two,,,and no one bugs me,,woof!

    Great pics, even at 1000 pixels.

    Let’s see, space probe launched at .5 C, ,,,in only 100,000 years we’d be 50,000LYs from Earth. Would that provide a good enough Pic of the Milky Way for you???

    OK, I’m a dreamer,,,

    Gary 7

  18. Kaptain K

    The secret of security lighting lies in putting the right amount of light where it is needed and NOWHERE ELSE, not in throwing great gobs of light everywhere. My former employer was (still is) very good about this. Full cut-off fixtures (mercury vapor) in the parking lots. Plenty of light where it’s needed, none to the sky. Unfortunately, that was all ruined when the building across the lot changed hands. The new owner put HID (high intensity discharge) lights all around the roof of the building (20 in all!!!). Now, the darkest place in the ares is right along the building wall, since the lights don’t point that far down! The local Mickey D’s (McDonald’s) has HID lights in their parking lot, the main purpose of which seems to be blinding drivers on the adjacent U.S. highway.

  19. Wayne Elkins

    I’ve wondered in the past few years about the distances involved, gravitational attraction of light, and space dust if we really know where all these things are. Surely if you point a telescope at an object there’s a large chance that it’s not really there but somewhere a few degrees away. Also, the time involved for light to travel from one side of a galaxy to the other should alter the actual geography of that galaxy. Maybe it looks like spokes in a wheel instead of a spiral. I really wonder about too much and probably have too much spare time on my hands.

  20. Tara Mobley

    Awesome. And I mean that in the non-slang sense. There is just so much to see in the bigger pictures. Beautiful. Just amazing. Thank you for putting that up.

  21. Islandboo

    “The image was released as part of a consciousness-raising event about light pollution, which I am all for.”

    Ummm – I am assuming the part that you are all for is the consciousness-raising event and not the light pollution itself, right? 😉

    All teasing aside, the picture is fabulous, and educating folks about lighting issues is always appreciated.

  22. Squid, those are optical observations, but false color. Blue in the sky is blue in the image, “visible” (yellow to green) is green, red is orange, and H-alpha (a red wavelength of 6563 Angstroms) is red. I asked Travis. 😉

  23. Charlie in Dayton

    Okay…the red areas and the blue areas are (I’m guessing) areas of new star formation. Right?

    Someone clue me in on this. It looks like numerous stellar nurseries out there…and I AM saving the biggest of the big downloads for a desktop…

  24. Nic Percival

    A wonderful picture, truly.
    Re light pollution, the great British Astronomer Patrick Moore has been discussing the problem for a long time. Decades.

    Look at a globe shaped lamp on a pole. *Obviously* more than 50% of the radiation goes up. What’s wrong with a big reflector ‘umbrella’ reflector behind it? Why illuminate space?

  25. BAMom

    A little off the point, but since several comments have been made about Arizona and light polution, it brouht back a lovely memory….way back in 1959 [ I believe], the BADad and I were in Tucson and he looked up at the beautifully clear Tucson sky and saw Sputnik. Can you imagine the thrill that was way back then?!!!

  26. great bif beatiful picture even without high reslution

  27. icemith

    Hi BAMom, (I take it, THE mother of our BA), I feel honoured to say I also saw Sputnik way back then, actually in Oct. 1957, the Wednesday after it was launched. I was lucky as I immediately recognised what I was observing, but I escaped fame as the local news reporter called to interview me but I was up country with my boss calling on country clients and delivering service, parts and probably new equipment to our clients. I was an apprentice Radio Mechanic. And the Friday night deadline would not wait.

    So I understand, (if I assume correctly), that that event probably was an incentive for more than one person to make astronomy a favorite pastime if not a Life’s work.

    I for one, am grateful.

    By the way I downloaded the 4kx4k pix. Truly magnificent, but I felt I needed to wear sun-glasses, when I scrolled across and down to the center! It seemed so bright. (Should that have required “Galaxy-glasses?).

    Just an aside, and going off topic a bit, Melusine, I know how you feel with those annoying typos, and I wish I could blame my ten-toes typing technique for my efforts. Even though I check it, sometimes they slip through the cracks.


  28. icemith

    On a serious note, the light pollution problem if why the majority of people have little or no appreciation of how dark the sky can be, showing up all those other naked-eye 2970 stars that we miss out on seeing.

    I wonder if other cities around the world have a “Dark Hour” periodically? We in Sydney will have one on the 31st of March, that’s in 8 days time. Hope it is fine and cloudless at least for that hour.(We very much need the rain too). If it works, check out the URL below for more information.

    I also hope we can have a less hazy sky to see the stars.


  29. Thorin

    “…31st of March, that’s in 8 days time…”

    Did you mean Feb 28? Or are days in Sydney just REALLY long?

    Hmmm you posted on the 23rd so 8 days is really March 3rd… that what you meant?

  30. icemith

    After a few hours sleep, I have recovered my understanding of time. Like, how the calendar works. It helps to have that basic understanding. Somehow I transferred my gaze to the March calendar and, knowing that the days (of the week), of March were the same as February, (except the last two or three days), and so didn’t notice that we were talking about something in a month’s time. Adding to the illusion was the fact that there has been quite a few promos on TV and radio reminding us to turn off our lights at the appointed hour.

    I know this has little to do with the basic thrust of the blog regarding the “Cosmic Dust”, but in a secondary fashion, if the seeing is as good as can be expected here on Earth, it should result in more people being aware of the night sky, and thereby enticing more to be involved in the hobby at least, and providing a bigger base for all that depends on astronomy, ie- sales of ‘scopes, magazines and, one can hope, more people following astrophysics etc., professionally.

    So Thorin, thanks for asking the question, but it wasn’t until I woke up this morning that I realised my mistake, and rushing out to see if anybody had noticed yet, I of course found I had been sprung.

    Now that I have cleared the air, so to speak, and the dust has settled, I shall leave it at that for the moment, I have a back yard to tidy-up before the promised storm this evening.


  31. JestrBob

    I like looking into the rest of the image. I found at least 5 galaxy clusters in the background including a ring galaxy.

    I did have to download the greatest (4k x4k) resolution image to really see most of the background galaxies…

    Tell your friend it is an excellent image and the clean up was nice.


  32. Thorin

    No worries Ivan or icemith, it happens to the best of us.

    Hopefully Sydney’s “Earth Hour” will be a success and some other large cities around the globe will try the same.

  33. Steve

    I recall once reading that there was a time when the stars in the night sky were the very first thing anyone noticed when they came out after the sun went down. Now it is the last. There was a time, I’m sure, when everyone knew the stars and constellations like they knew their own town. When a planet in the sky was noteworthy and its progression through a constellation would be noticed and talked about the way we talk about the weather. Now?

    It’s true light pollution is a real killer. I live 30 miles west of New York City. However I have been to Flagstaff, the dark sky capital, and I have seen breathtaking skies.

    I agree we need to make more people aware of the sky. What they CAN see, and what they’re missing. All of us can do this. I do a little backyard astronomy and I tell every to just look up when you go out of the house (my thanks to the Star Hustler for the phrase). Mars is high in the sky just now I point it out to people. I tell them to notice its red color. Invariably I get a “Hey yeah, cool!”

    It’s a start. This time of year, with Orion in the sky, it’s a simple task to point out this easily recognized constellation, remark that it’s a winter constellation and in a few months there will be different starts in the same area of the sky. Then I explain how to use the stars in Orion to find your way around the sky. Just a few easy examples, I don’t want to preach or overwhelm. I point out the Dog star-the brightest star in the sky, Taurus the bull with its “Red Eye” and of course the Pleiades. Making the night sky accessible helps people appreciate what’s there and raises awareness to what we’re losing with each street light. A little reminder that by using the proper technology when lighting buildings and parking lots we could see a lot more also helps our cause.

    One “Hey, yeah, cool,” at a time.


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