[Bonus points to any middle-aged readers who recognize the title*.]
I still get a thrill every time I see a particularly beautiful image of an astronomical object. But there are some that transcend that beauty, adding a dimension of what-the-what? that makes them just that much cooler.
Like, say, this amazing image of the core of the nearby galaxy M51, taken using Hubble:
[Click to enwhirlpoolenate, or grab the high-res 2 Mb version.]
That is not the swirling drain of despair and fear leading into the mouth of hell. Just to be clear.
What it actually shows is the dust in the inner region of M51, clearly tracing the spiral arms of this magnificent galaxy. The image is false-color, and where it’s brighter there’s more dust (or the dust is being lit up more brightly by nearby stars). You can see the dust is clumpy, too, showing where there are clusters of stars illuminating the dust. Astronomers expected the dust distribution to be somewhat clumpier, but the galaxy had a different idea. It may be smoother due to a close pass by a companion galaxy (well off-screen in this close up shot — we’re seeing the inner 18,000 or so light years here) which disturbed it and prevented dust clouds from getting too big.
How this image was made is interesting, too. Above is a side-by-side shot of the same region. Read More
I sometimes think I’ve seen everything there is in the sky, with nothing new left to see.
Then I get a rude — but welcome — wake-up call.
[Click to enspiralnate.]
When I first saw this picture, my reactions, in order, were:
1) What the frak is that?
followed immediately by
2) This must be a fake!
But it’s not fake. It’s real, and it’s the dying gasp of a very, very strange star system.
The name of this thing is AFGL 3068. It’s been known as a bright infrared source for some time, but images just showed it as a dot. This Hubble image using the Advanced Camera for Surveys reveals an intricate, delicate and exceedingly faint spiral pattern. It’s so faint no one has ever detected it before!
So what’s going on here? First off, this is not a spiral galaxy! Read More