[The Desktop Project is my way of forcing myself to write a post about the astronomical images I've been saving to my computer's desktop and then ignoring. I've been posting one every day for nearly a month, and this, my friends, is it. The last one. And I saved it for this occasion, because it's ridiculously awesome. Thanks for bearing with me as I did this bit of housecleaning.]
The constellation Carina is a mess. It represents the keel of a ship, but in the sky it happens to be in the direction of the disk of our galaxy, which is like having a window in a building facing downtown in a busy city. And like an urban center, the Milky Way in that direction is lousy with gas, dust, stars… and much of this is chaotic, disturbed, and, well, messy.
Oh, but what a glorious, glorious mess. Behold! The Carina Nebula!
[Click to ennebulenate, or grab this ridiculously huge 13,000 x 9000 pixel monster version. And yes, you very, very much want to make this bigger.]
Holy wow! I love this image! It’s got it all: stars of every color studding a riotous background of gas, itself glowing red or reflecting blue, silhouetted in great ostentatious sweeps of dust. Shock waves riddle the gas, compressing it here and there in arc, loops, streamers, and filaments.
It’s ridiculous, and spectacular.
The image was taken using the HAWK-1 detector on the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. This is an infrared picture, using colors outside what the human eye can detect. In the picture, what you see as blue is actually light at 1.25 microns, green at 1.65, and red at 2.2 microns. For comparison, the reddest color the eye can see is about 0.7 microns. Amazingly, in visible light this region is even more chaotic looking.
The Carina Nebula is about 7500 light years away, and is the site of a lot of star formation. Many of the stars being born are very massive, which makes them hot, blue, and frighteningly luminous. See that bright star in the lower left? That’s Eta Carina, one of the most massive stars in the galaxy. To give you an idea of how stupid violent and unstable that star is, in 1843 it erupted in an explosive event that rivaled a supernova. The star held together, barely, but it ejected two lobes of matter that have about as much mass as the Sun. Each. And they’re expanding at 700 km/sec (400 miles per second), fast enough to cross the continental United States in 12 seconds.
And one day Eta Car will explode. It’s too far away to hurt us, but what a sight that’ll be! And even now, just sitting there not exploding, it still shines about 4 million times brighter than the Sun. Four million. If the Earth were as close to Eta Car as we are to the Sun, we’d be vaporized into an ionized memory.
The HAWK-1 image is actually high enough resolution to get a lot of detail. Here’s a collection of nine interesting regions:
Cerro Paranal, in the high, dry, Atacama desert in Chile, is where some of the best astronomy in the world is done. It’s graced with incredibly dark and steady skies, and a view of the southern hemisphere skies that, frankly, makes me jealous.
So it’s hard to argue with the title of this short time lapse video, An Astronomer’s Paradise:
This was taken by photographer Babak Tafreshi, who alerted me that he had put it online. Watch it to 1:30 in if only to watch Orion rise — upside down, to my northern hemisphere bias! — with colors and texture that are simply stunning.
Isn’t that awesome? And then a few seconds later, he shows a still image of the great Carina Nebula with the four domes of the Very Large Telescope Interferometer silhouetted against the sky. You can get a better look at that at The World At Night website, which has amazing shots of the sky.
I hope someday to make a trip to this part of the world. To see this for myself…
Credit: Babak Tafreshi
The Carina nebula is a sprawling, monstrous complex of gas located a mere 7500 light years from Earth. Hundreds of light years across, it’s massive enough to create thousands of stars like the Sun. Tens of thousands.
And churn out stars it does. Embedded in the nebula are several clusters of newborn stars, and many of these stars are so massive they’re nearly at the limit of how big a star can be without tearing itself apart. Stars that big explode as supernovae, and a new mosaic by the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory indicate they’ve been popping off in the nebula for quite some time:
[Click to enchandrasekharlimitenate.]
This image is pretty amazing: it’s a mosaic of 22 separate images by Chandra, covering 1.4 square degrees (seven times the area of the full Moon on the sky), and represents an exposure time of 1.2 million seconds! Since it shows X-rays coming from astronomical objects, it’s false color: red is from lower energy X-rays, green is medium energy, and blue from the highest energy photons.
The diffuse glow is from two sources: the stellar winds from those massive stars slamming into surrounding ambient gas at high speed, and from the shock waves generated when supernovae explode. Both are extremely high-energy events, and produce copious amounts of X-rays. That long, horizontal arc is probably the edge of a bubble, a shell of gas piled up from the winds of stars and supernovae like snow piled up in front of a snowplow.
That’s evidence right there that Carina has been cranking out supernovae over the past few million years. Interestingly, it’s what’s missing that provides more proof. Read More
I was out of town at a wedding this weekend, so I missed blogging about the spectacular image release for the Hubble Space Telescope’s 20th anniversary (here’s the US site). And yikes, it’s simply mind-smackingly mind smacking. Behold:
Ye gods. Click to get access to massively embiggened versions.
This is a stunning close-up of a section of the vast Carina Nebula, a sprawling and complex Escher-like region of gas and dust about 7500 light years away. It’s the scene of chaotic star birth and death, slammed and reslammed by winds from stars being born and others busy blowing up.