The Helix has pink eye

By Phil Plait | October 4, 2012 7:00 am

One of the most amazing objects in the sky is the Helix Nebula, an expanding cloud of gas and dust surrounding a dying star. This type of object is called a planetary nebula, and it’s formed when a star a bit more massive than the Sun turns into a red giant and blows off its outer layers. These expand away, and eventually the hot core of the star is exposed. This floods the gas with ultraviolet light, causing it to glow pretty much like a neon sign*.

The Spitzer Space Telescope and GALEX combined their forces to observe the Helix Nebula, and what they see is simply stunning:

Oh my. [Click to ennebulenate, or grab a 6000 x 6000 pixel version.]

GALEX sees in the ultraviolet, so it’s sensitive to the light coming from the central star and the hot gas reacting to it (colored blue in the picture). Spitzer sees in the infrared, so it detects warm gas and dust (red, yellow, and green). Where you see pink is where the nebula is emitting both IR and UV. [Note: some of the outskirts of the nebula were beyond Spitzer’s field of view, so images from the infrared observatory WISE were used there to match the GALEX field.]

One of the most interesting features of this nebula is the collection of long, comet-like "fingers" you can see throughout the structure. These are where denser clumps of material are boiling away under the intense UV radiation of the central star, blowing out long tails away from the center like spokes in a wheel. Some of those tails are trillions of kilometers long!

Despite being one of the closest planetary nebulae in the sky – a mere 700 light years away – I’ve never seen the Helix through a telescope. Why not? Because it’s so big! The light from the gas is spread out over an area in the sky the size of the full Moon, dimming it considerably. Maybe someday I’ll be at a dark site with a big ‘scope, and I’ll see this fantastic bauble with my own eyes… but it won’t look like this picture. Our eyes see only a small slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. They serve us well in our daily lives, but the Universe itself sends out information in every direction to which we’re blind.

That is, until we used our limited brains to build devices like Spitzer and GALEX that expanded our viewpoint. And that’s what science does: removes the scales from our eyes, allowing us to see what the cosmos itself is showing us.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

* I’m simplifying here a bit. If you want more in-depth info on what happens as a star like this dies and glows like some great gaudy celestial Christmas ornament, read this post about the Helix I wrote a while back.

Related Posts:

Down the throat of a dying star
The Helix screams in the infrared
A warm anniversary for Spitzer
The Helix’s dusty heart

Rainbow Pinwheel galaxy

By Phil Plait | May 29, 2012 7:00 am

I have no shame in admitting I love face-on spiral galaxies. Scientifically, of course, they’re fascinating; spread out in front of us are all the inner workings of a galaxy. It’s like having an X-ray of human body in front of you, making it easier to understand anatomy.

But their beauty… well. The scope and grandeur of a face-on spiral is unparalleled, I think, in astronomy, or perhaps any field of science. But don’t take my word on it. See for yourself.

[Click to galactinate, or get a 1900 x 1200 desktop image.]

This is the wonderful nearby spiral M101, and is a composite of no fewer than four orbiting observatories! It has images from Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, and GALEX. These represent (in order) observations in visible light (shown as yellow in the picture), infrared (red), X-ray (purple) and ultraviolet (blue).

Each shows a different aspect of the galaxy. Visible light shows stars and gas, infrared indicates warm dust, X-ray show hot gas and energetic objects like supernovae and black holes, and ultraviolet is where young stars glow and light the gas around them. Each observation is incredibly useful to a scientist, but combining them together makes them even more powerful.

The things to look for are where colors overlap, and where they don’t overlap. For example, in the outer arms you can see dust and gas and young stars all together, showing where stars are born. In the inner regions of the galaxy the infrared and visible images are next to each other, parallel spirals. Dust blocks visible light, so where there’s lots of dust there’s little light we can see, and vice-versa.

You have to be careful interpreting images like this, though. The outer arms, for example, are blue. You might think this means they’re only giving off ultraviolet light. But you have to account for the different telescopes’ field of view, exposure times, and more. Each of those affects what you see no matter what the galaxy itself may be doing. Images like the one above are useful, even important, but it’s also important to remember their scientific limitations.

But artistically? That’s a different matter. All together.

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; IR & UV: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Optical: NASA/STScI

Related Posts:

Hubble delivers again: M101
New pic: SN2011fe in M101
The heat of the Pinwheel
Desktop Project Part 9: Again I see IC 342

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Andromeda's majestic spray of billions of hot stars

By Phil Plait | May 18, 2012 11:33 am

Well, what can I say about this devastating and jaw-dropping picture of our nearest spiral neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy?

[Click to massive chainedmaidenate. Do it!]

Well, I could start with HOLY HALEAKALA!

This image is a collection of 11 separate observations of Andromeda taken by NASA’s GALEX satellite. Launched in 2003, GALEX (which stands for Galaxy Evolution Explorer) scans the sky in ultraviolet light, specifically targeting galaxies. Hot stars produce UV light, and so does the gas it illuminates, so by looking in the ultraviolet astronomers can learn about how galaxies are constructed. In the decade since its launch, GALEX has been phenomenally successful, cataloging hundreds of millions of galaxies, some as far as ten billion light years away!

This image of Andromeda is simply stunning. It’s comprised of two colors: what you see here as blue is higher-energy ultraviolet light, and red is lower energy (closer to the kind of light we see). Right away you can see that objects emitting the higher-energy UV are confined to the spiral arms, and lower-energy emitters are spread out across the galaxy. That’s exactly what I would expect: massive stars, the kind that really blast out UV, don’t live very long. They’re born, live out their short lives, and die (as supernovae) pretty much near the spot where they formed, which is in spiral arms. Lower mass stars live long enough to gradually move away from their nurseries, populating the rest of the galaxy.

Also, star formation at the very center of the galaxy probably occurred long ago and shut down, so we don’t see many or any massive stars there.

One thing I didn’t know is that the arms of Andromeda are more like rings! The galaxy is at such a narrow angle that it’s hard to tell, but if you trace the blue emission, the pattern does look more like a ring than a spiral. This jibes with earlier images in infrared taken by Spitzer Space Telescope (which I’ve inset here) and a huge and incredibly beautiful newer one taken with ESA’s Herschel far-infrared telescope (and OMFSM you want to click that link).

From what I’ve read, it’s not clear why the spiral arms appear to be more ring-like. Which I love. Why? Because Andromeda is the nearest big spiral galaxy in the sky, a mere 2.5 or so million light years away. It’s easily visible to the naked eye from a dark site, and I’ve seen it myself countless times using my own eyes, binoculars, and telescopes ranging from small ones up to Hubble. Yet there it is, in all its huge and obvious splendor and beauty, still able to surprise me. That rocks.

And a note about GALEX: NASA recently handed off its operations to Caltech, a very unusual move. The satellite was put into standby mode in February, and I was worried it would be shut down permanently. However, Caltech signed a three-year agreement with NASA — while NASA still owns the satellite, Caltech will now be in control of GALEX’s science mission, managing and operating it. At the end of the agreement it can be renegotiated if GALEX is still in good operating condition. This is an interesting idea, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I love that GALEX gets to continue operations, but handing off science missions to private groups makes me a little uneasy. In this particular case I think it’s fine — Caltech is a research institute after all — but the precedent may have unforeseen consequences. We’ll see.

Still and all, it’s good to see new life breathed into an important and wonderful instrument like GALEX. I certainly hope it will continue to produce cutting-edge science for years to come… as well as amazingly beautiful images like this one.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Related Posts:

The cold arms and hot, hot heart of the fuzzy maiden
The first spectacular views of the sky from WISE
A Swift view of Andromeda
Andromeda’s warm glow
Andromeda: born out of a massive collision?

Astronomers see ANOTHER star ripped apart by a black hole!

By Phil Plait | May 2, 2012 2:03 pm

Last year, astronomers saw the violent death throes of a star as it was literally torn apart by a black hole (see here, and links within). And now, they’ve seen it again: observations across the electromagnetic spectrum caught another star that wandered too close to a supermassive black hole, and suffered the ultimate fate.

These observations show the before-and-after (left versus right) of the event. The top two are from GALEX, a satellite that observes the skies in the ultraviolet, and the bottom using Pan-STARRS1, a powerful telescope (located on which mountain, you ask? Why, Haleakala in Hawaii, of course) that scans the entire night sky looking for transients, things that change brightness.

The light from the star’s violent demise reached us in June of 2010. The event happened in the heart of a distant galaxy, 2.7 billion light years away. At the center of that galaxy is a black hole with millions of times the Sun’s mass, comparable to the black hole in the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. The star apparently orbited the black hole in an elliptical orbit. Over millions or billions of years, the star evolved, and turned into a red giant. Over time, its orbit tightened, and one day it got too close. The enormous tides of the black hole tore the star apart.

The flare happened when the stellar material spiraled into the hole. It formed a flattened disk right before the Ultimate Plunge, which got very hot and blasted out high-energy light — the ultraviolet light from this galaxy flared 350 times brighter than it was before! Some of the material from the star was also flung away into space. Astronomers put together a nifty video simulating what happened:

Read More


By Phil Plait | August 11, 2011 11:30 am

450 million light years away are two interacting galaxies. Both spirals, they are caught in each other’s gravitational claws. Already distorted and bound, eventually, to merge into one larger galaxy in a few million years, the view we have of them from Earth is both amazing and lovely… and hey: they’re punctuating their own predicament!

[Click to exclamatenate.]

Looking a lot like an exclamation point, the two galaxies together are called Arp 302 (or VV 340). This image is a combination of pictures from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (purple) and Hubble (red, green, and blue). The bottom galaxy is a face-on spiral, while the upper one is seen more edge-on, giving the pair their typographical appearance.

Read More

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Hubble sees ancient galaxies rejuvenating themselves

By Phil Plait | February 19, 2010 7:30 am

Every now and again I think I’ve pretty much seen it all when it comes to astronomical images, and I’m getting jaded.

And then I see a picture like this:


Yeah, I still get a thrill from seeing things like this! Click to massively embiggen.

The image shows what’s called the Hickson Compact Group 31, a small collection of galaxies. It’s a combination of images from Hubble (visible light, shown in red, green, and blue), Spitzer (infrared, shown as orange), and the Galaxy Explorer or GALEX (ultraviolet, seen here as purple).

If I saw this picture with no caption, I’d know I was seeing dwarf galaxies colliding; the shape and the glow from newly-forming stars is a dead giveaway. But I’d also guess that the galaxies were young; old galaxies tend not to have much gas in them, and there’s clearly plenty of that in those galaxies! But in fact the galaxies here are very old; there are globular clusters (spherical collections of perhaps a million stars each that tend to orbit outside of galaxies) in the group that can be dated to being 10 or so billion years old. That means these are old objects, reinvigorated by their collision.

In fact, star clusters inside the galaxies can be dated as well, and appear to be only a few million years old. Oddly, the gas content of the galaxies is very high, with about five times as much as the Milky Way has. That’s pretty weird; it should’ve been used up a long time ago. Apparently, these galaxies have lived very sedate lives until very recently. I’ll note that they are relatively close to us, about 166 million light years away. Usually, colliding dwarf galaxies like this are seen billions of light years away, so we really are seeing them as they appeared recently.

Apparently, the lower-case g-shaped object on the left is the result of two galaxies smashing into each other, and the longer galaxy above them is separate. The spiral to the right is part of this as well and may be involved in the gravitational dance; you can see a splotchy arm of material pointing right at it from the collision on the left. Typically in collisions the gravity of one galaxy draws matter out of the other, and that can collapse to form stars. The red glow is from gas excited by newly born stars, and the blue glow is from these stars themselves. The galaxies are pouring out ultraviolet light (the purple glow) which is another dead giveaway of vigorous star formation.

The background galaxies are gorgeous, too. There’s a phenomenal distant open spiral on the bottom, to the left of center, and what looks like yet another pair of interacting galaxies at the bottom left, obviously much farther away than the Hickson group. Take a minute to look around the high-res version to see what else you might find!

Yup. I guess you can teach old galaxies new tricks… and even sometimes jaded astronomers, too.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

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