Tag: HH 49/50

A warm anniversary for Spitzer

By Phil Plait | April 17, 2012 9:13 am

In 2003, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope launched into space to begin a mission to observe the heavens in infrared. That kind of light is emitted by warm objects, so its main imaging camera — called IRAC, for Infrared Array Camera — had to be cooled using liquid helium, or else the infrared light it gave off would interfere with its own observations!

This type of coolant leaks away slowly, and after about five and a half years — a much longer period of time than originally hoped, which was a bonus — the liquid helium was finally depleted. However, this didn’t end the mission; instead it marked the beginning of the "warm phase". Observations could still be made, though only with some of the detectors that weren’t so severely affected by the raised temperature.

That was in May 2009. Spitzer has now been running warm for 1000 days, and to celebrate that milestone the folks running the observatory released their favorite 10 Spitzer IRAC images. Over the years I’ve featured half these images on the blog (see the list below), but I have no idea how I missed this amazing shot:

Isn’t that cool? Well, so to speak. Haha. Because of the warm mission, you see. Ha ha.

But what is it? Just off the top of the picture is a young star. It’s a newborn, a mere baby, probably less than a million years old, and like human babies it tends to spew matter out of both ends. In this case, the star’s rapid spin coupled with its intense magnetic field create two powerful jets of material that blast away from its poles at speeds of up to 100 kilometers per second! What you’re seeing here is one of those jets as it plows through a cold cloud of gas and dust. The shape may be due to the material in the jet following the twisted magnetic field lines, or it may be formed as the shock waves emanating from the interaction become unstable, a bit like breaking waves from a ship ramming through the water at high speed. Either way, it looks for all the world — the galaxy! — like a rainbow tornado.

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures
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