Tag: Milky Way

Namibian quiver trees and the glow of a galaxy

By Phil Plait | October 28, 2012 7:00 am

Florian Breuer is a mathematician who teaches in South Africa. He’s also a photographer, and created this spectacular panorama of the Quiver Tree Forest near Keetmanshoop, Namibia.

[Click to embiggen and see the whole shot; I had to crop it a bit to fit here.]

Isn’t that gorgeous? The arch of the Milky Way behind the trees is beautiful, and when I look at this picture I can’t help but think of an array of radio telescope dishes turned toward the heavens.

By eye, the Milky Way is easily visible on a dark night from a dark site. The diffuse glow of the distant stars is interrupted by the accumulated absorption by clouds of dust between them and us, splitting the glow along its middle. In photographs like this, of course, those features leap right out.

Do you want to take pictures like this? Florian wrote up a pair of essays (first and second) describing how he made this and a few other images from his trip to Namibia. Of course, I suspect the first step is travel to Namibia, which may prove difficult for some of us. Still, there are plenty of places to take devastating pictures of the sky. Maybe even near you! So give it – haha – a shot.

Image credit: Florian Breuer, used by permission


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- Milky Way Down Under
- The Milky Way and the Mashed Potatoes Mountain

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Moonbow, Milky Way, meteor

By Phil Plait | October 21, 2012 7:00 am

If you’ve read this blog before, then all I really need to tell you is that Thierry Legault took a picture.

See?

While in Queensland, Australia, Thierry took this shot of Wallaman Falls. While the Milky Way shone down, a meteor zipped past, adding to the drama. But what’s that at the bottom? A rainbow? At night?

Yup. Well, kinda. It’s a Moonbow, the same thing as a rainbow but with the Moon as the light source. Well, and it’s not raindrops that cause it, but aerosolized water droplets acting as little prisms, breaking the light up into the usual colors. Moonbows are very faint, but they show up in long exposures like this one.

Leave it to Thierry to not be satisfied with just our galaxy, a bit of interplanetary debris vaporizing, and a waterfall in his shot. Amazing.

He has more pictures from that trip, and yeah, you want to see them. His photos have been on this blog so many times I can’t even list them, but check out the Related Posts below, click the links, then click the links at the bottom of those posts (or you can use my search engine). It’s a journey that’ll widen your eyes.

[UPDATE: Thanks to pixguyinburbank on Twitter, I learned of a wonderful video about moonbows put out by the folks at Yosemite National park in the US. It's so good I'll just add it here so you can see it. Fantastic!

Enjoy!]

Image credit: Thierry Legault, used by permission.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Like two trains passing in the night… a year apart

By Phil Plait | October 13, 2012 7:00 am

Randy Halverson is no stranger to the BABlog: his astrophotography is fantastic, and his time lapse videos stunning.

Last year, in early October, he was taking frames of the night sky for a time lapse video when he caught a bright meteor that left what’s called a persistent train: a trail that continues to glow for several minutes. He sent me a note about it, and I wound up writing a blog post about this relatively rare event.

OK, cool enough, But then, just a few days ago, he emailed me again: while out filming at the same exact location, he saw another meteor that also left a persistent train, almost exactly a year after the first one! It’s a funny coincidence.

Here’s the new shot:

[Click to ablatenate.]

This picture was taken in central South Dakota. The Milky Way dominates the dark sky here, and the trees provide a nice silhouetted foreground.

You can compare it to last year’s meteor here. Given the Milky Way in the frame, he was facing south to take these, and the more recent shot was taken later in the night, since the galaxy had rotated a bit compared in last year’s picture. If I were really nitpicky I could probably even calculate just how much later in the night it was using the angle of the Milky Way. To my eye it looks like about an hour.

Anyway, both meteors were probably what we call sporadic: just random bits of rock orbiting the Sun that had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In this case though one meteor’s poison is another man’s meat. It was too bad for those interplanetary bits of flotsam, but very nice for Randy and for all of us… twice.

Image credit: Randy Halverson, used by permission.


Related Posts:

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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Hubble peers in on a galactic snack

By Phil Plait | September 19, 2012 7:00 am

Galaxies come in a lot of shapes and sizes: huge ellipticals, big spirals, weird squishy irregulars. There is a sub-class called "dwarf galaxies" which are smaller than usual. We actually think they dominate the Universe by number, but because they have fewer stars – a few billion or so tops, compared to the hundreds of billions of a big one like our Milky Way – they fade rapidly with distance. Only a handful are close enough to study well.

One of these is DDO 190, a nice little dude something like 9 million light years away. That’s close enough to resolve individual stars in the galaxy, as you can see in this really pretty Hubble image of it:

[Click to galactinate, or grab the cosmic 3700 x 2600 pixel version.]

DDO 190 is small, but not tiny: about 15,000 light years across. That’s about 1/6th the size of our galaxy. It’s also well outside our Local group of nearby galaxies (the Andromeda galaxy is less than 3 million light years distant from us, for comparison) and is thought to be part of the M94 galaxy group. But if true it’s fairly isolated even from the others on its team; the nearest neighbor appears to be another dwarf galaxy several million light years away from it.

This image is pretty nifty. For one thing, you can see lots of far more distant background galaxies, some right through DDO 190, which always gives me a kick. But the dwarf galaxy itself has some surprises. The bluish fuzzy regions are clouds of gas lit by young, hot stars. These stars don’t live long (a few million years or so), meaning there’s still some star birth going on in the little guy. That blue patch at the bottom is the brightest of them – it looks a bit like a more distant galaxy, but don’t be fooled.

Interestingly, it has two different populations of stars in it. The younger ones I mentioned (100 million years or younger) tend to be close in to the center, while older ones (4 billion years or more) are located in the outskirts. This is common in dwarf irregular galaxies. The older stars may be showing us what the primeval galaxy looked like, but now a burst of star birth has occurred near the center, making the galaxy look more condensed.

Since the vast majority of galaxies in the Universe are dwarfs like this, we think bigger ones like ours get to their size by gravitationally colliding with and absorbing dwarfs. In fact, we know the Milky Way is eating several right now!

Galaxies are cool, and pretty, and magnificent, but they’re also cannibals. DDO 190 is isolated enough that it may be safe from that fate for quite some time. But the Universe is young, and galaxies patient. In a trillion years or so, we’ll see who has whom over for dinner.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Raging clouds, near and very, very far

By Phil Plait | July 22, 2012 6:30 am

I follow quite a few photographers on Google+, Twitter, and other social media. Why? Because this:

I know, right? This ridiculously amazing picture [click to embiggen, or see an even bigger version] was taken by Randy Halverson of DakotaLapse.com, whose photos have been featured here on the BABlog many times (see Related Posts below). He took this one on the evening of July 19, 2012 as part of a time lapse he’s making. The vast Milky Way galaxy glows above the red clouds illuminated by town lights from below. And on the horizon a storm rages, eruptions of lightning strikes captured in this 15 second exposure.

Funny – the Milky Way looks a bit like a cloud there, but instead of countless droplets of water held up in our air, it’s composed of hundreds of billions of stars suspended in space by their orbital motion around the galactic center. We can see only a few thousand stars with our naked eyes, and they’re all very close, most within a hundred light years of Earth. But the Milky Way is a thousand times bigger than that, and the glow we see is actually the blended light of far more stars than there are people on Earth.

And yet in this shot even that mighty power is reduced to a faint smear compared to the electric discharge of a nearby storm. The raw energy released in a bolt of lightning is staggering, but it’s essentially nothing compared to a galaxy’s worth of stars. It’s only their terrible, terrible distance that dims them.

As you juggle the events that happen in your daily life, remember this photograph. It’s easy to get distracted by smaller flashy things that are nearby, and forget about much bigger issues if they’re far enough removed. It’s a thought worth holding close.

Photo credit: Randy Halverson, used by permission.


Related Posts:

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- Temporal Distortion
- Behind the time lapse camera
- Reflecting on the ISS
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Milky Way Down Under

By Phil Plait | July 6, 2012 10:39 am

Russ Brown is a gifted photographer (here’s proof — haha, "proof", I slay me). He sent me a picture he took of the Milky Way over Wellington, NSW (Australia) and it’s stunning!

The detail and structure you can see in the center of our galaxy are astonishing, and I was amazed when Russ told me this was a single 30-second exposure! At an ISO of 3200 and a 14 mm lens set to f/3.3, though, you suck down a lot of light (the building must have been very dark for it not to be hugely overexposed, too). I cut my teeth using actual film for photography, and a picture like this would’ve been incredibly difficult to set up. Nowadays it’s not exactly easy, but it’s easier.

Not to take anything away from Russ’s picture! It takes a good eye and good processing skills to create such a lovely photo like this one. And I’m not at all jealous of the equipment people have now compared to what I had when I was taking tons of pictures and developing them in my bathroom and spending all my allowance and newspaper delivery money on chemicals and paper and an onion to tie to my belt because it was the style of the time.

[shaking fist] YOU KIDS GET OFF MY ELECTRONS!!


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Milky Way, Russel Brown

The Milky Way and the Mashed Potatoes Mountain

By Phil Plait | June 18, 2012 5:09 pm

Photographer Randy Halverson — whose pictures and time lapse videos have been featured here on the BA Blog many times; see Related Posts below — just posted an epically cool picture he took just last night: The Milky Way looming over Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

[Click to closeencountersofthethirdkindenate.]

He and his son (who also got a nice shot of it) were to the northwest of the gigantic butte-like structure; the night started out cloudy but it cleared after midnight. I’m glad! I love pictures like this for many reasons. Obviously, the Milky Way itself is amazing; the central bulge of our spiral galaxy is obvious, studded with stars, gas clouds, and dark bands of dust.

But the icing on the mashed potatoes is that silhouetted against it is such a recognizable landmark — and one that plays an essential part in one of my all-time favorite movies. Devil’s Tower has a fascinating geologic history, and I plan on visiting sometime. It’s a long drive from Boulder, but I swear, it would make my fanboy (of both Hollywood and geology) heart sing to be able just to stand there and soak it in.

Image credit: Randy Halverson, used by permission.


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Hold on tight: in 4 billion years, we're due for a galactic collision!

By Phil Plait | May 31, 2012 1:01 pm

The galaxy we live in, the Milky Way, is a large spiral galaxy that lives in a small cluster of other galaxies called the Local Group. The other big member is the Andromeda galaxy, located about 2.5 million light years away. That’s a long way off, but we’ve known for a long time that Andromeda is heading more or less toward us at a speed of roughly 100 km/sec (60 miles/second).

The question is, is it headed directly at us, or does it have some "sideways" motion and will miss us? New results announced today by astronomers using Hubble show that — gulp! — Andromeda is headed right down our throats!

But don’t panic. It won’t happen for nearly 4 billion years.

This is a pretty cool result. They used Hubble to look at stars in Andromeda’s halo, the extended fuzzy region outside the main body of the galaxy. By very carefully measuring the positions of the stars over seven years, they could directly measure the motion of those stars. Extrapolating that into the future has allowed the motion of the Andromeda galaxy itself to be determined for the first time.

So what’s going to happen?

First, watch this awesome video of the collision based on the observations:

So here are the details:

Read More

Parallel worlds

By Phil Plait | May 7, 2012 1:32 pm

I have got to get to Norway. Last year, on September 25, 2011 from Ifjord, Finnmark, Norway, photographer Tommy Eliassen took this jaw-dropping photo of the night sky:

[Click to enstupefyenate.]

I know, seriously, right?

The northern lights play along the right while the Milky Way itself hangs vertically next to it; parallel structures seemingly adjacent but separated by thousands of trillions of kilometers…

And to top it off, a meteor plinks across the sky between them. Meteors burn up about 100 km or so above our planet’s surface, which is at just about the same altitude that’s the lower limit of green aurorae. Amazingly, that meteor is probably the closest thing you can see in this picture above the clouds*.

You can see more of Eliassen’s amazing aurora pictures on his Facebook page or on 500px, where I originally found his work. Trust me, it’s time well spent.

Image credit: Tommy Eliassen, used by permission.


* Since it cuts across the two parallel background objects at an angle, it must be a skewting star.


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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

To grasp a billion stars

By Phil Plait | April 4, 2012 6:00 am

There are times — rare, but they happen — when I have a difficult time describing the enormity of something. Something so big, so overwhelming, that words simply cannot suffice.

The basic story is: Using the VISTA telescope in Chile and the UKIRT telescope in Hawaii, astronomers have made an incredibly detailed map of the sky in infrared. This map will help understand our own galaxy, more distant galaxies, quasars, nebulae, and much more.

But what do I mean by "incredibly detailed"?

This is where words get hard. So hang on tight; let me show you instead.

Here’s a section of the survey they made, showing the star-forming region G305, an enormous cloud of gas about 12,000 light years away which is busily birthing tens of thousands of stars:

[Click to enstellarnate.]

Pretty, isn’t it? There are about 10,000 stars in this image, and you can see the gas and dust that’s forming new stars even as you look.

But it’s the scale of this image that’s so amazing. It’s only a tiny, tiny part of this new survey. How tiny? Well, it came from this image (the area of the first image is outlined in the white square):

Again, click to embiggen — it’ll blow your socks off. But we’re not done! That image is a subsection of this one:

… which itself is a subsection of this image:

Sure, I’ll admit that last one doesn’t look like much, squished down into a width of a few hundred pixels here for the blog. So go ahead, click on it. I dare you. If you do, you’ll get a roughly 20,000 x 2000 pixel picture of the sky, a mosaic made from thousands of individual images… and even that is grossly reduced from the original survey.

How big is the raw data from the survey? Why, it only has 150 billion pixels aiieeee aiieeeeee AIIEEEEE!!!

And this would be where I find myself lacking in adjectives. Titanic? Massive? Ginormous? These all fail utterly when trying to describe a one hundred fifty thousand megapixel picture of the sky.

Yegads.

And again, why worry over words when I can show you? The astronomers involved helpfully made the original data — all 150 billion pixels of it — into a pan-and-zoomable image where you can zoom in, and in, and in. It’s hypnotizing, like watching "Inception", but made of stars.

And made of stars it is: there are over a billion stars in the original image! A billion. With a B. It’s one of the most comprehensive surveys of the sky ever made, and yet it still only scratches the surface. This survey only covers the part of the sky where the Milky Way galaxy itself is thickest — in the bottom image above you can see the edge-on disk of our galaxy plainly stretching across the entire shot — and that’s only a fraction of the entire sky.

Think on this: there are a billion stars in that image alone, but that’s less than 1% of the total number of stars in our galaxy! As deep and broad as this amazing picture is, it’s a tiny slice of our local Universe.

And once again, we’ve reached the point where I’m out of words. Our puny brains, evolved to count the number of our fingers and toes, to grasp only what’s within reach, to picture only what we can immediately see — balk at these images.

But… we took them. Human beings looked up and wondered, looked around and observed, looked out and discovered. In our quest to seek ever more knowledge, we built the tools needed to make these pictures: the telescopes, the detectors, the computers. And all along, the power behind that magnificent work was our squishy pink brains.

A billion stars in one shot, thanks to a fleshy mass of collected neurons weighing a kilogram or so. The Universe is amazing, but so are we.

Images credit: Mike Read (WFAU), UKIDSS/GPS and VVV


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MORE ABOUT: Milky Way, stars, UKIRT, VISTA
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