Orion is the gift that keeps on giving. When you look toward that constellation in the sky, you’re facing a region of massive ongoing star formation. A sprawling cloud of gas and dust occupies Orion’s midsection, most of it thick and opaque. Some of it is illuminated by stars embedded inside, and some by the reflected light of nearby stars.
M78 is a section of the cloud just above Orion’s Belt that’s evidence of the latter. But even then, much of the dust is dark to our eyes. But if you look in the far, far infrared, where warm material glows, a different — and spectacular — view appears:
[Click to blackbodyenate, or grab the 2300 x 3500 pixel version.]
This is actually a combination of two views: one in visible light from the Digitized Sky Survey, and the other from the APEX telescope, which can see light in the submillimeter wavelength range — 1000 times the wavelength the human eye can see. Only cold, cold objects emit at this wavelength, things a few degrees above absolute zero.
The blue material in the image is gas and dust reflecting starlight from nearby blue stars, so it can be seen in visible light. The cold dust, though, threads in front and behind the visible material, and can only be seen by APEX’s eye, tuned as it is to the far infrared. Falsely colored in this image, it glows an eerie orange like fire running through cracks in the nebula.
But it turns out the cracks are the fire itself…
Oh, how I love time lapse video of the sky! I always peer closely, trying to recognize stars, constellations, galaxies, and other land(sky?)marks. This is more of a challenge for me when the view shows the southern sky, but it’s a whole lot easier when the videographer annotates the video itself… as in this breathtaking video called Under the Namibian Sky:
[Set it to HD and make it full screen for the full effect.]
The video is 13 minutes long, so I won’t blame you for scrolling through it. But there’s a lot to see, and most of it is labeled for you!
Namibia is located at about 20° south latitude, so for us northerners there are some odd things, most especially the Sun setting from right to left! Up here, when you face south and/or west, the Sun moves from left to right. But when you’re upside down, things are backwards.
… or even upside-down, as the video helpfully notes when Orion comes into view. That always gets me (I saw it for myself when I visited Australia a few years ago, and it truly freaked me out). Some other things to note: keep your eyes open at the 7:20 mark for a meteor with a persistent train, and for the repeated sight of the Small and Large Magellanic Clouds (labeled SMC and LMC in the video): dwarf companion galaxies to our Milky Way.
This really makes me long for another visit down below the equator. I have no idea when or even if that might happen again, but if it does, I’ll make sure I have their skies firmly planted in my brain. Simply viewing the heavens is a wonderful experience, but knowing what you’re seeing adds a whole dimension to it. I think understanding is always an added benefit while experiencing.
Tip o’ the lens cap to LRTimelapse on G+.
[This is another in a series of posts I'm doing to help me clear off the zillions of cool astronomy pictures I have sitting on my computer desktop. The difference this time? I took this one!]
On Friday night, February 24, 2012, the Moon, Venus, and Jupiter made a pretty line in the sky. I took some pictures as they were setting to the west, but there was a show to the south, too: the constellation of Orion was standing straight and tall over the roof of my house, so I took a quick shot of that, as well:
[Click to enhunternate.]
Not bad, eh? That’s a 13 second exposure with my point-and-shoot camera mounted on a tripod. I just aimed it and took this one picture (right after I took this we had to get dinner started, and the kitchen light illuminates my back yard so I couldn’t shoot any more). Sometimes astrophotography is pretty easy! Now, I wouldn’t submit this shot to a professional site or anything, but given how least-effort it was I’m happy to post it here.
And it’s not terrible. In the bigger version you can see star colors — Betelgeuse (Orion’s right shoulder) and Aldebaran (to the upper right) are both clearly orange, and you can see the blue in Rigel. Look below Orion’s belt; in his, um, dagger you can see the fuzzy Orion Nebula, shining slightly pink. Look to the lower left: there’s Sirius, the brightest star in the night sky, peeking through the trees.
It doesn’t take crazy fancy expensive equipment to take pictures that you can enjoy. Sure, I’d love to have a $4000 camera with telephoto and pro tripod, but even with a modest camera it’s not impossible to capture the skies. And with Venus still shining madly in the west right now after sunset, even folks in big cities can get interesting pictures of it. If you have a camera, give it a shot!
I’m not sure why so many people think I don’t read xkcd, but a metric buttload of people sent me a link to today’s comic [marginally NSFW]. I thank all of you who did, but take note: given that I am a vastly huge geek, and xkcd is the most popular geek comic in the observable Universe†, rest assured I read it.
I have something to add, but go read the comic first. Go.
Back now? OK, so now that you’ve seen it, I have to note we used to make a similar joke when I was in grad school. When my roommate Erik and I ran a night sky lab, he would show students the constellations (they had to learn a handful of them and a few stars for a quiz). In the winter, when it came time to point out Orion, he’d show them Betelgeuse, Rigel, the belt… and then when he pointed out the "dagger", he’d quip, "… and if you want to call that a dagger, be my guest. But I think we all know better."
† Or is it SMBC? We need a quattuorlitteras acronymically-known web comic stats-off.
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
OK, fine. I’m too much of a sap to leave y’all at the end of the year with a floaty shark balloon. So instead, I’ll leave you with some astonishing beauty: Terje Sorgjerd’s time lapse animation "The Aurora":
Wow. Make sure it’s set to HD and make it full screen!
As devastating and haunting as the northern lights are, my eye kept being drawn to the stars themselves. I recognized some constellations, but their movement across the sky was just so odd: instead of heading up or down, many were going sideways, parallel with the horizon. I hadn’t read the video notes yet, so when I saw that, my first thought was, "Holy cow, how far north was he?!"
Turns out, really, really far. The video was shot at Kirkenes and Pas National Park in northern Norway — yes, northern Norway, around 70° north latitude. As an example, down here at more temperate latitudes, Vega gets pretty high in the sky, almost directly overhead. But that far north it doesn’t; in fact, that far north Vega never sets! It’s a circumpolar star, like Polaris itself. You can see that for yourself in the video: Vega is the bright star near the center of the frame starting at 21 seconds in. It’s in the video for about 10 seconds, and you can see it’s moving downward in a slow arc, but clearly won’t get anywhere near the horizon.
In the very next sequence you can see Orion right on the horizon, faded due to the Moon. But where I live, in Boulder, over the course of the night Orion rises on his side, arcs up to the south until he’s standing upright, then sets on his other side. In the video, though, he’s upright and slowly, slowly sinking at a shallow angle.
What a difference latitude makes! The aurorae are usually only visible from extreme northerly or southerly latitudes — though sometimes, after a big solar storm, they can be seen toward middle latitudes — so that’s an obvious difference. But the stars themselves tell the story of our round planet.
We live on a ball! And it spins through space, once a day, sweeping around a star in a period about 365.24 times that long, which itself circles the center of the Milky Way once in a period 220 million times longer than that, as it’s done only a score of times since its birth.
That’s quite the story. And the best part? It’s true.
Keep that in mind as we start our next turn around the Sun. Maybe it’ll help keep things in perspective.
Happy new year, folks, and may 2012 be ruled by reason and reality.
Astronaut Ron Garan has been on board the International Space Station since April 2011. Tonight, at midnight Eastern (US) time, he will land back on Earth with two of his crewmates.
While on the ISS he took a huge number of breath-taking photos of the Earth. One of the very last he shot was this amazing scene:
[Click to embiggen.]
That stunning view shows the Earth, of course, with part of the space station itself hanging off to the right. But what steals the scene are the aurora australis — aka the southern lights — and half of the constellation Orion of to the left. You can easily see the three belt stars, but I have to admit they looked funny to me. It took me a second to figure this out…
If the header info in the picture is accurate, it was taken at 18:48 UTC on September 14, 2011. According to Wolfram Alpha, the ISS was off the coast of Antarctica at the time, and that fits with seeing the aurorae.
At that time, Orion would be setting in the west. That makes sense; the aurorae would be to the south, so west would appear to be to the left in this picture. [CORRECTION: As noted in the comments, I was wrong here. First, west would be to the right, not the left -- I was thinking upside-down, ironically. Second, checking some sky maps, Orion was neither rising nor setting at that time. I think the camera timestamp may be off. But east is to the left, so I'm assuming Orion was rising (again, apparently oreinted upside-down to what I'm used to) in this picture. If the timestamp was off by only 8 minutes, and the picture was actually taken at 18:56, then the ISS would've been off the coast of southwestern Australia, and Orion would've been in the position seen in this picture. Thanks to Steve in the comments for pointing out the directions were off in my original description.]
… which explains why Orion looked funny. From the southern hemisphere, Orion appears upside to me! I first thought those two stars at the bottom were Rigel and Saiph, Orion’s knees, but in reality they’re Betelgeuse and Bellatrix, Orion’s armpits! I remember the first time I saw Orion from Australia, and it freaked me out. Seeing a familiar constellation upside-down is pretty disconcerting to an astronomer.
Of course, to Ron, nothing would have been upside-down. He was in space when he took this shot, so there is no up or down. Unless you count towards Earth being down… and in that case, that’s where he’s headed. As I write this, the hatch to the Soyuz TMA-21 capsule is already closed, and in a few hours it will undock, bringing the three astronauts back to the Earth.
The good news is that, if an October 30th Soyuz unmanned flight launches as planned, three more astronauts will head up the space station on November 12. This comes after much angst the past few weeks over that rocket, but the Russian space agency says the problem has been solved. I hope so. NASA is facing a lot of troubling times right now, so a successful launch by the Russians would go a long way toward taking some of the pressure off.
The UK Royal Observatory Greenwich has chosen its annual Best Astrophotographer of the Year. The recipient for 2011 is Damian Peach, for this stunning shot of our solar system’s largest planet:
Wow! [Click to enjoviante.] The detail in the clouds is amazing, and it always shocks me that features on the moons can be seen from here on Earth (that’s Ganymede to the upper right and Io to the lower left).
Now, that’s a beautiful picture, and my congrats to Damian for it. But I have to admit, I’m partial to deep-sky shots, and so I was glad to see Rogelio Bernal Andreo’s incredible "Orion from Head to Toe" make the list as well; after all, I picked it as my Top Astronomy Picture of 2010!
How flippin’ awesome is that? Click it to get a very massively embiggened version, which is well worth your time grabbing. It’s simply amazing. My favorite bit is the (ironically) ghostly-blue Witch Head Nebula at the upper right. Why is it called that? Heh: look at the bigger version to see. You’ll figure it out.
You should look at all the winning entries at the ROG site. And if you think you can do better, then get ready for next year’s contest! And if you happen to be in Greenwich, you should drop by the observatory; they have the winners on display until February 2012.
I’ve mentioned in the past that the International Space Station is easily visible to the unaided eye when it passes through the sky. That means it’s not hard to get pictures of it. Unless you have pretty fancy equipment you’ll only see it as a bright dot of light, but that’s still pretty cool, and worth a try.
This shot of the ISS is from a webcam at the Tellus Museum of Science in Georgia, which is part of the All Sky Fireball Network. That’s a collection of four cameras in the US southeast looking for bright meteors; the idea being that if one is caught by more than one camera the path can be calculated in three dimensions, and a location of any potential meteorite found.
The webcam shot of the ISS was happenstance, but inevitable; when you have a camera that looks up all the time it’ll get a shot of the space station eventually! But you don’t have to guess; go Heavens Above, enter your latitude and longitude (which you can get from Google Earth) and it will tell you just when interesting things will pass overhead.