Looking at this Hubble image, you might think it’s another run-of-the-mill yet spectacular spiral galaxy, nearly edge-on, with a pretty spiral in the background. But then you let your eyes scan down to the bottom…
Hey, what the heck is that giant green thing?
That, me droogs, is Hanny’s Voorwerp. Click the image to, um, to… envoorwerpenate.
OK, you ask, what’s a Voorwerp? Well, it’s Dutch for "thing". Doesn’t help much, though, does it?
All right then, let’s back up a bit: Hanny van Arkel, who discovered it, is not an astronomer. But she was reading a blog entry by Brian May, who is the guitarist for Queen as well as an astronomer. He had written about Galaxy Zoo, a project where you can classify galaxies on your computer. Being a Queen fan, Hanny checked it out, and started looking at galaxies… which is how she found this weird green smear of light. She asked about it, and astronomers took interest… and the result is this amazing Hubble image of a very odd object.
What is it? Well, the green color is a dead giveaway that it’s a giant cloud of gas; the green comes from glowing oxygen, spread ethereally thin. The nearby galaxy must be involved, as there’s no other source of illumination, which in turn means this thing is pretty big. In fact, it’s the same size as our galaxy, 100,000 light years across!
In 2007, a young woman with no prior experience in astronomy made a discovery that led to dozens of astronomers using billions of dollars of equipment to figure out the solution to the mystery. The young woman, named Hanny, and the object — whimsically named the Voorwerp — wound up becoming a fantastic demonstration of how citizen science works, and how it can lead to a greater understanding of the Universe.
My friend Pamela Gay, an astronomer and educator, spearheaded an effort to get this story out to the folks who need it most: kids! She and her team created a comic book based on Hanny’s story, called "Hanny and the Mystery of the Voorwerp" – you can learn more about it at that link. The comic book (a panel is shown above) will be premiered at Dragon*Con this weekend, but you can pre-order a copy for $5. If you’re an educator, or are looking to get your kids interested in science, you should check it out.
It’s a cute story, but also an important one. You don’t need a big fancy degree or even years of experience to make a big discovery. Sometimes what you need is a bright, curious mind, and the desire to explore.