Seems like only yesterday we were celebrating the 5th birthday of the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. As it turns out, there’s another space telescope celebrating a big anniversary – the Spitzer Space Telescope just turned ten on August 25th! I know talk a lot about JWST and how amazing it’s going to be, but the truth is that within its lifetime Spitzer has covered the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum in unprecedented ways.
Recently we talked about one reason infrared astronomy is special – and that is that infrared telescopes allow you to see what is behind clouds of dust that block visible light from escaping. Here are some examples of what Spitzer has revealed to us – also proof that infrared images are just as beautiful as visible light ones!
Here’s the Carina Nebula as seen by Spitzer. The bright star at the center is Eta Carinae (actually one of the most massive stars in the galaxy), and it is shaping and sculpting the nebula that surrounds it. In this infrared image, the dust is shown in red and the clouds of hot, glowing gas appear green.
Carina Nebula, Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
In the below image another giant star, Zeta Ophiuchi, is creating a bow shock in front of it in the surrounding dust. The star is actually moving very quickly, and it is the stellar winds flowing out from the star that are making ripples in the dust as it approaches, something only visible in the infrared. The area of the shock is dramatic in appearance at longer infrared wavelengths (shown here as red), while the detailed, fine dust filaments around the star glow at shorter infrared wavelengths (shown in green).
Zeta Ophiuchi, Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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As someone who fields a lot of questions about the James Webb Space Telescope, a giant infrared observatory being built right now, I see a lot of “Why infrared?” questions.
There are a lot of answers to this, but here’s one I think is particularly interesting and illustrative of why infrared light is a valuable tool for understanding the universe. And that is – without the use of infrared telescopes it’s really, really hard to see stars being born.
Stars are born inside thick clouds of dust. These clouds, or nebulae, are actually quite pretty. Here’s a really famous image of a beautiful nebula taken by the Hubble Space Telescope that you may recognize:
Pillars of Creation, Credit: NASA, Jeff Hester, and Paul Scowen (Arizona State University)
While this image is spectacular, the problem is – there are stars inside those pillars of dust that Hubble can’t see. And that’s because the visible light being given up by those stars is being obscured by the dust. BUT, what if we used a telescope sensitive to infrared light to look at this nebula?
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Well, it happened again, guys! The 222nd biannual meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) held at the Indiana Convention Center, that’s what. For those of you not in the loop, the American Astronomical Society is a professional society for astronomers devoted to promoting astronomy and like sciences as well as enhancing education. We’ve covered previous meetings and will definitely be involved in future ones – you can learn more about AAS press conferences, read Sara’s wrap-up of the last meeting, follow Maggie’s adventures at the 2011 AAS meeting in Seattle, or even listen to our podcast from a meeting in 2010.
This year, however, had a particularly special treat for everyone. On Monday, June 3rd, and Tuesday, June 4th, anyone with the gusto and interest could come to the meeting and attend special talks and events for public and amateur astronomers. To celebrate this, the Indiana Astronomical Society held a star party on June 3rd to get everyone ready for the exciting news unleashed in the following days. Now for the meat and potatoes…
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Wisconsin
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Capturing the beauty of this galaxy took a team of people – and to understand the galaxy takes a team of missions.
This gorgeous image of galaxy M106 was created by renowned astro-photographer Robert Gendler, who retrieved archival Hubble images to assemble a mosaic of the center of the galaxy. He then used his own and fellow astro-photographer Jay GaBany’s observations to fill in areas where there was little or no Hubble data.
Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), and R. Gendler (for the Hubble Heritage Team) Acknowledgment: J. GaBany
The NASA feature written about this image tells us that Hubble data from the Advanced Camera for Surveys, Wide Field Camera 3, and Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 detectors were used for the center of the galaxy. The outer spiral arms are also Hubble data, but colorized with ground-based data taken by Gendler’s and GaBany’s 12.5-inch and 20-inch telescopes, which was captured at dark, remote sites in New Mexico.
Also visible are the optical component of the so-called “anomalous arms” of M106, which in this image are a red color, from glowing hydrogen emission. They’re called “anomalous” because they don’t line up very well with the galaxy’s more prominent spiral arms.
Why is this hydrogen gas glowing?
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Each December, there’s a bit of a lull in astronomy news. Not only do the holidays slow things down, but astronomers are also getting ready for the winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in January. These AAS meetings (there’s also a summer meeting in May or June) are a particularly high-profile place to announce a groundbreaking discovery or other exciting piece of research – scientists are surrounded by their peers, with press conferences held daily throughout the week-long meeting. We’ve covered a few of these meetings in the past – you can learn more about AAS press conferences, follow Maggie’s adventures at the 2011 AAS meeting in Seattle, or even listen to our podcast from a meeting in 2010.
This year’s AAS winter meeting was held in Long Beach, CA, where astronomers got a bit of sunshine and sand as well as time to meet with their colleagues, present their research, and hear about the latest and greatest astronomy news. We wanted to share some of the highlights from the astrophysics press releases – and there are some particularly exciting ones in this meeting’s batch!
Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)
From a “zombie” to a “rogue” – the astronomy community still can’t get enough of the strange planet Fomalhaut b! First, there was controversy over whether it was a planet or a dust cloud, and now they’re looking at the planet’s unusual orbit within the debris disk of its host star, Fomalhaut. The planet’s highly elliptical, 2,000-year orbit leads astronomers to suspect that there may be other planet-like bodies hiding within the debris around Fomalhaut. One or more of these other bodies may have gravitationally disturbed Fomalhaut b, ejecting it from a position closer to the star and sending it on a wild and potentially destructive orbit through the debris disk. I’m sure this isn’t the last we’ve heard about Fomalhaut b, as astronomers are hoping to continue the hunt for other planets in its system, and to better understand its own characteristics.
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On Tuesday, June 5, Venus passed in front of the Sun – an event that was visible on seven continents for those that were fortunate enough to have clear weather. These “transits” of Venus are very rare, coming in pairs separated by more than a hundred years. This June’s transit, the second of a 2004-2012 pair, won’t be repeated until the year 2117.
Credit: NASA/SDO, AIA
Credit: JAXA/NASA/Lockheed Martin
The first image is a composite of images taken by the Solar Dynamics Observatory that shows the path that Venus took across the disk of the Sun. The second is a close-up image taken by Hinode – a joint JAXA/NASA mission to study the connections of the sun’s surface magnetism, primarily in and around sunspots.
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Credit: NASA, ESA, CFHT, CXO, M.J. Jee (University of California, Davis), and A. Mahdavi (San Francisco State University)
Astronomers have observed what appears to be a clump of dark matter left behind from a wreck between massive clusters of galaxies. The result could challenge current theories about dark matter.
The above image shows the distribution of dark matter, galaxies, and hot gas in the core Abell 520, a merging galaxy cluster formed by violent collision. It is a composite of data from several sources. The natural-color image of the galaxies is from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii. Superimposed on it are false-color maps showing the concentration of starlight, hot gas, and dark matter in the cluster.
Starlight from galaxies, derived from observations by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope, is colored orange. The green-tinted regions show hot gas, as detected by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The gas is evidence that a collision took place. The blue-colored areas pinpoint the location of most of the mass in the cluster, which is dominated by dark matter. Dark matter is an invisible substance that makes up most of the universe’s mass. The dark-matter map was derived from the Hubble Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 observations, by detecting how light from distant objects is distorted by the cluster galaxies, an effect called gravitational lensing.
The blend of blue and green in the center of the image reveals that a clump of dark matter resides near most of the hot gas, where very few galaxies are found. This could present a challenge to basic theories of dark matter, which predict that galaxies should be anchored to dark matter, even during the shock of a collision.
You can read more at the news release.
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This is a doozy of a round-up, thanks to the American Astronomical Society meeting mid-month! Maggie already blogged about some of the interesting exoplanet news that came out at the meeting. Here, we’ll cover some of the other big astrophysics releases at AAS! But first… a gorgeous image from the European Southern Observatory.
This image of the Omega Nebula (M17 or NGC 6618) was captured by the ESO’s ground-based Very Large Telescope (VLT). The nebula contains glowing hydrogen gas and filaments of dust, the very materials needed to create the the blue-white baby stars forming in this very active stellar nursery. You can read more about the nebula and this image in the ESO press release.
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Last week, about 120 exoplanet-hunters from as far away as Japan and the Netherlands descended upon NASA Goddard for the Signposts of Planets conference, an opportunity for scientists to discuss cutting-edge research on the detection and study of extrasolar planets in the debris disks around stars. The three-day event included talks from researchers in the field, and the release of four major stories about exoplanets – especially where and how they form.
Credit: Karen L. Teramura, UH IfA
What are the “signposts” of planets? Conference organizer Marc Kuchner told us, “Many stars have disks around them that represent planetary systems in the process of formation or belts of debris analogous to our asteroid belt. Everyone wants to see pictures of exoplanets, but often these disks are much much easier to see than the planets themselves. So the goal of the Signposts of Planets meeting was to try to figure out what we can learn about planets by studying these disks that contain them. The planets tend to sculpt the disks into interesting patterns: gaps, spirals, ring, and so on, and there’s a lot we can learn by reading these signposts.”
When asked about the highlights of the conference, Dr. Kuchner mentioned a tour of the cleanroom where the James Webb Space Telescope is currently being assembled here at Goddard. But the attendees also had a fun night out at a local crab shack: “It’s hard to get into too fierce a battle over your disk models when you’re spraying crab bits on each other.”
We wanted to recap the press releases that came out during the conference in a special round-up! Click on the links to read the full stories.
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There are gorgeous new shots of a full-scale test version of one layer of the James Webb Space Telescope’s tennis court-sized sunshield:
There are two more on their Flickr.
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