The North American Nebula

Pardon the late afternoon post, I’m rocking some kind of stomach flu today. What an interesting day – this morning, not even water could take residence in my stomach.  I tried, but the water said “I’M OUT!”

Light from the universe is pretty cool.  There is a large nebula that has a quaint resemblance to the North American continent (which is funny enough called The North American Nebula) that is sometimes visible on really dark nights.  What makes this nebula cool is that as you filter out certain wavelengths of light (like the IR spectrum or UHC filters), our perception of the light from the nebula changes.  The shape really kind of goes away altogether, but who cares – that mass of points and bands of light and color is absolutely amazing.

Check out this image – it’s a quad image from wikipedia of the North American Nebula, but with filters in place for each image:

(You have got to see this one full size.  Seriously.)

This is an amazing thing – I know that there are some serious nerds who read, hopefully you all read the NASA Image of the Day gallery, this was the post from yesterday:

From the NASA Image of the Day post from October 18:

This swirling landscape of stars is known as the North America Nebula. In visible light, the region resembles North America, but in this image infrared view from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, the continent disappears.

Where did the continent go? The reason you don’t see it in Spitzer’s view has to do, in part, with the fact that infrared light can penetrate dust whereas visible light cannot. Dusty, dark clouds in the visible image become transparent in Spitzer’s view. In addition, Spitzer’s infrared detectors pick up the glow of dusty cocoons enveloping baby stars.

Clusters of young stars (about one million years old) can be found throughout the image. Some areas of this nebula are still very thick with dust and appear dark even in Spitzer’s view. 

The Spitzer image contains data from both its infrared array camera and multi-band imaging photometer. Light with a wavelength of 3.6 microns has been color-coded blue; 4.5-micron light is blue-green; 5.8-micron and 8.0-micron light are green; and 24-micron light is red. This image is from February 2011.

This is totally worth a few minutes, check out this video – it breaks down the nebula with visible and invisible light filters and details. Unbelievably beautiful.

A Quasar with 140 Trillion Times the Water in All of Earth’s Oceans.

So, something exciting happened in the world of Astronomy and Astrophysics this last week – two groups of scientists and astronomers at CalTech discovered a mass supply of water in the form of water vapor, living at the center of a quasar called APM 08279+5255, about 12 billion light years away.  That is a lot of water.  That is also a lot of water that just happens to be hanging out in the literal middle of nowhere.

For a little perspective, that water supply is 100,000 times larger than our Sun, and it’s 7.2X10+22 miles away.  There’s about six trillion miles in a light year, and this quasar is about 12 billion light years away.  That’s 72,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 miles away from Earth.  So, this being the case, if we start hitchhiking now, we should make it there by – actually we’ll never make it there.  Not in our lifetimes!  At least not until we invent the Event Horizon, but from what I understand they had a bit of trouble with that ship being all possessed and everything.

Now, something to consider is that these things are way, way old when we actually see the light from them.  That light is at least 12 billion light years old, which means it took 12 billion light years to get to us.  We can measure these things with different kinds of measuring devices that look for the electromagnetic waves that move at faster speeds, like infrared and microwave, that occur “before” the visible light spectrum.  Radio waves and microwaves are very long and infrequent, compared to ultraviolet waves, which are very frequent and short.  Like this:

Okay – first and foremost, what is a quasar, exactly?  Well, honestly we don’t really know all there is to know about them, they’re so far away and of such mass that obviously all we can do is speculate and theorize.  We can observe them with radio telescopes and devices that observe the range of electromagnetic energy between infrared and microwaves (see the Z-Spec gear at the Caltech Submillimeter Observatory in Hawaii and the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-Wave Astronomy (CARMA)) as well as with very large telescopes like Hubble.  Generally, what is thought to be happening in a quasar is that a large black hole is consuming a whole lot of material in space – between 10 and 1000 sun masses per year, apparently.  That is a whole lot of material that these overweight pigs of black holes turn directly from mass to energy.  So, considering we’re completely skipping a matter form, something has to happen to the material when it’s converted to energy, and that is generally what is referred to as the quasar, or quasi-stellar radio source to the real scientists.  Check out this beautiful artist depiction of a quasar doing its thing (and the image at the top of the post is also an artist’s depiction):

Beautiful.  As the black hole eats all of the mass, electromagnetic energy (which includes visible light) emanates from the quasar.  So, quasars are powered by black holes.  Make sense?  Kinda?  In short, a quasar is a large luminous stellar body.  It’s a monster thing that happens in space, and some of the brightest ones give off more energy than a few trillion of our sun.

Here’s another video, this one explains a bit about Einstein’s Cross and some of the way that the light form quasars is altered by gravitational forces:

Quasars.  Very cool.  Now how do we equate the awesomeness of all that water vapor and the incredulous distance between us and it?

Thanks Count Infinity, Virginia Astrophysics, CalTech AstrophysicsVirginia Tech AstrophysicsUPenn, WiseGeek, and NASA!

Atlantis STS-135: Congratulations, and Godspeed!

The final mission of the NASA Space Shuttle program has launched – Space Shuttle Atlantis is going upward attached to two sticks of fuel that create about a million pounds of thrust, hurling them towards that barrier in the sky where our world ends and the relatively unknown begins.  The shuttle program is ending, but Man’s fascination with the unknown will never end.  No matter how many politicians try to get in the way of progress, no matter how many budgets get cut in the future, we’ll still be heading into space.

If you’re still interested in watching some first-hand NASA video live, check out their NASA Live link.

So, what do you think is next for the NASA Space Program?  To date, we’re still using fuel and fire to get us into orbit – what do you think is coming next?  Ion drives?  Plasma drives?  Light drives?  A huge slingshot?  Lasers?

Have you ever heard of an Ion Drive?  It’s a developing technology that is suppsoed to ionize a gas, like Helium, into something that could propel a craft.  The problem right now is that it doesn’t seem to be worth a crapola in the atmosphere.  Watch this video:

Here’s some video of a solar-powered plasma drive – this is kinda outstanding!

Ah, who knows.  I’m just postulating.  Let’s all wish the crew of Atlantis a safe return journey, and a safe mission for all involved!

Thanks, KCOY!

What A Fun… Unusual Cosmic Blast!

Have you seen the news stories about this “unexplained cosmic blast” that NASA’s Swift Satellite captured a few weeks ago?  NASA scientists have been checking out this crazy monstrous gamma ray explosion they observed back in March, but that continues to keep shining.  Typically these types of cosmic explosions go on for about an hour or so, maybe a little longer, but this one was huge and bright, with very high levels of radiation being emitted from the site.

Well, research is ongoing into this crazy little phenomena, but the general feeling towards this bright burst is that a star in another galaxy has gotten too close to its central black hole, and the black hole tore the star to smithereens – cosmic smithereens, that is.  I wonder if that’s the name of the new band by Jack Black and Judd Apatow.

When a star gets torn apart by a black hole like we think this one has, observers will notice a stream of radiation, light, and particles that makes a pretty good light show for a few hours.  This one has been going on for a few weeks, which is a bit puzzling, but scientists are thinking that we’re looking directly into the stream of light and particles that the star is giving off.  When a star is torn apart like this, a stream of light will be created along the star’s rotational axis – essentially we’re looking into a big bright stream of star destruction.  This is crazy pretty, no?

From an article at NASA’s Swift Satellite website:

That same day, astronomers used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to make a four-hour-long exposure of the puzzling source. The image, which locates the object 10 times more precisely than Swift can, shows that it lies at the center of the galaxy Hubble imaged.

“We know of objects in our own galaxy that can produce repeated bursts, but they are thousands to millions of times less powerful than the bursts we are seeing now. This is truly extraordinary,” said Andrew Fruchter at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

“We have been eagerly awaiting the Hubble observation,” said Neil Gehrels, the lead scientist for Swift at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “The fact that the explosion occurred in the center of a galaxy tells us it is most likely associated with a massive black hole. This solves a key question about the mysterious event.”

Most galaxies, including our own, contain central black holes with millions of times the sun’s mass; those in the largest galaxies can be a thousand times larger. The disrupted star probably succumbed to a black hole less massive than the Milky Way’s, which has a mass four million times that of our sun

Astronomers previously have detected stars disrupted by supermassive black holes, but none have shown the X-ray brightness and variability seen in GRB 110328A. The source has repeatedly flared. Since April 3, for example, it has brightened by more than five times.

Scientists think that the X-rays may be coming from matter moving near the speed of light in a particle jet that forms as the star’s gas falls toward the black hole.

“The best explanation at the moment is that we happen to be looking down the barrel of this jet,” said Andrew Levan at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom, who led the Chandra observations. “When we look straight down these jets, a brightness boost lets us view details we might otherwise miss.”

This brightness increase, which is called relativistic beaming, occurs when matter moving close to the speed of light is viewed nearly head on.

I’m gonna hold off on stocking up for the end of the world another few weeks.  :)


A Cosmological Fantasia from BDH

Have you seen this un-freaking-believable bit of light and visual effects from The Wonders of the Universe series? Please, please take a few moments and watch some of this work!

A Cosmological Fantasia from BDH – Burrell Durrant Hifle on Vimeo.

The effects in the video are the artistic prowess of design house Burrell Durrant Hifle Design and Direction out of Bristol and London – two places I know well! Check out the project page for BDH’s Wonders of the Universe work – you will NOT be disappointed.

Friday Awesome – Northern Lights Time-Lapse Video


This has been one crazy busy week!  I’m in technical rehearsals tomorrow for a greek show called The House of Atreus – I am lighting the show, and I wrote a bunch of music for it, so my brain should be completely yogurt by the end of the weekend.  I’m also about to launch into the focus week for The Wedding Singer – oh yeah, I still have to build a light plot for that show.

Good times!

I saw this last night, and I had to share it with you all – check out this time lapse video of Aurora Borealis in the night time sky.  Photographer Terje Sorgjerd is the man responsible for this beautiful work – from what I understand, it is the culmination of tens of thousands of photos!

The Aurora from Terje Sorgjerd on Vimeo.

Two Suns in 2012? Really?

So, there’s a woo-mah (you know, a rumor) that in 2012, our Sun will be joined by ANOTHER sun-like bright disk in the sky that people have been worshiping for millions of years.  Our Sun, G2V, could possibly (theoretically) be competing for prime time sky space with the impending supernova of Betegeuse – some know it as Alpha Orionis.

The big rumor is that Betelgeuse is running out of betel-juice – which generally means that the fuel at the center of the star is diminishing.  Once this happens, it’s pretty much curtains for the supergiant star.  A few things could happen if the supergiant does its end-of-star death thing – one, it’ll turn into a massive black hole, or two, it’ll shower the Earth with neutrinos, or both.  Scientists don’t really have a solid understanding of what exactly happens with a supernova, but they do know that it’s only something that happens with stars that have a mass of at least nine times larger than our Sun (G2V).

Some people are being ridiculous about this possible event, saying that it’s a sign of the 2012 Mayan Doomsday thing.  While sometimes I think that it’s fun to pretend, this is a hunk of crap, methinks.  You know that if I’m wrong about this theory, it doesn’t matter because we’re all dead.

A professor at the University of Southern Queensland talked about all of this in an article at News.Com.AU:

When that happens, we’ll get our second sun, according to Dr Brad Carter, Senior Lecturer of Physics at the University of Southern Queensland.

“This old star is running out of fuel in its centre”, Dr Carter said. “This fuel keeps Betelgeuse shining and supported. When this fuel runs out the star will literally collapse in upon itself and it will do so very quickly.”

When this happens a giant explosion will occur, tens of millions of times brighter than the sun. The bad news is, it could also happen in a million years. But who’s counting? The important thing is, one day, night will become day for several weeks on Earth.

“This is the final hurrah for the star,” says Dr Carter. “It goes bang, it explodes, it lights up – we’ll have incredible brightness for a brief period of time for a couple of weeks and then over the coming months it begins to fade and then eventually it will be very hard to see at all.”

The interwebs is being flooded with doomsday theories saying the impending supernova confirms the Mayan calendar’s prediction of the Armageddon in 2012.

Well, here’s a picture of two suns in the sky to relieve the fact that if I’m wrong in predicting that the Mayans are right about the whole end of the world thing, we’re toast:

Thanks Wikipedia,, and Wikipedia!

Did You See the Lunar Eclipse?

That’s right, we had a lunar eclipse last night!  Most news organizations were touting the eclipse, since it’s the only one we’ve had since Galileo Galilei was actually in JAIL for claiming the world was round!  Ah, the intelligence of the ignorant.

So anywho – check out some images of the eclipse – it was pretty hard to see from where I was, as we had some cloud cover.

23° 26'

Tioga County - The moon (12/19) in anticipation of the 12/20 lunar eclipse

A Pre-Christmas Treat


and perhaps another treat – for those of us amateur photogs trying to capture the moon, a “photographing the moon” guide from Shoot Tokyo!


Leonids Star Trails

Hey sky watchers, telescope nerds, and general light lovers everywhere – the Leonid Meteor Shower is tonight!

For those of you who remember last year’s shower, the Leonid shower for 2010 is going to extend from tonight (17th) into tomorrow (18th), and reports are estimating 20-30 visible tracks per hour.  However, we’ll have a brightly shining Gibbous moon tonight and tomorrow night, so you might not see much if you’re not country-bound and out of the way of the light pollution of the cities.

Check out the video podcast (I’m sorry, Vodcast) for Sky at Night Magazine, Volume 18 (I kid, I love you guys, SaN!):

Good star hunting!  Get out there and see something no one has ever seen before but you!

Let The Sun Blow Your Mind

Check out the sun.  Pretty effing hot, huh? (it’s even better HUGE.)

You can thank Alan Friedman for some of these pictures – Alan’s a great photographer and amateur astronomer.  I hope he sees himself as more than an amateur astronomer at some point, because, well, holy crap.  Alan did something awesome while taking pictures of the sun – he stuck a filter in front of his camera that filtered light in the H-alpha spectrum (which is around 6562.8 Angstrom, or 656 nanometers).

Yeah.  that is pretty ca-raaaaazy red.

In this image below, of four Balmer spectrum lines given off by Hydrogen being ionized, H-alpha is on the far right:

From the Discovery Blog, on how this whole process works:

The Sun’s surface puts out light at all wavelengths, but the surface isn’t solid. It’s a gas, and it tapers off with height. Normally, a thin gas in space emits light at very specific colors as electrons jump from one energy level to another in the individual atoms. But compressed gas in the thicker, denser part of the Sun mashes together all those energies, spreading them out, so it emits white light (that layer of the Sun is called the photosphere). Above that layer, where the gas is thinner (in a layer called the chromosphere), the hydrogen does emit light at specific colors. One of these, H-α, is in the red part of the spectrum, and in fact hot, thin hydrogen emits very strongly in H-α.

By plopping a filter in front of a telescope, you can block a lot of the light from the photosphere but let light from the chromosphere through. That’s what Alan Friedman did — he used a filter that let through a very narrow range of colors centered on H-α — to get this stunning picture. Well that, plus quite a bit of image processing! But everything you’re seeing there is real, and is happening on the Sun.

There are actually six Balmer hydrogen spectrum lines that exist, but two of them are in the ultraviolet spectrum, under 400 nm.  All hydrogen atoms exhibit these spectra – so what astronomers do is they use the h-alpha waves to see which heavenly bodies that exhibit these waves.  The resulting images look like these below.

(even better HUGE.)

(even better HUGE.)

Alan did all of this observing with his telescope – check this little thing out!  Like the Little Engine that Could!

I couldn’t leave these images out – Here are some images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, or SDO.  SDO is one bad-mopho of a telescope that measures all kinds of goodies from the Sun.  Check out the Solar Dynamic Observatory website as well, with images, video, and other amazing information.  The one directly below here is of the surface of the sun – the white bar in the lower left corner represents five thousand kilometers.

Thanks Discovery Blog, Wikipedia, and HuffPo!