150 Billion Pixels, 1 Billion Stars

Ok, have a look at this image — if you click on it, it gets really, really big:

That’s our Milky Way.  The image below here represents the material within the white square on the left — a star-forming region called G305 to astronomers and astrophysicists — again, a click makes it bigger:

That cutaway image above?  Only ten thousand stars.  SLACKERS!  (Of course I jest)

Scientists from the UK, Chile, and Europe have created the initial 150 billion pixel image by combining ten years’ worth of data into a monster survey of the Milky Way region.  From the University of Edinburgh website:

Astronomers have today released a picture containing more than one billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. It combines data from two near-infrared1 telescopes – the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii and the VISTA telescope in Chile –  and is the result of a decade-long collaboration by astronomers at the University of Edinburgh and the University of Cambridge to process, archive and publish the prodigious quantities of sky survey data generated by these two telescopes.

Dr Phil Lucas from the University of Hertfordshire leads the UKIRT study of the Milky Way, and co-leads the VISTA study. He said: “The combined data on over a billion stars represent a scientific legacy that will be exploited for decades in many different ways. They provide a three-dimensional view of the structure of our spiral galaxy, the Milky Way, while also mapping several hundred nebulae where stars are being born. The VISTA data, in particular, is breaking new ground by showing how several hundred million stars vary in brightness over time.”

The full image contains 150 billion pixels, and the detail it contains is only revealed by the three zoom levels, centred on G305, a large and complex star-formation region: the innermost zoom covers a tiny fraction of the full image, but still contains more than ten thousand stars.

Presenting the image at the UK-German National Astronomy Meeting in Manchester, Dr Nick Cross of the University of Edinburgh said: “This remarkable image is only one of the many outputs from the VISTA Data Flow System (VDFS) project2. VDFS data is being used by astronomers around the world and has led to great discoveries in many fields of astronomy, from the coolest known stars to the most distant quasars.”

Something pretty cool:  you can view the monster image with a custom viewer at the University of Edinburgh’s website.  You have to check this out, it is  amazing.

Thanks, Space, HuffPo, PhysOrg, and Science Daily

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!