Star Formation in Cygnus X

A bubbling cauldron of star birth is highlighted in this new image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Infrared light that we can’t see with our eyes has been color-coded, such that the shortest wavelengths are shown in blue and the longest in red. The middle wavelength range is green.

Massive stars have blown bubbles, or cavities, in the dust and gas – a violent process that triggers both the death and birth of stars. The brightest, yellow-white regions are warm centers of star formation. The green shows tendrils of dust, and red indicates other types of dust that may be cooler, in addition to ionized gas from nearby massive stars. Cygnus X is about 4,500 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus, or the Swan.

Credit: NASA/JPL/Spitzer/Cal Tech

Spitzer discovers young stars with a ‘hula hoop’

Astronomers using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope have spotted a young stellar system that “blinks” every 93 days. Called YLW 16A, the system likely consists of three developing stars, two of which are surrounded by a disk of material left over from the star-formation process.

As the two inner stars whirl around each other, they periodically peek out from the disk that girds them like a hula hoop. The hoop itself appears to be misaligned from the central star pair, probably due to the disrupting gravitational presence of the third star orbiting at the periphery of the system. The whole system cycles through bright and faint phases, with the central stars playing a sort of cosmic peek-a-boo as the tilted disk twirls around them. It is believed that this disk should go on to spawn planets and the other celestial bodies that make up a solar system.

YLW 16A is the fourth example of a star system known to blink in such a manner, and the second in the same star-forming region Rho Ophiuchus. The finding suggests that these systems might be more common than once thought. Blinking star systems with warped disks offer scientists a way to study how planets form in these environments. The planets can orbit one or both of the stars in the binary star system. The famous science fictional planet Tatooine in “Star Wars” orbits two stars, hence its double sunsets. Such worlds are referred to as circumbinary planets. Astronomers can record how light is absorbed by planet-forming disks during the bright and faint phases of blinking stellar systems, which in turn reveals information about the materials that comprise the disk.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


NASA’s Spitzer Telescope Celebrates 10 Years in Space via JPLClick images to enlarge and read captions. Image Credit: NASA | JPL-Caltech | Harvard-Smithsonian CfA Univ. of Virginia |University of Arizona | Univ. of Toledo

Ten years after a Delta II rocket launched NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, lighting up the night sky over Cape Canaveral, Fla., the fourth of the agency’s four Great Observatories continues to illuminate the dark side of the cosmos with its infrared eyes. 

The telescope studied comets and asteroids, counted stars, scrutinized planets and galaxies, and discovered soccer-ball-shaped carbon spheres in space called buckyballs. Moving into its second decade of scientific scouting from an Earth-trailing orbit, Spitzer continues to explore the cosmos near and far. One additional task is helping NASA observe potential candidates for a developing mission to capture, redirect and explore a near-Earth asteroid. 

“President Obama’s goal of visiting an asteroid by 2025 combines NASA’s diverse talents in a unified endeavor,” said John Grunsfeld, NASA’s associate administrator for science in Washington. “Using Spitzer to help us characterize asteroids and potential targets for an asteroid mission advances both science and exploration." 

Spitzer’s infrared vision lets it see the far, cold and dusty side of the universe. Close to home, the telescope has studied the comet dubbed Tempel 1, which was hit by NASA’s Deep Impact mission in 2005. Spitzer showed the composition of Tempel 1 resembled that of solar systems beyond our own. Spitzer also surprised the world by discovering the largest of Saturn’s many rings. The enormous ring, a wispy band of ice and dust particles, is very faint in visible light, but Spitzer’s infrared detectors were able to pick up the glow from its heat. 

Images, top to bottom - left to right: 

  • Montage of images taken by Spitzer.
  • The Barred Sculptor Galaxy in varied infrared wavelengths. 
  • The Tortured Clouds of Eta Carinae.
  • Young stars cradled in dust in Rho Ophiuchi dark cloud complex.
  • Saturn’s largest ring.
  • Spitzer spies spectacular Sombrero Galaxy.
  • Stars gather in ‘Downtown’ Milky Way.
  • Helix Nebula.
  • Stellar family tree, star forming region W5.
  • Sword of Orion, Orion’s Nebula.

Perhaps Spitzer’s most astonishing finds came from beyond our solar system. The telescope was the first to detect light coming from a planet outside our solar system, a feat not in the mission’s original design. With Spitzer’s ongoing studies of these exotic worlds, astronomers have been able to probe their composition, dynamics and more, revolutionizing the study of exoplanet atmospheres. 

Other discoveries and accomplishments of the mission include getting a complete census of forming stars in nearby clouds; making a new and improved map of the Milky Way’s spiral-arm structure; and, with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, discovering that the most distant galaxies known are more massive and mature than expected.

In October, Spitzer will attempt infrared observations of a small near-Earth asteroid named 2009 DB to better determine its size, a study that will assist NASA in understanding potential candidates for the agency’s asteroid capture and redirection mission. This asteroid is one of many candidates the agency is evaluating. 

Spitzer, originally called the Space Infrared Telescope Facility, was renamed after its launch in honor of the late astronomer Lyman Spitzer. Considered the father of space telescopes, Lyman Spitzer began campaigning to put telescopes in space, away from the blurring effects of Earth’s atmosphere, as early as the 1940s. His efforts also led to the development and deployment of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, carried to orbit by the space shuttle in 1990. 

In anticipation of the Hubble launch, NASA set up the Great Observatories program to fly a total of four space telescopes designed to cover a range of wavelengths: Hubble, Spitzer, the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the now-defunct Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.

Spitzer ran out of the coolant needed to chill its longer-wavelength instruments in 2009, and entered the so-called warm mission phase. Now, after its tenth year of peeling back the hidden layers of the cosmos, its journey continues. 

Continue reading…

  • For more information about Spitzer, visit here and here.

Star Formation within the Eagle Nebula - M16

This star-forming region is famous for its space pillars that appear in this infrared view from NASA’s Spitzer space telescope. The green dust is the cooler dust and the red dust represents hotter dust that was warmed by the explosion of a massive star 8,000 to 9,000 years ago. Astronomers estimate that the explosions blast wave spread outward and destroyed the eagle nebula’s three famous pillars about 6,000 years about. Since the light from the nebula takes about 7,000 years to reach us we will not witness this destruction for about another 1,000 years.

Credit: NASA/Spitzer

Galaxies in hiding

There are nearly 200 galaxies in this image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. These are part of the Perseus-Pisces supercluster of galaxies located 250 million light-years away. Normally, galaxies beyond our Milky Way are hidden from view when they happen to fall behind the plane of our galaxy. This is due to foreground dust standing in the way.

Spitzer’s Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire 360, or Glimpse 360 project, is pointing Spitzer away from the galactic center, to complete a full 360-degree scan of the Milky Way plane. It has captures many images in the process, such as this one, revealing hidden objects.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Wisconsin


Mostly Mute Monday: NASA’s Greatest Observatories View The Galactic Center 

“What we find inside is a tumultuous region of dense stars, the gas blown off from recent stellar deaths, the neutral atoms that will collapse to form new stars, and a myriad of intense, high-energy sources that correspond to neutron stars and black holes. Perhaps most spectacularly, there’s a four million solar mass black hole at our galaxy’s center, illuminated uniquely… by each of the three great observatories. By combining the data from all of them, we get a unique look at the astrophysical signatures emitted by the closest supermassive black hole to us in the Universe.”

Sure, the Hubble Space Telescope gives us unparalleled views of our Universe. We can even use it – with its near-infrared camera, NICMOS – to view the very center of our galaxy, something completely blocked by dust in visible light. But part of the incredible power of Hubble relies not on anything to do with the spacecraft or the instruments itself, but rather on the fact that Hubble is only one part of NASA’s great observatories program. Combined with Spitzer (mid-and-far IR) and Chandra (X-ray) data, the astrophysics of this truly remarkable region is revealed in unprecedented detail.


8 Beautiful New Astrophotographs from NASA

As part of American Archive Month, NASA has released eight images taken by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. These images have never been shown to the public before so I hope you do (as I did), enjoy!

1. G266.2-1.2 - Supernova Remnant
A haunting object produced by a supernova in our Milky Way, the purple is the shockwave of high energy particles expanding into interstellar space. The image is a combination of x-ray wavelengths imaged by Chandra (purple) and optical wavelengths from the Digitized Sky Survey (red, green, blue).

2. 3C353 - Supermassive Black Hole Jets
Interactions near a supermassive black hole can throw out huge amounts of energy and mass out from their poles. The galaxy harbouring this giant can be seen as the singular purple spot in the middle with the two lobes of radiation extending out  to either side. The x-ray wavelengths in purple are from Chandra and orange from the radio data from the Very Large Array.

3. NGC 3576 – Nebula
This beautiful nebula can be found 9,000 light years away in the Sagittarius arm of our own Milky Way. Nebulas like this one are home to much drama, from the evolution of massive stars, to their birth in dark clouds of gas and dust and their eventual destructive death. The x-ray data in blue is from Chandra and optical in orange and yellow from ESO.

4. NGC 4945 – Galaxy
NGC 4945 is very similar appearance to our own galaxy but observations suggest that it harbours a highly active supermassive black hole. Seen edge on from a distance of 13 million light years, the x-ray data from Chandra has been overlayed upon the optical image from the ESO.

5. IC 1396A – Elephant Trunk Nebula
A relatively well known nebula, the Elephant Trunk Nebula has graced many-a-astrophoto and is a prime example of how when radiation and stellar winds impact clouds of gas and dust they can cause new generations of stars to form. The x-ray data in purple is from Chandra and has been combined with optical data to give a more complete picture.

6. 3C 397 (G41.1-03) – Galactic Supernova Remnant
Researchers posit that the unusual shape of this remnant is due to the interaction of matter thrown off by the supernova with the cooler gas surrounding it. This image is a compositeof x-ray data from Chandra in purple, infrared emissions from Spitzer (yellow) and optical wavelengths from the Digitized Sky Survey (red, green, blue).

7. SNR B0049-73.6 – Supernova
This beautiful example of a supernova can be found in one of our neighbouring galaxies, the Small Magellanic Cloud. In the case of this star, observations suggest that the explosion was due to the collapse of the core of the central star. This image is a composite of purple from Chandra’s x-ray data, and infrared data from the 2MASS survey (red, green, blue).

8. NGC 6946 – Galaxy
Located around 22 million light years from Earth, this beautiful galaxy is also known by the name, the Fireworks Galaxy which is due it having the three oldest supernovas ever detected in the x-ray part of the spectrum. The image is composite of optical data from the Gemini Observatory (red, yellow, cyan) and x-ray data from Chandra (purple.

All credit to NASA/CSC/SAO


NASA has unveiled a stunning 360-degree view of the Milky Way galaxy to give everyone a better view of our neighborhood. The 20-gigapixel interactive map is the result of stitching together 2 million infrared pictures taken by the Spitzer space telescope and 10 years of work.

Spitzer captured about three percent of the sky–a seemingly miniscule amount that, because it recorded a band from a side view of the disk, actually contains around 50 percent of the stars in the Milky Way and 90 percent of the regions where stars are forming. The space telescope spent 4,142 hours taking these pictures as part of the Galactic Legacy Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire (GLIMPSE) project.

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Shockwaves of Star Formation - Galaxy M106

Galaxy M106 has mysterious “invisible” spiral arms that only become visible when you observe its X-rays. While the spiral arms propagate like shockwaves around M106, they create bursts of star formation with heat equivalent to 10 million suns. Astrophysicists believe that there is a supermassive black hole at the center of M106. It is theorized that this supermassive blackhole is jetting out high-energy particles into the galaxy’s shockwaves and causing these high energy emissions.

Credit: Spitzer/NASA/Hubble


Mostly Mute Monday: A GLIMPSE of the galaxy

“This data will enable scientists to build the most accurate model ever of star-formation, history and evolution within our galaxy, and understand the mechanism behind the origin of practically all the light in our Universe.”

There’s nothing quite like the plane of our Milky Way galaxy. Some 200-400 billion stars are located there, including our own Sun. From our vantage point within it, most of these are obscured by the dust lanes present within. But thanks to its views in infrared light, the Spitzer Space Telescope can glimpse not only all of the stars and the dust simultaneously, it can do it at an alarming resolution. Recently, NASA has put together a 360° panorama of more than 2,000,000 Spitzer images taken from 2003-2014, and I’ve gone and stitched them together into a single, 180,000-pixel-long viewable experience that shows less than 3% of the sky, but nearly 50% of its stars.

Distant Star Goes Disco

A disco inferno in space? Astronomers have been keeping an eye on an unusual star that unleashes a burst of light every 25 days, like an extremely slow pulsating disco ball. Similar pulsating bursts of light have been seen before, but this one, named LRLL 54361 is the most powerful beacon ever seen.

Using the Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes, astronomers have solved the mystery of this star. It is actually two newly formed protostars in a binary system, doing a little disco dance of their own. And as they spin around each other on the smoky dance floor (actually a dense cloud of gas and dust), a blast of radiation is unleashed each time the stars get close to each other in their orbits. The effect seen by the telescopes is enhanced by an optical illusion called a light echo.

The unusual thing is, while astronomers have seen this phenomenon before, called pulsed accretion, usually it is found in later stages of star birth – and not in such a young system or with such intensity and regularity.

Astronomers say LRLL 54361 offers insights into the early stages of star formation when lots of gas and dust is being rapidly accreted to form a new binary star.

“This protostar has such large brightness variations with a precise period that it is very difficult to explain,” said James Muzerolle of the Space Telescope Science Institute. His paper recently was published in the journal Nature.


NASA’S Spitzer Sees Milky Way’s Blooming Countryside

New views from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope show blooming stars in our Milky Way galaxy’s more barren territories, far from its crowded core.

The images are part of the Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire (Glimpse 360) project, which is mapping the celestial topography of our galaxy. The map and a full, 360-degree view of the Milky Way plane will be available later this year. Anyone with a computer may view the Glimpse images and help catalog features.

We live in a spiral collection of stars that is mostly flat, like a vinyl record, but it has a slight warp. Our solar system is located about two-thirds of the way out from the Milky Way’s center, in the Orion Spur, an offshoot of the Perseus spiral arm. Spitzer’s infrared observations are allowing researchers to map the shape of the galaxy and its warp with the most precision yet.

While Spitzer and other telescopes have created mosaics of the galaxy’s plane looking in the direction of its center before, the region behind us, with its sparse stars and dark skies, is less charted.

“We sometimes call this flyover country,” said Barbara Whitney, an astronomer from the University of Wisconsin at Madison who uses Spitzer to study young stars. “We are finding all sorts of new star formation in the lesser-known areas at the outer edges of the galaxy.”

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Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Wisconsin

The Pleiades Cluster seen in Infrared

Known to the Ancient Greeks as the ‘Seven Sisters’, the Pleiades is one of many star clusters that are visible to the naked eye and have been observed by humans for thousands of years. This particular image of the cluster shows its associated dust - known as Merope Nebula or NGC 1435 - which is particularly spectacular in the infrared. The ‘Nebulosity’ of the Pleiades is caused by surrounding dust reflecting the light of the hot, young stars within the cluster.

Credit: NASA/Spitzer/Wikipedia

“For unmeasurable periods, I seem divorced from my body, as though I were an awareness spreading out through space, over the earth and into the heavens, unhampered by time or substance, free from the gravitation that binds to heavy human problems of the world. My body requires no attention. It’s not hungry. It’s neither warm or cold. It’s resigned to being left undisturbed. Why have I troubled to bring it here?”
  ―  Charles A. Lindbergh

Baby Stars Spied Throbbing Inside Orion

Looking like a blinding battle between opposing cosmic forces, this dazzling image shows a region of the Orion nebula as seen by NASA’s Spitzer and the European Space Agency’s Herschel space telescopes. The colors represent different wavelengths of infrared light emitted by infant stars as they heat up and cool down over the course of their energetic development.

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Image credit: NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech/IRAM


The Sun Blasts Out Two X-Class Flares, Strongest of the Year

The Sun gets active! On May 12, 2013, the Sun emitted what NASA called a “significant” solar flare, classified as an X1.7, making it the first X-class flare of 2013. Then earlier today, May 13, 2013, the Sun let loose with an even stronger flare, an X2.8-class. Both flares took place just beyond the limb of the Sun, and were also associated with another solar phenomenon, a coronal mass ejection (CME) which sent solar material out into space.

Neither CME was not Earth-directed, and according to SpaceWeather.com, no planets were in the line of fire. However, the CMEs appear to be on course to hit NASA’s Epoxi, STEREO-B and Spitzer spacecraft on May 15-16. NASA said their mission operators have been notified, and if warranted, operators can put spacecraft into safe mode to protect the instruments. Experimental NASA research models show that the CMEs were traveling at about 1,930 km/second (1,200 miles per second) when they left the Sun.

The sunspot associated with these flares is just coming into view, and the next 24 to 48 hours should reveal much about the sunspot, including its size, magnetic complexity, and potential for future flares.

Watch! Both the X1.7 and the X2.8-class solar flare, plus a prominence eruption, all in one video.

image 1: A close-up of an an X1.7-class solar flare on May 12, 2013 as seen by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. credit: NASA/SDO/AIA.

image 2: SDO image of an X2.8-class flare on May 13, 2013. Credit: NASA/SDO

NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) captured this X1 flare (largest of the year so far) in extreme UV light