Tonight, I stepped beyond the city lights. We’re on a trip through western Texas, having replaced the dim glow that we call “urban night” with perhaps the darkest skies in the United States. Amid a cold, red glow at the top of a mountain bathed in moonlight as bright as day through my usual sunglasses, night watchmen of the skies lent us a look through their portals to the cosmos, a half dozen telescopes.
I saw a stellar nursery beneath Orion’s belt, its clouds blown outward by far-off charged winds of just-born stars (thousands of years ago, that is). I saw the haze of a galaxy larger than our Moon in the sky, Andromeda, normally invisible in its dimness. I saw the rust-striped white disk of Jupiter, like a tiger’s belly viewed through a drinking straw, its light even a half hour old. And a crater of our own Moon, its central peak catching the light of the monthly sunrise like our own mountains grasp the end of twilight.
It was a change of perspective, for sure. It was also a reminder that there is a night beyond the night that most of us know, if we only go looking for it.
The Night Sky Recorded Using a Fisheye Lens
I’m a certified time-lapse freak. I love ‘em. Beautiful as they are, the only problem with most of them is that you can only see a tiny portion of the sky at any one time. Come to think of it, that’s kind of a problem with sky-watching in general, eh? Pesky focused binocular vision!
Stephane Vetter solved this problem by filming this time-lapse with an 8 mm fisheye lens. The result? The entire sky in one shot, including some informative labels and beautiful star trails. Set it to HD, sit back, and enjoy.
Best thing since this beautiful panoramic auroral mini-planet.
Stars, Stars, Everywhere Stars!
A stunning and beautiful in-browser visualization of over 100,000 stars nearby Earth, from Google Chrome labs. It uses actual star location data to draw a 3D map of our Milky Way ‘hood.
The video above is a demo, which is amazing on its own. The full visualization can be found here for those with enough computing horsepower to run it. We may not have warp drive, but we can travel the cosmos from right here in our own browser windows!
Billions and billions!!! Whooooooaaa!!!
Looks like the cosmos may now be about as stellar as it’s going to get. The rate of new star formation has slowed considerably over the past few billion years, and the universe, like a Florida winter, is now dominated by the old and decaying.
How researchers figured this out is especially cool.
The picture up top there is from the Hubble telescope’s Extreme Deep Field (XDF) survey. That’s not how they did it. But the XDF is the sum of almost 10 years of Hubble exposures that peer back 13.2 billion years into the universe’s history. The universe itself is only about 13.7 billion years old (the time since the Big Bang). The oldest stars and galaxies in the XDF are 13.2 billion light years away, which means we are looking at the universe as it was 13.2 billion years ago.
The new study took pictures of the universe 2, 4, 6 and 9 billion years ago, and discovered that more than half of our stars are more than 9 billion years old. And the sooner to “now” that you look, the fewer new stars you see.
Popular Science has some more info about this sobering tale of star birth. Looks like the universe is more a place of decay these days than it is creation. Hurry! Go look at the stars while you can! We only have several billion years before they burn out!!
Staring Into Galactic Infinity
The European Space Organization (ESO) has just released the stunning photo above. At first glance, its just another fine piece of star porn, beautiful little glowing dots and clouds, like so many others whose images we have captured in our quest to catalogue the observable universe.
But this one is special.
This is a nine-gigapixel image was taken using a telescope that looks into the infrared, allowing us to see through the dusty galactic arms. The view is of the galactic center of the Milky Way, our home. That means somewhere in the glowing center lies a black hole, and we are here, rotating around it. The photo marks the largest catalogue of Milky Way stars ever assembled.
If you made counting all of the 84 million objects so far identified in this picture a full-time job, counting 16 hours per day at a comfortable pace, it would take you somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 years to finish. If it were printed at book resolution, that image would be 9 meters tall and 7 meters wide.
And this is less than 1% of the whole sky. In just our own galaxy.
It’s one of those classic questions that have tickled the human brain for ages. Let’s take something whose scale we have no way of reconciling, like the number of stars, and compare it to something else whose scale is completely neuron-warping, like the number of grains of sand on every beach.
Which is bigger?
This likely isn’t the first time you’ve heard this mind-bender. So I won’t be spoiling it by telling you that stars win … big-time. The universe is a very large place.
But we don’t have to go big to beat the stars. You’ll never guess how little of a certain common liquid it takes to beat both of those numbers … I’ll leave that to Robert.
Illustrations by Moonrunner
Moonrunner is primarily known for its science-based illustrations, especially in such fields as astro-physics, cosmology, dark energy, black holes, the solar system and such stellar phenomena as quasars, star nurseries and pulsars. We have worked with Stephen Hawking, as well as with the scientist/authors of the National Geographic and Scientific American magazines, and also those publishing with Dorling Kindersley, Weidenfeld & Nicolson and Weldon Owen.
Click on the images to see what they represent.
That’s what I call some serious astro-illustration. Be sure to click on the photos above to check out the explanations in the slide show.