ROCKWALL, TX (April 6, 2014) It’s not easy being people. From the middle school hallways where the first signs of social friction between jocks, nerds, dweebs, debs and loads (my lexicon is probably dated) becomes apparent, to our rise into adulthood, we all struggle at different levels. Eventually we deal with things like jobs and unemployment; sickness, health and babies; aging, prosperity, austerity; relationships, loneliness, peace and war. This is the stuff of challenges to a modern American citizen.
I’m thankful that despite whatever life has to offer, I never forget the good fortune to have been born into a place where freedom reigns, on a gorgeous blue planet, in an unimaginably vast universe where the same natural laws apply regardless of one’s race, creed, place, stature or place.
On March 30th I drank deeply from the cup of good fortune during one of those incredible nights at my observatory in southeast Oklahoma, when the skies were so dark and clear that, to quote my son, “It’s like the world’s biggest 3-D planetarium.” Spring is my favorite time of the year to do astronomy because from our position in the northern hemisphere we are treated to a sample of every flavor of the celestial palette.
My plan for the night of the 30th was to image a galaxy cluster in the constellation Virgo from first darkness to about 2am, and turn to the dust cloud rising in the southeast known as the Rho Ophiucus nebula. For both images my equipment became a time machine, collecting photons of light whose timeless journey ended when they passed through my telescope lenses, coming to final rest on my camera’s CCD chips as they knocked an electron loose resulting in a signal to a computer that said “light.” Right there, that last sentence…that was science content. 🙂
My image of the galaxy cluster, known as Markarian’s Chain, turned out to be more challenging than I first imagined. You see, I image our universe with two telescopes and cameras simultaneously so as to maximize the number of photons of light I can collect over the few hours of pristine darkness that we astronomers are allotted in a lifetime. The galaxy cluster had to be shoehorned to fit into the camera’s field of view and I wasted my first 10-minute image by not rotating the camera properly to make the cluster fit in the frame. Eventually, pulling out three hours, ten minutes of time on this image, it reveals 60 or so galaxies, a couple asteroids and at least one comet. The neat thing about this field, besides that it looks like a hockey stick (I like hockey), is that in 1961 its namesake, Armenian astrophysicist Benjamin Markarian discovered this cluster of galaxies was moving together under the intense gravitational forces exerted by the now dormant super-giant elliptical galaxy in the upper right of the image. The average measured distance of this cluster is 70-million light years. My favorite gem in this 70-MLY distant pocket of our universe is at lower right, NGC4440. Check out the exquisite spiral (SBc) arms this galaxy has to offer.
To see a higher resolution version of the image, go to https://www.flickr.com/photos/astrodad32/13593702725/in/photostream/
What does 70-million light years even mean? Simply put, it means that it took 70-million years for the light produced by the Suns in these galaxies to travel to our eyes from their place in space. We know as a fact from experiments that light travels at 186,000 miles/second. At that unimaginable speed, it took the photons of light 70-million years to get here. If we could see a TV show on a planet orbiting one of the trillions of stars in this image, that show would be from 70-million years ago. Astronomy is time travel!
I love to place my images in time, imagining what was happening on Earth when this image was taking place. For example, what you are seeing here in Markarian’s Chain actually took place around the end of the Mesozoic Era when dinosaurs ruled and mammals began to first emerge. The Cenozoic Era began 65 Million Years Ago with the extinction of the dinosaurs and continues into the Present. The light that left the stars in these galaxies heralded the dawn of the Age of the Mammals in which we live today.
In terms of time travel, if Markarian’s Chain was like visiting another country on Earth, then this next image of Rho Ophiucus is like visiting your neighbor down the street. The colors in this image are genuine with very little post-processing. In fact, this image was taken with a pretty normal Canon 60Da DSLR camera…just that it’s lens happens to be one of my telescopes mounted on a German equatorial telescope mount that precisely tracks a single speck of the night sky for the whole night. People often ask how come they can’t see such colors in the night sky. My reply is simple, “you are color blind at night.” Of course this reply is usually met with stern rebuke “no I’m not!” Sorry all, humans (that’s people) don’t see colors at night. The only circumstances under which we see color at night is when it’s backlit or illuminated with bright light, such as your car’s dashboard, neon signs or street lights. We see at night with the Rods in our eyes and a thing called Rhodopsin or visual purple supports black and white night vision. Whoo Hoo…more science content:-) Also, our eyes see images for about 1/50 of a second so that’s how long they are collecting photons of light. The images on this column each contain several hours of collected photons of light. These images contain 500,000 times more photons than your eyes can collect. The more photons of light you collect, the fainter you can see. Whoop! More science content. I’m on a roll. But I digress.
Here’s the great nebula, Rho Ophiucus near the bright star Antares in the constellation Scorpius the stinger in our southern Summer skies. I love this part of the sky because we’re nearly looking into the heart of our own Milky Way galaxy.
The Rho Ophiucus nebula is about 400-light years away on our own doorstep in our own galaxy. The blue color is light from nearby stars reflecting off of interstellar dust, while the red light is from stars illuminating dust. Think of the red as a neon sign.
Back to the time travel thing. Since Rho Oph is 400-light years away, what you are seeing here took place when the scientific method began to take hold as Western Europe began to emerge from the dark ages in a world dominated by religious persecution and magical thinking. As we emerged from the dark ages, wisdom, empirical and rational thought began to replace fear and mysterious power held by churchmen, alchemists and wizards. “Playing” a wizard is cool but it’s a power that has been grossly abused throughout history. Whenever there was a satellite Iridium flare taking place during the tours I guided at the U.S. Naval Observatory in D.C., I would stop my group and run ahead in the direction of the event bellowing out “Look above my head….NOW!” People would ooh and ahh and were absolutely aghast. This happened in the 21st century because I could access a common object on a website and accurately tell time with my wristwatch. Imagine the power of an “astrologer” in his king’s court 500 years ago.
Max retired from the U.S. Army in 2009 as a Lieutenant Colonel, Senior Space Operations Officer and Master Aviator. He amassed over 3,200 hours as a pilot of Special Electronic Mission Airplanes. Since 2004 he has been a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, is a Master of Astronomical Outreach through the Astronomcial League and built his own astronomical observatory. His amazing images can be seen at AstroDad.com.
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