Walking on the edge with AstroDad

ROCKWALL, TX (June 22, 2014) Gentle readers, I’ve been procrastinating over this column because I really wanted to capture an awe-inspiring image of our own galaxy, The Milky Way, to demonstrate that galaxies in our Universe share a common thing…..dust.

That’s right – not only does dust abound under our kid’s beds, but it is prodigious throughout the galaxies in our Universe.  However, the weather is just not cooperating. As I write this, it’s very cloudy and we’re forecast to have clouds and rain for the next five days. We need the rain, but I want clear skies to do astronomy since my columns only contain images that I capture from light that rains down upon Earth from the heavens.  #AstronomerinTexasProblems

Back to the story… I never did capture anything better than that “first light” image of the Milky Way with my new camera/lens setup so we will have to make due with that image.

Many of us in north Texas are lucky enough to get out into the country during these Summer months and simply look upward to behold the glory of our Summer Milky Way.  It’s important to distinguish the Summer Milky Way from the Winter because in Summer we’re looking toward the center of our barred spiral galaxy where all the stars and the super-massive Black Hole are located. The stars are so rich and thick here on the Orion-Cygnus Army of our Galaxy that if this were an ocean and the stars fishes, it seems you could walk on them. When you look up, you see the dark line with bright stars around it….that dark lane is actually called a dust lane and you can see it in galaxies throughout our Universe.  (There, now I have made my point about dust twice.)

On April 27th, I captured the Summer Milky Way with my new Canon 60Da DSLR camera and new Rokinon 14mm f/2.8 ultra wide-angle lens. The weather was bad with fog near the ground and pasty sky conditions but I battled hard and captured the center of our galaxy. You can tell by the bulge and all the stuff around that area that I succeeded in this Photon fight. In the image below you will see the center of the galaxy is toward the top right of the image. This image consists of 35 minutes of exposure time captured in 7 individual, 5-min guided exposures. I use some fancy sofware to calibrate, align and combine the images. If you want to learn how this is accomplished, contact me offline. Well, contact me off line but online. Gosh, the 21st century is rather complicated.

The Center of The Milky Way Galaxy

Next we will make a great leap back in time in our time machine and peer into my three favorite galaxies in the constellation Leo, known affectionately to astronomers as the Leo Triplet or Leo Trio of galaxies. The reason I love to look deep into this galaxy field, back in time approximately 35-million years, is because the viewer is rewarded with three distinct galaxy perspectives.

The Leo Trio of Galaxies

The galaxy on the lower right is M66 and it is a Grand Design Spiral galaxy that we are looking down into from above. At top right of this image is M65, a spiral galaxy with a rich core that we are looking at obliquely from about 45-degrees. At left is my all-time favorite, the Hamburger Galaxy,  NGC 3628. (Come on now, don’t you think it looks like a sideways burger now that I planted that idea in your head?) In any case, we are looking at this galaxy directly from the side, or as astronomers  call it, edge on. Now imagine that you are flying into the Hamburger galaxy at hyperspeed (we don’t have 35-million years to get there at light speed) and you fly right into this galaxy. You would see pretty much the same thing we saw in our Summer Milky Way in the first picture.

Ok, so if you’re not convinced yet about this edge on galaxy thing, I’ve got more examples from the AstroDad vault of deep space images. Below is an image of a galaxy called the Sombrero Galaxy that I captured from 2-3 May 2014 at my observatory in Oklahoma. This image contains 4hrs 40 minutes of light, captured simultaneously by two telescopes on my mount using three cameras.

The Needle Galaxy below  provides another remarkable example of an edge on galaxy. I captured this image of the Needle Galaxy over a weekend in February of this year and it consists of nearly 400-minutes of 10-minute sub-exposures using two telescopes and cameras on the same mount simultaneously.  Also known as NGC 4565, this a giant spiral galaxy that if viewed obliquely or face-on would appear as a barred spiral galaxy much like our own Milky Way.

However, if we could see this galaxy other than on its edge from 50 million light years away, it would be one of the most spectacular of the galaxies of its type in the nearby Universe. In the image below, you can see an outer dust lane and an inner dust lane,  that to me appeaers to be lapping at the shores of this vast Island Universe.

Astronomers realize that multiple planar lanes like this are  atypical in spiral barred galaxies. Galaxy development science, known as morphology, has shown that when this happens, it means that the galaxy is usually tightly wrapped.  Therefore, we can conclude that the Needle Galaxy is wrapped tightly and likely spinning rapidly.

In each example image shown here, the “edge” in the galaxy including our own is called a (planar) dust lane.  This type of dust lane in the same type of galaxy is an example of consistency throughout our Universe. One thing I really love about science is that it makes predictions, in this case (planar dust lanes in) galactic morphology. The scientific method came about over four centuries ago yet it is increasingly under attack by people who seem to prefer making predictions by poking about the entrails of animals rather than through the practice of science. Through research we fulfill one of the basic desires of humanity, to discern the future by learning about the past. Such foresight will someday reveal how we the human race came to be in rational terms. Perhaps we may even learn how to communicate with other sentient species that inhabit planets that orbit one of the billions of other Suns in the billions of other galaxies in the Universe. I like the dusty ones.

Our Universe Today is a column written by Blue Ribbon News special contributor, Max Corneau, aka AstroDad, of Rockwall. Images provided by Max Corneau.

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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