“What’s out there?” NASA


Eta Carinae, one of the most massive and unstable stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, has a profound effect on its environment. Found in the the South Pillar region of the Carina Nebula, these fantastic pillars of glowing dust and gas with embedded newborn stars were sculpted by the intense wind and radiation from Eta Carinae and other massive stars. Glowing brightly in planet Earth’s southern sky, the expansive Eta Carinae Nebula is a mere 10,000 light-years distant. Still, this remarkable cosmic vista is largely obscured by nebular dust and only revealed here in penetrating infrared light by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Eta Carinae itself is off the top left of the false-color image, with the bright-tipped dust pillars pointing suggestively toward the massive star’s position. The Spitzer image spans almost 200 light-years at the distance of Eta Carinae.


    Our Earth is not at rest. The Earth moves around the Sun. The Sun orbits the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. The Milky Way Galaxy orbits in the Local Group of Galaxies. The Local Group falls toward the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies. But these speeds are less than the speed that all of these objects together move relative to the cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR). In the above all-sky map from the COBE satellite, radiation in the Earth’s direction of motion appears blueshifted and hence hotter, while radiation on the opposite side of the sky is redshifted and colder. The map indicates that the Local Group moves at about 600 kilometers per second relative to this primordial radiation. This high speed was initially unexpected and its magnitude is still unexplained. Why are we moving so fast? What is out there?


Explanation: Staring across interstellar space, the alluring Cat’s Eye Nebula lies three thousand light-years from Earth. One of the most famous planetary nebulae in the sky, the Cat’s Eye (NGC 6543) is over half a light-year across and represents a final, brief yet glorious phase in the life of a sun-like star. This nebula’s dying central star may have produced the simple, outer pattern of dusty concentric shells by shrugging off outer layers in a series of regular convulsions. But the formation of the beautiful, more complex inner structures is not well understood. Here, Hubble Space Telescope archival image data has been reprocessed to create another look the cosmic cat’s eye. Compared to well-known Hubble pictures, the alternative processing strives to sharpen and improve the visiblility of details in light and dark areas of the nebula and also applies a more complex color palette. Of course, gazing into the Cat’s Eye, astronomers may well be seeing the fate of our Sun, destined to enter its own planetary nebula phase of evolution … in about 5 billion years.

~ by aprilemillo on March 9, 2008.

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