ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt
ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt

Hubble Captures Incredible View of Galaxy-Sized Maser

ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt
ESA/Hubble & NASA, Acknowledgement: Judy Schmidt

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center recently released a stunning image by the Hubble Space Telescope of a megamaser—a galaxy that is basically one giant laser in space.

Iras 16399-0937, as the galaxy is called, does not blast visible light. It’s a little longer on the electromagnetic spectrum, in the microwave range. And there’s a lot going on out there. Unlike our own Milky Way galaxy, which has one core at its center, Iras has two, and they are merging slowly. The southern core, as one of the pair is called, is a star factory. The northern core, meanwhile, hosts a black hole that’s 100,000,000 times the mass of our Sun. The interaction of the two, and consequent galactic turmoil, gives the galaxy its beautiful shape.

The image was captured using two instruments on Hubble: the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer (which was superseded by the more capable Wide Field Camera 3 in 2009) and the Advanced Camera for Surveys, which was installed on Hubble in 2002 and is still in use.

SET MASERS ON STUN

Maser is actually an acronym: Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. So was laser, at least initially: Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. That's the difference between the two: microwave versus light. They're both coherent energy beams, but a maser emits microwave radiation, while a laser emits visible light. Einstein proposed the basic principle in 1917. Masers are used in everything from atomic clocks to NASA’s Deep Space Network. In the case of the latter, giant dishes receive weak signals from spacecraft as far from Earth as the interstellar medium. Cryogenically cooled ruby masers cleanly amplify the signals and allow data to be extracted.

You might not have heard of masers—only lasers—but there was a time when the opposite was true for many. “Phasers” on Star Trek are a shortened form of “photon maser.” Lasers had only been invented a few years before the debut of the television series. To the extent they were known, they certainly weren’t thought to be as powerful as the mighty maser, which was first built in 1953. (Gene Roddenberry worried during filming of the second pilot that people would say, "Oh, come on, lasers can't do that.") Even shortly after the laser was invented, theoretical work on masers led to a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1964.

GOING GALACTIC

Sometimes stimulated emissions of radiation occur naturally. Vaporized molecules in comets can mase, as can protostars in stellar nurseries. Sometimes masers go big time. A megamaser like Iras is 100 million times brighter than the dinky masers of the Milky Way. With that kind of power, the host galaxy itself is basically a cosmic maser beaming microwave emissions across the universe. There are also gigamasers, which are a billion times brighter than our masers, but that’s just showing off.

Extragalactic masers are useful to astronomers for, among other things, the independent calculation of the galaxy’s distance. Iras, for example, is 370 million light-years from Earth. For comparison, the closest star to our own—Proxima Centauri, of the Alpha Centauri star system—is 4.4 light-years away. Because of how nicely light-years scale, if the Earth were one inch from the Sun, Iras would be 370 million miles away. While we won’t be visiting anytime soon, we can still enjoy its natural, tempestuous beauty.

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ESO, A. Müller et al.
Here's the First Confirmed Image of a Planet Being Born
ESO, A. Müller et al.
ESO, A. Müller et al.

One of the newest landmarks in the observable universe has finally been captured, according to the European Southern Observatory. The image, snapped at its Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile, marks the first time a newborn planet has been seen as it forms. 

The image was documented by SPHERE, an instrument at the VLT that's built to identify exoplanets. It shows a planet, dubbed PDS 70b, taking shape in the disc of gas and star dust surrounding the young dwarf star PDS 70. In the past, astronomers have caught glimpses of what may have been new planets forming, but until now it had been impossible to tell whether such images just showed shapes in the dust or the beginnings of true planet formation. The results of the research will be shared in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics [PDF].

This latest cornograph (an image that blocks the light of a star to make its surroundings visible) depicts the new planet clearly as a bright blob beside the black star. The two bodies may look close in the photo, but PDS 70b is roughly 1.8 billion miles from PDS 70, or the distance of Uranus to the Sun. SPHERE also recorded the planet's brightness at different wavelengths. Based on information gathered from the instrument, a team of scientists led by Miriam Keppler of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy says that PDS 70b is a gas giant a few times the mass of Jupiter with a surface temperature around 1830°F and a cloudy atmosphere.

Astronomers known that planets form from solar clouds which stars leave behind when they come into a being, but until now, the details surrounding the phenomena have been mysterious. “Keppler’s results give us a new window onto the complex and poorly understood early stages of planetary evolution,” astronomer André Müller said in a press release. “We needed to observe a planet in a young star’s disc to really understand the processes behind planet formation.”

This is just the latest history-making image captured by the ESO's Very Large Telescope. In the last 20 years, it has documented nebulae, light from gravitational waves, and interacting galaxies.

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iStock
Saturn and a Strawberry Moon Will Brighten Night Skies This Week
iStock
iStock

Summer has officially arrived. That means the weather is finally warm enough in parts of the country to lay down a blanket in your backyard and spend the night staring at the sky. This week is especially exciting for stargazers. According to Mashable, Saturn will be visible in the sky beside a "strawberry moon."

One of the first major celestial events of the season takes place Wednesday, June 27. The Earth will fall directly between Saturn and the Sun on Wednesday and a brightly shining Saturn will be visible in the eastern sky after the Sun goes down. The best time to spot the ringed planet is around midnight, and it will appear in the sky for the next several months.

On Wednesday, when Saturn is at its brightest, the sky will present another treat. A full strawberry moon will rise not far from Saturn's spot around 12:53 a.m. EDT that night and accompany the planet as it moves across the sky. The name isn't a reference to the Moon's hue, but to the time of year when it appears: A strawberry moon is the first full moon of summer, and it was once used by farmers to mark the beginning of strawberry picking season.

These two events are just the start of a promising time of year for astronomy fans. Sync your digital planner to this space calendar so you don't miss out on any other big dates, like the partial solar eclipse on August 11.

[h/t Mashable]

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