Wednesday, January 18, 2012

From the Pros: Multi-wavelength Eagle

When I say `the pros', what I'm really talking about are research astronomers. These are the folks who do fundamental research in astronomy, such as the people who make observations with the Herschel infrared space telescope and the XMM-Newton X-ray space telescope. Most of these big-buck research projects are pretty good about remembering the public outreach part of their mission. Here's an example: Today's NASA Image of the Day is a view of the Eagle nebula, captured in two very different wavelengths - infrared and x-ray:

(Image credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE/Hill, Motte, HOBYS Key Programme Consortium)

Having recently spent so much time on processing the Eagle nebula, it's fun to see it in wavelengths that I can't capture with my CCD camera from the Earth's surface.

Naturally, I can't resist including the most famous `pro' shot of a part of the Eagle nebula:

(Image credit: NASA / STScI / Hubble Heritage Team)

I'll bet you've seen this image before. It was acquired by the Hubble Space Telescope in the 1990s, and has been very widely reproduced and distributed. It's probably one of the most famous `Hubble shots' of all time, if not the most famous. (I'll take a moment here to plug a friend's business, where you can buy prints of the Pillars.)

If you look closely in the Herschel / XMM-Newton image, and even in my Eagle image, you can make out these pillars. In fact, they're even visible to the eye, if you use a reasonably large telescope, and you're observing from a very dark site under good conditions. When I've taken my 18" (45cm) scope to observing sites in the northern California mountains in the summer, I've sometimes been able to make out the two largest pillars from the image above. It's tough, but with some practice, an OIII filter, and careful examination of a printed image (using very dim red light, so as not to spoil one's dark-adaptation), they're just visible. It's fun to be able to see something so well known with your own eyes! It's fun to be able to capture it with one's own telescope, too.

UPDATED a couple of hours later...

The Herschel and XMM-Newton missions are run by the European Space Agency, and they've got a nice webpage about these multi-wavelength observations of the Eagle nebula. It includes a video showing the various images and how they correspond to each other. Here's a summary image, which places the various Eagle images next to each other:

(Image Credit: European Space Agency, European Southern Observatory, NASA)

One of my favorite of the `Pillars' images is the near-infrared image; it's the center image in the right-hand column of the mosaic above. It was acquired using one of the giant 8-meter telescopes of the Very Large Telescope observatory at Paranal, Chile. I love the purple color palette of this image:

(Image Credit: VLT/ISAAC/McCaughrean & Andersen/AIP/ESO)

The team that made this image used an infrared camera/spectrograph called ISAAC to collect image data in three wavelength bands, all of which are in the infrared. This means that the wavelength of the `light' in each band is longer than that of visible light - it's beyond our eyes' ability to see. The dust that makes up the Pillars is mostly opaque at visible wavelengths, but infrared `light' can make it through a greater thickness of dust than visible light can. As a result, they can see deeper into the Pillars, or entirely through them in the case of the left-hand pillar. This allows for a clearer view of young stars that are forming out of these clouds of gas and dust.

1 comment:

  1. Not too bad. But I think my telescope is a bit more defined.