Birth and death are two of the most dramatic events we witness as sentient bipeds. Though they have happened billions of times before and are sure to happen a billion times again, they are the explosions that punctuate the march of time. There are no more dramatic births and deaths than those of stars, and both have been photographed and sent to us this week.
In Europe, the Herschel Telescope has shed new light (so to speak) on a volatile star forming region. The Pillars of Creation are situated in the Eagle Nebula, which was first observed 17 years ago by the Hubble telescope. Spanning several light years across, the Pillars are of particular interest to astronomers as they are undergoing a burst of star formation.
The Pillars are visible to optical telescopes, but only as shadowy figures which reveal nothing of the violent processes they hide. The region has been transformed by Herschel which sees light on the infra-red spectrum, setting the pillars alight and revealing the activities within.
Aside from providing us with gorgeous images like the one above, the observation is vital for giving us clues about the birth of stars like our own sun.
Professor Glenn White, of The Open University and The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, who is working on the data said: ‘The local environment in the Eagle Nebula is probably very similar to that when our own solar system formed almost 5 billion years ago – so seeing these images is a bit like using a time machine to look back at how our own solar system might have been born.”
Another revealing discovery has been made by a PhD student in Mallorca, this time concerning how stars die. On August 23rd last year, Stefan Holmes was “in the right place at the right time” (also known as the Open University’s PIRATE facility) and captured a one off image giving us new insight into the origins of supernova. The image shows M101, a spiral galaxy like the Milky Way (but with a far more boring name). Rather disappointingly, the star isn’t visible on the image. What was captured was the light escaping from the supernova, or dying star. Somehow that seems less majestic, more horrific, but that’s scientists for you. Despite a long fascination with these exploding stars, little is actually known about the type of stars that die in this way, which is why the image has caused excitement enough to be featured in the prestigious Astrophysical Journal Letters.
The image is hugely significant. First of all, it captured the light from the closest star explosion for decades; only 20 million light years away. (For reference, it would take over 20 000 years to travel one light year.) Not only is it a convenient few billion years of human travel away, it shows the explosion only four hours after it occurred and is the first such explosion to be available for study with modern astronomical equipment.
‘Type Ia’ supernova are exploding stars that burn brighter than a billion Suns for several weeks. The energy released is relative to the size of the star that exploded. Judging by the light captured in this image, this supernova was about 2/100 of the Sun’s size, a white dwarf.
We must rely on huge structures such as Herschel and PIRATE to supply us with wonders on this scale. Until not too long ago, it seemed like anything beyond the moon had to be captured by the same scientific wizardry, un-accesxible to us mere mortals, and sent to news agencies before any of us had a chance of having a peep. No longer! The BBC’s excellent Stargazing Live, with the ever adorable Professor Brian Cox and the equally charming Dara O’Briain, is showing amateur astronomers’ discoveries and photography alongside amazing space-scapes from machines such as Herschel. The most impressive results can be gained with a DSL camera and a decent telescope.
See? Not exactly a multi-million pound investment, but jaw droppingly stupendous nonetheless.