Posts Tagged ‘Wide-field Infrared Explorer’

Jabbah’s Dolphin

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team


A dolphin frolicks in the dust around the bright star Jabbah in this image from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Explorer, or WISE.

Explore the green filaments of nebula, yellow-tinged bubbles and red dust of this infrared image. What shapes and stories can you tell? Leave a note below.

WISE’s telescope sees the Universe in infrared. Humans feel the infrared part of the light spectrum more than we see it. It lies just outside the visible light part of the spectrum. We feel infrared as heat. So WISE shows warm dust allowing astronomers to see deep within star clouds where thick dust blocks visible light. And in the process we might see new stars developing. The green and yellow clouds are dust particles that are slightly warmer than the surrounding space. Areas in red are patches of even warmer dust heated up by the nearby stars.

Zoom into the bright star surrounded by a red glow just to the right of center. This is Jabbah. The name is Arabic and means “forehead of the Scorpion.” But while it appears to be one star, Jabbah actually is a collection of stars. Each of these stars is brighter and more massive than ten Suns. The star cloud near Jabbah, creating the dolphin shape, is called IC 4592. IC 4601 is another nebula to the far left of the image.

Another star of interest in this image also is surrounded by the warm glow of red dust. Zoom into the lower right corner of the image. The warm dust around this star, known as 9 Scorpii, is pushed to one side. 9 Scorpii is another massive star but this one is moving quickly through space. It’s zipping along at about 1,000 kilometers per second, or more than 224,000 miles per hour. The star could travel the distance between the Moon and Earth in just one hour. The red cloud pushed to one side may be a bow shock as the star pushes through the dust like a boat creates waves on the water. Astronomers think that 9 Scorpii may be a runaway star. It possibly could have been part of a star system where a much more massive star exploded. The blast sent 9 Scorpii careening into deep space.

All of the stars found within this cloud probably formed all at about the same time about 5 million years ago. Our Sun may have formed from a similar cloud of gas and dust more than four billion years ago. The stars that formed with the Sun have long since wandered away from their birthplace.

Jabbah, 9 Scorpii and IC 4592 are all found about 440 light-years away toward the constellation Scorpius.

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Echoes of a Death

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team


Supernovae explode with an energy that can outshine an entire galaxy. But just as quickly the star fades from view leaving an expanding bubble of star guts and in the case of Cassiopeia A, a light echo.

Explore this gorgeous image of the region surrounding the Cas A supernova remnant from NASA‘s Wide-field Infrared Explorer (WISE). What patterns or shapes do you see? Leave a note below.

About 11,000 years ago, toward the constellation Cassiopeia, the Queen, a massive supergiant star exploded in the Milky Way, our home galaxy. Supernova happen at the end of these giant stars’ lives. Stars about ten times more massive than our Sun burn through their hydrogen fuel quickly, within only tens of millions of years. They burn super hot and when the fuel runs out they collapse. Collapsing stars become even hotter and as the outer layers of the star heat up a runaway nuclear reaction can occur. The star explodes. The light from the explosion can be brighter than the entire galaxy. The explosion creates and scatters elements necessary for life on Earth, such as carbon and iron. It also spreads heavier elements such as gold, silver and uranium.

Zoom into the bright yellow cloud of dust. This is the bubble of material blown away from the star. As the edge of the bubble moves through interstellar space it heats up gas. The shockwave slams into the calm space at about 18,000 kilometers per second (11,000 miles per second) or about six percent the speed of light. In 11,000 years since the explosion, the expanding ball has expanded about 21 light-years.

Light travels much faster than the expanding bubble of gas and dust left over from the star. WISE, with its infrared eyes, detected infrared echoes of the brilliant flash as the light and heat ripple outward through surrounding star clouds. Look to the upper right for a curtain of orange in the cooler, greenish nebula. These orange echoes are remnants of heat generated when light from the explosion reached this part of the nebula.

Light from this explosion, traveling at more than six trillion miles per year, finally reached Earth in about 1667 AD. We have no record of it. European astronomers didn’t report it, Chinese astronomers didn’t record it. Scientists think that thick dust surrounding the star blocked most of the light, making it a dim supernova. Astronomers discovered the remnant in 1947. When they used new radio telescopes to scan the sky, Cas A was the brightest source they could see.

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New face of a supernova

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/B. Williams (NCSU)

The outline of a face show the remains of the oldest documented supernova in this infrared image of RCW 86 from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE.

Explore the dusty glowing remains of this exploded star. What patterns or stories do you see? Leave a note below.

In 185 A.D., the Chinese wrote about a mysterious “guest star” that appeared in the sky. The star remained visible for eight months. The Chinese had no way of knowing they witnessed one of the most powerful events in the universe. Using images from Spitzer and the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, astronomers are able to piece together the story Chinese historians first witnessed nearly 2,000 years ago. RCW 86 is a special kind of supernova. A white dwarf, the dead remains of a star like our Sun, pulled material from a companion star. As this material piles up, it becomes super-hot. Reactions inside the star go haywire and the star explodes. Astronomers call this a Type 1A supernova. Supernova give off so much light energy, they briefly outshine an entire galaxy.

Using the data from the orbiting observatories, astronomers solved another puzzle; how the remnant got so large in just 1,800 years. They found that the white dwarf, with its strong solar wind, created a bubble within the region around the star. The cavity was already huge when the star exploded. When it blew up, a shockwave pushed the edge of the bubble out much quicker than it normally would.

The colors of the image are not real but they do provide scientists important information. Infrared data from Spitzer and WISE are shown in yellow and red. These colors show warm dust in deep space. Blues and greens in the image are from X-ray data taken from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton Observatory. The X-rays show gas in deep space that has been heated to millions of degrees as the expanding edge of the supernova passed.

Light from RCW 86 took about 8,200 years to reach the eyes of the Chinese historians. The remains of the “guest star” are found in the faint southern constellation Circinus, the Compass. From Earth, the bubble is slightly larger than a full moon. At this distance, that makes the bubble about 85 light-years across.

Swimming in the Starry Seas

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

A glowing jellyfish floats in a starry sea. Instead of floating in water, what appears to be a translucent sea creature is actually a dying star surrounded by rings of glowing gas in this new image from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer.

NGC 1514 from the Digitized Sky Survey, based at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Md.

Explore the image of NGC 1514, also known as the Crystal Ball Nebula. The object is a close pair of dying stars; so close WISE cannot distinguish between them. Two unusual dust rings, shown in orange, surround the stars as well as other material, shown in green. The WISE telescope shows astronomers the universe in infrared light. The telescope basically sees heat, so what we see in this picture isn’t actually what our eyes would see. Astronomers have given certain wavelengths of light certain colors so we can better understand what we are seeing. In the image at the left, we see the Crystal Ball Nebula as our eyes see it through ground-based telescopes.

NGC 1514 is located about 800 light-years away toward the zodiacal constellation Taurus, the Bull. Taurus is one of thirteen constellations that the Sun moves through throughout the year.

NGC 1514 is a planetary nebula. As stars similar to our Sun reach the end of their lives, they puff off their outer layers. A white-hot core called a white dwarf is all that is left behind. As the bubble expands, the white dwarf star floods the surrounding region with intense radiation causing the gas to glow like a neon sign. Far in the future, this dead star will eventually fade as it becomes a warm ember. Our Sun will not reach this stage of its life for another 4 billion years or so.

Sometimes these bubbles of gas and dust form round orbs surrounding the star. Other times, butterfly shapes appear. But in other cases, when two stars are involved, the puffing out of gas becomes more complex. The two rings are new to astronomers. Scientists speculate that the rings formed when jets of material from one of the stars hit walls of a bubble of dust surrounding the other star.

Planetary nebula have nothing to do with planets. As astronomers in the 17th and 18th centuries explored and cataloged the sky through new telescopes, they found round, fuzzy objects that resembled the orbs of Uranus and Neptune. British astronomer William Herschel discovered NGC 1514 in 1790. He was surprised to find a “shining fluid” surrounding the object. Originally, he thought that NGC 1514 and other similarly fuzzy objects were clusters of stars. But NGC 1514 convinced him that the blobs were actually a new astronomical phenomenon.

WISE scans the entire sky in infrared light pick­ing up the faint glow of far-off objects. The orbit­ing obser­va­tory is joined in space by two other infrared obser­va­to­ries; NASAs Spitzer Space Tele­scope and Her­schel Space Obser­va­tory from the Euro­pean Space Agency. These infrared obser­va­to­ries detect heat from objects in space, even the barely notice­able heat of a cool star. The WISE mis­sion dif­fers from the other two by scan­ning the entire sky. Astronomers using this tech­nique have seen all sorts of pre­vi­ously unseen cos­mic trea­sures, such as cool stars, bright galax­ies, comets, aster­oids that pass near Earth.

Infrared Seagull

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team

To astronomers gazing at the night sky, this nebula appeared as a seagull, or maybe a lizard or even a dragon. Whatever image you see in these stars one thing is clear, stars are bursting to life within IC 2177.

Explore the image from NASA‘s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer or WISE. Share what you see in this image by leaving a comment below. This cosmic cloud spans an area about seven times larger than the full moon. It takes light nearly 240 years to cross this vast expanse of hot gas and dust. Near the seagull’s eye, the bright star in the center, you can spy NGC 2327. This cluster of stars was born only about 1.5 million years ago. The eye is one of the brightest of the nebula’s stars. This hot, young star heats up the dust so that it glows brightly in infrared light.

IC 2177 is located in the Orion spur, the same partial spiral arm of the Milky Way Galaxy that our solar system is located. It is about 3,800 light-years away from Earth toward the constellations Monoceros, the Unicorn, and Canis Major, the Big Dog.


The ancient peoples saw pictures in the sky. From those patterns in the heavens, ancient storytellers created legends about heroes, maidens, dragons, bears, centaurs, dogs and mythical creatures...
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