I know people like this (each of the posters, actually).
About twenty years ago, Voyager 1 looked back toward it’s launching point and took the now famous “Pale Blue Dot” photograph. The arrow points to us. That’s Earth… from about 3.7 billion miles away, which is just a little bit outside our solar system. In the grand scale of the universe, that’s hardly any distance at all. Given that our sun is one of about 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy which is, in turn, one of an estimated 125 billion galaxies in the universe, Voyager 1 was sitting virtually on top of Earth when it took this picture.
We live on an mind-bogglingly tiny speck of dust.
Carl Sagan was much more eloquent than I, of course. His words in 1996 (from Wikipedia)…
Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
A very small stage, indeed.
NASA’s equipment is some pretty powerful stuff. But astronomy also depends on the curiosity and contribution of amateur astronomers. [...] If they can discover something great, so can any of you other students who are here tonight. All you need is a passion for science.
- President Barack Obama during the White House Star Party
The Cassini spacecraft took this (these?) picture of Saturn on August 12th. It’s actually 75 separate pictures stitched together. Phil Plait at Bad Astronomy has more info.
If you check out an uber-sized version, you can see four of Saturn’s moons, too. The image below links to the 1-meg JPG version. There are higher resolution images at the link above. They’re all awesome.
Last night was the first time I got to use my new telescope that I got from Telescopes.com. It was delivered on July 17th and, with one exception, the sky has been cloudy every… single… night! Finally, last night, there were enough clear spots that I could get a nice view of the moon and the detail. The view, even without a filter, was terrific. Megan was pretty excited about it, too (Lori took a look and said she saw footprints. Ha!).
The moon was probably only about one-third full, but there were lots of craters visible with great resolution. I used a 20mm eyepiece to position everything (about 50x magnification) and then switched to a 10mm eyepiece (100x) to get more detail. I almost expected to see the LRO cruising around the moon!
I’ll be taking a drive with the telescope to a much darker location with less light pollution soon, so I’m hoping to get an even better moon view and some great views of a planet or two… if I can find them. I’m still not fluent with the whole astronomical coordinate language yet, so that’s going to be tough for awhile.
I’m really looking forward to a clearer night with a fuller moon.
While perusing Tom’s Astronomy Blog, I saw a post about the Arches Cluster, which is near the center of our galaxy, a mere 25,000 light years away. Pictures of space always fascinate me, but this picture comes with information that takes “fascinate” to a whole new level.
The Arches Cluster is a small (relatively speaking), dense cluster of huge baby stars. The new picture from the European Organization for Astronomical Research‘s Very Large Telescope is “one of the sharpest views ever of the Arches Cluster.” Check out the press release to see more details of the photo of this area of our galaxy. It’s breathtaking.
From the press release:
“With the extreme conditions in the Arches Cluster, one might indeed imagine that stars won’t form in the same way as in our quiet solar neighbourhood,” says Pablo Espinoza, the lead author of the paper reporting the new results.”However, our new observations showed that the masses of stars in this cluster actually do follow the same universal law”.
In this image the astronomers could also study the brightest stars in the cluster. “The most massive star we found has a mass of about 120 times that of the Sun,” says co-author Fernando Selman. “We conclude from this that if stars more massive than 130 solar masses exist, they must live for less than 2.5 million years and end their lives without exploding as supernovae, as massive stars usually do.”
For reference, the most massive known star is the Pistol Star, with a mass of about 200 times that of our sun. That’s in our galaxy. The biggest known star in diameter is VY Canis Majoris with a solar radius of about 18,000 – 21,000 (that’s 18 – 21 thousand times bigger than our sun). It’s also in our galaxy. Outside our galaxy, we can see other galaxies, but not much of their contents… at least not directly.
Seeing those stars in the Arches Cluster is fascinating for me, but for an astronomer, it’s got to be the stuff of dreams. There are lots of stars to study, but this formation is unique.
That’s a lot of stars.
I came across this video this weekend and wanted to share it. I’ve seen static images with size comparisons of the planets in our solar system, our sun, and other starts in our galaxy, but this video makes it significantly more dramatic.
It also uses the music from Disney’s movie The Black Hole, which, despite it’s scientific shenanigans with physics, is just a fun, fun movie.(For the best effect, click the “HD” button and then make it full screen. Good stuff!)
I found this article on DiscoverMagazine.com today about how fast our universe is expanding… and how astronomers figure this kind of thing out. After reading the whole thing, I was in awe… for two reasons.
First, the size and content of our universe is just completely mind-blowing. Carl Sagan’s “billions and billions” quote seems to understate it to an extreme degree. Just looking at a single galaxy and trying to wrap my head around how many stars it contains… and that just one of those stars (among billions) is like our Sun, one infinitesimally small fireball in a whirling mass of billions of similar fireballs… and that our tiny planet revolves around one such tiny star… it makes my head hurt.
Second, that there are people on this planet who have the intellectual wherewithall to actually measure the distance between galaxies and the speed of universal expansion by using supernovas and the pulsating brightness of stars. I mean, I can’t really grasp the idea of how small we are in just a galaxy (one of billions) without misfiring neurons in my brain causing me physical pain, but these guys are discussing the expansion of the universe, pulsating Cepheid variables, type I supernovae, and dark energy. I imagine them doing it casually over a beer or two at their local pub, but I’m sure they work exceptionally hard in labs and observatories and classrooms. Either way… wow.
So kudos to astronomers… misfiring neurons never felt so good!
Yesterday, I read that astronomers had actually photographed planets outside our solar system for the first time. Planets had been detected before, but always by methods other than direct visuals. This is the first time they’ve actually seen an object this cool (temperature-wise) and this small outside our own solar system, according to aBBC article (linked below).
To me, that’s just phenomenally cool. Astronomers viewing other galaxies and deep space features like gas clouds and nebulae has produced images that are just fundamentally awe-inspiring, showing a universe that is at once beautiful, mysterious, and scientifically enthralling. Seeing actual planets gives spine-tingling shivers to those of us who have imaginations that love to wander around the speculative playground of extraterrestrial life.
I never got to see Star Trek much as a kid, but Science Fiction has always fascinated me from an early age. Seeing images of space from astronomers’ telescopes always ignites a feeling of wonder and appreciation for the vastness of the universe and gets my imagination soaring around space travel, exploration, alien life, terra-forming, and all kinds of other fantastical ideas. It also piques my scientific curiosity about how the universe works, how it formed, and where it’s headed.
Kudos to the astronomers who made this new planetary discovery. Keep up the great work and know that you’re not only making leaps of scientific progress, but you’re providing inspiration and joy to those of us who step into the images of your discoveries… if only in our minds.
Here’s a link to an article about the discovery: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/science/nature/7725584.stm