The green “blob” is Hanny’s Voorwerp. Credit: Dan Herbert, Peter Smith, Matt Jarvis, Galaxy Zoo Team, Isaac Newton Telescope
A storybook astronomy mystery is now part of the most famous telescope in history. A team of astronomers secured time on the Hubble Space Telescope to observe Hanny’s Voorwerp, the unusual object found by Dutch teacher Hanny Van Arkel while she was scanning through images for the Galaxy Zoo project. Hubble will be trained on the Voorwerp during three separate observing sessions, the first of which occurred on April 4, 2010. “The WFC3 (Wide Field Camera 3) images were obtained (Sunday),” said Principal Investigator Bill Keel from the University of Alabama in an email to Universe Today “and I was able to pull the calibrated files over last night for a quick look. Combining pairs of offset images to reject cosmic rays optimally will take some further work, but we’re happy to start working with the data and see what emerges at each step.”
The Voorwerp (also known by the much less endearing name of SDSS J094103.80+344334.2) created a sensation among amateur, armchair and professional astronomers alike, almost immediately after Van Arkel saw the object in 2007 and posted a question on the Galaxy Zoo forum, asking “What is this?” All this took place just a month after the Galaxy Zoo project opened up their online citizen science shop, and the rest is history. But in case you haven’t heard the story yet, a quick rundown is that ‘voorwerp’ means ‘object’ in Dutch – and as of yet, no one has determined exactly what Hanny’s Voorwerp is.
The working hypothesis, according to the Galaxy Zoo team, is that Hanny’s Voorwerp might be a “light echo” of an event that occurred millions of years ago. The object itself consists of dust and gas which perhaps was illuminated by a quasar outburst within the nearby galaxy IC 2497 (see the images). The outburst has faded within the last 100,000 years but the light reached the dust and gas in time for our telescopes to see the effect.
The Galaxy Zoo images come from observations done by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. In evidence of the interest in this object, since 2007 Hanny’s Voorwerp has also been imaged by the Swift gamma-ray satellite, the Suzaku X-ray telescope, the Westerbork Synthesis Radio Telescope (WSRT), the Issac Newton Telescope and the William Herschel Telescope, to name a few.
But now, the most famous telescope of all – with its new and updated instruments – will take a gander to see if the mysteries of the Voorwerp can be solved.
The team – which includes Keel, and fellow Galaxy “Zookeepers” Chris Lintott, Kevin Schawinski, Vardha Nicola Bennert, Daniel Thomas, and Hanny Van Arkel herself – submitted a proposal to the Space Telescope Science Institute back in 2008 and were among the proud and few from close to 1000 proposals submitted to be granted observing time on Hubble.
During the three observing sessions, three different Hubble instruments will be used.
“The observations use three instruments and would naturally be broken into three target visits,” said Keel, “some constrained to be at different times because of the required orientations on the sky –for example, to have both Hanny’s Voorwerp and IC 2497 in the narrow field of view of ACS (Advanced Camera for Surveys) with the monochromatic ramp filters.”
“The next observations will probably be the most visually striking,” Keel continued. “Two orbits’ worth of ACS images in narrow bands including [O III] an H-alpha emission, and are scheduled for April 12. The final visit in the program has 2 orbits of STIS (Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph) spectroscopy around the nucleus of IC2497, and should be coming up by mid-June.”
The April 4 observations included three orbits of data from the WFC3.
So, even though the first images have now been seen, the team won’t be able to share their findings until all the observations have occurred and the data has been analyzed.
“I indeed can’t say much more than that we got the first data in our mailboxes,” Van Arkel said in an email to Universe Today. “The team is still working on it and until they’ve worked it out, I won’t even understand enough of it myself to explain anything on the matter. It is exciting however that the investigations have started and it’s nice to see how many curious people are sending me messages about it and ‘retweeting’ my quotes on Twitter. After almost two years, I’m very much looking forward to the outcome of all of this!”
Van Arkel isn’t the only one excited.
“Through a combination of geometry and weather,” Keel shared,”I saw HST sail by to our south less than two orbits after it finished this first data set. So I waved in what was probably a most unprofessional manner.”
And the rest of us will be waiting – and waving – until Hubble can tell us more about Hanny’s Voorwerp.
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