The Saturn Nebula Kind of Looks Like the Planet in a Small Telescope, But in One of the Most Powerful Telescopes on Earth, it Looks Like This

The Saturn nebula as imaged by the MUSE instrument on the ESO's Very Large Telescope. Image Credit: ESO/VLT

Saturn is an icon. There’s nothing else like it in the Solar System, and it’s something even children recognize. But there’s a distant object that astronomers call the Saturn nebula, because from a distance it resembles the planet, with its pronounced ringed shape.

The Saturn nebula bears no relation to the planet, except in shape. It’s about five thousand light years away, so in a small backyard telescope, it does resemble the planet. But when astronomers train large telescopes on it, the illusion falls apart.

Continue reading “The Saturn Nebula Kind of Looks Like the Planet in a Small Telescope, But in One of the Most Powerful Telescopes on Earth, it Looks Like This”

This Star Killed its Companion and is now Escaping the Milky Way

Our universe is capable of some truly frightening scenarios, and in this case we have an apparent tragedy: two stars, lifelong companions, decide to move away from the Milky Way galaxy together. But after millions of years of adventure into intergalactic space, one star murders and consumes the other. It now continues its journey through the universe alone, much brighter than before, surrounded by a shell of leftover remnants.

At least, we think. All we have to go on right now is a crime scene.

Let’s investigate.

Continue reading “This Star Killed its Companion and is now Escaping the Milky Way”

How Much Stuff is in a Light Year?

The Milky Way is an extremely big place. Measured from end to end, our galaxy in an estimated 100,000 to 180,000 light years (31,000 – 55,000 parsecs) in diameter. And it is extremely well-populated, with an estimated 100 to 400 million stars contained within. And according to recent estimates, it is believed that there are as many as 100 billion planets in the Milky Way. And our galaxy is merely one of trillions within the Universe.

So if we were to break it down, just how much matter would we find out there? Estimating how much there is overall would involve some serious math and incredible figures. But what about a single light year? As the most commonly-used unit for measuring the distances between stars and galaxies, determining how much stuff can be found within a single light year (on average) is a good way to get an idea of how stuff is out there.

Light Year:

Even though the name is a little confusing, you probably already know that a light year is the distance that light travels in the space of a year. Given that the speed of light has been measured to 299,792, 458 m/s (1080 million km/h; 671 million mph), the distance light travels in a single year is quite immense. All told, a single light year works out to 9,460,730,472,580.8 kilometers (5,878,625,373,183.6 mi).

Diagram showing the distance light travels between the Sun and the Earth. Credit: Wikipedia Commons/Brews ohare

So to determine how much stuff is in a light year, we need to take that distance and turn it into a cube, with each side measuring one light year in length. Imagine that giant volume of space (a little challenging for some of us to get our heads around) and imagine just how much “stuff” would be in there. And not just “stuff”, in the sense of dust, gas, stars or planets, either. How much nothing is in there, as in, the empty vacuum of space?

There is an answer, but it all depends on where you put your giant cube. Measure it at the core of the galaxy, and there are stars buzzing around all over the place. Perhaps in the heart of a globular cluster? In a star forming nebula? Or maybe out in the suburbs of the Milky Way? There’s also great voids that exist between galaxies, where there’s almost nothing.

Density of the Milky Way:

There’s no getting around the math in this one. First, let’s figure out an average density for the Milky Way and then go from there. Its about 100,000 to 180,000 light-years across and 1000 light-years thick. According to my buddy and famed astronomer Phil Plait (of Bad Astronomy), the total volume of the Milky Way is about 8 trillion cubic light-years.

And the total mass of the Milky Way is 6 x 1042 kilograms (that’s 6,000 trillion trillion trillion metric tons or 6,610 trillion trillion trillion US tons). Divide those together and you get 8 x 1029 kilograms (800 trillion trillion metric tons or 881.85 trillion trillion US tons) per light year. That’s an 8 followed by 29 zeros. This sounds like a lot, but its actually the equivalent of 0.4 Solar Masses – 40% of the mass of our Sun.

This image from the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, shows the bright star cluster NGC 6520 and its neighbour, the strangely shaped dark cloud Barnard 86. This cosmic pair is set against millions of glowing stars from the brightest part of the Milky Way — a region so dense with stars that barely any dark sky is seen across the picture.
Millions of glowing stars from the brightest part of the Milky Way — a region so dense with stars that barely any dark sky is seen across the picture. Credit: ESO

In other words, on average, across the Milky Way, there’s about 40% the mass of the Sun in every cubic light year. But in an average cubic meter, there’s only about 950 attograms, which is almost one femtogram (a quadrillionth of a gram of matter), which is pretty close to nothing. Compare this to air, which has more than a kilogram of mass per cubic meter.

To be fair, in the densest regions of the Milky Way – like inside globular clusters – you can get densities of stars with 100, or even 1000 times greater than our region of the galaxy. Stars can get as close together as the radius of the Solar System. But out in the vast interstellar gulfs between stars, the density drops significantly. There are only a few hundred individual atoms per cubic meter in interstellar space.

And in the intergalactic voids; the gulfs between galaxies, there are just a handful of atoms per meter. Like it or not, much of the Universe is pretty close to being empty space, with just trace amounts of dust or gas particles to be found between all the stars, galaxies, clusters and super clusters.

So how much stuff is there in a light year? It all depends on where you look, but if you spread all the matter around by shaking the Universe up like a snow globe, the answer is very close to nothing.

We have written many interesting articles about the Milky Way Galaxy here at Universe Today. Here’s 10 Interesting Facts About the Milky Way, How Big is the Milky Way?, How Many Stars are There in the Milky Way?, Where is the Earth Located in the Milky Way?, How Far is a Light Year?, and How Far Does Light Travel in a Year?

For more information, check out How many teaspoons are there in a cubic light year? at HowStuffWorks

Astronomy Cast also has a good episode on the subject. Here’s Episode 99: The Milky Way


We Finally Know why the Boomerang Nebula is Colder than Space Itself

The Boomerang Nebula, a proto-planetary nebula that was created by a dying red giant star (located about 5000 light years from Earth), has been a compelling mystery for astronomers since 1995. It was at this time, thanks to a team using the now-decommissioned 15-meter Swedish-ESO Submillimetre Telescope (SESTI) in Chile, that this nebula came to be known as the coldest object in the known Universe.

And now, over 20 years later, we may know why. According to a team of astronomers who used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) – located in the Atacama desert in northern Chile – the answer may involve a small companion star plunging into the red giant. This process could have ejected most of the larger star’s matter, creating an ultra-cold outflow of gas and dust in the process.

The team’s findings appeared in a paper titled “The Coldest Place in the Universe: Probing the Ultra-cold Outflow and Dusty Disk in the Boomerang Nebula“, which appeared recently in the Astrophysical Journal. Led by Raghvendra Sahai, an astronomer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, they argue that the rapid expansion of this gas is what has caused it to become so cold.

Composite image of the Boomerang Nebula, with ALMA observations (orange) showing the e hourglass-shaped outflow on top of an image from the Hubble Space Telescope (blue). Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO); NASA/ESA Hubble; NRAO/AUI/NSF

Originally discovered in 1980 by a team of astronomers using the Anglo-Australian telescope at the Siding Spring Observatory, the mystery of this nebula became apparent when astronomers noted that it appeared to be absorbing the light of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). This background radiation, which is the energy leftover from the Big Bang, provides the natural background temperature of space – 2.725 K (–270.4 °C; -454.7 °F).

For the Boomerang Nebula to absorb that radiation, it had to be even colder than the CMB. Subsequent observations revealed that this was in fact the case, as the nebula has a temperature of less than half a degree K (-272.5 °C; -458.5 °F). The reason for this, according to the recent study, has to do with the gas cloud that extends from the central star to a distance of 21,000 AU (21 thousands times the distance between Earth and the Sun).

The gas cloud – which is the result of a jet that is being fired by the central star – is expanding at a rate that is about 10 times faster than what a single star could produce on its own. After conducting measurements with ALMA that revealed regions of the outflow that were never before seen (out to a distance of about 120,000 AUs), the team concluded that this is what is driving temperatures to levels lower than that of background radiation

They further argue that this was the result of the central star having collided with a binary companion in the past, and were even able to deduce what the primary was like before this took place. The primary, they claim, was a Red Giant Branch (RGB) or early-RGB star – i.e. a star in the final phase of its life cycle – whose expansion caused its binary companion to be pulled in by its gravity.

ALMA image of the Boomerang Nebula, showing its massive outflowCredit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), R. Sahai

The companion star would have eventually merged with its core, which caused the outflow of gas to begin. As Raghvendra Sahai explained in a NRAO press release:

“These new data show us that most of the stellar envelope from the massive red giant star has been blasted out into space at speeds far beyond the capabilities of a single, red giant star. The only way to eject so much mass and at such extreme speeds is from the gravitational energy of two interacting stars, which would explain the puzzling properties of the ultra-cold outflow.”

These findings were made possible thanks to the ALMA’s ability to provide precise measurements on the extent, age, mass and kinetic energy of the nebula. Also, in addition to measuring the rate of outflow, they gathered that it has been taking place for around 1050 to 1925 years. The findings also indicate that the Boomerang Nebula’s days as the coldest object in the known Universe may be numbered.

Looking forward, the red giant star in the center is expected to continue the process of becoming a planetary nebula – where stars shed their outer layers to form an expanding shell of gas. In this respect, it is expected to shrink and get hotter, which will warm up the nebula around it and make it brighter.

As Lars-Åke Nyman, an astronomer at the Joint ALMA Observatory in Santiago, Chile, and co-author on the paper,  said:

“We see this remarkable object at a very special, very short-lived period of its life. It’s possible these super cosmic freezers are quite common in the universe, but they can only maintain such extreme temperatures for a relatively short time.”

These findings could also provide new insights into another cosmological mystery, which is how giant stars and their companions behave. When the larger star in these systems exists its main-sequence phase, it may consume its smaller companion and similarly become a “cosmic freezer”. Herein lies the value of objects like the Boomerang Nebula, which challenges conventional ideas about the interactions of binary systems.

It also demonstrates the value of next-generations instruments like ALMA. Given their superior optical capabilities and ability to obtain more high-resolution information, they can show us some never-before-seen things about our Universe, which can only challenge our preconceived notions of what is possible out there.

Further Reading: NRAO

Hubble Spots Festive Nebula in Neighboring Galaxy

The Hubble Space Telescope has revealed some amazing things over the past few decades. Over the course of its many missions, this orbiting observatory has spotted things ranging from distant stars and galaxies to an expanding Universe. And today, twenty-six years later, it is still providing us with rare glimpses of the cosmos.

For example, just in time for the holidays, Hubble has released images of two rosy, glowing nebulas in the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC). These glowing clouds of gas and dust were spotted as part of a study known as the Small Magellanic Cloud Investigation of Dust and Gas Evolution (SMIDGE), an effort to study this neighboring galaxy in an attempt to better understand our own.

The images were taken by Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) in September 2015 and feature NGC 248 – two gaseous nebulas that were first observed by astronomer Sir John Herschel in 1834 and are situated in such a way as to appear as one. Measuring about 60 light years in length and 20 light-years in width, these nebulas are among a series of emission nebulas located in the neighboring dwarf satellite galaxy.

Small and Large Magellanic Clouds over Paranal Observatory Credit: ESO/J. Colosimo
Small and Large Magellanic Clouds over Paranal Observatory Credit: ESO/J. Colosimo

Emission nebulas are essentially large clouds of ionized gases that emit light of various colors – in this case, bright red. The color and luminosity of NGC 248 is due to the nebulas heavy hydrogen content, and the fact that they have young, brilliant stars at the center of them. These stars emit intense radiation that heats up the hydrogen gas, causing it to emit bright red light.

As noted, the images were taken as part of the SMIDGE study, an effort on behalf of astronomers to probe the Milky Way satellite – which is located approximately 200,000 light-years away in the southern constellation Tucana – using the Hubble Space Telescope. The ultimate goal of this study is to understand how dust is different in galaxies that have a far lower supply of the heavy elements needed to create it.

In the case of the SMC, it has between one-fifth and one-tenth the amount of heavy metals as the Milky Way. In addition, its proximity to the Milky Way makes it a convenient target for astronomers who are looking to better understand the history of the earlier Universe. Essentially, most star formation in the Milky Way happened at a time when the amount of heavy elements was much lower than it is now.

This ground-based image shows the Small Magellanic Cloud. The area of the SMIDGE survey is highlighted, as well as the position of NGC 248. Image credit: NASA / ESA / Hubble / Digitized Sky Survey 2.
Ground-based image of the Small Magellanic Cloud. showing the area of the SMIDGE survey and the position of NGC 248. Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble/Digitized Sky Survey 2

According to Dr. Karin Sandstrom, a professor from the University of California and the principle investigator of SMIDGE, studying the SMC’s can tell us much about neighboring galaxies, but also about the evolution  of the Milky Way. “It is important for understanding the history of our own galaxy, too,” he said. “Dust is a really critical part of how a galaxy works, how it forms stars.”

In addition to the stunning images, the SMIDGE team and the Space Telescope Science Institute have also produced a video that shows the location of NGC 248 in the southern sky. As you can see, the video begins with a ground-based view of the night sky (from the southern hemisphere) and then zooms in on the Small Magellanic Cloud, emphasizing the field where NGC 249 appears.

Check out the video below, and have yourselves a Merry Christmas and some Happy Holidays!

Further Reading: NASA

Messier 16 (M16) – The Eagle Nebula

Welcome back to Messier Monday! In our ongoing tribute to the great Tammy Plotner, we take a look at the Messier 16 open star cluster – aka. The Eagle Nebula (and a slew of other names). Enjoy!

In the 18th century, while searching the night sky for comets, French astronomer Charles Messier began noticing a series of “nebulous objects” in the night sky. Hoping to ensure that other astronomers did not make the same mistake, he began compiling a list of these objects,. Known to posterity as the Messier Catalog, this list has come to be one of the most important milestones in the research of Deep Sky objects.

One of these objects it he Eagle Nebula (aka. NGC 661. The Star Queen Nebula and The Spire), a young open cluster of stars located in the Serpens constellation. The names “Eagle” and “Star Queen” refer to visual impressions of the dark silhouette near the center of the nebula. The nebula contains several active star-forming gas and dust regions, which includes the now-famous “Pillars of Creation“.


Located some 7,000 light years away in the next inner spiral arm of the Milky Way galaxy, the Eagle Nebula spans some 70 by 50 light years across. Born around 5.5 million years ago, this glittering swarm marks an area about 15 light years wide, and within the heart of this nebula is a cluster of stars and a region that has captured our imaginations like nothing else – the “Pillars of Creation”.

Here, star formation is going on. The dust clouds are illuminated by emission light, where high-energy radiation from its massive and hot young stars excited the particles of gas and makes them glow. Inside the pillars are Evaporating Gaseous Globules (EGGs), concentrations of gas that are emerging from the “womb” that about to become stars.

M16 Stars, Pillars, and the Eagle's EGGs
Wide-field IR view of the Eagle Nebula, showing its Stars, the Pillars, and the Eagle’s EGGs. Credit: ESO

These pockets of interstellar gas are dense enough to collapse under their own weight, forming young stars that continue to grow as they accumulate more and more mass from their surroundings. As their place of birth contracts gravitationally, the interior gas reaches its end and the intense radiation of bright young stars causes low density material to boil away.

These regions were first photographed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995. As Jeff Hester – a professor at Arizona State University and an investigator with the Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2) – said of the discovery:

“For a long time astronomers have speculated about what processes control the sizes of stars – about why stars are the sizes that they are. Now in M16 we seem to be watching at least one such process at work right in front of our eyes.”

The Hubble has shown us what happens when all the gas boils away and only the EGGs are left. “It’s a bit like a wind storm in the desert,” said Hester. “As the wind blows away the lighter sand, heavier rocks buried in the sand are uncovered. But in M16, instead of rocks, the ultraviolet light is uncovering the denser egg-like globules of gas that surround stars that were forming inside the gigantic gas columns.”

The Eagle Nebula's pillars of creation taken in 1995 (right) and 2015. The new image was obtained with the Wide Field Camera 3, installed by astronauts in 2009. Credit: Left: NASA, ESA/Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team. Right: NASA, ESA/Hubble, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University)
The Eagle Nebula’s pillars of creation taken in 1995 (right) and 2015. The new image was obtained with the Wide Field Camera 3, installed by astronauts in 2009. Credit: Left: NASA, ESA/HST/Hubble Heritage Team/STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (Arizona State University).

And some of these EGGs are nothing more than what would appear to be tiny bumps and teardrops in space – but at least we are looking back in time to see what stars look like when they were first born. “This is the first time that we have actually seen the process of forming stars being uncovered by photoevaporation,” Hester emphasized. “In some ways it seems more like archaeology than astronomy. The ultraviolet light from nearby stars does the digging for us, and we study what is unearthed.”

History of Observation:

The star cluster associated with M16 (NGC 6611) was first discovered by Philippe Loys de Chéseaux in 1745-6. However, it was Charles Messier who was the very first to see the nebulosity associated with it. As he recorded in his notes:

“In the same night of June 3 to 4, 1764, I have discovered a cluster of small stars, mixed with a faint light, near the tail of Serpens, at little distance from the parallel of the star Zeta of that constellation: this cluster may have 8 minutes of arc in extension: with a weak refractor, these stars appear in the form of a nebula; but when employing a good instrument one distinguishes these stars, and one remarks in addition a nebulosity which contains three of these stars. I have determined the position of the middle of this cluster; its right ascension was 271d 15′ 3″, and its declination 13d 51′ 44″ south.”

A new look at M16, the Eagle Nebula in this composite from the Herschel telescope in far-infrared and XMM-Newton in X-ray. Credits: far-infrared: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE/Hill, Motte, HOBYS Key Programme Consortium; X-ray: ESA/XMM-Newton/EPIC/XMM-Newton-SOC/Boulanger
Composite image of M16 from the Herschel telescope in far-infrared and XMM-Newton in X-ray. Credits: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE/Hill, Motte, HOBYS Key Programme Consortium/XMM-Newton/EPIC/XMM-Newton-SOC/Boulanger

Oddly enough, Sir William Herschel, who was famous for elaborating on Messier’s observations, didn’t seem to notice the nebula at all (according to his notes). And Admiral Smyth, who could always be counted on for flowery prose about stellar objects, just barely saw it as well:

“A scattered but fine large stellar cluster, on the nombril of Sobieski’s shield, in the Galaxy, discovered by Messier in 1764, and registered as a mass of small stars in the midst of a faint light. As the stars are disposed in numerous pairs among the evanescent points of more minute components, it forms a very pretty object in a telescope of tolerable capacity.”

But of course, the nebula isn’t an easy object to spot and its visibility on any given night depends greatly on sky conditions. As historical evidence suggest, only one of the two masters (Messier) caught it. So take a lesson from history and return to the sky many times. One day you’ll be rewarded!

Locating Messier 16:

One of the easiest ways to find M16 is to identify the constellation of Aquila and begin tracing the stars down the eagle’s back to Lambda. When you reach that point, continue to extend the line through to Alpha Scuti, then southwards towards Gamma Scuti. Aim your binoculars or image correct finderscope at Gamma and put it in the 7:00 position.

The location of M16 in the Serpens constellation. Credit:
The location of M16, relative to the “Teapot” asterism in the Sagittarius constellation. Credit:

For those using a finderscope, M16 will easily show up as a faint haze. Even those using binoculars won’t miss it. If Gamma is in the lower left hand corner of your vision – then M16 is in the upper right hand. For all optics, you won’t be able to miss the open star cluster and the faint nebulosity of IC 4703 can be seen from dark sky locations.

Another way to find M16 is by first locating the “Teapot” asterism in Sagittarius constellation (see above), and then by following the line from the star Kaus Australis (Epsilon Sagittarii) – the brightest star in Sagittarius – to just east of Kaus Media (Delta Sagittarii). Another way to find the nebula is by extending a line from Lambda Scuti in Scutum constellation to Alpha Scuti, and then to the south to Gamma Scuti.

Those using large aperture telescopes will be able to see the nebula well, but sky conditions are everything when it comes to this one. The star cluster which is truly M16 will always be easy, but the nebula is a challenge.

And as always, here are the quick facts on M16 to help you get started:

Object Name: Messier 16
Alternative Designations: M16, NGC 6611, Eagle Nebula (IC 4703)
Object Type: Open Star Cluster and Emission Nebula
Constellation: Serpens (Cauda)
Right Ascension: 18 : 18.8 (h:m)
Declination: -13 : 47 (deg:m)
Distance: 7.0 (kly)
Visual Brightness: 6.4 (mag)
Apparent Dimension: 7.0 (arc min)

And be sure to enjoy this video of the Eagle Nebula and the amazing photographs of the “Pillar of Creation”:

We have written many interesting articles about Messier Objects here at Universe Today. Here’s Tammy Plotner’s Introduction to the Messier Objects, , M1 – The Crab Nebula, M8 – The Lagoon Nebula, and David Dickison’s articles on the 2013 and 2014 Messier Marathons.

Be to sure to check out our complete Messier Catalog. And for more information, check out the SEDS Messier Database.

Nebulae: What Are They And Where Do They Come From?

The Fairy of Eagle Nebula

A nebula is a truly wondrous thing to behold. Named after the Latin word for “cloud”, nebulae are not only massive clouds of dust, hydrogen and helium gas, and plasma; they are also often “stellar nurseries” – i.e. the place where stars are born. And for centuries, distant galaxies were often mistaken for these massive clouds.

Alas, such descriptions barely scratch the surface of what nebulae are and what there significance is. Between their formation process, their role in stellar and planetary formation, and their diversity, nebulae have provided humanity with endless intrigue and discovery.

Continue reading “Nebulae: What Are They And Where Do They Come From?”

Why Can’t We See the Center of the Milky Way?

For millennia, human beings have stared up at the night sky and stood in awe of the Milky Way. Today, stargazers and amateur astronomers continue in this tradition, knowing that what they are witnessing is in fact a collection of hundreds of millions of stars and dust clouds, not to mention billions of other worlds.

But one has to wonder, if we can see the glowing band of the Milky Way, why can’t we see what lies towards the center of our galaxy? Assuming we are looking in the right direction, shouldn’t we able to see that big, bright bulge of stars with the naked eye? You know the one I mean, it’s in all the pictures!

Unfortunately, in answering this question, a number of reality checks have to be made. When it is dark enough, and conditions are clear, the dusty ring of the Milky Way can certainly be discerned in the night sky. However, we can still only see about 6,000 light years into the disk with the naked eye, and relying on the visible spectrum. Here’s a rundown on why that is.

Size and Structure:

First of all, the sheer size of our galaxy is enough to boggle the mind. NASA estimates that the Milky Way is between 100,000 – 120,000 light-years in diameter – though some information suggests it may be as much as 150,000 – 180,000 light-years across. Since one light year is about 9.5 x 1012km, this makes the diameter of the Milky Way galaxy approximately 9.5 x 1017 – 1.14 x 1018 km in diameter.

To put that in layman’s terms, that 950 quadrillion (590 quadrillion miles) to 1.14 quintillion km (7oo septendecillion miles). The Milky Way is also estimated to contain 100–400 billion stars, (although that could be as high as one trillion), and may have as many as 100 billion planets.

At the center, measuring approx. 10,000 light-years in diameter, is the tightly-packed group of stars known as the “bulge”. At the very center of this bulge is an intense radio source, named Sagittarius A*, which is likely to be a supermassive black hole that contains 4.1 million times the mass of our Sun.

We, in our humble Solar System, are roughly 28,000 light years away from it. In short, this region is simply too far for us to see with the naked eye. However, there is more to it than just that…

Radio image of the night sky. Credit: Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy, generated by Glyn Haslam.

Low Surface Brightness:

In addition to being a spiral barred galaxy, the Milky Way is what is known as a Low Surface Brightness (LSB) galaxy –  a classification that refers to galaxies where their surface brightness is, when viewed from Earth, at least one magnitude lower than the ambient night sky. Essentially, this means that the sky needs to be darker than about 20.2 magnitude per square arcsecond in order for the Milky Way to be seen.

This makes the Milky Way difficult to see from any location on Earth where light pollution is common – such as urban or suburban locations – or when stray light from the Moon is a factor. But even when conditions are optimal, there still only so much we can see with the naked eye, for reasons that have much to do with everything that lies between us and the galactic core.

Dust and Gas:

Though it may not look like it to the casual observer, the Milky Way is full of dust and gas. This matter is known as as the interstellar medium, a disc that makes up a whopping 10-15% of the luminous/visible matter in our galaxy and fills the long spaces in between the stars. The thickness of the dust deflects visible light (as is explained here), leaving only infrared light to pass through the dust.

"This dazzling infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy. In visible-light pictures, this region cannot be seen at all because dust lying between Earth and the galactic center blocks our view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
This dazzling infrared image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope showing hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This makes infrared telescopes like the Spitzer Space Telescope extremely valuable tools in mapping and studying the galaxy, since it can peer through the dust and haze to give us extraordinarily clear views of what is going on at the heart of the galaxy and in star-forming regions. However, when looking in the visual spectrum, light from Earth, and the interference effect of dust and gas limit how far we can see.

Limited Instrumentation:

Astronomers have been staring up at the stars for thousands of years. However, it was only in comparatively recent times that they even knew what they were looking at. For instance, in his book Meteorologica, Aristotle (384–322 BC) wrote that the Greek philosophers Anaxagoras (ca. 500–428 BCE) and Democritus (460–370 BCE) had proposed that the Milky Way might consist of distant stars.

However, Aristotle himself believed the Milky Way was be caused by “the ignition of the fiery exhalation of some stars which were large, numerous and close together” and that these ignitions takes place in the upper part of the atmosphere. Like many of Aristotle’s theories, this would remain canon for western scholars until the 16th and 17th centuries, at which time, modern astronomy would begin to take root.

Meanwhile, in the Islamic world, many medieval scholars took a different view. For example, Persian astronomer Abu Rayhan al-Biruni (973–1048) proposed that the Milky Way is “a collection of countless fragments of the nature of nebulous stars”. Ibn Qayyim Al-Jawziyya (1292–1350) of Damascus similarly proposed that the Milky Way is “a myriad of tiny stars packed together in the sphere of the fixed stars” and that these stars are larger than planets.

Persian astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi (1201–1274) also claimed in his book Tadhkira that: “The Milky Way, i.e. the Galaxy, is made up of a very large number of small, tightly clustered stars, which, on account of their concentration and smallness, seem to be cloudy patches. Because of this, it was likened to milk in color.”

Despite these theoretical breakthroughs, it was not until 1610, when Galileo Galilei turned his telescope towards the heavens, that proof existed to back up these claims. With the help of telescopes, astronomers realized for the first time that there were many, many more stars in the sky than the ones we can see, and that all of the ones that we can see are a part of the Milky Way.

Over a century later, William Herschel created the first theoretical diagram of what the Milky Way (1785) looked like. In it, he described the shape of the Milky Way as a large, cloud-like collection of stars, and claimed the Solar System was close to the center. Though erroneous, this was the first attempt at hypothesizing what our cosmic backyard looked like.

It was not until the 20th century that astronomers were able to get an accurate picture of what our Galaxy actually looks like. This began with astronomer Harlow Shapely measuring the distributions and locations of globular star clusters. From this, he determined that the center of the Milky Way was 28,000 light years from Earth, and that the center was a bulge, rather than a flat area.

This annotated artist's conception illustrates our current understanding of the structure of the Milky Way galaxy. Image Credit: NASA
This annotated artist’s conception illustrates our current understanding of the structure of the Milky Way galaxy. Image Credit: NASA

In 1923, astronomer Edwin Hubble used the largest telescope of his day at the Mt. Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, Calif., to observe galaxies beyond our own. By observing what spiral galaxies look like throughout the universe, astronomers and scientists were able to get an idea of what our own looks like.

Since that time, the ability to observe our galaxy through multiple wavelengths (i.e. radio waves, infrared, x-rays, gamma-rays) and not just the visible spectrum has helped us to get an even better picture. In addition, the development of space telescopes – such as Hubble, Spitzer, WISE, and Kepler – have been instrumental in allowing us to make observations that are not subject to interference from our atmosphere or meteorological conditions.

But despite our best efforts, we are still limited by a combination of perspective, size, and visibility barriers. So far, all pictures that depict our galaxy are either artist’s renditions or pictures of other spiral galaxies. Until quite recently in our history, it was very difficult for scientists to gauge what the Milky Way looks like, mainly because we’re embedded inside it.

To get an actual view of the Milky Way Galaxy, several things would need to happen. First, we would need a camera that worked in space that had a wide field of view (aka. Hubble, Spitzer, etc). Then we’d need to fly that camera to a spot that’s roughly 100,000 light years above the Milky Way and point it back at Earth. With our current propulsion technology, that would take 2.2 billion years to accomplish.

Milky Way in infrared. Image credit: COBE
Milky Way in infrared. Image credit: COBE

Fortunately, as noted already, astronomers have a few additional wavelengths they can use to see into the galaxy, and these are making much more of the galaxy visible. In addition to seeing more stars and more star clusters, we’re able to see more of the center of our Galaxy as well, which includes the supermassive black hole that has been theorized as existing there.

For some time, astronomers have had name for the region of sky that is obscured by the Milky Way – the “Zone of Avoidance“. Back in the days when astronomers could only make visual observations, the Zone of Avoidance took up about 20% of the night sky. But by observing in other wavelengths, like infrared, x-ray, gamma rays, and especially radio waves, astronomers can see all but about 10% of the sky. What’s on the other side of that 10% is mostly a mystery.

In short, progress is being made. But until such time that we can send a ship beyond our Galaxy that can take snapshots and beam them back to us, all within the space of our own lifetimes, we’ll be dependent on what we can observe from the inside.

We have many interesting articles on the Milky Way here at Universe Today. For example, here’s What is the Milky Way? And here’s an article on why it’s called The Milky Way, how big it is, why it rotates, and what the closest galaxy is to it.

And here are 10 Facts About the Milky Way. And be sure to check out our Guide to Space section on the Milky Way.

And be to sure to check out Universe Today’s interview with Dr. Andrea Ghez, Professor of Astronomy at UCLA, talking about what is at the center of our Galaxy.

What Was Here Before the Solar System?

The Solar System is 4.5 billion years old, but the Universe is much older. What was here before our Solar System formed?

The Solar System is old. Like, dial-up-fax-machine-old. 4.6 billion years to be specific. The Solar System has nothing on the Universe. It’s been around for 13.8 billion years, give or take a few hundred million. That means the Universe is three times older than the Solar System.

Astronomers think the Milky Way, is about 13.2 billion years old; almost as old as the Universe itself. It formed when smaller dwarf galaxies merged together to create the grand spiral we know today. It turns out the Milky Way has about 8.6 billion years of unaccounted time. Billions and billions of years to get up to all kinds of mischief before the Solar System showed up to keep an eye on things.

Our Galaxy takes 220 million years to rotate, so it’s done this about 60 times in total. As it turns, it swirls and mixes material together like a giant space blender. Clouds of gas and dust come together into vast star forming regions, massive stars have gone supernova, and then the clusters themselves have been torn up again, churning the stars into the Milky Way. This happens in the galaxy’s spiral arms, where the areas of higher density lead to regions of star formation.

So let’s go back, more than 4.6 billion years, before there was an Earth, a Sun, or even a Solar System. Our entire region was gas and dust, probably within one of the spiral arms. Want to know what it looked like? Some of your favorite pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope should help.

Here’s the Orion, Eagle, and the Tarantula Nebulae. These are star forming regions. They’re clouds of hydrogen left over from Big Bang, with dust expended by aging stars, and seeded with heavier elements formed by supernovae.

Astrophoto: The Orion Nebula by Vasco Soeiro
The Orion Nebula. Image Credit: Vasco Soeiro

After a few million years, regions of higher density began forming into stars, both large and small. Let’s take a look at a star-forming nebula again. See the dark knots? Those are newly forming stars surrounded by gas and dust in the stellar nursery.

You’re seeing many many stars, some are enormous monsters, others are more like our Sun, and some smaller red dwarfs. Most will eventually have planets surrounding them – and maybe, eventually life? If this was the environment, where are all those other stars?

Why do I feel so alone? Where are all our brothers and sisters? Where’s all the other stuff that’s in that picture? Where’s all my stuff?

TRAPPIST First Light Image of the Tarantula Nebula.  Credit:  ESO
TRAPPIST First Light Image of the Tarantula Nebula. Credit: ESO

Apparently nature hates a messy room and a cozy stellar nest. The nebula that made the Sun was either absorbed into the stars, or blown away by the powerful stellar winds from the largest stars. Eventually they cleared out the nebula, like a fans blowing out a smoky room.

At the earliest point, our solar nebula looked like the Eagle Nebula, after millions of years, it was more like the Pleiades Star Cluster, with bright stars surrounded by hazy nebulosity. It was the gravitational forces of the Milky Way which tore the members of our solar nursery into a structure like the Hyades Cluster. Finally, gravitational interactions tore our cluster apart, so our sibling stars were lost forever in the churning arms of the Milky Way.

We’ll never know exactly what was here before the Solar System; that evidence has long been blown away into space. But we can see other places in the Milky Way that give us a rough idea of what it might have looked like at various stages in its evolution.

What should we call our original star forming nebula? Give our own nebula a name in the comments below.

Two Stars On A Death Spiral Set To Detonate As A Supernova

Two white dwarfs circle around one other, locked in a fatal tango. With an intimate orbit and a hefty combined mass, the pair is ultimately destined to collide, merge, and erupt in a titanic explosion: a Type Ia supernova.

Or so goes the theory behind the infamous “standard candles” of cosmology.

Now, in a paper published in today’s issue of Nature, a team of astronomers have announced observational support for such an arrangement – two massive white dwarf stars that appear to be on track for a very explosive demise.

The astronomers were originally studying variations in planetary nebulae, the glowing clouds of gas that red giant stars throw off as they fizzle into white dwarfs. One of their targets was the planetary nebula Henize 2-428, an oddly lopsided specimen that, the team believed, owed its shape to the existence of two central stars, rather than one. After observing the nebula with the ESO’s Very Large Telescope, the astronomers concluded that they were correct – Henize 2-428 did, in fact, have a binary star system at its heart.

This image of the unusual planetary nebula was obtained using ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. In the heart of this colourful nebula lies a unique object consisting of two white dwarf stars, each with a mass a little less than that of the Sun. These stars are expected to slowly draw closer to each other and merge in around 700 million years. This event will create a dazzling supernova of Type Ia and destroy both stars. Credit: ESO
This image of the unusual planetary nebula was obtained using ESO’s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. In the heart of this colourful nebula lies a unique object consisting of two white dwarf stars, each with a mass a little less than that of the Sun. These stars are expected to slowly draw closer to each other and merge in around 700 million years. This event will create a dazzling supernova of Type Ia and destroy both stars. Credit: ESO

“Further observations made with telescopes in the Canary Islands allowed us to determine the orbit of the two stars and deduce both the masses of the two stars and their separation,” said Romano Corradi, a member of the team.

And that is where things get juicy.

In fact, the two stars are whipping around each other once every 4.2 hours, implying a narrow separation that is shrinking with each orbit. Moreover, the system has a combined heft of 1.76 solar masses – larger, by any count, than the restrictive Chandrasekhar limit, the maximum ~1.4 solar masses that a white dwarf can withstand before it detonates. Based on the team’s calculations, Henize 2-428 is likely to be the site of a type Ia supernova within the next 700 million years.

“Until now, the formation of supernovae Type Ia by the merging of two white dwarfs was purely theoretical,” explained David Jones, another of the paper’s coauthors. “The pair of stars in Henize 2-428 is the real thing!”

Check out this simulation, courtesy of the ESO, for a closer look at the fate of the dynamic duo:


Astronomers should be able to use the stars of Henize 2-428 to test and refine their models of type Ia supernovae – essential tools that, as lead author Miguel Santander-García emphasized, “are widely used to measure astronomical distances and were key to the discovery that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating due to dark energy.” This system may also enhance scientists’ understanding of the precursors of other irregular planetary nebulae and supernova remnants.

The team’s work was published in the February 9 issue of Nature. A copy of the paper is available here.