As It Turns Out, We Really Are All Starstuff

“The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars,” Carl Sagan famously said in his 1980 series Cosmos. “We are made of starstuff.”

And even today, observations with NASA’s airborne SOFIA observatory are supporting this statement. Measurements taken of the dusty leftovers from an ancient supernova located near the center our galaxy – aka SNR Sagittarius A East – show enough “starstuff” to build our entire planet many thousands of times over.

“Our observations reveal a particular cloud produced by a supernova explosion 10,000 years ago contains enough dust to make 7,000 Earths,” said research leader Ryan Lau of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York – the same school, by the way, where Carl Sagan taught astronomy and space science.

Composite image of SNR Sgr A East showing infrared SOFIA data outlined in white against X-ray and radio observations. (NASA/CXO/Herschel/VLA/Lau et al.)
Composite image of SNR Sgr A East showing infrared SOFIA data outlined in white against X-ray and radio observations. (NASA/CXO/Herschel/VLA/Lau et al.)

While it’s long been known that supernovae expel enormous amounts of stellar material into space, it wasn’t understood if clouds of large-scale dust could withstand the immense shockwave forces of the explosion.

NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy 747SP aircraft flies over Southern California's high desert during a test flight in 2010. Credit: NASA/Jim Ross
NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) aircraft (Credit: NASA/Jim Ross)

These observations, made with the joint NASA/DLR-developed Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope (FORCAST) instrument, provide key “missing-link” evidence that dust clouds do in fact survive intact, spreading outward into interstellar space to seed the formation of new systems.

Interstellar dust plays a vital role in the evolution of galaxies and the formation of new stars and protoplanetary discs – the orbiting “pancakes” of material around stars from which planets (and eventually everything on them) form.

The findings may also answer the question of why young galaxies observed in the distant universe possess so much dust; it’s likely the result of frequent supernova explosions from massive early-generation stars.

Read more in a NASA news release here.

Source: NASA, Cornell, and Caltech 

“We have begun to contemplate our origins: starstuff pondering the stars; organized assemblages of ten billion billion billion atoms considering the evolution of atoms; tracing the long journey by which, here at least, consciousness arose.”

– Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980)

Say Cheese: Cassini to Snap Another “Pale Blue Dot” Picture of Earth

Citizens of Earth, get ready for your Cassini close-up: once again the spacecraft is preparing to capture images of Saturn positioned between it and the Sun, allowing for incredible views of the ring system and its atmosphere — and also a tiny “pale blue dot” in the distance we call home.

Earth seen from Cassini (NASA/JPL/SSI)
Earth seen from Cassini (NASA/JPL/SSI)

The mosaic above was composed of images captured during such an eclipse event in September 2006, and quickly became an astronomical sensation. It’s not often we get an idea of what we look like from so far away, and seeing our entire world represented as a small speck of light nestled between Saturn’s rings is, to me anyway, both impressive and humbling.

Humbling because of how small we look, but impressive because as a species we have found a way to do it.

And next month, on Friday, July 19 between 21:27 and 21:42 UTC (5:27 – 5:42 p.m. EDT) Cassini will do it again.

“Ever since we caught sight of the Earth among the rings of Saturn in September 2006 in a mosaic that has become one of Cassini’s most beloved images, I have wanted to do it all over again, only better,” said Cassini imaging team leader, Carolyn Porco. “And this time, I wanted to turn the entire event into an opportunity for everyone around the globe, at the same time, to savor the uniqueness of our beautiful blue-ocean planet and the preciousness of the life on it.”

Porco was involved in co-initiating and executing the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth taken by NASA’s Voyager 1 from beyond the orbit of Neptune in 1990.

“It will be a day for all the world to celebrate,” she said.

The intent for the upcoming mosaic is to capture the whole scene, Earth and Saturn’s rings from one end to the other, in Cassini’s red, green and blue filters that can be composited to form a natural color view of what our eyes might see at Saturn. Earth and the Moon will also be imaged with a high resolution camera — something not yet done by Cassini.

We can all consider ourselves pretty lucky, too… this is the first time in history that we humans will know in advance that our picture is going to be taken from nearly a billion miles away.

“While Earth will be only about a pixel in size from Cassini’s vantage point 898 million miles [1.44 billion kilometers] away, the Cassini team is looking forward to giving the world a chance to see what their home looks like from Saturn,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “With this advance notice, we hope you’ll join us in waving at Saturn from Earth, so we can commemorate this special opportunity.”

So on July 19, remember to look up and wave… Cassini will be watching!

Read more on the CICLOPS news release here and on the NASA/JPL Cassini mission site here.

“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… There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

– Carl Sagan

A Valentine From Voyager

On February 14, 1990, after nearly 13 years of travel through the outer Solar System, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft crossed the orbit of Pluto and turned its camera around, capturing photos of the planets as seen from that vast distance. It was a family portrait taken from over 4.4 billion kilometers away — the ultimate space Valentine.

Who says astronomy isn’t romantic?

Full mosaic of Voyager 1 images taken on Feb. 14, 1990 (NASA/JPL)
Full mosaic of Voyager 1 images taken on Feb. 14, 1990 (NASA/JPL)

“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… There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

– Carl Sagan

VoyagerValentineIt was the unique perspective above provided by Voyager 1 that inspired Carl Sagan to first coin the phrase “Pale Blue Dot” in reference to our planet. And it’s true… from the edges of the solar system Earth is just a pale blue dot in a black sky, a bright speck just like all the other planets. It’s a sobering and somewhat chilling image of our world… but also inspiring, as the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft are now the farthest human-made objects in existence — and getting farther every second. They still faithfully transmit data back to us even now, over 35 years since their launches, from 18.5 and 15.2 billion kilometers away.

The Voyagers sure know the value of a long-term relationship.

See more news from the Voyager mission here.

We Are Made of Stardust

This brief quote by the late Carl Sagan is wonderfully illustrated in the beautiful and poignant short film “Stardust,” directed by Mischa Rozema of Amsterdam-based media company PostPanic. Using actual images from space exploration as well as CGI modeling, Stardust reminds us that everything we and the world around us are made of was created inside stars… and that, one day, our home star will once again free all that “stuff” back out into the Universe.

The film was made in memory of talented Dutch designer Arjan Groot, who died of cancer in July 2011 at the age of 39.

“I wanted to show the universe as a beautiful but also destructive place. It’s somewhere we all have to find our place within. As a director, making Stardust was a very personal experience but it’s not intended to be a personal film and I would want people to attach their own meanings to the film so that they can also find comfort based on their own histories and lives.”
– Mischa Rozema, director

A truly stunning tribute.

See more about this on PostPanic’s Vimeo page. (Credits after the jump.)

Credits:
A PostPanic Production
Written & directed by Mischa Rozema
Produced by Jules Tervoort
VFX Supervisor: Ivor Goldberg
Associate VFX Supervisor: Chris Staves
Senior digital artists: Matthijs Joor, Jeroen Aerts
Digital artists: Marti Pujol, Silke Finger, Mariusz Kolodziejczak, Dieuwer Feldbrugge, Cara To, Jurriën Boogert
Camera & edit: Mischa Rozema
Production: Ania Markham, Annejes van Liempd
Audio by Pivot Audio , Guy Amitai
Featuring “Helio” by Ruben Samama
Copyright 2013 Post Panic BV, All rights reserved

In the grand scheme of the universe, nothing is ever wasted and it finds comfort in us all essentially being Stardust ourselves. Voyager represents the memories of our loved ones and lives that will never disappear.