About Me

Rob Pincombe is a prolific television writer, recovering comedian and sometime comic artist/storyboard artist who just wasn't satisfied with a single blog. He writes about sci-fi and fandom at rebelalert.com, Canadian comics at comicanuck.com, and shares thoughts and insights on writing at starkravingadventure.com

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Cosmos Tips Its Hand: I want to believe...

Welcome to the rebellion.

The Chandra X-Ray Observatory is making a few waves around the globe right now with one of its latest, spectacular, deep-space pictures.

Launched by the Space Shuttle Columbia July 23, 1999, Chandra is one of the most incredible pieces of astronomy equipment ever constructed (and the largest payload ever delivered by the Space Shuttle). With Earth's atmosphere absorbing the huge majority of X-rays hitting us from space, observatories on Earth cannot detect them. However, from its comfy high-orbit in space, Chandra is able to study them at a level previously thought impossible.

A few quick facts from Harvard's site:
  • The Chandra X-ray Observatory is the worlds most powerful X-ray telescope. It has eight-times greater resolution and will be able to detect sources more than 20-times fainter than any previous X-ray telescope.
  • The Chandra X-ray Observatory's operating orbit takes it 200-times higher than the Hubble Space Telescope. During each orbit of the Earth, Chandra travels one-third of the way to the Moon.
  • The Chandra X-ray Observatory's resolving power is 0.5 arc-seconds -- equal to the ability to read the letters of a stop sign at a distance of 12 miles. Put another way, Chandr's resolving power is equivalent to the ability to read a 1-centimeter newspaper headline at the distance of a half-mile.
  • Another of NASAs incredible time machines, the Chandra X-ray Observatory will be able to study some quasars as they were 10 billion years ago.
  • The Chandra X-ray Observatory will observe X-rays from clouds of gas so vast that it takes light more than five-million years to go from one side to the other.
  • Although nothing can escape the incredible gravity of a black hole, not even light, the Chandra X-ray Observatory will be able to study particles up to the last millisecond before they are sucked inside.
More on Chandra's mission can be found at NASA's Chandra page. Chandra, whose name means "moon" or "luminous" in Sanskrit, is one of NASA's four "Great Observatories" in space. Each of the big four studies a different element of the cosmos spectrum.

The granddaddy of them all is the Hubble Space Telescope (HST), which observes visible light, near-ultra-violet light and near-infrared light. It's been in orbit for almost twenty years. Rather than retire, or "de-orbit" the Hubble, a new Space Shuttle mission is scheduled for this year. The Telescope will be refurbished with fresh batteries, new gyroscopes, a new camera, the Cosmic Origins Spectograph and, I suspect, a fresh coat of paint.

The Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (CGRO) studied primarily gamma rays and some hard x-rays before a gyroscope failure grounded it for good in 2000 shortly after the launch of Chandra. The Spitzer Space Telescope (SST) joined its esteemed colleagues in orbit in 2003. It focuses on the infrared spectrum.

So what picture could spur my sudden fascination with Chandra? Feast your eyes on the young, upstart Pulsar PSR B1509-58, or B1509 for short!

That's right, a glorious, COSMIC HAND! You can already the imagine the responses around the internet, can't you? Admit it.

We have people discussing it as the Hand of God and confirmation of his presence in the universe. I see this sort of tack taken by people who denounce science as being 'anti-faith' and against God (until they find something about science that suits their prosteletyzing purposes).

Heck, my own first thought was, "Hey, God's reaching for his alarm to snooze another millennia or so. Pleeeeease?... Just ten more centuries. I promise I'll be up in time for the Rapture."
I'm surprised we didn't see more of this sort of commentary from another one of Chandra's photos, NGC 7049, the Crown Of Thorns Galaxy!

The responses nearest and dearest to my fannish heart were the sci-fi geeks who instantly made a connection between this pic and episode 33 of the original Star Trek, "Who Mourns For Adonais?", guest-starring Leslie Parrish and Michael Forest as the Greek God, Apollo.

"You Greek Gods are all hands."

I was also impressed by the comic geeks at the ComicsCloset blog who remembered a similar image in one of DC Comics' earliest "event" mini-series, Crisis On Infinite Earths.

My first reaction to the pulsar was less shock and awe than dubiousness. The internet has made it easier than ever to float fake news and made-up discoveries on April Fool's Day. Because of that, I tend to disbelieve everything I see around that time as a matter of course, until it's proven to be true. After checking out the pulsar article on the pic at Space.com, I went straight to the source, Chandra's home website at Harvard university. To my surprise the picture was taken and posted April 3. This was not an April Fool's Day joke.

Harvard describes the science behind the event:
In this image, the lowest energy X-rays that Chandra detects are red, the medium range is green, and the most energetic ones are colored blue...

...Neutron stars are created when massive stars run out of fuel and collapse. B1509 is spinning completely around almost 7 times every second and is releasing energy into its environment at a prodigious rate - presumably because it has an intense magnetic field at its surface, estimated to be 15 trillion times stronger than the Earth's magnetic field.

The combination of rapid rotation and ultra-strong magnetic field makes B1509 one of the most powerful electromagnetic generators in the Galaxy. This generator drives an energetic wind of electrons and ions away from the neutron star. As the electrons move through the magnetized nebula, they radiate away their energy and create the elaborate nebula seen by Chandra.

The rest of the article goes in to greater detail.

The cynic in me still wonders if there isn' t some level of "art" to the processing of these images. After all, weren't certain choices were made in highlighting certain levels of X-Rays as different colours? But if it's simply Chandra is programmed simply to differentiate types and levels of radiation with a specified colour scheme
, colour me amazed.

My personal favourite Chandra image are these black hole outflows from Centaurus A. They bring to mind a galactic phoenix spreading its solar wings.

I guess the truth is, the universe being infinite, why couldn't a nebula take on such a shape? It's really just us imposing that form on it. For all we know the the Gastalateesians of Umbrata IV probably think it's shaped just like their genitalia. We strive to find ways to connect with nature all the time and I for one am grateful for moments like this where the galaxy gives us something joyous to connect with.

Just let me know when they find a nebula shaped like Leslie Parrish.


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