VIDEO: Now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational Death Sun!

That’s no painting….

When I saw this image I thought “wow, what an awesome painting!” But that’s not a painting at all – instead, it’s an actual image of the Sun taken in Ultraviolet light by the Solar Dynamics Observatory on August 31 2012, and it was a monster! Here’s the breakdown:

A filament of relatively cool gas had been suspended for several days in the upper atmosphere by the Sun’s magnetic field. The magnetic field on the Sun is very dynamic, with its local field lines tangling and twisting as the Sun rotates. This causes escaping gases to be trapped in the field lines and “hang” in the atmosphere for several days or even weeks at a time. These filaments can be huge. How huge? Huge:

It’s a trap!

But that’s not all … if opposite magnetic field lines are brought together, the result is a powerful release of matter and energy called a Coronal Mass Ejection. And that’s exactly what happened here, hurtling the filament, plus a whole lot more, out at over 900 miles per second!

Even better, NASA caught the whole thing on video and put it together into a spectacular movie featuring footage from SDO, SOHO, and even STEREO-B from the far side of the Sun (be sure to go to HD and full screen for maximum awesomeness):

More to come!

Over the next two years the Sun will be approaching solar maximum, which means we should be treated to even more spectacular events like this one.

Enjoy the show!

Hubble’s view of an edge-on starburst galaxy

Hubble image of NGC 7090
NGC 7090, as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. Click for full-resolution awesomeness!

Holy Wow, what a beauty! This is NGC 7090, a spiral galaxy seen nearly edge-on, which means we cannot directly see the arrangement of its spiral arms. When we look at spiral galaxies, we typically see these hot blue stars in the spiral arms.

But NGC 7090 is really actively hatching new stars, and we can see them clearly in the pink patches that dot the galaxy. Those pink regions are cooler clouds of hydrogen gas, inside of which stars are forming. Also, those pink clouds are … pink which means they’re warm enough to be illuminated by recently formed hot stars within.

There is a lot of dust seen in silhouette against the bright core of the galaxy way behind in the distance. It’s not unlike looking at the center of our own Milky Way – the best we can do is look towards the center because of all of the intervening gas and dust that absorbs visible light. To see any beter we must turn to infrared and radio.

Of course, Hubble has a rather narrow field of view compared to other telescopes. With a decent ground-based image, you can get the entire galaxy in the field of view, and that’s what amateur astronomer Steve Crouch did in his magnificent image of NGC 7090. Below is Steve’s image, rotated to roughly line up with the Hubble image:

Wide field view of NGC 7090
Steve Crouch’s image of NGC 7090.

BTW, NGC 7090 is located about thirty million light-years from the Sun in the southern constellation of Indus.

See NASA’s writeup of NGC 7090 for more info.

Symphony of Science – Climate Change

John D Boswell at Symphony of Science created a beautiful video that describes our greatest challenge to date – climate change. Yes, the subject is a downer, and I would love to believe that it really isn’t happening as much as the oil industry would like us to. But the reality is that it is happening, and it’s getting worse.

Boswell’s video features the late Isaac Asimov, speaking out on climate change way back in the 1980’s. It’s a reminder of the fact that human-caused climate change is nothing new; we’re only now starting to feel the worst effects of it.

There is, however, some hopeful news. The climate change we are experiencing is caused by us, and that means we can do something to reverse it. Boswell emphasizes this point in his video, and turns what could have been a depressing commentary on rapidly diminishing polar ice into a message of hope; we can correct this problem.

If we choose to.

The Universe, now in collectible trading card format

Saturn, with statistics depicted
Saturn, from the The Solar System deck

Over the years, I collected some trading cards and even played a few games to a rather obsessive extent, hoping that my opponent trading partner wouldn’t have the cards I had and would be dumb enough to trade his rare card for a handful of my common ones.

But thanks to the Internet, and to people willing to do the hard work to make them available, you can download the entire set, print them out, and hoard them impress your friends.

And that’s just what Stephen Wilkins at Oxford University has done by creating an Astronomy card game. It’s still in the proofing stage, but you can download, print them out on card stock and trade away!

Card sets like these are a great way to engage the public. Of course, you can hand out links to websites but people may not remember to check them out later. But if you can give them something they can hold in their hand, it makes an immediate, physical impression.

Game play and other uses

Stephen Wilkins envisions the cards can be played in a manner similar to Top Trumps. Being an American, I haven’t heard of or played this game before, but it sounds like it would be a great game to play with kids. Here are a few other ideas:

  • Use the Solar System deck to create a model of the solar system by arranging the planets in order of distance, and using the information on the cards to set the distances to scale.
  • Create a Hertzsprung–Russell diagram with the cards from the Stars deck
  • Work out the lifecycle of stars from the Stars and Nebulae, Clusters, & Exotica decks
  • Create a logarithmic scale of the universe from all the decks!

Looking sharp

And by the way, the production values of these cards are slick! I love the typography and graphic design. Below is a sample from each deck:

Gemini North
Gemini North Observatory from the Observatories deck
Antares from the Milky Way: stars deck
NGC 3603 star cluster
Young star cluster NGC 3603, from the The Milky Way: Nebulae, Clusters, & Exotica decsk
image of Centaurus A with stats
Centaurus A from The Universe deck

Needless to say, it’s hard to summarize all of the awesomeness of the universe into a few card decks, but this is an excellent effort. I can imagine expansion sets to include stuff like the Kuiper Belt, Brown Dwarfs, Binary Stars, Exoplanets, Black Holes, Quasars, Dark Matter, Cosmic Microwave Background, etc.

After all, you have to do something to keep the collectors busy!

One final leap…

The Great Moment – Paul Calle, 1969

Today, Neil Armstrong was laid to rest in a private burial at sea in Navy tradition. Of course, Armstrong’s passing will spark the recurring question of when or whether NASA will return astronauts to the Moon or beyond. But for today, I wanted to remember Armstrong in the seminal moment that defined his life, and set a marker that would forever define the history of the human race into two halves – one when humanity was confined to Earth, and another in which humanity walked upon another world.

Over the years, I’ve seen several paintings and photos of those incredible forays on the surface of the Moon. But this painting, created by the late space artist Paul Calle in 1969 is, to me, striking for its sheer loneliness of being the first human to set foot on another world.

Of course, Buzz Aldrin was in the Eagle Lunar Module ready to descend the ladder a short while later and  yes, there were thousands of engineers and technicians who worked for years to make this moment possible, to say nothing of the millions of people around the world watching the events unfold on television. But for a moment, there was just Neil Armstrong, alone, standing on the surface of the Moon.

Thank you Neil, for that giant leap for all of us.

Neil Armstrong being buried at sea
Credit: NASA / Bill Ingalls. See the Flickr set for more