Science Behind the Photo #45

Taken from Issue 22.

Although seemingly beautiful and serene, this fiery image shows the hundreds of millions of stars at the turbulent heart of the Milky Way, all cocooned in cosmic gas and dust. The life of such a star is visible in its entirety, from the dusty regions of star birth, populations of young stars, ageing stars, old stars, and dead stars, to their remnants. All of this chaos is permeated with a hazy blue light, the product of X-ray outflows from black holes and massive stars.

Released back in 2009, the panorama is a composite of images from the Hubble Space Telescope, the Spitzer Space Telescope, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory. It played a part in the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), a global celebration of astronomy and its contributions to our society and culture.

The IYA was held in 2009, 400 years after Galileo first blinked up at the skies through a telescope – a moment often lauded as the birth of modern astronomy. Copies of this image were printed and unveiled by NASA across more than 150 sites – including planetariums, museums, and libraries – across the US, showing how involved the organisation is in public engagement and communication. Hubble’s ability to go beyond gathering data for scientists to study has proved to be a real bonus for igniting the public’s interest in astronomy.

Astronomy is a highly collaborative field – partially by necessity. Sharing time on the world’s largest telescopes requires high levels of co-operation, as does observing the same phenomena from various parts of the globe. It also has the ability to bring countries together – although the recent landing of the Mars Science Laboratory on Mars was a NASA effort, underneath it all was the uniting achievement that Earth had successfully sent a probe to another planet.

Image: NASA, ESA, SSC, CXC, and STScI

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