The NASA website is an incredible, information-rich resource. It delivers the wonders of the universe directly into our living rooms, PCs and mobiles. Detailed descriptions of missions, satellites, far galaxies and star forming regions of the universe are constantly updated and hypnotic images bring us visions far beyond our ability to view with the naked eye. And we can download images, ebooks, read the latest discoveries and join in with the collective mapping of deep-field views.
Many of the images on These Fantastic Worlds are based on the NASA resource, directly inspiring the fiction, suggesting new worlds and new pathways to understanding existence, always to pushing the boundaries of fleeting scientific truths.
NASA Images – the Long View
We can see images of stars from 8 billion light years ago, their light taking so long to reach us such that we find ourselves tracing the history of the universe. At the other extreme we observe the collapse of galaxies and gain a greater insight into the facts of the expanding universe. We watch great clouds of gas burst their energies, and see the continuous transformations governed by universal laws of energy conservation. We know more now that we’ve ever known, because of the deep-space data collected by NASA, and. of course, we begin to have inklings of the extent of what we do not know.
All of this is made possible by the long term planning of NASA and the other space agencies around the world. The imagery we see in the media, both on- and off-line has been planned, executed, analysed and relayed by NASA, by combining the raw data from the different types of satellite NASA scientists assemble the images and release them. And they continue to develop ever more powerful methods for casting deep into the universe.
The use of satellites in space is essential because their view is unimpeded by the light noise of our world, and its atmosphere, allowing a clear view of wavelengths and radiation that can be measured, and fashioned into powerful, colourful images. Of course, the data is usually cross referred with ground based observatories such as those in Green Bank, West Virginia, USA and MeerKAT in South Africa) so a complete picture of the universe is reviewed and compared with decades of observations.
Hubble Space Telescope
The most famous of the space satellites is Hubble. It was the first of its kind and although nearing the end of its life (at least until 2020) still relays essential information. It was launched in 1990, on the Space Shuttle Discovery and now, at over 340 miles above the surface of our planet, it still spins around the earth 15 times a day. Currently it can trace objects wth a diameter of 0.05 arc seconds, which NASA refers to as the width of a coin from 86 miles away.
Hubble has transformed our understanding of the universe not only because it creates and transmits data on astronomical bodies, but allows us to detect differences across decades of observation. Several improvements have been made to the cameras, sensors and spectographs on board so old data can be updated, bringing clarity to historical stellar maps, always to advance our understanding of the processes and systems of cosmic life.
Spitzer Space Telescope
Spitzer, launched in 2003 uses infra-red instruments to view of the universe specifically where optical telescopes such as Hubble cannot penetrate. The Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory and Chandra X-Ray Observatory also use different methods for observation so that data from all four types (infra-red, Gamma ray, X-Ray and light) can be combined to increase the accuracy.
Spitzer is interesting because, in order to detect infra-red wavelengths the telescope is designed to work both in a warm, and cold state, with the spacecraft that powers the unit operating at room temperature, while the telescope assembly itself working at a few degrees above absolute zero (-273 Celsius). The liquid helium which cooled the assembly has now run out, lasting more than twice as long as expected, during which time it peered deep into space to find the cool spectrum objects, such as molecular clouds and dwarf stars. Spitzer continues now in a warm state, still returning useful data.
James Webb Telescope
Currently under construction the infra-red instruments of this new generation telescope are designed to reach back to the creation and development of the universe, from 14 billion years to the present, to observe the patterns of light which bring the views of the early universe, to the creation of solar systems such as our own. It’s a joint project between NASA, Europe and Canada and will provide invormation to the global scientific community. It should launch in 2018 and work in parallel with Hubble for some time before replacing it.
The photographs in this piece are examples of the thousands of colourful photos available. Recompiled from sensor data, with colours adopted for clarity they allow us to see the wavelengths and gases of the cosmic processes in a way that reveals more than simple eyes could ever achieve.
Hubble: Death of a Sun-like Star. The Hubble Telescope captured the death of a star which has shed the massive ring of the gas that previously had formed a protecive ring around the core.
Hubble: Megamaser. This megamaser galaxy (IRAS 16399-097) is 370 million years away from Earth. Wavelength data from two of Hubble’s key instruments have been combined to create this image and show a double nucleus within a single corpus of gas and dust. The Northern nucleus includes a black hole with over 100 million times the mass of our sun. Megamasers are exceptionally bright, over 100 million times brighter than the masers that can be observed within the Milky way, our own host galaxy. Masers, and megamasers emit microwaves rather than light
Spitzer: Seeing Beyond the ‘Monkey Head’. Spitzer’s infra-red image shows a clusters of early stars in NGC 2174, a star-forming region in deep space.
Spitzer: Light Echoes Used to Study Protoplanetary Disks. Using data from the Spitzer telescope and four ground telescopes Nasa shows an illustrated computation of the distance between a star and the inner rim of its protoplanetary disk (the ring of dust). The method of analysis is called “light echoes.”
James Webb Telescope: Deep Freeze test. The new telescope which will replace the Hubble in 2018 undergoes a series of materials stress test; here it emerges unscathed after 116 days of immersion in the deep cold simulation of space.
- Nasa images, free to use and download. Here.
- Nasa Social media social media sharing page. Here.
- Here’s a list of the current instruments operating on Hubble. Here.
- Paul Sutter’s concise explanation on the colourful appearance of the NASA images. Here.
- I’ve used some of NASA images in the development of various thought experiments and themes for These Fantastic Worlds, such as Concepts | Being not Being, and a Concepts | Perceptions of Time