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The Wow Factor

Reading between the pixels of the Hubble's latest images

The Hubble Space Telescope's newest images show a violent and awesome universe where stars far outshine our humble earth.
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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, December 6, 2009

By this point, we've all seen so many pretty Hubble pictures that we're in danger of pretty-Hubble-picture burnout. We've seen exploding stars galore. We've seen majestic pillars of gas that are spawning new solar systems. We've seen galaxies colliding, galaxies getting ripped apart, galaxies becoming mired in their own ennui. We've seen Mars and Jupiter and Saturn in such stark close-ups that we can detect the cosmetic surgery scars.

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We've seen quasars, pulsars, brown dwarfs, exoplanets, globular clusters and assorted nebulosities. It feels as if we've seen it all. Literally. The whole cosmos, soup to nuts. It kind of makes you wonder if we'll run out of new things to discover. Here's a real headline on a November news release from Stanford: "High-precision measurements confirm cosmologists' standard view of the universe." All figured out; everyone go home now.

So, you can just imagine the challenge that NASA's Hubble Space Telescope scientists faced earlier this year. In May, astronauts aboard the space shuttle Atlantis flew to the Hubble and, defying a stuck bolt that nearly derailed the mission, removed an old camera and replaced it with a better one. They fixed two other instruments, even though these things were not designed for orbital maintenance. Crew members installed new gyroscopes and batteries. After five spacewalks and much derring-do, Hubble was, in effect, a brand-new space telescope.

But what to look at next? The Hubble people had to pick targets to demonstrate the revamped telescope's abilities. They would call these images the Early Release Observations, or ERO (at NASA, everything has an abbreviation). They wanted to produce pictures with lots of (their term) Wow Factor.

The rollout came in early September at NASA headquarters in Washington. Big shots showed up, such as the new NASA administrator, Charles Bolden, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, the "Godmother of the Hubble," and all seven astronauts from the Atlantis mission. NASA beamed the news conference around the planet. Two huge flat-screens flashed fancy graphics. After much hoo-ha and throat-clearing, the moment came. The ERO! The journalists pounded out their stories, which all said pretty much the same thing: "Wow."

You see the danger here: Wow can turn into Whatever. The whole enterprise can start to feel a little superficial. It's too easy to get blissed out on the eye candy. We can become a little too star-struck.

So here's our challenge: We'll go back and look once again at these new pictures, but this time we'll probe deeper, think harder and search for any messages in the light that careens into Hubble's mirror. We'll do a deep reading of the cosmic text. And we'll ask the hard question: What is space telling us?

***

Let's start with the Butterfly Nebula, technically known as Planetary Nebula NGC 6302. It's so delicate, so sublime. You can see it fluttering through space. It's such a gorgeous image that we will refrain from dwelling on the extreme color enhancement that NASA uses to make these photographs so seductive.

The Butterfly Nebula is the product of a star in its death throes. It's a star much like the one we see rising in the east every morning. This will happen to us. This is our future. The star is about 3,800 light-years away, in the constellation Scorpius. Those wings are actually hot streams of particles being ejected by the star into interstellar space. As the star starts to run out of hydrogen and helium fuel, its core contracts, and, simultaneously, the intense radiation of the star blows the outer layers into space. It's not an explosion but more of a spewing. Here, the star itself is unseen, obscured by dust. The dust and slower-moving gas form a torus, like a napkin ring, which forces the spew to be conical rather than spherical.

Our knowledge about star mechanics comes largely from models, equations, number-crunching. But this Hubble image of the butterfly lets the models spring to life. Before the rise of scientific astronomy, stars were boring. No one knew that a star and our sun were the same thing. This ancient universe was a two-dimensional backdrop for human actions, like the painted sets in "The Wizard of Oz." And yet the butterfly tells us the truth: The universe is wild. The universe evolves, and change is the norm. There's something of a cosmic ecosystem out there -- the cosmosphere, if you wish. And the death of a star is cosmic fertilizer.

If you go back to the primordial universe, you find only the simplest elements, primarily hydrogen and helium. The heavier stuff, such as carbon and nitrogen, is cooked up inside stars. The Butterfly Nebula is a freeze frame of the seeding of the universe with the material for future stars, planets and life. The universe, to be chemically interesting, and to give rise to life, has to have stars. And stars have to die. Carl Sagan was right: We are star stuff. Life as we know it is constructed around four of the five most common elements in the universe: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen. Only the inert element helium is left out of the recipe (unless you inhale it, which can make you the life of the party). Life is opportunistic and pragmatic: It uses the most mundane materials butterflying through space.


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