Bad Astronomy

And I dream I’m an Eagle…

The European Southern Observatory just released this gorgeous image of the Eagle Nebula:

Yegads. Click to embiggen, or download a VAST version (149 MB tiff!).

The Eagle is a sprawling cloud of gas and dust that is actively forming stars – it was made famous by the Hubble image of the dark clouds in the center which were called The Pillars of Creation. This ESO image was taken with a 2.2 meter telescope in Chile, and covers an impressive area of the sky equal to the size of the full Moon! The colors here are false, the image is in the near infrared (though the press release does not state what other filters were used, frustratingly [UPDATE: I have been informed by an inside source that the filters used were blue, visible (yellowish), near-IR, and one that just lets through a specific wavelength strongly emitted by hydrogen, called Hα]).

The nebula is 7000 light years away, but easily visible in small telescopes. I remember observing it when I was a lad, using my 25 cm telescope. It was just a fuzzy blob through the eyepiece, competing with the street light down the block a bit (which was octillions of times fainter but a hundred trillion times closer). It just goes to show you what you can do with the right equipment.

And remember as you pass you eyes over the lovely sheets and filaments of gas in the Eagle: you’re seeing stars in the very act of being born, some with their cores just beginning to fuse hydrogen into helium, others still a million years away from that, and others yet already stable stars and well on their way to exploding as supernovae. It’s birth, life, and death, all against a gloriously displayed background of gas dynamics and quantum mechanics writ large.

My thanks to Benny, Bjorn, Agnetha, and Frida for the title inspiration.