Printer Friendly
The Free Library
22,710,190 articles and books

Unveiling the hidden universe: infrared observatory clears up dusty tales.



Peek in any apartment window, it's said, and you'll discover a unique story.

The same is true of the heavens, except that skywatchers face a special challenge. The windows through which they view the cosmos are often clouded by dust. An observer peering through a telescope in visible or ultraviolet light misses much of the drama in the universe, from a stellar nursery teeming teem 1  
v. teemed, teem·ing, teems

v.intr.
1. To be full of things; abound or swarm: A drop of water teems with microorganisms.

2.
 with newborns to the fireworks fireworks: see pyrotechnics.
fireworks

Explosives or combustibles used for display. Of ancient Chinese origin, fireworks evidently developed out of military rockets and explosive missiles and accompanied the spread of military explosives westward to
 generated by the collision of two galaxies.

Infrared telescopes can penetrate this dust, revealing much more of the story. They can also record emissions from heavenly bodies too cool to radiate light at shorter wavelengths and higher energies.

For 28 months, the European Space Agency's Infrared Space Observatory Infrared Space Observatory: see infrared astronomy.
Infrared Space Observatory (ISO)

European Space Agency satellite that from 1995 to 1998 observed astronomical sources of infrared radiation. The satellite, which carried a 60-cm (24-in.
 (ISO (1) See ISO speed.

(2) (International Organization for Standardization, Geneva, Switzerland, www.iso.ch) An organization that sets international standards, founded in 1946. The U.S. member body is ANSI.
) has scanned the heavens from its vantage point in Earth's orbit. The mission, which ended in early April, generated remarkable new views of several familiar objects. It also examined the composition of these bodies by analyzing the intensity of light at wavelengths from 3 to 240 micrometers. Such a feat isn't possible with ground-based telescopes, which are hampered by water vapor and other molecules in Earth's atmosphere that both emit and absorb infrared light.

ISO scientists presented a roundup of the observatory's discoveries last month at a press briefing in London. Some of the most intriguing finds came relatively late in the mission, when the observatory examined a region of Orion, the nearest birthplace of massive stars.

In visible light, Orion's well-known Horsehead nebula looks like a dark dust cloud. Viewed with a camera aboard the observatory, however, the Horsehead silhouette vanishes and young stars shine through. Areas rich in dust appear as bright filaments.

The space observatory paints a portrait of two other star-forming clouds within Orion, NGC NGC New General Catalogue (of Nebulae and Star Clusters; astronomy)
NGC National Geographic Channel (TV)
NGC National Guideline Clearinghouse
 2068 and NGC 2071. In the infrared, clutches of young stars dot the landscape. ISO also detected the bright glow of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in these nebula nebula (nĕb`ylə) [Lat.,=mist], in astronomy, observed manifestation of a collection of highly rarefied gas and dust in interstellar space. . These organic compounds have been found in the Martian meteorite ALH ALH Advanced Light Helicopter
ALH Amplitude of Lateral Head (Displacement)
ALH Alpha Hospitality Corporation (former stock symbol; now ALHY)
ALH Advanced Liquid Hydrogen
 84001 and in other interstellar clouds. Astronomers have suggested that these chemicals could provide some of the raw materials of life.

While observing the intensity of the stars at several infrared wavelengths, Lennart Nordh and Goran Olofsson of Stockholm University and their colleagues identified groups of stellar objects so young that they are still lying inside placentas of gas and dust. As many as 20 percent of these objects have insufficient mass to qualify as bona fide, hydrogen-burning stars, says Gerry Gilmore of the University of Cambridge in England. With less than 8 percent of the mass of the sun, these cool, infrared-emitting objects will become brown dwarfs, fizzling out after they exhaust their supply of deuterium deuterium (dtēr`ēəm), isotope of hydrogen with mass no. 2. The deuterium nucleus, called a deuteron, contains one proton and one neutron. .

The space observatory uncovered other new features of Orion. The long-wavelength spectrometer revealed that a cloud near the sword of Orion Sword of Orion is a Big Finish Productions audio drama based on the long-running British science fiction television series Doctor Who. This audio drama was broadcast on BBC 7 in four weekly parts starting from 3 September 2005, and was repeated in 2006.  contains a massive concentration of water vapor--enough to fill Earth's oceans 10 million times.

By volume, that's about 1 part in 2,000, or roughly 20 times the concentration detected in other gas clouds in the Milky Way. Nonetheless, "an enhanced concentration of water is precisely what we expected in this gas cloud," notes ISO astronomer Gary J. Melnick of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) is located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It consists of the Harvard College Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. The Center is located at 60 Garden Street.  in Cambridge, Mass.

Astronomers had theorized that water vapor is abundant in stellar nurseries like Orion. Water provides a means of cooling such regions--and a cloud of gas and dust must cool in order to contract and form stars.

In Orion, as in other star-forming regions, winds from hot, young stars send out shock waves into the surrounding gas, notes Melnick. At temperatures above a few hundred kelvins, molecular hydrogen, which is abundant in the clouds, radiates most of the heat away. Below those temperatures, however, molecular hydrogen can no longer cool the region. At this point, water vapor radiates the surplus heat, allowing the cloud to grow denser and contract.

"It's in the critical region where the gas has partially cooled itself but is still too hot to collapse that the water vapor cooling becomes very significant," says Martin Harwit, an ISO researcher and former director of the National Air and Space Museum The National Air and Space Museum (NASM) of the Smithsonian Institution is a museum in Washington, D.C., United States, and is the most popular of the Smithsonian museums. It maintains the largest collection of aircraft and spacecraft in the world.  in Washington, D.C.

The vapor itself is generated by the shock waves, says Melnick. The waves cause unbound unbound

said of electrolytes, e.g. iron and calcium, and other substances which are circulating in the bloodstream and are not bound to plasma proteins so that they are available immediately for metabolic processes. See also calcium, iron.
 oxygen atoms to team up with molecular hydrogen and form water vapor. A similar process may have generated water in the solar system.

Harwit, Melnick, and their colleagues describe their study in the April 20 Astrophysical Journal Letters. Melnick notes that NASA's Submillimeter Wave Astronomical Satellite, now scheduled for launch in January 1999, will continue the studies of water vapor in Orion and search other parts of the Milky Way.

Near the Milky Way's dusty core, the space observatory examined several cold, dark clouds that seem to resemble Orion in its earliest stages of formation. The patches appear to have "just condensed out of the interstellar medium," says Gilmore. "They're just in the throes throe  
n.
1. A severe pang or spasm of pain, as in childbirth. See Synonyms at pain.

2. throes A condition of agonizing struggle or trouble: a country in the throes of economic collapse.
 of condensing into star-forming units, but they haven't [yet] got stars to warm them up. So unlike the Horsehead nebula, these things are still black."

Their very existence in the inner region of the galaxy, where they are buffeted by stellar winds and ultraviolet light, "is a great puzzle," Gilmore adds. Michel Perault of the National Center for Space Studies in Paris suggests that the density of the clouds, which is greater than that of the clouds in Orion, may offer protection. Ultraviolet radiation from neighboring stars may evaporate the outer layers of these clouds, leaving the cores intact, he speculates. The cores may even be able to snare additional material.

"It's likely that [these clouds] could become an, Orion and may even get brighter than Orion," says Perault. "If these things are on the verge On the Verge (or The Geography of Yearning) is a play written by Eric Overmyer. It makes extensive use of esoteric language and pop culture references from the late nineteenth century to 1955.  of starting to collapse, it wouldn't take much more than a million years until you get the [formation of] young, bright stars."

Follow-up observations with IRAM Iram (ī`răm), in the Bible, duke of Edom. , a 30-meter radio telescope in Pico Veleta veleta
Noun

same as valeta
, Spain, attest to the chilliness and high density of the clouds, he notes. A second infrared spacecraft, the U.S. Air Force's Midcourse Space Experiment Mission
The Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX) is a Ballistic Missile Defense Organization satellite experiment (unmanned space mission) to map bright infrared sources in space.
, has also confirmed the cold, dark nature of these compact objects. M.P. Egan of the Air Force Research Laboratory in Bedford, Mass., and his colleagues described the study in the Feb. 20 Astrophysical Journal Letters.

Mark R. Morris of the University of California, Los Angeles UCLA comprises the College of Letters and Science (the primary undergraduate college), seven professional schools, and five professional Health Science schools. Since 2001, UCLA has enrolled over 33,000 total students, and that number is steadily rising.  says that the evolution of the clouds will depend on their exact location in the galaxy. At the core of the galaxy, intense magnetic fields are common, he notes. They thread through gas clouds and act as springs, which may prevent the clouds from collapsing immediately and forming stars. In addition, differences in gravitational grav·i·ta·tion  
n.
1. Physics
a. The natural phenomenon of attraction between physical objects with mass or energy.

b. The act or process of moving under the influence of this attraction.

2.
 forces across the clouds are amplified at the core. Such stresses could also prevent collapse. In that case, only a particularly energetic shock could get star formation going.

The space observatory's findings on the Antennae, two galaxies that smashed into each other about a million years earlier, reveal that their "most massive stars are completely hidden in the widely publicized images" taken in visible light by the Hubble Space Telescope Hubble Space Telescope (HST), the first large optical orbiting observatory. Built from 1978 to 1990 at a cost of $1.5 billion, the HST (named for astronomer E. P. Hubble) was expected to provide the clearest view yet obtained of the universe. , says I. Felix Mirabel of the Centre d'Etudes de Saclay in Gif-sur-Yvette, France.

Fifteen to 20 percent of the luminosity luminosity, in astronomy, the rate at which energy of all types is radiated by an object in all directions. A star's luminosity depends on its size and its temperature, varying as the square of the radius and the fourth power of the absolute surface temperature.  of these galaxies originated from a tiny region--roughly 150 light-years across--that looks dark in visible light. Its intense glow in infrared light comes from massive newborn stars "that have not yet cleared out all the dust and gas around them," says Mirabel. "The placenta clouds are still there."

The findings, he says, have implications on a truly cosmic scale.

Astronomers estimate the history of star formation in the universe by studying distant galaxies in visible light. If visible-light images fail to capture a substantial amount of star formation in relatively nearby galaxies like the Antennae, they are likely to miss even more in a distant galaxy, he asserts.

That's because the expansion of the universe lengthens, or reddens, light from distant galaxies. Ultraviolet light emitted by a faraway galaxy is shifted to visible light by the time it reaches Earth. Thus, a distant galaxy viewed in visible light reveals what the galaxy looked like billions of years earlier in the ultraviolet. Since dust obscures ultraviolet light even more effectively than it does visible wavelengths, a visible-light image can scarcely reveal the true nature of a faraway galaxy, Mirabel says.

"We are missing the grand design of galaxies," he says. He and his colleagues describe their findings in the May 1 Astronomy and Astrophysics Astronomy and astrophysics may refer to:
  • the physical science fields of study of astronomy and astrophysics
  • Astronomy and Astrophysics, a peer reviewed scientific journal

Astronomy and Astrophysics (abbreviated as A&A
.

ISO depended on a tank of liquid helium to maintain its temperature at a frigid 2 kelvins--cold enough to reduce sharply the infrared emissions from the satellite's telescope and prevent it from interfering with observations. Engineers expected the helium to run out 18 months after ISO was launched.

During those months, the position of the observatory did not allow it to view Orion without running the risk of letting light from such bright sources as the sun or Earth enter its aperture and boil off precious helium. Fortunately, the helium lasted an additional 10 months. During that time, ISO's orbit moved the observatory into a location from which it could view Orion safely. This confluence of circumstances enabled ISO to examine Orion for several weeks in October 1997 and March 1998.

ISO's temperature began to climb on April 8, and the craft took its last set of observations about a month later. Now, researchers are looking ahead to 2001, when two new infrared observatories, devoted entirely to astronomical studies, are scheduled to begin operation.

Featuring a 2.5-meter telescope nearly five times the size of ISO's, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy: see infrared astronomy.  is housed permanently in an airplane that will cruise 45,000 feet above Earth. At this altitude, the flying telescope can avoid 99 percent of water vapor's emissions and absorptions, which can interfere with observations.

Scheduled for launch the same year, the Space Infrared Telescope Facility Space Infrared Telescope Facility: see observatory, orbiting.  will orbit Earth well above the atmosphere, providing astronomers with an even cleaner window through which to view the heavens.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Science Service, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 Reader Opinion

Title:

Comment:



 

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Cowen, Ron
Publication:Science News
Date:May 23, 1998
Words:1670
Previous Article:Looking at an alternative to aspirin.
Next Article:Banquets in the ruins: archaeologists hunger for a better understanding of feasts.
Topics:



Related Articles
Dawn of a big telescope: astronomers await the debut of Keck's tiled mirror.
A cool view of the heavens: infrared observatory spies a hidden universe.
Mapping the universe.
Dust disks hint at baby solar system.
Science Talent Search future.
NASA TELESCOPE WILL LOOK INTO BIG QUESTIONS.
Seeing red: a cool revival of Hubble's infrared camera. (Science News This Week).
Getting the GOODS on galaxies: a telescope views patches of the universe in a rainbow of colors.
Orbiting telescope views infrared universe.
Hidden black holes.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2014 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters