Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Twisting Buzz Lightyear ... "To Beyond, And Infinity"

Using the infrared Herschel Space Observatory, Astronomers have discovered this ring of gas at the center of our Milky Way that looks like an infinity symbol - image annotated. The image was taken using two of Herschel's instruments -- the photodetector array camera and spectrometer (70-micron-light is coded blue; 160-micron light is coded green) and the spectral and photometric imaging receiver (350-micron light is red). Image Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Twisting Buzz Lightyear ... "To Beyond, And Infinity"

In a strange twist of science, astronomers using the Herschel Space Observatory have discovered that a suspected ring at the center of our galaxy is warped for reasons they cannot explain. The above image reveals the ring with greater clarity than ever before. It can be seen as the yellow loop that appears to have two lobes, highlighted here with a white ribbon overlay. In fact, the ring, which is a collection of very dense and cold gas and dust, is twisted so that part of it rises above and below the plane of our Milky Way galaxy.

Astronomers aren't sure how rings like this form in galaxies but some theories suggest they arise out of gravitational disturbances with neighboring galaxies. New stars are thought to be forming in the dense gas making up the ring.

According to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., astronomers were shocked by what they saw when they aimed the telescope at the galaxy's inner ring.

"[The] ring, which is in the plane of our galaxy, looked more like an infinity symbol with two lobes pointing to the side," JPL officials said in a statement. "In fact, they later determined the ring was torqued in the middle, so it only appears to have two lobes. To picture the structure, imagine holding a stiff, elliptical band and twisting the ends in opposite directions, so that one side comes up a bit."

Previous observations to date had only revealed portions of the ring. The Herschel Space Observatory, an infrared European Space Agency-led mission with important NASA contributions, sees long-wavelength infrared light, which can penetrate through the murky region at the center of our galaxy, allowing Herschel to get a more complete view.

"This is what is so exciting about launching a new space telescope like Herschel," said Sergio Molinari of the Institute of Space Physics in Rome, lead author of a new paper on the ring in the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters. "We have a new and exciting mystery on our hands, right at the center of our own galaxy."

The ring stretches across more than 300 light-years of space, and is about 15 Kelvin (that's minus 433 degrees Fahrenheit here on the Oblate Spheroid). The warmest material in this picture is blue, and the coldest is red.

The twist in the ring is not the only mystery to come out of the new Herschel observations. Astronomers say that the center of the torqued portion of the ring is not where the center of the galaxy is thought to be, but slightly offset. The center of our galaxy is considered to be around "Sagittarius A*," where a massive black hole lies. According to Alberto Noriega-Crespo of NASA's Infrared Processing and Analysis Center at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, it's not clear why the center of the ring doesn't match up with the assumed center of our galaxy. "There's still so much about our galaxy to discover," he said.

Oh, and the reference to Toy Story's Buzz Lightyear? ... Whenever he launched himself to be in flight, he would always exclaim, "To infinity, and beyond!" Little did the writers and creators of Toy Story know that there was actually a destination as ... Infinity.

An abstract and full PDF of the Astrophysical Journal Letters study is online at http://arxiv.org/abs/1105.5486.
(ht: herschel.caltech.edu & space.com)

[Article first published as Twisting Buzz Lightyear ... "To Beyond, And Infinity" on Technorati

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