Tag Archives: William Herschel

NASA Space Place – Hubble’s Bubble Lights Up The Interstellar Rubble

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in June, 2016.

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

2013february2_spaceplaceWhen isolated stars like our Sun reach the end of their lives, they’re expected to blow off their outer layers in a roughly spherical configuration: a planetary nebula. But the most spectacular bubbles don’t come from gas-and-plasma getting expelled into otherwise empty space, but from young, hot stars whose radiation pushes against the gaseous nebulae in which they were born. While most of our Sun’s energy is found in the visible part of the spectrum, more massive stars burn at hotter temperatures, producing more ionizing, ultraviolet light, and also at higher luminosities. A star some 40-45 times the mass of the Sun, for example, might emits energy at a rate hundreds of thousands of times as great as our own star.

The Bubble Nebula, discovered in 1787 by William Herschel, is perhaps the classic example of this phenomenon. At a distance of 7,100 light years away in the constellation of Cassiopeia, a molecular gas cloud is actively forming stars, including the massive O-class star BD+60 2522, which itself is a magnitude +8.7 star despite its great distance and its presence in a dusty region of space. Shining with a temperature of 37,500 K and a luminosity nearly 400,000 times that of our Sun, it ionizes and evaporates off all the molecular material within a sphere 7 light years in diameter. The bubble structure itself, when viewed from a dark sky location, can be seen through an amateur telescope with an aperture as small as 8″ (20 cm).

As viewed by Hubble, the thickness of the bubble wall is both apparent and spectacular. A star as massive as the one creating this bubble emits stellar winds at approximately 1700 km/s, or 0.6% the speed of light. As those winds slam into the material in the interstellar medium, they push it outwards. The bubble itself appears off-center from the star due to the asymmetry of the surrounding interstellar medium with a greater density of cold gas on the “short” side than on the longer one. The blue color is due to the emission from partially ionized oxygen atoms, while the cooler yellow color highlights the dual presence of hydrogen (red) and nitrogen (green).

The star itself at the core of the nebula is currently fusing helium at its center. It is expected to live only another 10 million years or so before dying in a spectacular Type II supernova explosion.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), of the Bubble Nebula as imaged 229 years after its discovery by William Herschel.

About NASA Space Place

With articles, activities, crafts, games, and lesson plans, NASA Space Place encourages everyone to get excited about science and technology. Visit spaceplace.nasa.gov (facebook|twitter) to explore space and Earth science!

NASA Space Place – Inventing Astrophotography: Capturing Light Over Time

Poster’s Note: One of the many under-appreciated aspects of NASA is the extent to which it publishes quality science content for children and Ph.D.’s alike. NASA Space Place has been providing general audience articles for quite some time that are freely available for download and republishing. Your tax dollars help promote science! The following article was provided for reprinting in June, 2013.

Poster’s Note 2: Roberts’ “A Selection of Photographs of Stars, Star-clusters and Nebulae” (the book from which the image of M31 is taken) can be read and downloaded in its entirety from archive.org: archive.org/details/selectionofphoto02robeuoft.

By Dr. Ethan Siegel

2013february2_spaceplaceWe know that it’s a vast Universe out there, with our Milky Way representing just one drop in a cosmic ocean filled with hundreds of billions of galaxies. Yet if you’ve ever looked through a telescope with your own eyes, unless that telescope was many feet in diameter, you’ve probably never seen a galaxy’s spiral structure for yourself. In fact, the very closest large galaxy to us ⎯ Andromeda, M31 ⎯ wasn’t discovered to be a spiral until 1888, despite being clearly visible to the naked eye! This crucial discovery wasn’t made at one of the world’s great observatories, with a world-class telescope, or even by a professional astronomer; it was made by a humble amateur to whom we all owe a great scientific debt.

Beginning in 1845, with the unveiling of Lord Rosse’s 6-foot (1.8 m) aperture telescope, several of the nebulae cataloged by Messier, Herschel and others were discovered to contain an internal spiral structure. The extreme light-gathering power afforded by this new telescope allowed us, for the first time, to see these hitherto undiscovered cosmic constructions. But there was another possible path to such a discovery: rather than collecting vast amounts of light through a giant aperture, you could collect it over time, through the newly developed technology of photography. During the latter half of the 19th Century, the application of photography to astronomy allowed us to better understand the Sun’s corona, the spectra of stars, and to discover stellar and nebulous features too faint to be seen with the human eye.

Working initially with a 7-inch refractor that was later upgraded to a 20-inch reflector, amateur astronomer Isaac Roberts pioneered a number of astrophotography techniques in the early 1880s, including “piggybacking,” where his camera/lens system was attached to a larger, equatorially-mounted guide scope, allowing for longer exposure times than ever before. By mounting photographic plates directly at the reflector’s prime focus, he was able to completely avoid the light-loss inherent with secondary mirrors. His first photographs were displayed in 1886, showing vast extensions to the known reaches of nebulosity in the Pleiades star cluster and the Orion Nebula.

But his greatest achievement was this 1888 photograph of the Great Nebula in Andromeda, which we now know to be the first-ever photograph of another galaxy, and the first spiral ever discovered that was oriented closer to edge-on (as opposed to face-on) with respect to us. Over a century later, Andromeda looks practically identical, a testament to the tremendous scales involved when considering galaxies. If you can photograph it, you’ll see for yourself!

Astrophotography has come a long way, as apparent in the Space Place collection of NASA stars and galaxies posters at spaceplace.nasa.gov/posters/#stars.

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Caption: Great Nebula in Andromeda, the first-ever photograph of another galaxy. Image credit: Isaac Roberts, taken December 29, 1888, published in A Selection of Photographs of Stars, Star-clusters and Nebulae, Volume II, The Universal Press, London, 1899.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

About NASA Space Place

The goal of the NASA Space Place is “to inform, inspire, and involve children in the excitement of science, technology, and space exploration.” More information is available at their website: http://spaceplace.nasa.gov/