A new image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, taken in infrared light, shows where the action is taking place in galaxy NGC 1291.
NASA/JPL-Caltech

Week in Geek: View from a star nursery

This stunning new image taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope shows stars actively being born over 33 million light-years away. Spitzer is one of NASA’s Great Observatories, focused on the infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Infrared is light that has less energy and a longer wavelength than the red light our eyes can see. Discovered in 1800 by William Herschel (an astronomer), it’s somewhat analogous to thermal radiation. You’ve probably seen it visualized many times in movies and on TV by characters using night-vision goggles. By comparison, Spitzer is like night-vision on steroids.

In the universe, infrared radiation comes primarily from gas and dust. People often think space is completely empty between stars and between galaxies, and while it’s true the density of particles drops off dramatically, there is still a considerable amount of gas and dust floating around. This material is important to astronomers because it acts as fuel for star formation and hungry black holes, both of which influence how galaxies grow and evolve.

This image from Spitzer shows active star formation in a galaxy known as NGC 1291 (creatively named as the 1291st object in the New General Catalog). The colors in this image represent wavelengths and not what our eyes would actually see. Shorter infrared wavelengths (closer to red light in the visible spectrum) are blue and longer infrared wavelengths (closer to microwave radiation) are red. The blue areas therefore represent actual stars (stars give off infrared light at higher frequencies) while the red areas represent concentrations of gas and dust.

The concentration of blue in the center tells astronomers that the stars in the central bulge are older and have long exhausted their supply of gas and dust for making new stars. Conversely, the bright red ring shows that large amounts of gas and dust are now concentrated in the outskirts of the galaxy, which will lead to a burst of star formation and millions of new stars. The timeline for when star formation shifts from the center to the outer regions of a galaxy depends strongly on the structure and dynamics of each individual galaxy. So observations like this are not only gorgeous to look at, but are valuable new data points for astronomers working in the field of galaxy evolution.

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Week in Geek: View from a star nursery