Monday, October 28th 2019, 7:45 pm - When you stare into the void, sometimes the void stares back
Space is beautiful, but there are many creepy and spooky sights to behold in its boundless depths.
One of the brightest stars in our night sky is Alpha Piscis Austrini, also known as Fomalhaut, which can be seen in the southern hemisphere. When the Hubble Space Telescope zoomed in on this system, it discovered an uncanny resemblance to an icon of fantasy literature - the lidless, flaming Eye of Sauron, from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
The Fomalhaut star system, roughly 25 light years away from Earth. Credit: NASA, ESA, P. Kalas And J. Graham (University of California, Berkeley) and M. Clampin (NASA/GSFC)
"You know of what I speak, Gandalf. A great eye, lidless and wreathed in flame." - Sarumon the White, Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring.
What's really making the Fomalhaut star system appear this way? Hubble has seen signs of planet formation in the ring of debris that surrounds the central star. The gravity of these infant planets would 'shepherd' the debris, forming it into the ring, just as Jupiter's gravity controls the shape of the asteroid belt in our own solar system.
Far out in space, another "eye" stars back at us.
The Helix Nebula. Credit: NASA, ESA, and C.R. O'Dell (Vanderbilt University)
Roughly 650 light years away from us, in the constellation Aquarius, perhaps some 10,000 years ago, an ancient star of the same type as our Sun reached the end of its lifespan. Having grown swollen and red and unstable, it threw off its outer layers as it died, and as those layers of gas expanded outwards at high speed, they produced an immense shell in the shape of a flattened sphere, over five light years across.
From our perspective here on Earth, looking straight through the relatively thin shell to the stellar remnant, we see more easily through the middle, while more stuff "piles up" along our view near the sides. So, the nebula ends up looking like a great eye to us, another Eye of Sauron, or perhaps the Eye of God.
Speaking of eyes, back in 2014, the Hubble Space Telescope was looking at the planet Jupiter's Great Red Spot, the immense, Earth-swallowing superstorm that has been churning away there for hundreds of years, and the Great Red Spot looked back!!
Jupiter in April 2014. Credits: NASA, ESA, Hubble Space Telescope
What's happening here?!
Jupiter has many moons - 79 that we currently know of - and the four largest are big enough to cast significant shadows onto the tops of the planet's clouds when they pass between the planet and the Sun. In this case, on April 21, 2014, just as the Hubble Space Telescope was aimed directly at Jupiter, its largest moon, Ganymede, passed between the planet and the Sun, and its immense shadow crossed directly over the Great Red Spot. The result was what NASA called The Eye of the Cyclops.
Later that year, in October of 2014, all appeared quiet on the Sun, but a shift in our view revealed a hidden jack-o'-lantern grinning at us.
This image is a blend of 171 and 193 angstrom light as captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory, on October 8, 2014. Credit: NASA SDO
According to NASA: "The active regions in this image appear brighter because those are areas that emit more light and energy. They are markers of an intense and complex set of magnetic fields hovering in the sun’s atmosphere, the corona. This image blends together two sets of extreme ultraviolet wavelengths at 171 and 193 Ångströms, typically colorized in gold and yellow, to create a particularly Halloween-like appearance."
The Haunts of Cepheus. Credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona
If this haunting view brings to mind a ghostly pursuit, as the apparitions to the left flee from the menacing spectral hunter at their heels, you can easily be forgiven for that bit of pareidolia.
This nebula, located roughly 1,500 light years away from us in the constellation Cepheus, is named vdB 141, or more commonly, the Ghost Nebula. The shapes we see here are due to the gas and dust of the nebula reflecting the light from the nearby bright stars (like the one towards the top right of the image and the one near the base of the 'spectral hunter').
Viewed from another angle (like in another star system), and this nebula would probably look very different. Whether it would be more or less spooky, though, is up for debate!
The distant Perseus Cluster, one of the largest objects in our visible universe, is an enormous cloud of superheated gas which contains thousands of galaxies.
The Perseus Cluster. Credit: A. Fabian (IoA Cambridge) et al., NASA
Capture only the invisible X-rays emitted from the gases of this object, and it appears as horrible screaming skull.
The Screaming Space Skull. Credit: A. Fabian (IoA Cambridge) et al., NASA
In the month of November 1572, a bright star appeared in the night sky, one that had never been seen before. It was a supernova, called SN 1572, or Tycho's Supernova, after the Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe, who documented the event.
Point a telescope at the location of this supernova now, and you will see nothing.
Credit: Digitized Sky Survey
Point NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory at it, however, and horrible invisible tendrils of creeping doom are revealed!
Credit: NASA/CXC/RIKEN & GSFC/T. Sato et al
Invisible tendrils of creeping doom reach out towards us from a dead star in this X-Ray view of the Tycho Supernova Remnant.
The high energy x-rays detected by Chandra originate from hot gas in space. The colours in the image denote different energies of x-rays, and thus different temperatures, but also x-rays emitted by the element silicon (moving towards us, in blue, and away from us, in red). The strange appearance of these tendrils are apparently due to clumps of gas that were formed during the star's uneven explosion, possibly due to the supernova having more than one ignition point in the star's core.
Closer to home, in October of 2015, a large asteroid slipped by Earth.
Asteroid 2015 TB145 as imaged by radar. Credit: Arecibo/NSF
As the Arecibo Observatory bounced radar waves off the asteroid, during its pass, it was seen to turn a skeletal gaze upon us.
Dubbed the Halloween Asteroid, as it made its closest pass by Earth on October 31, asteroid 2015 TB145 revealed itself to possibly be a dead comet - the rocky remnant left behind when all the ice and gas has evaporated from the surface of a comet.
Just in time for Halloween 2019, the Hubble Space Telescope released a new image of a menacing looking 'face'.
A new image of Arp-Madore 2026-424, taken on June 19, 2019 by the Hubble Space Telescope. Credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Dalcanton, B.F. Williams, and M. Durbin (University of Washington)
According to NASA: "The snapshot reveals what looks like an uncanny pair of glowing eyes glaring menacingly in our direction. The piercing 'eyes' are the most prominent feature of what resembles the face of an otherworldly creature. This frightening object is actually the result of a titanic head-on collision between two galaxies.
Each 'eye' is the bright core of a galaxy, the result of one galaxy slamming into another. The outline of the face is a ring of young blue stars. Other clumps of new stars form a nose and mouth."