(Image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), J. Bally/H. Drass et al.)
If you’re a space news junkie, you may already be familiar with this remarkable picture. It was assembled using imagery from ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile, and ESO, the European Southern Observatory. It was pictures like this that got me hooked on astronomy and SciFi when I was a kid — that pretty much forced me to sacrifice my allowance for years, maintaining a pricey subscription to Astronomy magazine.
Of course, in that long ago epoch, the stunning images in Astronomy were mostly paintings — “artist’s conceptions” — because technology hadn’t yet caught up to our imaginations. Now, thanks to instruments like ALMA and Hubble, and of course the magnificent new James Webb telescope, the reality assembled in our interferometers has surpassed our headiest imaginings.
The photo shows the remains of a gargantuan explosion in the Orion Nebula complex associated with star birth. Researchers hypothesize that, as part of the collapse of a gas cloud many times more massive than our sun, two protostars collided — and the resulting cataclysm cast star fragments and shrapnel in all directions at about half the speed of light.
You want space opera? It doesn’t get much more operatic than that right there.
As much as you and I are caught up (necessarily, unavoidably) in the maelstrom of pandemic, politics, environmental collapse and conflict, our entire species through all its history still lives and dies on the surface of an infinitesimal mote, acting out our stories on an outflung arm of a middling galaxy. It’s easy to miss the production mounted on the grandest stage of all: the sky above our heads. But it’s there all the same, playing out before the footlights every night — no ticket required. I don’t know about you, but I find sweet solace in that.
My wife was particularly interest in the ALMA photo above and its associated story. Carol is a retired astrophysicist, and some of her published research relates to stars in the Orion complex — not far, in fact (cosmically speaking), from the Trapezium Cluster visible near the bottom of the image.
I like telling people that Carol is an astrophysicist. (Her brother Colin is, too; he runs the prestigious Haystack Observatory at MIT.) I always hope it makes me look smart by association — and I’ll take all the imputed intelligence I can get.