Through the Looking Gas

Contributed by
Aug 14, 2006
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The Large Magellanic Cloud is no cloud-- it's a galaxy in its own right, even if smaller than our Milky Way and in orbit around it. But it has everything that makes up a galaxy-- lots of stars, gas clouds, dust strewn here and there. Since it's close to us, relatively speaking, that makes it a favorite target for astronomers. We get to see more detail than in other galaxies that are farther away.

But I have a sneaky suspicion there's another reason we look at it so much. Check this image out:

Wow. Gorgeous, eh? If you want to see a much higher-res version, try this one, but be warned, it's 3900x2500 pixels!

Looking at that image, I think that if I were to use Hubble to observe star-forming regions, I'd target the LMC as well (hey wait a sec-- I worked on a project that did). Astronomers are human too, and have an eye for art.

The team who observed this patch of sky were looking to investigate how stars form, and how they coexist in such a chaotic region. There's much to be learned from all that, of course, but sometimes I like to sit back and let the picture itself overwhelm me. This one does that, and for more than one reason... despite the thickness of the gas and dust in that cloud, and the overall traffic jam that is the LMC, there is a subtlety to this image that might escape you at first. I've zoomed in on one section. See if you see it:

See those fuzzies in the picture? Those are galaxies, seen right through all the garbage floating in the LMC. We're peering through our galaxy to see another, and then poking right through that one to those beyond.

Last night I was visiting friends who live out in the country. We went outside, on their deck, to see if we could catch sight of any stray meteors. The Milky Way was up and glorious (despite the fog here). Details were obvious, and right through the constellation of Cygnus, the Swan, the milky stream of starlight is bifurcated, split right in half by a dark lane, sometimes called the Great Rift. This is dust in our Galaxy in a thin ribbon, blocking the light from stars behind it.

Here I am in a monster galaxy, and I can't even see the center of it due to intervening dust. Yet if I pick my spot in the sky carefully, my gaze can penetrate through two galaxies and into the abyss beyond.

Astronomy affords us a perspective on things that sometimes other fields of science -- of any human thought -- might not give us. That's one of many reasons I like looking at astronomical pictures like this one from Hubble, and also why it's good just to get out under the stars and see what there is to see.