Treasure in the dust

Contributed by
Feb 21, 2007
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The Universe is a dusty place. Search for the word on my blog and you'll see why: stars blow it around, supernova distribute it across galaxies, it blocks us from seeing down to the interesting bits of planetary atmospheres, and on and on.

The Milky Way is lousy with it. When we look in the plane of our flattened disk galaxy, we can't see very far because it's like looking across a smoky room. Anything past a few hundred light years is totally blocked. So what are we missing?

This:

If that doesn't impress you, click it and download 2000x2000 pixel version. If that doesn't impress you, close this window, shut down your computer, go find a nice hole in the ground and lie down. You have no pulse.

This gorgeous face-on spiral galaxy, called IC 342, is a mere 11 million light years away, making it one of the closest big galaxies (closer ones are in our local group of galaxies, including the Andromeda galaxy). You hardly ever hear about it because it's buried behind all the garbage in our own Galaxy. It takes a dark sky and a sensitive telescope to see it at all.

IC 342 is part of a group of galaxies called the Maffei 1 Group. It has several nice galaxies in it, but again they are so obscured that you never see anything about them. If they were located in a different part of the sky, they would be every bit the equal of M51, M81, and M33, their much more famous cousins. As it is, they are relegated to the back pages of astronomy texts.

This image was taken and processed by my bud Travis rector at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a master at this sort of thing. The image was released as part of a consciousness-raising event about light pollution, which I am all for. I wish I could have attended, but mundane life interceded.

With dark skies we can peer past the dust bunnies in our galaxy and see what lies beyond. This is only one reason we should be aware of light pollution, but it's a good one.