COURTESY OF JCMT
Radiolike radiation from carbon monoxide gas around the Orion Nebula is revealed by new instruments on the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea. This is the first time the dish telescope has produced such cameralike images from invisible radiation. CLICK FOR LARGE
These space movies are a gas
New telescopic tools at Mauna Kea create startling new imagery
HILO » There is more to space than meets the eye, a Mauna Kea telescope demonstrated yesterday with the release of a striking image of a normally invisible gas cloud in the Orion Nebula.
The image marks a new era in space observation for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, which until recently needed enormous work to turn radiolike "submillimeter" data into crude pictures.
Now, with two new instruments attached, the Maxwell telescope can produce not only "cameralike" images, but even three-dimensional movies of gas clouds across huge areas of space.
Not bad for an installation that, with its 49-foot dish, looks more like a radar site than a telescope.
In announcing the use of the two instruments yesterday, the British-Canadian-Dutch Joint Astronomy Centre, which operates the Maxwell telescope, released images from the Orion Nebula, a dusty, gassy area in the "sword" of the constellation Orion.
They are the first clear images of such a large area of space looking at radiation shorter than radio waves.
The Orion Nebula is a typical area, tens of light-years across, where new stars are forming, said astronomer Bill Dent, of the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, in Scotland.
"With this new system, we can map the structure and measure the speed of the gas that's forming all these new stars and, furthermore, do a chemical analysis, perhaps looking for regions rich in rare and exotic molecules," Dent said.
Before use of the new instruments, "it was just not possible to study and understand whole clouds in this way," he said.
The Maxwell telescope is the largest telescope in the world looking at submillimeter radiation, a section of the invisible spectrum between infrared light and microwaves.
The telescope's new sidekicks are an array of receivers and a data-analyzing computer. The instruments can pick out one precise frequency and ignore everything else.
The Maxwell astronomers focused on the frequency given off by carbon monoxide, the same gas found in cigarette smoke and car exhaust.
Instead of the almost starlike point of light seen by the naked eye, the Orion Nebula was revealed as a vast area appearing as big as two full moons.
The actual size in space is more amazing. Light starting at the top of the cloud would need 30 years to reach the bottom.
Next, the astronomers made more pictures, each in a slightly different wavelength of submillimeter radiation, depending on whether the CO molecules were moving toward or away from the telescope.
They called each of these pictures a "slice." Finally the slices were linked together to make an animated "movie" of a flight through the nebula.