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Starts With A Bang

Compare This Epic Amateur Astronomy Composite With Our Best Space Telescopes

This Milky Way composite contains the Crab Nebula (top left), which was also imaged by Hubble (top right). There are many such objects revealed in this spectacular, amateur-created mosaic that have also been imaged by space telescopes. The comparison is both striking and educational. (J-P METSAVAINIO, L AND BOTTOM, WITH NASA, ESA, J. HESTER AND A. LOLL (R))

Both views are equally spectacular, but unequally informative.


Every so often, a creative amateur project highlights our professional achievements.

This mosaic shows the region between the constellations of Cygnus and Cepheus. The gas, dark lanes, and bright, ionized star-forming region showcase the tension and the dynamic processes at play in the central plane of our Milky Way. This entire image showcases less than 1% of the entire sky. (J-P METSAVAINIO)

With his 12-year, 1250 hour Milky Way composite, astrophotographer J-P Metsavainio has created a masterpiece.

This composite of the central region of the Milky Way is a lower-resolution version of the full 1.7 gigapixel image. Across, the entire mosaic is approximately 100,000 pixels, while the height is approximately 17,600 pixels. All told, Hubble’s best camera is a mere 8 megapixels, but its successor, the Nancy Roman telescope, will have a ~300 megapixel camera. (J-P METSAVAINIO)

Spanning 2,750 square degrees — 7% of the entire sky — it makes a 1.7 gigapixel photomosaic.

The Metsavainio composite, made from over 1200 hours of photographs from 2009–2021, spans a whopping 2,750 square degrees: approximately 7% of the entire sky. Many gas and plasma-related details can be seen in this phenomenal wide-field composite. (J-P METSAVAINIO)

Comparatively, over 31 years in space, Hubble’s cumulative ~550,000 images reveal less than 1%.

A close-up of over 550,000 science related observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope. The locations and sizes of the observations made can all be seen here. Although they are located in many different places, the total sky coverage is minimal. Many of the observations are clustered in the galactic plane. (NADIEH BREMER / VISUAL CINNAMON)

But space confers an advantage: ultra-high resolution.

NASA’s original four great observatories: Compton, Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer. Since these four observatories were launched, others have risen to improve upon them. NASA’s Fermi and Swift have revolutionized the high energies, with James Webb, Roman, and more coming for the optical and infrared. (NASA)

These 10 examples showcase how space telescopes compare to this composite.

The Bubble Nebula is one of the most interesting structures in the sky. This hydrogen emission nebula is powered and lit up by a strong stellar wind from a single, massive star. Despite being located approximately 11,000 light-years away, the central bright star that powers the Bubble Nebula can be seen with a modestly large pair of binoculars. (J-P METSAVAINIO)

1.) The Bubble Nebula.

The Bubble Nebula, also known as NGC 7635, is an emission nebula 8,000 light-years away. The individual stellar features inside of it can be clearly seen in this Hubble image, including the central star responsible for ‘blowing’ this bubble by emitting intense radiation into the denser interstellar medium. (NASA, ESA, HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM)

Hubble’s narrow-field view reveals intricate stellar features.

The open star cluster, NGC 7380, is found inside the Wizard Nebula, SH2–142. Although this object is located approximately 7,000 light-years away, the cluster itself is only 110 light-years wide. The color palette here traces out various elements: hydrogen, oxygen and sulfur, highlighting different components of the nebula. (J-P METSAVAINIO)

2.) The Wizard Nebula.

This image of the open star cluster NGC 7380, also known as the Wizard Nebula, is a mosaic of images from the WISE mission spanning an area on the sky of about 5 times the size of the full moon. The star cluster is about 110 light-years wide, and contains stars that are no older than about 5 million years. (NASA/JPL-CALTECH/UCLA)

NASA’S WISE showcases warm gas filaments.

A combination of observations that were taken with a 12″ Meade LX200, including multiple exposures sensitive to neutral hydrogen, ionized sulfur, and doubly ionized oxygen, all reveal features of the Crab Nebula in similar colors to what Hubble reveals. When the hot plasma from the central pulsar strikes the existing gas, it ionizes and illuminates the outskirt material. (© J-P METSAVAINIO)

3.) The Crab Nebula.

The expanding filaments of M1, the Crab Nebula, are powered by the central pulsar’s wind. The supernova remnant itself will turn 1000 years old in 2054, and has expanded to a diameter approaching ~10 light-years in that time. (NASA, ESA, J. HESTER AND A. LOLL (ARIZONA STATE UNIVERSITY))

The central pulsar powers this expanding supernova remnant.

Barely identifiable at the upper right, the Cocoon Nebula is connected by a dark dust lane (Barnard 168) to the much larger star-forming region, Sharpless 124, also located in the galactic plane. While these two regions appear to be close by, Sharpless 124 is ~8,500 light-years away, while the Cocoon Nebula is estimated to be merely ~2,500 light-years distant. (© J-P METSAVAINIO)

4.) The Cocoon Nebula.

This view of the Cocoon Nebula, IC 5146, shows a star-forming region from ESA’s Herschel. The bright blue region contains hundreds of young stellar objects, which makes up an emission nebula: a region of ionized gas where new stars are forming. The ‘tail’ of neutral gas behind it composes a dark molecular cloud, which is identified as the dark nebula Barnard 168. (ESA/HERSCHEL/SPIRE/PACS/D. ARZOUMANIAN (CEA SACLAY))

ESA’s Herschel shows heating and ionization from new star-formation.

In visible light, the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula simply appears as a thin, dense wisp of gas. What’s actually occurring is that the gas is attempting to collapse to form new stars in a great cosmic race, as external, energetic radiation works to evaporate the gas off from the outside. This will leave many new stars, but also failed stars, when the process is complete. (© J-P METSAVAINIO)

5.) The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula.

The ionizing radiation coming from the surrounding young stars is boiling away the gas at the center, which defines the main feature known as the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula in the star-forming region IC 1396. The infrared views of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope peers through the gas, revealing only the components that are heated by the surrounding radiation. (NASA/JPL-CALTECH/W. REACH (SSC/CALTECH))

NASA’s Spitzer reveals the warm, evaporating gas inside.

This large region of ionized hydrogen gas, NGC 281, is known as the Pac-Man Nebula. It includes a young, open star cluster, IC 1590, and several Bok Globules: dark lanes of cold molecular gas. Astronomers are still agnostic as to whether it makes the ‘wogga wogga wogga’ sound that Pac-Man makes. (© J-P METSAVAINIO)

6.) The Pac-Man Nebula.

This composite image of NGC 281 contains X-ray data from Chandra (purple) with infrared observations from Spitzer (red, green, blue). The high-mass stars in NGC 281 drive many aspects of their galactic environment through powerful winds flowing from their surfaces and intense radiation that heats surrounding gas, “boiling it away” into interstellar space. (X-RAY: NASA/CXC/CFA/S.WOLK; IR: NASA/JPL/CFA/S.WOLK)

This Chandra/Spitzer composite reveals new stars amidst the gas.

The Flaming Star Nebula, shown here, contains both IC 405 (top right) and IC 410 (lower-left). There are a number of ionized elements that appear here: oxygen (in blue), hydrogen (in green), and sulfur (in red). This image is a composite of 9 separate 1200 second (20 minute) exposures that have all been stitched together. (© J-P METSAVAINIO)

7.) The Flaming Star Nebula.

Rippling dust and gas lanes give the Flaming Star Nebula its name. This image was largely constructed from ground-based professional images in the late 20th century; it’s astounding how comparable a single amateur’s images just ~20 years later are competitive with this. (DAVIDE DE MARTIN & THE ESA/ESO/NASA PHOTOSHOP FITS LIBERATOR)

These bright clouds house stars,

The flaming star nebula, shown here, is imaged with data from NASA’s FUSE satellite. FUSE, the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer, has surveyed the local deuterium concentration in the galaxy and found far more than expected. Because deuterium is a tracer of star and galaxy evolution, this discovery has the potential to radically alter theories about how stars and galaxies form. (T.A. RECTOR AND B.A. WOLPA, NOAO, AURA AND NSF)

which boil off the surrounding matter.

Imaged in the same colors that Hubble’s narrowband photography would reveal, this image shows NGC 6888: the Crescent Nebula. Also known as Caldwell 27 and Sharpless 105, this is an emission nebula in the Cygnus constellation, formed by a fast stellar wind from a single Wolf-Rayet star. (© J-P METSAVAINIO)

8.) The Crescent Nebula.

The Hubble telescope has snapped a view of a stellar demolition zone in our Milky Way Galaxy: a massive star, nearing the end of its life, tearing apart the shell of surrounding material it blew off 250, 000 years ago with its strong stellar wind. The shell of material, dubbed the Crescent Nebula (NGC 6888), surrounds the ‘hefty, ‘ aging star WR 136. (BRIAN D. MOORE, JEFF HESTER, PAUL SCOWEN, REGINALD DUFOUR AND NASA/ESA)

Hubble’s narrow views only reveals this dying star’s edges.

This galactic supernova remnant is a composite of three separate exposure sets combined by astrophotographer J-P Metsävainio. Its age is one of the most uncertain supernova remnants known, with estimates ranging from 3000 to 30000 years of age. (J-P METSÄVAINIO)

9.) The Jellyfish Nebula.

The Jellyfish Nebula, also known by its official name IC 443, is the remnant of a supernova lying 5,000 light-years from Earth. New Chandra observations show that the explosion that created the Jellyfish Nebula may have also formed a peculiar object located on the southern edge of the remnant, called CXOU J061705.3+222127, or J0617 for short. The object is likely a rapidly spinning neutron star, or pulsar. (WIDE FIELD OPTICAL: FOCAL POINTE OBSERVATORY/B.FRANKE, INSET X-RAY: NASA/CXC/MSFC/D.SWARTZ ET AL, INSET OPTICAL: DSS, SARA)

A single supernova created this energetic remnant.

This wide-field view of the Eagle Nebula, Messier 16 (M16), is part of J-P Metsavainio’s spectacular 2,750 square degree Milky Way composite. The 12-year project has culminated in a 1.7 gigapixel mosaic that showcases many popular and dynamic features found within our home galaxy. (© J-P METSAVAINIO)

10.) The Eagle Nebula.

The Pillars of Creation, as viewed in visible light by Hubble, are exquisitely beautiful, and reveal a myriad of details about the external gas and dust structure comprising the pillars. But details about what’s occurring inside and behind those pillars are extremely sparse in visible light, and require infrared views to reveal. (NASA, ESA AND THE HUBBLE SM4 ERO TEAM)

The pillars,

This 9.5 light-year long spire of dust, known as the Fairy, is found in the Eagle Nebula. Imaged by Hubble, it contains numerous newly forming stars inside, which work to evaporate off the gas and dust even as the new stars continue to form and grow on the pillar’s interiors. (NASA, ESA AND THE HUBBLE HERITAGE TEAM (STSCI/AURA))

and the fairy,

It will take longer-duration missions with excellent light-gathering power and sensitivity to reveal the first Earth-like world around a Sun-like star. There are plans in both NASA’s and ESA’s timelines for such missions. Some of these missions, like James Webb and NASA’s Nancy Roman Telescope (formerly WFIRST), will also be extraordinary for their cosmological capabilities. (NASA AND PARTNERS)

give hints of what NASA’s next-generation, wide-field Hubble successor will reveal.

The Hubble Ultra-Deep Field, shown in blue, is currently the largest, deepest long-exposure campaign undertaken by humanity. For the same amount of observing time, the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope will be able to image the orange area to the exact same depth, revealing over 100 times as many objects as are present in the comparable Hubble image. (NASA, ESA, AND A. KOEKEMOER (STSCI); ACKNOWLEDGEMENT: DIGITIZED SKY SURVEY)

Mostly Mute Monday tells an astronomical story in images, visuals, and no more than 200 words. Talk less; smile more.

Starts With A Bang is written by Ethan Siegel, Ph.D., author of Beyond The Galaxy, and Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive.


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