Astronomers have shared a treasure trove of galaxy images created from data from four now retired missions.
Cosmic dust contains the building materials for the formation of stars, planets and galaxies.
“Understanding dust is an essential part of understanding our universe,” according to NASA.
The universe is full of cosmic dust, and astronomers are still discovering the role it plays in the cosmos. Now, researchers have combined data from four retired missions to show how clouds of dust fill the space between stars in galaxies, in new images shared by NASA on Thursday.
The researchers used images from the now-retired Herschel Space Observatory, a space telescope that operated from 2009 to 2013. The infrared telescope’s cold instruments were sensitive enough to detect wavelengths of light that the human eye cannot, allowing astronomers to observe the heat from objects and directly map cool clouds of gas and dust.
But while Herschel’s dust maps revealed intricate structures of dust clouds, limits in the telescope’s design meant it lost up to 30% of all the light emitted by the dust. To help fill in these gaps, the researchers combined their observations with data from three other retired missions — the European Space Agency’s Planck observatory, along with NASA’s Infrared Astronomical Satellite and the Cosmic Background Explorer.
“These enhanced Herschel images show us that the dust ‘ecosystems’ in these galaxies are very dynamic,” Christopher Clark, an astronomer at the Space Science Telescope Institute in Maryland, who led the work to create the new images, said in a statement.
The researchers captured images of the Andromeda Galaxy, the Triangle Galaxy and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds – all 3 million light-years from Earth.
In these breathtaking images, the red glow indicates the presence of hydrogen gas – the most common element in the universe. Hotter dust, which emanates when stars form and heats up dust grains, is shown in blue.
In other images, intense winds from newborn stars blew dust and gas around, resulting in empty spaces. The green light around these bubbles indicates cold piled up dust blown by that stellar wind, according to NASA.
“Understanding dust is an essential part of understanding our universe,” NASA said in a press release on Thursday.
The cosmic dust that accumulates in galaxies has many of the chemical elements essential for the formation of stars, planets, galaxies and life as we know it. These dust grains can also reveal something about their cosmic environment, as they are constantly shaped by exploding stars, stellar winds and the effects of gravity.
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