Science

NASA timelapse of space via NEOWISE

NASA timelapse of space via NEOWISE

About the weather follows the story of Tim Lake, played by Domhnall Gleeson, as he manages his family’s unusual talent. All the men in his family have the ability to travel back in time and relive moments they’ve experienced before. Tim uses this ability in an attempt to improve his relationships, seeing his life as a movie that could be remade or reshot with the clarity of seeing life in time lapse.

Those of us in the real world don’t benefit from looking at our lives that way. Instead, moments pass quickly across a relatively static planetary tapestry. These same challenges are present on a much larger scale in the field of astronomy, as scientists try to understand the vast complexity of the universe with instantaneous views through telescopes.

Despite the incredible beauty of the Hubble and JWST images, they are limited in what they can tell us because they see the universe in still life. Those snapshots, stunning in their detail, are just brief moments within a complex set of interactions going back nearly 14 billion years. Astronomy is often like watching a movie, but instead of a cohesive moving image, you get a few dozen photos over the course of two hours. You might be able to infer the broad strokes of what’s going on, but the story would necessarily be incomplete.

To get the full picture of what’s really going on, whether in a movie or in space, you have to see those photos put together to see how things move and interact over time. Making a movie about the entire cosmos is no easy feat, we can’t really put all the reality on a soundstage, we can’t offer stage directions and we can’t shout cut. There are no twists and turns, but that didn’t stop us from trying.

NASA’s Wide Field Near-Earth Infrared Survey Explorer, otherwise known as NEOWISE, was originally conceived as a tool to track distant objects outside our solar system. It used cryogenically cooled detectors to search for infrared light in the sky. Then, in 2011, the ship’s coolant ran out and its initial mission ended. However, some of the spacecraft’s instruments were still operational, and NASA retasked it by scanning the sky in all directions and watching for motion in the background. The primary goal of this new mission is to detect near-Earth objects and provide early warning of any potential impacts. That’s the kind of information that could come in handy if we ever need to send something like this HIT the void to save us from certain doom.

While doing so, the spacecraft’s infrared telescope continued to scan deep space as NEOWISE slowly orbited the Sun. The spacecraft follows the Earth around its orbit and takes pictures in all directions. Every six months, those slices are merged into a map of the whole sky. Over the past decade, NEOWISE has captured 18 of these all-sky maps, each recording millions of individual objects. Now scientists have taken all 18 of those cosmic maps and stitched them together short timelapse movie.

Those maps, even taken individually, provide important information to stargazers, but when taken together they reveal parts of our universe that might otherwise be missed. In the course of its extended mission, NEOWISE has revealed the silent motions of countless celestial objects in incredible detail.

Using just the first two full-sky maps, astronomers identified roughly 200 brown dwarf stars only 65 light years from the Sun. The trick to these discoveries is the difference in apparent motion between objects that are close and objects that are far away.

Imagine standing in a field and watching two people walk perpendicular to your point of view. One of them is 10 feet away, while the other is 1000 feet away. Even while walking at the same speed, the person closer to you seems to cover the distance faster. The same thing happens with stars.

When we look at the night sky at any given moment, the stars appear to be mostly static. Any movement you see is most likely caused by the rotation of the Earth, not the movement of the stars themselves. However, when viewing the sky in time-lapse, some objects are recognized by their rapid movement across the sky. In many cases, these objects are brown dwarfs, objects more massive than gas giant planets but not large enough to fuse material to become a star. They don’t emit much visible light, but they do glow in the infrared, making them perfect for instruments like NEOWISE.

According to NASA, many brown dwarfs are nomadic, floating through the sky alone without planetary or stellar companions. And that drift can be seen when we observe the sky in time lapse. Brown dwarfs weren’t the only things timelapse discovered. Astronomers have also identified nearly 1,000 protostars, which are still in the process of being born. star-forming nebulae. As stars draw material into themselves, they flicker and fade in brightness. Watching them evolve over time could provide astronomers with new information about what happens in the earliest parts of a star’s life.

The universe is so vast, and its machinations so complex, that even a ten-year-old film seems like the blink of an eye. But if NEOWISE, or other crafts like it, continue to take pictures and continue to piece them together, our view of the cosmos, and our understanding of our place in it, will only become clearer.

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