I’d like to invite you to take a moment or two to peruse some of my nature images. Well, not mine, entirely – I didn’t take these ones myself, because the kit used to take them is a bit out of my price range. It occurred to me that there’s a lot of nature that we often overlook, because it’s usually not visible to us; yet it offers views and images of outstanding beauty once someone invents the means to look. Well, we’re lucky in that someone has – so I’d like to show you a few of my favourite Objects In Space.
To begin with, I’d like to show you a dot. It’s a very famous dot. You may have seen it before:
See that orange stripe across the upper frame? See about halfway along that stripe, there’s a little blue-white dot? That’s Earth. As in the Earth (except it’s not really called ‘the Earth’ – just ‘Earth’). A photograph taken on 14 February 1990 by the NASA space probe Voyager 1, as it sailed out of the solar system and into deep space. Scientist and author Carl Sagan, who’d encouraged NASA to use the probe to take the image, said:
“Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of; every human being who ever was lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering; thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines; every hunter and forager; every hero and coward; every creator and destroyer of civilization; every king and peasant; every young couple in love; every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer; every teacher of morals; every corrupt politician; every ‘superstar’, every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there: on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Or, as the great philosopher Londo Molari¹ once put it:
“Whatever it is, it can’t be that bad.”
But enough reflectiveness; one could get quite melancholy. So let’s turn back outward again and embark on a quick whistle-stop tour of some of the prettiest bits of nature-in-space yet discovered by our clever optical gizmos.
One of the most photographed objects in nearby space is the Great Nebula, numbered M42 in the Messier catalogue (which is, effectively, a list of interesting sights to see in space).
You may well be familiar with the constellation of Orion, the Hunter. It’s one of the most well-known star patterns, and it’s a prominent feature of the winter sky in particular. Orion, as you may know, has a belt, consisting of three stars, and from that belt ‘hang’ three more stars, which are referred to as his sword. If you look on a clear night you may notice that the middle star looks a little hazy:
It’s hazy because it’s not actually a star. It’s not a pinpoint light source like the others. Actually, it’s a nebula – a huge cloud of gases swirling around in space – the remnants of a supernova explosion. And from closer to, it looks like this:
Stars burn by a process of nuclear fusion. Instead of pulling fuel atoms apart, like our power plants on Earth do, stars fuse atoms together to create heavier materials. In stars like the Sun – middling-sized yellow ones – hydrogen atoms are fused to create helium. In bigger, older stars, the helium is turned into heavier elements, such as carbon, neon, oxygen, silicon – and eventually into the heaviest of elements such as iron and gold. Food for thought: the metal cutlery you eat with; the gold jewellery you wear; the minerals in your bones – all these things were created in the burning heart of a star.
But how do these materials escape from the star so that we can have stone to walk on and water to drink? Sometimes, as they reach the end of their lifetimes, the biggest stars go supernova: they explode, and the materials they’ve generated are blasted out into space in huge clouds of gas and dust. And thousands of years later, we see these clouds as nebulae, such as M42 above; or the M2-9 Butterfly:
The Eagle Nebula:
And, inside the Eagle, a region of space in which new stars are being formed from the condensing gases of the nebula: a true example of life from death in a stunningly beautiful formation fittingly named the Pillars of Creation:
The formation commonly referred to as the ‘Hand of God’² is so far away that light takes 17,000 years to get from it to us; which means that when you look at this object you are in effect looking 170 centuries back in time (which is why the image looks a little blurry and indistinct – frankly it’s a miracle we can see it at all!):
Moving further afield, outside the boundaries of our own spiral galaxy, we find other examples like it, and some of these can make for most impressive scenery. Our galaxy is quite close – astronomically speaking – to another rather like it, if quite a lot bigger. This is the Andromeda Galaxy:
And this, with its distinctive perimeter band of dark dust and gas, is the Sombrero Galaxy:
I could go on. There are untold thousands of images available of these and less well-known objects, and the catalogue is being added to all the time. Some of the most fascinating (not to mention terrifying) phenomena in astronomical terms don’t have many photos taken of them; perhaps because they’re not radiating energy in the visible range, or maybe they’re simply too far away, too small or too intermittent to capture: for example pulsars, quasars, and the famed black holes. But there are plenty like this to keep us thinking. I often like to spend time just trying to comprehend the sheer scales involved: how far away these things are; how big; how powerful – and of course, how long ago we’re seeing them.
I’ve just one image to end on – one of my favourite landscape shots. It’s a beautiful image of a sunset, yet it’s somehow stark, cold and lonely. The terrain looks as though it could be any desert region on Earth:
But it’s not a desert region on Earth. This shot was taken on Mars by NASA’s Spirit rover in 2005, as the wandering probe watched this strangely pallid Sun sink towards the horizon, and the long Martian twilight began.
 – Okay, he’s not so much a ‘Great Philosopher’ as ‘one of the characters in Babylon 5‘. The quote should be spoken with a slightly Russian-sounding accent, possibly a little alcohol, and traces of fang. Also, if you want to do the job really properly, and are male, spike your hair up into a big fan shape. If you’re female, shave it off. Well, it’s just as good a quote without the costume and acting.
 – For some reason, I haven’t been able to find out so far what it’s actually called – but everyone seems to refer to it by that name and it’s easily found online with that title.
EDIT 24/04/10: Due to heavy commercial comment spam, I have disabled comments on this post only. If you have any comments you’d like to send, then please email them to the usual address. Thank ‘ee. – T.