2006.01.16 Chasing the Cosmic Jellyfish

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Space Telescopes Capture a Cosmic Jellyfish.

I don’t know about you, but that’s the kind of headline that grabs my attention. You know it’s not going to be as good as it sounds—there isn’t really a giant jellyfish in outer space—but it still makes me want to take a closer look.

What actually happened is this: Astronomers have taken multi-wavelength images of the Cartwheel galaxy and it looks like a cosmic jellyfish pulsing with light. It shows concentric rings and each ring represents a wave of star birth. The Cartwheel galaxy is about two and a half times larger than our own galaxy, the Milky Way.

Is this when I begin to lose you? Too confusing? Don’t give up yet.

Sure, it’s baffling to look up at the night sky and see thousands of stars, and know there are actually at least 250 billion stars in our galaxy—and then learn there are a few other galaxies out there. An international team of astronomers is joining efforts to study the 300 closest galaxies, but an estimate from a few years ago says there are at least 125 billion galaxies.

To summarize, our sun is one of at least 250 billion stars in our galaxy. Our galaxy is one of at least 125 billion.

All right, you can go now if you wish, but you might want to stick around for other baffling stuff.

Here’s a roundup of some of the latest from Out There:

• A neutron star near the center of the Milky Way is spinning 716 times a second. That not only sets a record, but it exceeds what was thought to be physically possible.

• The fringes of the Milky Way ruffle like a tablecloth in the breeze.

• The Milky Way continues to grow by cannibalizing its neighbors. Currently, we’re eating a dwarf galaxy.

• Scientists are watching the collision of two galaxies that might show how the Milky Way will end. In fact, they think in about 5 billion years, the Milky Way will collide with our neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy.

“This is quite scary,” said British astronomer Ian Robson. The light show is fantastic, he says, but “it sends shivers down my spine. Glad to say I won’t be around when the fireball happens.”

• The Milky Way isn’t being pulled toward the Great Attractor after all. We’re streaming to an even more massive point beyond. How did we make such a foolish mistake? There’s a lot of dust from a big cluster of galaxies that gets in the way. Scientists call it the Zone of Avoidance.

• The Milky Way appears to be made up of four spiraling arms that curve around the center like a pinwheel. Another tendril was found a couple of years ago, but it might be a few million stars broken off one of the main arms.

For years people have talked about how art precedes reality. In this case, ideas presented in science fiction later become part of mainstream science. There are a couple of well-respected physicists who are looking for some sort of signature left behind by a creator of the universe.

“If you could create a universe in your laboratory, wouldn’t you want to leave a message inside?” asks Steven Hsu of the University of Oregon.

If there were such a thing, says Hsu and colleague Tony Zee, it would probably be located in the cosmic microwave background radiation, a leftover from the Big Bang when matter and energy became distinct. They’re hoping for a “cosmic decoder ring” to answer the big questions in physics.

  Similar ideas have appeared in science fiction over the years. Some people see the creator of the universe in the usual comprehension of God. Others see the creator as some excellent engineer who was assigned to this galaxy and programmed the universal constants to create life. Others pooh-pooh the entire notion as humans’ desperate need to find some meaning to their existence.

A thought by the late writer Douglas Adams serves as a good closing to spinning neutron stars and feasting galaxies:

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarrely inexplicable. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”

– Jan. 18, 2006
  • Play Practice
    DRAMA—Fayette schools, in conjunction with the Opera House Theater program, will present two plays Friday night at the Fayette Opera House. From the left is Autumn Black, Wyatt Mitchell, Elizabeth Myers, Jonah Perdue, Sam Myers (in the back) and Lauren Dale. Other cast members are Brynn Balmer, Mason Maginn, Ashtyn Dominique, Stephanie Munguia and Sierra Munguia. Jason Stuckey serves as the technician and Trinity Leady is the backstage manager. The plays will be performed during the day Friday for students and for the public at 7 p.m. Friday.
  • Front.F.school
    PROGRESS continues on the agriculture classroom addition at Fayette High School. The project will add 2,900 square feet of space and include an overhead door that would allow equipment to be driven inside. The building should be ready for the start of school in August. Work on ball fields and a running track is also underway.
  • Front.rover
    CLEARING THE WAY—Road crossings in the area on the construction route of the Rover natural gas pipeline are marked with poles and flags as preliminary work nears. Ditches and field entry points are covered with thick planks in many areas to support equipment for tree clearing operations. Actual pipeline construction is progressing across Ohio toward a collecting station near Defiance. That segment of the project is expected to wrap up in July. The 42-inch line through Michigan and into Ontario is scheduled for completion in November. The line is projected to transport 3.25 billion cubic feet of natural gas every day.
  • Front.geese
    ON THE MOVE—Six goslings head out on manuevers with their parents in an area lake. Baby waterfowl are showing up in lakes and ponds throughout the area.
  • Accident
    FAYETTE resident Patricia Stambaugh, 64, was declared dead on the scene of a single-vehicle accident Friday morning south of Morenci. Rescue units were called around 9 a.m., but as of Tuesday, law enforcement officers had not yet determined the time of the accident. According to Ohio State Highway Patrol, Stambaugh was driving west on U.S. 20 when her Chevrolet Malibu traveled off the north side of the road and down a steep embankment, coming to rest in Bean Creek (Tiffin River).
  • Front.teacher Leading
    PRESCHOOL MUSIC—Fayette band director Jeffrey Dunford spends the last half hour of the day leading the full-day preschool class in musical activities. Additional photos are on page 7 of this week’s Observer.
  • Front.poles
    MOVING EAST—Utility workers continue their slow progress east along U.S. 20 south of Morenci. New electrical poles are put in place before wiring is moved into place.
  • Face Paint
    FUN NIGHT FUN—Savanna Miles sits patiently while Abbie White works on a face paint design Friday during the Morenci PTO Fun Night. Gracie Snead watches the progress after having spent time in the chair. Abbie was one of several volunteer painters, each creating their own unique look. Additional photos are on the back page of this week’s Observer.

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