December 19, 2012
Astronomers Offer High Resolution Image Of Cygnus Loop
April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
The National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) and WIYN partners have offered this extraordinary wide-field image of the Cygnus loop as an end of the year finale. The image, three degrees to a side, covers an area of the sky about 45 times that of the full moon without sacrificing high resolution. The image is one of the largest astronomical images ever made at over 600 million pixels in size.
Located some 1,500 light-years from Earth near the constellation Cygnus (the swan), the Cygnus Loop is a supernova remnant — the gaseous remains of a massive star that exploded long ago. The explosion that produced the nebula occurred between 5,000 to 10,000 years ago, astronomers estimate. It was first noted by William Herschel in 1784.
The Loop is so large that it's many parts have been cataloged as separate objects. These objects include NGC 6992, NGC 6995 and IC 1340 along the eastern (left) side of the image, NGC 6974 and NGC 6979 near the top-center, and the Veil Nebula (NGC 6960) and Pickering´s Triangle along the western (right) edge. Along the western edge of the image is a bright star, known as 52 Cygnus, which is not associated with the supernova.
Using observations in the Oxygen [OIII] (blue), Sulphur [S II] (green) and Hydrogen-Alpha (red) filters, the team obtained the data with the NOAO Mosaic 1 camera, which when mounted on the WIYN 0.9 meter telescope has one square degree field of view. Nine separate telescopes pointing in a 3x3 grid were necessary to observe the Cygnus Loop.
Dr. Richard Cool obtained the original observations in 2003 while he was a graduate student at the University of Arizona. He was working as part of a project to precisely measure the distance to the Cygnus Loop. Now at the MIT Observatory in Arizona, Dr. Cool noted, “Often, astronomical research reduces images to dry tables of numerical information that we analyze in order to more deeply understand our universe. Images like this are amazing because they can remind you of the big picture and beauty that surrounds us."
The computing power available in 2003 was insufficient to process the data into a single, full-resolution color image. In 2012, the data were re-reduced and processed by Dr. Travis Rector of the University of Alaska to create the image presented today. A remarkable series of color images obtained from NOAO telescopes can be viewed on Rector's website and at a NOAO gallery page.
Even relatively small telescopes, when equipped with modern cameras, are capable of producing cutting-edge research images such as Cygnus Loop. The WIYN 0.9 meter telescope is located at Kitt Peak and has been in operation since it was installed in 1960 at the site now occupied by the WIYN 3.5 meter telescope. The 0.9 meter telescope is currently used by graduate students and a variety of faculty for a diverse range of research projects.