What Our Galaxy Looks Like From Out There

Stunning newphotos of M51, aka the Whirlpool Galaxy. Consider that M51 is a lot like our Milky Way, only smaller. Maybe in this “golden spiral” there’s a sun like ours, with a planet like ours…

While we’re on the subject, I urge everyone on this planet to go see the IMAX film Hubble 3D. In 2009, a crew of NASA astronauts took a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. As they’ve done for the past 25 years, they took along an IMAX camera. This footage provides one of the most intimate looks into day-to-day life aboard a spaceship, which is by turns banal and hair-raising. Some folks might not think that watching astronauts scramble to find a lost screw in zero gravity is very fascinating, but my 5-year-old son loved it.

Then comes the big payoff: astonishingly detailed and clear images from distant galaxies taken by the repaired and upgraded Hubble.  As you seemingly hurtle through space, past stars that appear within reach, you have to remind yourself that this isn’t animation but real.

Actually, the space-flight part is a 3-D simulation created with images enhanced by the imaging team at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Astrophysicist Dr. Frank Summers and his team combined Hubble’s raw data of the same object taken with different telescopic instruments and then layered the images to give them depth and texture in a way that enables a realistic fly-through effect. Then, according to the IMAX press kit, “they integrated information about composition, ionization, temperatures, color, volatility and other specifics compiled through the years by teams of scientists, to provide a detailed and fluid model of wide portions of the cosmos.”

In short, this is what 3-D technology was made for.
As one of the astronauts says, “It’s beyond what we can comprehend” —  a nebula — or “star nursery”– where new planets are born; wispy, trailing spirals of  cosmic gas and dust that resemble giant cell cultures; the 10 million swarming stars in the globular cluster Omega Centauri.  The only downside is that it’s over too soon. Let’s hope the NASA-IMAX team comes out with another 3-D (or 4-D, as the trend seems to be) space odyssey soon. These films are one of the best tools we have to spark the imagination of adults and junior space explorers alike — and ensure that the space exploration continues to get the public and financial support vital to its survival.

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