The Sciences

Unlocking the Jewel Box

Bad AstronomyBy Phil PlaitOct 29, 2009 7:46 PM


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Need some pretty for today? Then you should feast your eyes on this exquisite picture of the cluster of stars known as the Jewel Box:

[Click to encaret]. Gee, I can't imagine why'd they name it the Jewel Box! In fact, this is a large cluster of stars located in the southern constellation of Crux, also called the Southern Cross. It's bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye, in fact (though when I was in the Galapagos last year, Crux didn't get high enough off the horizon to see the cluster very well). This image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, shows the multicolored stars dwelling in the cluster. But not for long, I'll add. Those bluish stars are O and B-type supergiants, massive stars that scream through their nuclear fuel thousands of times faster than the Sun, meaning their lives are far shorter. The red beacon there at the upper right is a red supergiant, a star right on the edge of disaster (literally, since the word means "bad or ill star"). It won't be long, maybe a few million more years, when all the bright stars in the Jewel Box will go supernova, detonating in titanic explosions each of which, from the Earth, will outshine Venus!

The image is one of three from three different telescopes, taken to examine the core of the cluster (with Hubble) as well as the outer regions. The picture on the left is from the Very Large Telescope in Chile, and shows a larger area around the cluster (the bright red star is the same as in the Hubble picture). Incredibly, due to the huge telescope's light-gathering abilities, this picture is actually only a 5.2 second exposure! It's composed of three images: one in blue (2.6 seconds), one in yellow (1.3 s) and one in red (1.3 s). When you use a telescope with a mirror 8 frakkin' meters across, bright stars don't take long to show up. Astronomers aren't sure if the Sun was born in a cluster like the Jewel Box, or if it was formed in a smaller cloud by itself; both types of birth occur in the galaxy. I know it's not scientific, but a part of me rather hopes that once upon a time, a few billion years ago, the Sun did in fact see its first light inside such a cluster. Imagine the sky, festooned with stars so bright they outshine the Moon, easily luminous enough to read by, and each glowing blue, red, yellow... that would have been a fantastic sight. Some people think that science takes away the romance and wonder of the Universe, but I don't think not knowing is romantic, especially when knowing gives us such lovely vistas to explore.

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