NASA's Swift satellite is a modern success story: designed to peer at the Universe in ultraviolet, X-rays, and gamma rays, it is on constant lookout for gamma-ray bursts, explosions so vast they are second only to the Big Bang itself.
Swift scans the skies, constantly observing, always on its toes for that fleeting blast of high-energy light. But it also does other science as well; an orbiting camera like that has many uses. For three months in 2008, astronomers used Swift to target the nearest major spiral galaxy like our own: M31, the Andromeda Galaxy. And what they got was this gorgeous picture:
Wow. You absolutely want to click that to embiggen it most cromulently -- you'll get a whopping 4400 x 200 pixel version.
This image is incredible, both scientifically and logistically. It is the combination of 330 images, totaling 24 hours of solid observations, and amounted to a hefty 85 gigabytes of data. It covers three UV wavelengths: 192.8, 224.6, and 260 nanometers, which are just outside the range the human eye can see.
The image is huge; the full Moon would just fit over the apparent size of the central bulge of the galaxy. Over 20,000 individual sources of ultraviolet light can be found. Some science can be seen just with just a glance: for example, the light coming from the spiral arms is clumpy, and from the bulge it's smooth. The arms are where you find patches of giant gas clouds forming newly born stars; the most massive of these blast out UV light and fierce winds which make the clouds themselves glow in UV.
But the bulge at the core is smooth, because stars there are old; star formation long ago ceased in the galactic center. The UV glow is mostly from tightly packed stars, not from gas. There are so many stars that the individual sources blend together into what looks like a continuous glow (not unlike a digital image itself, where individual pixels blend together to make what looks like a smooth picture).
This image is the most detailed ever taken of our big neighbor in the ultraviolet, and I have no doubt it will be used as an atlas for higher-resolution cameras aboard Hubble and future spacecraft. Pictures like this are scientifically incredibly useful; they are roadmaps we can use to plan out our travels ahead.
And they are also just very, very cool.
Image credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler (GSFC) and Erin Grand (UMCP)