The most important invention in the field of astronomy was, besides the telescope, the camera. With a camera, astronomers no longer had to rely on the faint observations they’d written in their notebooks. Instead, they could spend weeks analyzing a single frame and pulling out all the details.
Since then, astronomers have captured some of the most incredible objects and phenomena in the universe in their lenses. Some astronomy photos have even made history.
Captured 10 Amazing Astronomical Events on Camera
10 The birth of a solar system
So far, the process of planet formation was only known through mathematical models and computer simulations. Then, in 2014, astronomers were able to photograph the process in more detail than ever before.
The photo shows a protoplanetary disk surrounding a newborn star – in this case HL Tauri – after the remaining material of the star has settled. You may notice discrete rings all over the hard drive. These are the orbits of future planets.
The most amazing thing?
This system forms planets and HL Tauri is no older than a million years! Based on this photo, astronomers now believe that planets form almost immediately after their star is born.
9 Supernova 1987A
When the most massive stars in the universe die, they explode. The explosion is known as a supernova and can be seen from millions or billions of light years away. Unfortunately, prior to 1987, we only saw supernovae at this distance, so the information we gathered about them was very limited.
Then, on a cold winter night in 1987, a blue supergiant went into the Supernova in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way only 166,000 light years away. SN 1987A, as it was called, was the closest supernova to Earth since Kepler’s supernova in 1604, so it was a rare opportunity to study the explosive death of a star in detail.
Most of what we know about supernovae today comes from SN 1987A. The astronomers learned all the steps that led to such an explosion, received irrefutable proof that these explosions produce the elements necessary for life on earth, and were even able to detect the neutrinos (particles similar to electrons but much heavier) that are produced in the explosion tangible).
8th Cracks in Europe
On July 9, 1979, NASA’s Voyager 2 probe passed Jupiter, revealing the first high-resolution images of Europe, one of the planet’s moons. Because of its low density, scientists knew that Europe contains a significant amount of water. However, its distance from the Sun (5.2 times as far as Earth) led many scientists to believe that all of Europe’s water was frozen.
Accordingly, shock waves traveled through the scientific community when Voyager 2 sent back a photo of Europe’s surface showing it was covered in dozens of distinctive dark streaks. A topographic map of Europe identified these strips as massive cracks in the ice.
Similar features are found in the Earth’s ice sheets when a liquid ocean beneath the ice pulls it apart and water rushes and freezes between the cracks. Scientists now believe that beneath Europe’s surface there is an ocean of liquid water several miles deep. What could swim there?
7th Stars orbit a supermassive black hole
Sagittarius A * is a mysterious radio source in the center of our Milky Way. It has long been believed that Sagittarius A * is an extreme race of black holes – a supermassive black hole.
We usually think of black holes as those that are left behind when the largest stars become supernovae. They are roughly as massive as 10 suns. However, supermassive black holes are billions (and sometimes billions) times the mass of the sun.
In 2002, the existence of supermassive black holes was essentially confirmed when a team of international astronomers snapped an incredible photo of a star in orbit around Sagittarius A *. It’s a scary picture. The star looks like it is orbiting empty space, but it is being spun around at 5,000 kilometers per second.
By mapping this star’s orbit, scientists were able to study Sagittarius A’s gravitational field, which provided near-conclusive evidence that only a supermassive black hole could be present. This photograph implicitly confirms that the mysterious mass concentrations that occur in the centers of other galaxies are also supermassive black holes.
6th The Hubble Deep Field
The Hubble Space Telescope is one of the busiest telescopes in the world. For this reason, it was quite a surprise when scientists decided in 1995 to point the telescope at a completely empty space for ten consecutive days. Amazingly, the picture that emerged wasn’t blank at all.
It contained nearly 3,000 galaxies, all of which were too faint to have been captured earlier. Almost every point of light you see in the picture is a galaxy. Some of them are so far away that we look at them in the past 10 billion years ago and take a look at the first stages of their formation.
Since closer galaxies also appear in the picture, we are essentially looking at a time axis of the universe. The Hubble Deep Field, as the photo was called, is a tiny part of the sky. (It’s about 1/30 the size of the full moon). Hence, the sheer number of galaxies it contains suggests how large our universe is.
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5 The bullet cluster
When astronomers look at a galaxy, it always has a stronger pull than warranted by the stars and gas in the galaxy. This discrepancy is one of the greatest mysteries in astrophysics. But it could be solved by the existence of dark matter.
Dark matter is a hypothetical particle that does not interact with light at all, although many believe that it makes up most of the matter in the universe. Whether or not dark matter exists is still open to debate, but a famous 2006 photo provides serious evidence for the idea.
It’s a photo called Bullet Cluster that captures two galaxy clusters in the middle of the collision. The collision created a unique structure in which the stars are separated from gas and dust.
Since gas and dust make up most of the mass in a galaxy, they should have the strongest gravitational pull. However, gravity is focused on the stars, which means that there is still an invisible heavyweight in the universe.
4th A direct photo of a black hole
A photo of a black hole sounds impossible. After all, black holes, by definition, do not emit light. However, the gas falling into a black hole emits light. Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicts that a black hole creates a “shadow” or “silhouette” between the glowing gas and that this can be photographed.
Since this destination is incredibly obscure, the company theoretically requires a telescope the size of Earth. Amazingly, scientists at the Event Horizon Telescope did just that.
They synchronized eight telescopes around the world to mimic a giant telescope with a diameter equal to the distance between the telescopes. After careful data processing, the resulting photo immediately made history.
The picture shows a supermassive black hole, 6.5 billion times the size of the sun, which sits in the heart of its galaxy M87 about 55 million light-years from Earth. The event horizon (the border of the black hole) also presented itself exactly as Einstein’s theory predicted, and confirmed the theory like never before.
3 The cosmic microwave background
Just 380,000 years after the Big Bang, the temperature and density of the universe had dropped so far that the first photons (light particles) could zoom through space. As the universe expanded, these photons were stretched to greater wavelengths. Today we observe them as microwaves and call them the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB).
The CMB was discovered in 1965. It was not until 1989 that a satellite was launched to carry out detailed measurements and a panoramic map of the CMB. Although more detailed maps were made in the years that followed, it was the first map to enchant the world for the first time. Not only did it capture the imprint of the big bang, it also formally verified the big bang theory.
2 The VAR! Plate
Before 1923, we weren’t sure if the Milky Way was the entire universe or if other galaxies existed. Astronomers had seen other galaxies, but only as insoluble “fuzzy” spots that they calculated as nebulae.
One of these objects was the Andromeda Galaxy. In October 1923, the famous astronomer Edwin Hubble focused on Andromeda with what was then the largest telescope in the world. He photographed the galaxy on a glass plate (the way astronomical photos were taken back then).
After careful analysis, he found that a star had changed its brightness compared to previous nights of observation. These are known as variable stars, and this particular type can be used to determine distance. Excited by this find, Hubble wrote “VAR!” (means “variable”) on the plate.
He calculated the distance to Andromeda and found that it was far beyond the range of the Milky Way. Just like that, the universe expanded enormously. We now estimate that there are 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe.
1 The 1919 solar eclipse
Can gravity bend light?
It’s a radical idea, but a young Albert Einstein was sure of it. Einstein’s general theory of relativity not only sparked a revolution in astronomy, it changed the entire field of physics forever. Although Newton could describe the effects of gravity, Einstein essentially answered the question, “Why does gravity happen?”
In his mind, the room is like a trampoline. If you put a heavy object (like the sun) on it, the room will bend. Other objects like the earth then orbit because they only follow the natural curvature of space.
As incredible as the theory is on paper, the scientific community obviously needed evidence. According to Einstein, if you could prove that the sun’s gravity distorts the light from stars behind the sun, his theory would be confirmed. However, such an experiment could only be carried out during a solar eclipse so that the intense rays of the sun do not obscure the stars.
In May 1919, three years after the general theory of relativity was published, a total solar eclipse occurred. Under the guidance of Einstein, the famous astronomer Arthur Eddington took a photo of the solar eclipse and marked the position of the stars behind it.
However, the stars were not where they should be, indicating that their light was bent. Einstein became a celebrity overnight, and the photo was immortalized in history.
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About the author: I am an amateur astronomer, astrophotographer and tutor from Long Island. Check out my astrophotography Instagram @universe_selfies.