Cruising The Loop…

Image Credit: T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), Richard Cool (University of Arizona) and WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Since the world didn’t end in 2012, the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) and WIYN partners give us an end of the year look at the end of the life of a star. This incredible vision is one of the largest astronomical images ever made – covering an area of sky about 45 times the size of the full Moon and encompassing over 600 million pixels. Have you guessed what it is yet? The Cygnus Loop… Located about 1500 light years away in the direction of the constellation of Cygnus, the “Loop” is what is left of an exploded star – a supernova remnant. Its age isn’t very clear – an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 years. The Cygnus Loop was first discovered by my favorite astronomer, Sir William Herchel, in 1784.

Because of its huge expanse, the Loop has often been cataloged with more than one designation, “including 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. The bright star near the western edge of the image, known as 52 Cygnus, is not associated with the supernova.”

Just how did they manage to get such a detailed image? The data was captured with the “NOAO Mosaic 1 camera, with observations in the Oxygen [OIII] (blue), Sulphur [S II] (green) and Hydrogen-Alpha (red) filters. When mounted on the WIYN 0.9 meter telescope the Mosaic camera has a one square degree field of view. The Cygnus Loop was observed with nine separate telescope pointings in a 3×3 grid pattern.”

Cygnus Loop

Cygnus Loop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The intial observations were captured by Richard Cool (what a great name!) in 2003. At the time he was a graduate student at the University of Arizona and was participating in a project to measure the distance to the Cygnus Loop. Now he’s “Dr. Cool” and stationed at the MMT Observatory in Arizona.

He says; “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”.

Ten years ago, the computing power needed to process all that data into a single, full-resolution color image just wasn’t available. Now it can be re-reduced and handed off to another favorite of mine, Travis Rector, who created the large image seen here. Dr. Rector is very well-known for his incredible series of color images taken with NOAO telescopes and they can be found at both his website and the dedicated NOAO Gallery pages.

Thanks to images like this one taken of the Cygnus Loop, we can clearly see how astro-imaging has progressed. Now smaller telescopes equipped with modern cameras are able to particpate in “cutting-edge research”. The 0.9 meter telescope at Kitt Peak is operated by the WIYN Consortium.

It has been in operation since 1960, when the original telescope was first installed at the site now occupied by the WIYN 3.5 meter telescope. Today, the 0.9 meter is regularly used by graduate students and faculty for a variety of research projects.

Look around the web at a huge variety of astronomy educational articles and you’ll see NOAO/AURA images decorating their pages. These awesome shots are freely given to use for educational purposes and we deeply appreciate their use.

Original Story Source: National Optical Astronomy Observatory News Release. Reported by Tammy Plotner for “Dave Reneke’s World of Space and Astronomy News”.

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