The Early Universe Soup

In the first few millionths of the second after the Big Bang, the universe looked very different than today. In fact the universe existed as a different form of matter altogether: the quark-gluon plasma or QGP, a weird 'soup' of quarks and gluons buzzing around frantically at temperatures of over 1,000,000,000,000 degrees. ...

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Traditional Chinese medicine theorizes that there are more than 2,000 acupuncture points on the human body, and that these connect with 12 main and 8 secondary pathways called meridians. Chinese ... Continue reading


Metamorphic Rock

There are three rock types on earth, named according to how the rock is formed. Igneous rock forms as it cools to a solid from molten rock. Sedimentary rock is formed from the consolidation of ... Continue reading


Grizzly Bear, (Ursus arctos horribilis)

A symbol of America's wildlands, the grizzly or brown bear is one of the largest North American land mammals. The grizzly bear's historic range covered much of North America from the mid-plains ... Continue reading


Respect Your Nose

Our language seems to indicate that we think of the world as divided up into things that 'smell' and things that don't. Garbage smells. Groceries don't. A dirty sock smells. A clean one doesn't. That ... Continue reading


A Ring Around a Dying Star

ARingAroundaDyingStarIn November 2002, sky watchers were viewing the glow of meteors from the Leonid meteor shower burning up in Earth's atmosphere. They had been anticipating this celestial light show for months, expecting to see hundreds, possibly thousands, of meteors from a wayward comet light up the night sky. Engineers controlling NASA's Hubble Space Telescope had been anticipating the meteor storm, too, but for a different reason. They had to plan how to protect the telescope from a chance impact. Their plan was to turn the telescope's precise mirror away from the stream of comet debris. When they did so, they allowed Hubble to catch another kind of light show, a glowing donut-shaped object called a planetary nebula. A planetary nebula is not a planet but a dying star that has puffed glowing rings of gas into space. The closest and largest planetary nebula to Earth is the Helix nebula, located 650 light-years away.

During the Leonids, Hubble was pointing in the direction of the Helix. So clever Hubble astronomers took advantage of the opportunity by using the Advanced Camera for Surveys to view the nebula. They couldn't squeeze the entire nebula into one or even two snapshots. That would be like trying to squeeze the entire Grand Canyon into one or two pictures. Astronomers used Hubble to take pictures of different regions of the Helix, and then pieced them together like a mosaic to make one photograph. But that still wasn't enough. They had missed some of the nebula's edges. So they combined their mosaic with a wider photograph taken with the Mosaic Camera on the National Science Foundation's 0.9-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Optical Astronomy Observatory.

The final portrait offers a dizzying look down what is actually a trillion-mile-long tunnel of glowing gases. The glowing tube is pointed nearly directly at Earth, appearing more like a bubble. A forest of thousands of comet-like tentacles embedded along the inner rim of the nebula points back toward the central star, which is a small but super-hot white dwarf that seems to float in a sea of blue gas [white dot in center of nebula]. These tentacles formed when a hot 'stellar wind' of gas plowed into colder shells of dust and gas ejected previously by the doomed star. These comet-like tentacles have been observed from ground-based telescopes for decades, but never have they been seen in such detail. They may actually lie in a disk encircling the hot star, like an animal's collar.