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July 24, 2009

A Portrait of Life and Death in the Universe

This is an amazing photo. You are seeing the galaxy NGC 1097. At the center is a massive black hole weighing in at about 100 million times the mass of our sun. Our own Milky Way galaxy has a black hole at its center as well; however, it weighs in at only 4 million times the mass of the sun. The bright center of this image is likely to be gas and dust swirling around the black hole on its way to its demise.

This image was taken in the infrared by the Spitzer Space Telescope. The ring around the black hole is a area of intense star birth. The high amount of star formation may be due to all of the material that is flowing towards the galactic center.

Infrared telescopes need to be kept cold to take the incredible photos we have come to expect from telescopes like Spitzer. Unfortunately, Spitzer has run out of liquid helium coolant. Spitzer is slowing warming up and in the next week will start it's "warm mission." I suppose "warm" is relative since it's new temperature will be -406 degrees Fahrenheit. Spitzer has been operating at -456 degrees Fahrenheit (only about 3 degrees above absolute zero) for the last few years. Spitzer is definitely one of my favorite space telescopes because it has produced so many great images like this one. The universe can be very photogenic with the right telescope.

Image Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech