Tuesday, January 11, 2011

What's a Hanny's Voorwerp?

It's Dutch for Hanny's Object, of course!

What, that doesn't clear things up for you?  Maybe a picture will help:

OK.  For those of you who have not already heard, Hanny's Voorwerp is a strange celestial object discovered by Dutch teacher Hanny van Arkel while working on the Galaxy Zoo project.  She's not a researcher or a PhD, just a regular 27-year old woman with an interest in science and Queen guitarist Brian May (whose web site first got her interested in Galaxy Zoo).  In 2007 she was reviewing images as part of the project and noticed a strange blue smudge beneath a beautiful spiral galaxy.  Intrigued, she copied the picture and asked fellow project members if they knew what it was. 

Three years later we finally have a better idea of what she was looking at. As described by MSNBC reporter Alan Boyle:

"Hanny's Voorwerp turned out to be a small part of a 300,000-light-year-long streamer of gas, located about 650 million light-years from Earth. Scientists suggested that a quasar in a nearby galaxy, known as IC 2497, was shining on Hanny's Voorwerp, lighting up the oxygen in the streamer with a greenish glow. The only problem was that no quasar could be seen. Eventually, astronomers spotted a radio source in the galaxy that was sending out weak emissions. "That's like seeing a bank of fog lit up by a floodlight, but when you look to where the floodlight is, you see a laser pointer," Yale astronomer Kevin Schawinski said today.

[One] possibility is that the swirling disk of material surrounding the black hole switched the way that it gave off energy. Instead of radiating energy as quasar jets of light, the disk started throwing off kinetic energy, in the form of a shock wave of gas moving into the surrounding space. The high-resolution Hubble image supports [that] explanation."

Recently Hanny appeared at a recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society where a paper was presented based on follow-up images taken by the Hubble telescope.  She's getting a good amount of (well deserved) press again as the excitement over her discovery continues.  But enough of this second-hand reporting...check out the full story yourself at MSNBC's Cosmic Log.

And hopefully one day I can write a post about your next discovery!