Galactic Fossil Revealed in Infrared Light

Science Animations Video • October 12th, 2004 • ssc2004-16v1

This animation demonstrates the power of infrared light to see what visible light cannot -- a newfound bundle of stars called a globular cluster. The movie shifts from a visible-light image to a near-infrared image to a new mid-infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The visible-light image is from the California Institute of Technology's Digitized Sky Survey and the near-infrared image is from the NASA-funded Two Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS).

Globular clusters date back to the birth of our galaxy, 13 or so billion years ago. There are about 150 clusters sprinkled around the core of the galaxy like seeds in a pumpkin. Astronomers use these galactic "fossils" as tools for studying the age and formation of the Milky Way.

Most clusters orbit around the center of the galaxy well above its dust-enshrouded disc, or plane, while making brief, repeated passes through the plane that each last about a million years. Spitzer, with infrared eyes that can see into the dusty galactic plane, first spotted the newfound cluster during its current pass. Astronomers then searched for past references to the cluster and found only one undocumented image from the Two Micron All-Sky Survey.

Follow-up observations with the University of Wyoming Infrared Observatory helped set the distance of the new cluster at about 9,000 light-years from Earth -- closer than most clusters -- and set the mass at the equivalent of 300,000 Suns. The cluster's apparent size, as viewed from Earth, is comparable to a grain of rice held at arm's length. It is located in the constellation Aquila.

Astronomers believe that this cluster may be one of the last in our galaxy to be uncovered.

The Two Micron All-Sky Survey false-color image was obtained using near-infrared wavelengths ranging from 1.3 to 2.2 microns. The Spitzer false-color image composite was taken on April 21, 2004, by its infrared array camera. It is composed of images obtained at four mid-infrared wavelengths: 3.6 microns (blue), 4.5 microns (green), 5.8 microns (orange) and 8 microns (red). The true-color image from the Digitized Sky Survey was acquired with red and blue filters.

Video Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/R. Hurt (SSC/Caltech)