Milky Way X-Ray

New technology keeps bringing more and more of the mysterious universe into focus — today as in Galileo’s time. Taken by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, this 2°-wide mosaic is the most detailed X-ray view ever of the Milky Way’s crowded center. Spanning 900 light-years from left to right, it reveals nearly 1,000 compact stellar remnants — white dwarfs, neutron stars, and black holes — as well as gasses heated to temperatures measured in millions of degrees.

Courtesy NASA, University of Massachusetts, and Q. Daniel Wang.

Let’s say we weren’t surprised. Three of Science Magazine’s top 10 science stories for 2002 came from the world of astronomy:

  • accounting for all the subatomic neutrino particles produced by the Sun, which proves at last that we really do understand how our star shines;
  • detecting polarization in the cold, feeble cosmic microwave background radiation, which proves that the radiation really documents our universe's infancy; and
  • accelerating progress in adaptive optics, which have "beaten the seeing" to deliver unimaginably sharp images of everything from sunspots to storm clouds on Saturn’s largest moon.

    Astronomy's prominence in Science's year-end lineup closely followed the 2002 Nobel Prize in physics being awarded to Raymond Davis, Jr., and Masatoshi Koshiba, whose campaigns first captured solar neutrinos, and to Riccardo Giacconi, the father of X-ray astronomy — the esoteric but wildly successful discipline whose flagship, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, is painting new portraits of our Milky Way and galaxies beyond.

    Of course, choosing top astronomy stories isn’t easy: more than 200 headlines appeared here this year, and myriad other milestones filled the 1,748 pages that Sky & Telescope published in 2002.

    The Mice Are Nice

    Shortly after its successful installation this past March, the Hubble Space Telescope's Advanced Camera for Surveys imaged The Mice (NGC 4676), a spectacular pair of colliding galaxies in Coma Berenices.

    Courtesy NASA and the ACS Science Team.

    A new chapter in the epic saga of the Hubble Space Telescope was written from Earth orbit as astronauts installed the spacecraft’s new Advanced Camera for Surveys and breathed new life into NICMOS, its heat-seeing infrared imager, whose coolant prematurely dissipated four years ago.

    Also reborn in 2002 were:

  • naked-eye comet viewing, most notably with the delightful apparition of Comet Ikeya-Zhang — the best since 1997’s blockbuster, Comet Hale-Bopp;
  • Schmidt-Cassegrain manufacturing pioneer and telescope giant Celestron, whose transformation into a management-owned company bodes well for its continued existence;
  • concerns about Earth-approaching asteroids, with several "near misses" spurring an astronomical house call on Capitol Hill — though one close encounter entertained watchful amateurs by whizzing across the constellations at a safe but though-provoking distance of half a million kilometers;
  • the case for a watery (and possibly life-supporting) phase in the Red Planet’s early history.

    A Welcome Sight

    Comet Ikeya-Zhang delighted skywatchers as it glowed in evening skies for weeks in early 2002. Johnny Horne took this time exposure on March 10, 2002, from North Carolina, using an 85-mm lens.

    A new era also dawned in the search for gravitational waves — ripples in the fabric of space and time, and a key prediction of Albert Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity — with the cross-continental LIGO experiment going into "science mode" for the first time.

    Birth inevitably is paired with death. Among several lamented passings, Japanese comet hunter Yuji Hyakutake’s premature death in April saddened those who remember with gratitude his namesake comet, C1996 B2, which spanned the sky as it skimmed Polaris seven years ago. With hindsight, Comet Ikeya-Zhang's presence in twilit April skies seems a fitting tribute. A generation of astrophotographers also mourned the end of Lumicon's operations as a longstanding supplier of imaging and observing accessories.

    As a quick search of our online news archive makes abundantly clear, this terse summary only scratches the surface of an amazing year in amateur astronomy and scientific space exploration. That’s why S&T’s editors and contributors — with the help of the worldwide astronomical community — work overtime to keep you in touch with the sky and its myriad mysteries. In the meantime, we wish you a safe and fulfilling New Year.

    Clear skies!

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