Telescope images present a history of the universe at the Smithsonian

December 5, 2011

The history of the universe thus far: There’s a big bang. Matter inflates into nothingness, billowing clouds of gas. A dollop of it coalesces; a star is born. Then another and another and another, becoming uncountable billions. Stars fall into galaxies, including our own Milky Way. Soon enough, though, the process reverses. A star dies, exploding. Stardust — known less colloquially as “the elements” — spews deep into space. Dust collapses, victim to gravity. A star is born, again — and often, planets, too.

We’ve got the pictures to prove it.

Or, more precisely, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has them. They’re hanging in a new exhibit called “The Evolving Universe,” a collection of dozens of shots from ground- and space-based telescopes. It’s enough to ignite feverish cosmic dreams in even the casual stargazer.

Take the photograph of the giant galaxy Centaurus A. In its heart lurks a “messy eater” of a supermassive black hole, said Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics who helped curate the exhibit.

As the black hole sucks up stars, “it tries to swallow too much, and it can’t,” McDowell said. Instead of disappearing down the hole, some starstuff escapes and shoots out in dual luminescent jets plowing deep into intergalactic space. The bright spectacle of cosmic violence just about jumps off the wall.

As with most of the images, that of Centaurus A combines data from several telescopes and burnishes it with computer magic. Digital prestidigitation paints X-ray energy as a hot blue, so we can see it; infrared light is colored orange; visible light, the stuff we can see, is white and brown.

Likewise, an image of the center of the Milky Way pulls together data from the Chandra, Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes into a roiling roller coaster of blue, white and red incandescence.

Visitors can enter at either end of the exhibit hall. Going in one direction, you see the birth of everything — a universe-wide image of faint heat spots left over from the big bang. After strolling across 13.7 billion years of history, you arrive finally at Earth. Entering from the opposite direction, a visitor begins on our home planet and ends up in the farthest reaches of space.

Either way, the journey should come with a warning: It may induce a woozy bout of existential insignificance.

But McDowell, who has spent his life in thrall to astronomy, finds a different message.

“One thing this stuff teaches me is that there’s no excuse for getting bored,” he said. “There’s so much to see in this universe.”

Find “The Evolving Universe” on the second floor of the National Museum of Natural History, at 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW; the exhibit runs through July 2013 and then travels to other museums.

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