| Related: Up the Cosmic Distance Ladder

Credit: Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle; Abrams; 2009 | Buy from Amazon.com | Image Permalink

Credit: Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle; Abrams; 2009 | Buy from Amazon.com | Image Permalink

Credit: Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle; Abrams; 2009 | Buy from Amazon.com | Image Permalink

Credit: Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle; Abrams; 2009 | Buy from Amazon.com | Image Permalink

Credit: Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle; Abrams; 2009 | Buy from Amazon.com | Image Permalink

Credit: Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle; Abrams; 2009 | Buy from Amazon.com | Image Permalink

Credit: Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle; Abrams; 2009 | Buy from Amazon.com | Image Permalink

Credit: Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle; Abrams; 2009 | Buy from Amazon.com | Image Permalink

Credit: Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle; Abrams; 2009 | Buy from Amazon.com | Image Permalink

Credit: Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle; Abrams; 2009 | Buy from Amazon.com | Image Permalink

Credit: Far Out: A Space-Time Chronicle; Abrams; 2009 | Buy from Amazon.com | Image Permalink

450 light-years away
The Pleiades, or Seven Sisters

When the light captured in this image left the Pleiades, Nicolaus Copernicus had just published his 1543 treatise claiming that the Sun, not the Earth, was the center of the solar system. One of the nearest star clusters to Earth, the Seven Sisters are relatively young—only 115 million years old—and are in fact comprised of about a thousand stars, though only seven are visible to the naked eye.

Light may epitomize swiftness, but even photons take millions of years to traverse the gulf of deep space. When our observatories finally pick up the light of distant galaxies, the galaxies themselves have long ago passed the stage recorded in their transmission to Earth. Because of this, the most distant, ancient galaxies seem to us to be still in their youth, while relatively local stars like the Pleiades, about 450 years away as the photon travels, give us more current information. In a cosmos 156 billion light-years wide, 450-year-old news is quite current indeed.

815 light-years away
The Vela Nebula

The petals of the roseate Vela Nebula are actually shockwaves from the supernova explosion of a star, expanding outward in a sphere about 100 light-years across. Where the shockwaves appear blue, they have plowed into oxygen atoms; where they appear red, they’ve hit hydrogen.

Though Vela’s shockwaves speed outwards at nearly 650,000 kilometers per hour, our view of them has scarcely changed at all in the 200 years since they were first observed. It is a testament to the incredible vastness of the universe and the brevity of human lifetimes.

1,270 light-years away
The Orion Nebula

The Roman Empire was crumbling when this nebula, the middle “star” of Orion’s sword, emitted the light that’s now reaching Earth. Its spectacular colors are due to the ionization of hydrogen, ammonia, carbon monoxide, water, and formaldehyde molecules swirling in the dust, as well as from rare reactions in oxygen that have proven impossible to reproduce on Earth. The nebula’s gaping mouth is a nursery for new stars and their planets.

1,270 light-years away
The Orion Nebula

Zooming in on the “throat” of the Orion Nebula, the star-forming regions of the closest planet nursery to Earth are visible. Much of our understanding of how stars and planets form is based on observations of this region, which houses approximately 700 stars.

1,900 light-years away
The Pelican Nebula

The tremendous curves of the Pelican Nebula were sculpted by nearby young stars, whose heat erodes the nebula’s dust clouds. A crescent-shaped shockwave near the black pillar in the center reveals the growth of a new star.

5,000 light years away
The Jellyfish Nebula

The crimson whorls of the Jellyfish Nebula lie close to the plane of the Milky Way, where dense clouds of dust lend light a reddish tint. Part of the Sagittarius Triplet of nebulae, the Jellyfish as we see it existed around 5,000 years ago, when ancient Mesopotamian astronomy was in full swing. According to astronomer N.M. Swerdlow, Mesopotamian astronomical records, which date from the 8th or 7th century to the 1st century BCE, represent “by far the longest continuous scientific research, of any kind in all of history, for modern science itself has existed for only half as long.”

10,000 light-years away
The Carina Nebula

Home to about a dozen of the brightest stars in the sky—O-types, which are at least a million times brighter than the Sun—the Carina Nebula is colored purple by the red of ionized hydrogen and the blue ultraviolet of the stars. Its stars are so dense and massive that they are in constant danger of going supernovae. One in particular, Eta Carina, visible in the middle left of the image as two conjoined white globes, experienced a preliminary eruption that was visible on Earth in 1843.

2,500,000 light-years away
The Andromeda Galaxy

Our nearest major galactic neighbor, Andromeda is one of the farthest objects that can be seen by the naked eye. It is a spiral galaxy, similar in many aspects to the Milky Way, and is surrounded by satellite dwarf galaxies, two of which can be seen glowing blue and gold in the upper left. The Andromeda Galaxy existed as we see it around the time the first progenitors of man lived in the Rift Valley of Africa. It is hurtling towards the Milky Way; the two will collide in about 2.5 billion years.

300,000,000 light-years away
NGC 4921 of the Coma Cluster

The distant Coma Cluster of galaxies is home to the ghostly spiral NGC 4921, whose precise distance from Earth has been the subject of intense inquiry. Astronomers hope that by combining their knowledge of its recession speed and its distance, they will get a better measure of how fast the universe is expanding. The search for Cepheid variable stars in NGC 4921 has yielded beautifully detailed images, where ancient background galaxies, some of the earliest in the universe, whirl like motes of dust.

485,000,000 light-years away
The Hercules Cluster of Galaxies

At the time when the Hercules Cluster looked as we see it, the most complex form of life on Earth was the trilobite. At its center, two spiral galaxies are colliding, a process that astronomers suspect produces cloud-like elliptical galaxies. Part of a supercluster of galaxies, Hercules lies in a region of space where superclusters themselves have formed into great walls of galaxies, the very largest structures in the known universe.

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Traveling Through Time and Stars

By Veronique Greenwood / October 22, 2009

“The farther out into space we look, the farther into the past we also peer,” begins Far Out, journalist and filmmaker Michael Benson’s photographic account of the depths of space and time. Starting with nearby stars, Benson moves through the Milky Way, to distant galaxies, and finally to the edge of the known universe. As we go deeper into the past, his lyrical essays explore what was happening on Earth when light left these celestial objects: the rise of plant life, the fall of the Roman Empire, the birth of Homo sapiens. The unparalleled beauty of these images stems in part from skillful reprocessing, but Benson’s choice of views is also flawless—though all are assembled from public data, very few feel familiar. All of space is here for exploration, no warp drive required.

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