This majestic image of the cosmos would not be out of place on the walls of an art gallery. But this isn’t the work of a talented painter, or even a human photographer, it was actually taken by a satellite high above Earth. Talk about an unfair advantage.
It was created using data from the Planck satellite, which takes images of the universe in light waves that aren’t in the optical range. Instead, Planck looks at longer wavelengths of light: the microwave and infrared range. The swirling patterns over the image represent the magnetic field lines from the galaxies.
The large red and orange blob in the center of the image is the Large Magellanic Cloud, 160,000 light-years away. The triangular spot near the bottom left corner of the image is the Small Magellanic Cloud, which is 200,000 light-years away. Because the Planck satellite takes photographs in such a sensitive range of the light spectrum, these close-by galaxies can distract it from its true purpose: photographing the oldest light in the universe.
But its sensitivity means that the satellite also images just about everything in between itself and the edge of the observable universe. Scientists need to correct for this to study the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation, but these images are also fantastic for finding out more about foreground objects, like the Magellanic Clouds. It can also reveal secrets of things like star formation.
For example, interstellar dust can be seen as the red, orange sweep of clouds at the top of this image. This is fuel for a star-forming region in the sky, within the Chameleon constellation.
A curious, orange filament can also be seen protruding from the Chameleon constellation in the top left, extending to the bottom right of the image. This “tail” is actually quite close to us (in cosmological terms) at 300,000 light-years away, and it’s interesting to see how beautifully the filament is aligned with the galaxy’s magnetic field.
The Magellanic Clouds and an interstellar filament. ESA and the Planck Collaboration.