Ask Ethan #25: Where would you go, now?

“They will see us waving from such great heights
‘Come down now,’ they’ll say.
But everything looks perfect from far away
‘Come down now.’ But we’ll stay.” -The Postal Service

Welcome back to another Ask Ethan! You keep sending in your questions and suggestions, and each week, I’ll pick one of my favorites to answer for you and the world. Today’s Ask Ethan comes from John, who asks one of the more fanciful and personal questions I’ve fielded yet, as he wants to know:

If you could jump into the Enterprise, or the Millennium Falcon, or whatever is your favorite faster-than-light starship, what in the Milky Way would you most like to get a good close look at, and why?

First things first, because we shouldn’t waste time arguing over the pros and cons of the ship: it would be Picard’s Enterprise, hands down.

Image credit: Paramount Pictures and/or CBS Studios.

Image credit: Paramount Pictures and/or CBS Studios.

Even restricted to our own galaxy, this is the closest science fiction has come to my long-term dream for humanity of a traveling, functional, self-sustaining and peaceful spacefaring civilization. Yes, the space cowboy fantasy of Firefly, the space rebels of the Star Wars saga and the space refugee drama of Battlestar Galactica all have their charms, but the Enterprise D of ST:TNG is the ship I’d most like to be aboard along the journey.

But where would I choose to go? There are a lot of fantastic candidates, and a far greater number that look like great candidates, but wouldn’t actually be.

Image credit & copyright: Michael Sidonio 2012, via http://www.pbase.com/strongmanmike2002/image/139565143/original.

Image credit & copyright: Michael Sidonio 2012, via http://www.pbase.com/strongmanmike2002/image/139565143/original.

For example, a sight like the Helix Nebula, above, colloquially known as the “Eye of God,” looks like it’d be a terrific candidate! Who wouldn’t want to see a dying Sun-like star up close, complete with the outstanding colors and resolution that we’d get from being right there. The evaporating gaseous globules would stand out in incredible contrast against the light-emitting gas, and it would be just glorious to behold.

Except that the picture I just painted for you is an utter fantasy. Things only look as spectacular as they do through our telescopes for a combination of reasons:

  1. Incredibly long-exposure photography brings out faint details that would be either invisible or washed-out compared to the brighter parts of the nebulous region.
  2. This sight only appears to be compact because of our distance from it; from up close, it would be about a light-year in diameter, and would be far less bright and spectacular than the other stars in the night sky. And finally,
  3. Much of the detail that we see is because of the various filters we apply and highlight when we generate these composite images. In reality, what we’d see with our eyes would be far less colorful and have much less interesting contrast.

For example, here’s another planetary nebula, the Ring Nebula (M57), as it looks as imaged by a spectacular astrophotographer,

Image credit: © 2014 Mazlin, via Star Shadows Remote Observatory, http://www.starshadows.com/galley/display.cfm?imgID=154.

Image credit: © 2014 Mazlin, via Star Shadows Remote Observatory, http://www.starshadows.com/galley/display.cfm?imgID=154.

and here’s how that same object looks through some very good equipment, but to your naked eye.

Image credit: University of Illinois Prairie Observatory.

Image credit: University of Illinois Prairie Observatory.

The problem is that — to your own eyes — the bright things, and that means intrinsically bright but also where the brightness is concentrated, wash out the dimmer, intricate structures that you so enjoy seeing in your favorite space pictures!

So a number of fantastic classes of objects through a telescope just wouldn’t be spectacular up close and in person.

Image credit: Robert Gendler of http://www.robgendlerastropics.com/.

Image credit: Robert Gendler of http://www.robgendlerastropics.com/.

The star-forming regions and nebulae in our Universe, like the great Orion Nebula, part of an even larger molecular cloud complex? It’s not going to be nearly as impressive up close as it is from far away.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration.

Supernova remnants, from the Crab Nebula to the Veil Nebula (above), are best viewed in the same way: from a distance.

You see, we tend to operate under this illusion that as we get closer to something, it always appears brighter and better, and that we can see more and better detail. The problem is, we’re not used to diffuse, extended objects. In these cases, if the brightness is (roughly) evenly distributed over a large area, as you get closer to it, each individual part doesn’t look any brighter, it just takes up a larger portion of the sky. For example, a nebula that’s twice as far away will have only one-fourth the brightness of the nearer one, but will take up one-fourth the angular size on the sky. You don’t really gain anything by going closer!

Image credit: Bill Snyder of http://billsnyderastrophotography.com/?page_id=2770.

Image credit: Bill Snyder of http://billsnyderastrophotography.com/?page_id=2770.

The problem is you want to see something like the image above, but what you’ll actually wind up seeing is more like the image below.

Image credit: Bill Snyder of http://billsnyderastrophotography.com/?page_id=2770.

Image credit: Bill Snyder of http://billsnyderastrophotography.com/?page_id=2770.

But if you can avoid the false temptation of these extended sources, you might realize that the truly amazing sights will come from collections of stars!

Image credit: Robert Gendler processing, of data from the Hubble Legacy Archive and ESO, via http://www.robgendlerastropics.com/NGC3603-HST-GendlerLL.html.

Image credit: Robert Gendler processing, of data from the Hubble Legacy Archive and ESO, via http://www.robgendlerastropics.com/NGC3603-HST-GendlerLL.html.

The nebulous region around NGC 3603 won’t appear this spectacular, but if you could fly in to the central core of stars, you would really be in for a treat!

Image credit: NASA, ESA and Wolfgang Brandner (MPIA), Boyke Rochau (MPIA) and Andrea Stolte (University of Cologne).

Image credit: NASA, ESA and Wolfgang Brandner (MPIA), Boyke Rochau (MPIA) and Andrea Stolte (University of Cologne).

But once you realize this, why settle for a star cluster, when there are more tightly bunched collections of stars out there?

Image credit: ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM. Acknowledgement: A. Grado/INAF-Capodimonte Observatory, via http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1119b/.

Image credit: ESO/INAF-VST/OmegaCAM. Acknowledgement: A. Grado/INAF-Capodimonte Observatory, via http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1119b/.

This is Omega Centauri, also known as NGC 5139, the largest globular cluster in the entire galaxy. With a mass of over four million Suns in a radius of just 86 light-years, this would be my choice for where to take my star ship. Because once you’re inside, you’ll really notice two things: the great diversity and colors of stars inside, and how quickly they’re moving!

Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Anderson and R. van der Marel (STScI).

Image credit: NASA, ESA, J. Anderson and R. van der Marel (STScI).

To highlight the color diversity and the density, let me just show you a little slice through the full resolution Hubble image at the center here.

Image credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team.

Image credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team.

To fly among those, to track their rapid, relative motions, to see the rare double-star interactions as they pass by one another, to have the possibility of catching a stellar collision in the act… this is where I would go. The only other place I’d even consider would be either the center of our galaxy or another, smaller black hole in the process of eating something,

Image credit: illustration of Cygnus X-1, from  NASA/CXC/M.Weiss.

Image credit: illustration of Cygnus X-1, from NASA/CXC/M.Weiss.

or a star in the process/aftermath of a catastrophic outburst or explosion like Eta Carinae.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble SM4 ERO Team.

If you decided on one of those latter two, I wouldn’t be able to fault you (as it’s a matter of taste), but I think if I could spend all my nights gazing at the spectacular sights within our galaxy’s largest globular cluster, it would be a dream come true. It might not happen for me, but perhaps it will happen for humanity someday, if we begin to get it right.

And that will wrap up this week’s Ask Ethan; thanks for joining me, and I hope this answered your question!

Comments

  1. #1 Andreas
    Enterprise
    February 21, 2014

    Good choices. I would try to find earth like planets that support life as we know it with an atmosphere that we can breath and I would beam down to their greatest sights. Not sure if we have already identified any such planet.

  2. #2 CatMat
    February 22, 2014

    “Supernova remnants, from the Crab Nebula to the Veil Nebula (above), are best viewed in the same way: from a distance.”

    An actual supernova in progress is, however, best viewed from a distance for the opposite reason – it’s a bit too impressive from up close.

  3. #3 Rick
    February 22, 2014

    I would visit Betelgeuse, Antares, or Mu Cephei with the capability to observe their neutrinos. This would tell us what fuel is being burned in their cores as different fuels would produce different neutrino luminosities. Thus we could predict how long before they would go supernova.

  4. #4 PJ
    February 22, 2014

    Hmmm, Omega Centauri – 15,800 LY away. Yes, you would see it in our visible future. The structure would be entirely different (evolving) very rapidly as you travelled at ‘hyperspeed’. You would be able to capture images of that process in a short time, then bring that information back & show the rest of the community a glimpse of its future. Other interesting phenomenae might be imaging the photons of NCC1701-D on its outward bound journey ???
    Given the opportunity, I would love to see our galaxy in its entirety. Warp 10 & don’t hold the ions !!

  5. #5 G
    February 22, 2014

    Any collection of stars that are likely to have life-bearing planets. First question: do they use DNA or do they use different means of storing & propagating genetic information? Second question: does it appear that their evolutionary timeline bears a substantial resemblance to some portion of the evolutionary timeline on Earth?

  6. #6 Omega Centauri
    February 23, 2014

    I would assume any spacecraft advanced enough to get to these places, would have an impressive array of multispectral sensors, and the computer capacity to generate immersive false color display’s, so the fact that a sight wouldn’t look very good to unaided vision wouldn’t be a hindrance. Presumably the spacecraft could travel through or around the object and obtain enough data to generate a 3-D immersive volumes you could cyber-walk through, adjusting the false-coolr rendering algorithm as you go.
    Maybe the best view is to travel one or a few thousand LY above the galactic plane, so you can get a grand view of the galaxy itself.

  7. #7 Robert
    February 24, 2014

    Who is kidding who. The best place to travel to would be a planet in the throes of developing it’s civilization, the early industrial age for the most action or the shift from city states to regional states.
    The plotting, the schemes, analysing everything, noting and forecast the outcomes.
    Seriously the galactic highlights are always going to be developing civilisations, you can always send a dumb probe to monitor and report astronomical formations but the interactions and development of sentient species and the societies they form, under differing evolutionary paths and, different planetary and solar conditions and different forms of life how rare and how fascinating to be able to observe them at the most interesting times and for the few, the direct interaction and assisting in developing positive social tendencies whilst suppressing negative tendencies whilst maintaining the species social uniqueness.
    Especially if you are long lived and able to participate in thousands of years of social development.

  8. #8 PJ
    February 24, 2014

    @#7, Robert
    What makes any society ‘unique’ is the way in which they learn their own lessons and grow from those mistakes. Outside interference (help) changes that dynamic immediately. For that society to become aware of any outside presence would immediately modify their way of thinking.

  9. #9 eric
    February 25, 2014

    FTL = time travel. I’d use it to travel to the big bang, and what came before. Just keep going back until I have a good understanding of what went on. Then travel all the way forward to see what interesting things happen.

    First things first, because we shouldn’t waste time arguing over the pros and cons of the ship: it would be Picard’s Enterprise, hands down.

    GSV-class culture ship for me. Travel in style!

  10. #10 Nemo
    February 25, 2014

    My starship of choice would be the TARDIS. It’s a bit temperamental, to be sure, but nothing is more advanced. Plus it can be operated by a single person. And, unlike the Enterprise, it’s not half-warship.

    Second choice would be Carl Sagan’s dandelion starship from the original Cosmos.