Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Observing Jets in Centaurus A

I am a pretty faithful reader of Phil Plait's blog for Discover Magazine titled "Bad Astronomy."  Phil is an entertaining and informative science writer who frequently utilizes images generated at the Mount Lemmon SkyCenter as the subjects of his posts.  For example, see this post on NGC 5426/5427 from a few days ago.

Today, Phil posted an interesting piece on the jets emanating from the black hole at the heart of the "Centaurus A" galaxy.  As soon as I read the piece, I laughed to myself and thought how ironic it is that an Astronomer like Phil, (and I am sure he is far from alone in this) is surprised that these jets can be seen in visible light.  At it's heart, Astronomy is an observational science...yet, Phil's post is a reminder of how far the science has gone from having Astronomers spend time at the eyepiece.  This is not a bad thing, simply a reminder that the machines are not yet ready to take our place...I hope.  Incidentally, the image of Centaurus A (NGC 5128) at right is from NASA and can be found here with an accompanying article on the jets.

At left is a page from one of my observing logs from April 9th 2010.  Click on the image and enlarge it and read what is inside the red box I have drawn...yes, I believe I saw one of these jets visually in a 9.25 inch Schmidt Cassegrain telescope.  I was in Portal, Arizona under approximately magnitude 7.5 skies with my good friends Jerry Farrar and Bill Gates.  Bill was observing the galaxy with us and noticed these jets.  When he pointed them out, I was able to spot one of them by gently bumping the telescope back and forth.  Now I can not say for certain that our observations of light streaming from the galaxy is necessarily the same feature that Phil points to in his article, but it is hard not to believe they are related.

In case the writing is hard to decipher, I wrote "Bill Gates pointed out the bright areas streaming from the galaxy, perpendicular to the dark lane.  This was extremely low contrast and resembled the faintest of cometary tails streaming south (generally).  He could see glow to the north as well, although this was a "maybe" for me using the 9.25 inch SCT."

EDIT:  I actually wrote about this observation in a blog post back in April 2010!!  Read it here.

Were these the jets we saw?  Who knows...Either way, Bill is an amazing observer, and as my friend Jerry commented upon seeing Phil's blog post, the ESA, NASA, and the NSF should consider funding Bill to look through his telescope!

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