Data from a dead space telescope reveals a gas cloud resembling the iconic sci-fi monster Godzilla.
If you look closely at a new infrared image from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, you can spot monster features such as glowing eyes, a roaring mouth, and even a dramatic hand or paw shining in the dark.
Although the shape is a cosmic coincidence, what the new image shows is the value of continuing to use telescopic data, even after a mission is completed. In this case, we are looking at images collected by the NASA Spitzer Space Telescope almost two years after it ceased operations in January 2000.
While you could argue that it was a zombie telescope that observed this so-called monster in space, the person who processed the image did not see it that way. “I was not looking for monsters,” said Robert Hurt, a California Institute of Technology astronomer, in a statement from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
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“I just happened to be looking at an area of the sky that I’ve browsed many times before, but I had never zoomed in on,” added Hurt, who has created most public images from Spitzer data since its launch in 2003. “Sometimes “If you just crop an area differently, it brings out something you didn’t see before. It was the eyes and the mouth that roared ‘Godzilla’ at me.”
Wounded and other people looking at cosmic images may be prone to a tendency called pareidolia, which is a scientific name for humans to see shapes as faces in otherwise random data. One of the more famous historical examples was the so-called Face on Mars, from Viking 1 orbit data in 1976. Viking happened to fly overhead at a time when the shadows were just in line on a stone drag and appeared as a face.
Playfully, JPL pointed to other examples of pareidolia that astronomers saw in Spitzer data, including a black widow spider, a Jack-o-Lantern, a snake, a bare human brain, and even Starship Enterprise from “Star Trek.”
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“It’s one of the ways we want people to connect with the incredible work that Spitzer did,” Hurt said of this fantasy approach to otherwise serious science. “I’m looking for compelling areas that can really tell a story. Sometimes it’s a story about how stars and planets are formed, and sometimes it’s about a giant monster raging through Tokyo.”
The real region represented by Godzilla in this image is complex, first captured during Spitzer’s work during a program called GLIMPSE (Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire). GLIMPSE studied the planets of the Milky Way galaxy in four infrared wavelengths and generated 440,000 images, including this one.
“Stars at the top right, where this cosmic Godzilla’s eyes and snout would be, are an unknown distance from Earth – but within our galaxy,” JPL said. “Located about 7,800 light-years from Earth, the bright area at the bottom left – Godzilla’s right hand – is known as the W33.”
The material here is rich in star-forming things, and when young stars emerged, their radiation blew the dust and gas away into the region, JPL noted. Changes can also occur when massive older stars explode like supernovae, which sprinkle the nearby area with heavy elements that can fuse into planets or other objects.
Spitzer’s infrared eyes made it possible for scientists to learn more about this region, which is otherwise filled with dust and thus invisible to human eyes. Four colors (blue, cyan, green, and red) represent the four infrared wavelengths Spitzer used, while yellow and white are combinations of the wavelengths, JPL said. (If you are looking for the dust, it is in green and red, where red is the dust heated by stars or supernovae.
If you want to create your own creatures using Spitzer data, the California Institute of Technology’s Spitzer Artistronomy web app allows you to do that for free.