about time It follows the story of Tim Lake, played by Domhnall Gleeson, as he navigates his family’s extraordinary talent. All the men in his family have the ability to travel back in time and relive the moments they had before. Tim uses this ability in an effort to improve his relationships, viewing his life as a movie that can be recast or vividly reimagined by seeing a lifetime in a time-lapse.
Those of us in the real world don’t benefit from seeing our lives this way. Instead, the moments pass quickly through a relatively stable planetary fabric. These same challenges are present on a much larger scale in the field of astronomy, as scientists attempt to make sense of the immense complexity of the universe with momentary glimpses through telescopes.
Despite the stunning beauty of the images from Hubble and JWST, they are limited in what they can tell us because they see the universe in still life. These snapshots, astonishing in their detail, are but short moments within a complex set of interactions dating back nearly 14 billion years. Oftentimes, astronomy is like watching a movie, but instead of a coherent motion picture, you can get a few dozen shots through two hours of playback time. You may be able to deduce the outline of what is happening, but the story will necessarily be incomplete.
To get the full picture of what is actually happening, whether in a movie or in the universe, you need to see those snapshots grouped together to see how things move and interact with each other over time. Having a movie for the entire universe isn’t easy, we can’t really put all the reality on the sound stage, we can’t provide stage directions, we can’t scream. There’s not much to it and it doesn’t take a second, but that didn’t stop us from trying.
The Near-Earth Infrared Survey Explorer, known as NEOWISE, was initially designed as a tool for tracking distant objects outside our solar system. Use cryo-cooled detectors to search the sky for infrared light. Then, in 2011, the onboard coolant ran out and its initial mission was over. However, some of the instruments on board were still working, and NASA re-established its mission of scanning the sky in all directions and observing the movement in the background. The primary goal of this new mission is to detect near-Earth objects and provide us with an early warning of any potential colliders. It’s the kind of information that might be useful if we ever need to send something like DART into the void to save us from certain doom.
While doing so, the craft’s infrared telescope continued to scan deep space as NEOWISE slowly orbits the sun. The craft follows the Earth around its orbit and takes pictures in every direction. Every six months, these slides are grouped together into a map of the entire sky. Over the past decade, NEOWISE has captured 18 of these maps that cover the entire sky, each one capturing millions of individual objects. Now, scientists have taken all 18 cosmic maps and stitched them together into a time-lapse short film.
These maps, even if taken individually, provide important information for scientists who study stars, but when taken together, they reveal parts of our universe that would otherwise have been overlooked. As part of its extended mission, NEOWISE has revealed the quiet movements of countless celestial bodies in stunning detail.
Using only the first two maps of all the sky, astronomers have identified nearly 200 brown dwarf stars within just 65 light-years from the sun. The trick with these discoveries is the difference in apparent motion between near and far objects.
Imagine that you are standing in a field and watching two people walk perpendicular to your point of view. One is 10 meters away and the other is 1000 feet away. Even as they are traveling at the same speed, the person closest to you seems to go the distance more quickly. The same thing happens with the stars.
When we look up at the night sky at any given moment, the stars appear mostly stationary. Any motion you see is likely caused by the Earth’s rotation, not the motion of the stars themselves. As you watch the sky over time, some objects make themselves known by their rapid movement across the sky. In many cases, these objects are brown dwarfs, which are more massive than gas giant planets, but not large enough to fuse material and become a star. It doesn’t emit much visible light, but it does shine in infrared, which makes it ideal for a machine like the NEOWISE.
According to NASA, many brown dwarfs are nomads, drifting across the sky alone without planet or star companions. This drift can be seen when we view the sky with an interval. Brown dwarfs weren’t the only things the time lapse revealed. Astronomers have also identified nearly 1,000 protostars, still in the process of being born within star-forming nebulae. When stars pull material in, they flicker and fade in brightness. Watching them develop over time can provide astronomers with new information about what happens in the early parts of a star’s life.
The universe is so vast, and its machinations so intricate, that even a decade-old movie feels like the blink of an eye. But if NEOWISE, or other crafts like it, keep taking pictures and keep putting them together, our view of the universe, and our understanding of our place in it, will become clearer.
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