NASA has discovered the “Hand of God.” The Hand of God is the nickname given to the latest heavenly object that seems to appear at the intersection of astronomy and religion. The cast of The Big Bang Theory would probably just call it a “cosmic high five.”
NuSTAR, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, caught the image of the nebula 17,000 light-years from earth. A nebula, the leftover core of a star that exploded, is the very thing NuSTAR was designed to find.
The universe has interesting phenomena such as neutron stars and black holes, each sending out tremendous amounts of x-rays. Just like medical x-rays which penetrate the skin to show bone, interstellar x-rays can break through clouds of dust and gas to show hidden objects. Until now, it has been impossible to focus telescopes on high-energy x-rays long enough to get a high-resolution and clear image. NuSTAR accomplishes the feat by having two mirrors with a clarity that matches that of human optics.
Making a camera to record x-ray images is totally unlike making a camera that captures and records optical, or visible, light, because of the different ways visible light and x-rays reflect from a surface. NASA exploits those differences and that’s how it found the Hand of God.
Visible light reflects perpendicularly off of a mirror. That’s why a person holds a mirror parallel to their face when they shave or put on makeup.
X-rays glance off of a reflective surface at an angle that is almost completely parallel to the surface, similar to skipping stones on a pond. Gathering the glancing radiation requires shells of glass which are stacked very much like plastic cups, one inside the other. Each shell, or layer, picks up some of the reflected x-rays and they work together to create a focused image.
NuSTAR’s optics are made up of 133 shells of glass that are smooth down to the atomic level. It’s so smooth that any bumps on the surface are no bigger than the space between its atoms. The same kind of glass used in laptops and smart phone screens is used on NuSTAR, but it has been coated with hundreds of layers of carbon and silicon to increase the reflectivity.
Once the glass is ready, it is fixed into place with a precision machine that keeps the tolerances to 20 times as thin as a human hair.
Mission Control for NuSTAR is led by California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, located in Pasadena also.
The out-of-this-world image was created when a star exploded and threw out an enormous amount of material.
The pulsar spins at the tremendous rate of seven times every second. The force throws material off just like a lazy Susan will throw off its contents if spun fast enough. The result is a cloud that looks like an open hand.
Whether you feel NASA has found the Hand of God or a cosmic high five, the nebula is a perfect specimen of a pareidolia. A pareidolia is what causes humans to see familiar shapes in random objects–Mother Theresa on a cinnamon bun, animals in the clouds or the Man in the Moon.
By Jerry Nelson