The Swan Nebula is 5,000 light years from Earth. And for a moment, it was right in our backyard.
A recent observation night, hosted by the Physics and Astronomy Club, captured the unique and rare “star forming region,” as the members of Edinboro Univeristy’s Physics and Technology Department were able to get it on camera.
Dr. Richard Lloyd, chair of the Department of Physics and Technology, described the Swan Nebula as “remarkable,” stating, “It has enough mass to make about 30,000 stars the size of our sun and is located about 5,000 light years away.”
The Swan Nebula is also commonly referred to as Messier 17, and is located in a H II region of the constellation, Sagittarius. With Sagittarius being a Zodiac constellation, it is only visible during the months of August and September.
With this in mind, Lloyd explained that the final photo of the Swan Nebula is actually a combination of many images taken during these months.
“The photo is a composite of images taken in late August and early September,” he said.
Lloyd also shared that the compositing process of the images was rather stressful, demanding an immense amount of patience. Lloyd recalled the tedious process required him to spend “several hours in the observatory taking images of the nebula through various color filters, followed by electronic stacking (combining images of different colors) and some further processing to remove the effects of light pollution.”
In addition to Lloyd working on the Swan Nebula project, there were several students involved in the capturing of the astronomical phenomena.
Senior theoretical physics and mathematics major, Kevin Shuman, was heavily involved with the Swan Nebula project.
“My direct involvement was actually imaging the nebula. I first captured a glance at our raw, black and white data after the first Hα image was taken: it was stunning,” Shuman stated.
Shuman also shared that for the past 2-3 years, the physics and technology department has experienced various technical difficulties; dealing at times with the Celestron Edge HD telescope that is responsible for capturing the Swan Nebula. “The telescope has had many malfunctions and set backs until recently. Throughout this time, I have helped assemble, troubleshoot, and now image the Swan Nebula, a crown to our success, with this telescope,” Shuman said.
The Celestron Edge HD telescope is among the most advanced telescopes utilized for astronomical research. The complex telescope is equipped with a 14-inch diameter optical tube, and has the capability of automatically tracking objects for long exposures; thus allowing observers to view incredibly faint and distant objects. This exceptional piece of technology makes it possible to produce high-quality images of stars, planets, nebulae, galaxies, and various other intergalactic sensations with the use of its charge-coupled device camera.
With the access to state-of-the-art technology, such as the Celestron telescope, students are obtaining a vast amount of skills and learning experiences that could possible aid them in their future careers.
“The process has been illuminating. I have learned a lot about the details of remote telescope astronomy,” Shuman said. Additionally, Lloyd concurred with Shuman, affirming that students gain valuable experience by being exposed to such advanced technology.
“They [students] get experience in taking and processing images, operating the observatory and socializing in an active club of students that regularly do these kind of things. It [the capturing of the Swan Nebula] shows students that, with some investment in time, can take similar images that are suitable for publication and research,” Lloyd remarked.
Lloyd also added that not only was the capturing of the Swan Nebula important for students to gain technical experience, but it also exemplified how progressive Edinboro University’s physics and technology department is.
“It demonstrates the ability of our observatory to take deep space images of objects that are not typically imaged by amateurs under high magnification,” Lloyd said.
Furthermore, Lloyd explained that the department has already captured other astronomical phenomena on camera, and plans to continue capturing astronomical sightings in the near future.
“We have taken several images recently of the ‘Running Man’ and the ‘Horsehead’ nebulae. Our future projects will include taking images of objects that are larger than our camera frame. This will require us to mosaic the image — stitching multiple, overlapping images together — which would be a new thing for us,” Lloyd stated.
Shuman also noted he is excited for the physics and astronomy club’s future projects, and plans to be heavily involved in the future capturing of other astronomical sensations.
“Though we have succeeded in capturing a quality image, this is just the beginning of an adventure with lots of late nights, many a photos, a great deal of public outreach and hopefully one or two contributions of physics and astronomy,” Shuman said.
Macala Leigey is a Staff Writer for The Spectator.