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Astro Pro-Am: Professional and Amateur Astronomers Join Forces

  • A new collaboration combines data from amateur astronomers with data from NASA mission archives.

  • This quartet of galaxies represents a sample of the images that have been created.

  • The four galaxies are M101, M81, Centaurus A, and M51 starting in the upper left and moving clockwise.

  • X-rays from Chandra are purple, infrared data from Spitzer are red, and the optical data are red, green, and blue.

Long before the term "citizen science" was coined, the field of astronomy has benefited from countless men and women who study the sky in their spare time. These amateur astronomers devote hours exploring the cosmos through a variety of telescopes that they acquire, maintain, and improve on their own. Some of these amateur astronomers specialize in capturing what is seen through their telescopes in images and are astrophotographers.

What happens when the work of amateur astronomers and astrophotographers is combined with the data from some of the world's most sophisticated space telescopes? Collaborations between professional and amateur astronomers reveal the possibilities and are intended to raise interest and awareness among the community of the wealth of data publicly available in NASA's various mission archives. This effort is particularly appropriate for this month because April marks Global Astronomy Month, the world's largest global celebration of astronomy.

The images in this quartet of galaxies represent a sample of composites created with X-ray data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, and optical data collected by an amateur astronomer. In these images, the X-rays from Chandra are shown in purple, infrared emission from Spitzer is red, and the optical data are in red, green, and blue. The two astrophotographers who donated their images for these four images -- Detlef Hartmann and Rolf Olsen -- used their personal telescopes of 17.5 inches and 10 inches in diameter respectively. More details on how these images were made can be found in this blog post.

Starting in the upper left and moving clockwise, the galaxies are M101 (the "Pinwheel Galaxy"), M81, Centaurus A, and M51 (the "Whirlpool Galaxy"). M101 is a spiral galaxy like our Milky Way, but about 70% bigger. It is located about 21 million light years from Earth. M81 is a spiral galaxy about 12 million light years away that is both relatively large in the sky and bright, making it a frequent target for both amateur and professional astronomers. Centaurus A is the fifth brightest galaxy in the sky -- making it an ideal target for amateur astronomers -- and is famous for the dust lane across its middle and a giant jet blasting away from the supermassive black hole at its center. Finally, M51 is another spiral galaxy, about 30 million light years away, that is in the process of merging with a smaller galaxy seen to its upper left.

For many amateur astronomers and astrophotographers, a main goal of their efforts is to observe and share the wonders of the Universe. However, the long exposures of these objects may help to reveal phenomena that may otherwise be missed in the relatively short snapshots taken by major telescopes, which are tightly scheduled and often oversubscribed by professional astronomers. Therefore, projects like this Astro Pro-Am collaboration might prove useful not only for producing spectacular images, but also contributing to the knowledge of what is happening in each of these cosmic vistas.

NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., manages the Chandra program for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., controls Chandra's science and flight operations.

Fast Facts for M101:
Credit  X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: Detlef Hartmann; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Release Date  April 23, 2014
Scale  Image is 24 arcmin across. (about 147,000 light years)
Category  Normal Galaxies & Starburst Galaxies
Coordinates (J2000)  RA 14h 03m 12.59s | Dec +54° 20´ 56.70"
Constellation  Ursa Major
Observation Dates  26 pointings between 26 Mar 2000 and 01 Jan 2005
Observation Time  274 hours (11 days 10 hours)
Obs. IDs  934, 2065, 4731-4737, 5296-5297, 5300, 5309, 5322-5323, 5337-5340, 6114-6115, 6118, 6152, 6169-6170, 6175
Instrument  ACIS
Also Known As NGC 5457, The Pinwheel Galaxy
Color Code  X-ray (Purple); Optical (Cyan, Gold); Infrared (Red)
IR
Optical
X-ray
Distance Estimate  About 21 million light years
distance arrow
Fast Facts for M81:
Credit  X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: Detlef Hartmann; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Release Date  April 23, 2014
Scale  Image is 25 arcmin across. (about 87,000 light years)
Category  Normal Galaxies & Starburst Galaxies
Coordinates (J2000)  RA 09h 55m 33.20s | Dec +69° 03´ 55.10"
Constellation  Ursa Major
Observation Dates  14 pointings between 26 May and 06 Jul 2005
Observation Time  46 hours
Obs. IDs  5935-5949
Instrument  ACIS
Color Code  X-ray (Purple); Optical (Cyan, Gold); Infrared (Red)
IR
Optical
X-ray
Distance Estimate  About 11.6 million light years
distance arrow
Fast Facts for Whirlpool Galaxy:
Credit  NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: Detlef Hartmann; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Release Date  April 23, 2014
Scale  Image is 24 arcmin across. (about 210,000 light years)
Category  Normal Galaxies & Starburst Galaxies
Coordinates (J2000)  RA 13h 29m 52.3s | Dec +47° 11´ 54"
Constellation  Canes Venatici
Observation Dates  12 pointings between 20 Jun 2000 and 10 Oct 2012
Observation Time  237 hours 23 min (9 days 21 hours 23 min)
Obs. IDs  354, 1622, 3932, 12562, 12668, 13812-13816, 15496, 15553
Instrument  ACIS
Also Known As NGC 5194, NGC 5195
Color Code  X-ray (Purple); Optical (Cyan, Gold); Infrared (Red)
IR
Optical
X-ray
Distance Estimate  About 30 million light years
distance arrow
Fast Facts for Centaurus A:
Credit  X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: Rolf Olsen; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Release Date  April 23, 2014
Scale  Image is 47 arcmin across. (about 160,000 light years)
Category  Normal Galaxies & Starburst Galaxies
Coordinates (J2000)  RA 13h 25m 27.62s | Dec -43° 01' 08.80"
Constellation  Centaurus
Observation Dates  21 pointings between 05 Dec 1999 and 29 Aug 2012
Observation Time  229 hours 57 min (9 days 13 hours 57 min)
Obs. IDs  316, 962, 2978, 3965, 7797-7799, 7800, 8489, 8490, 10722, 10723, 10724-10726, 11846, 11847, 12155, 12156, 13303, 13304
Instrument  ACIS
Also Known As Cen A, NGC 5128
Color Code  X-ray (Pink); Optical (Red, Green, Blue)
IR
Optical
X-ray
Distance Estimate  About 11 million light years
distance arrow