Last week, news broke that scientists at the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy had used new data to shed more light on the mysterious nature of an unusual object playfully dubbed “Hanny’s Voorwerp.” (“Voorwerp” is Dutch for “object.”)
It was a strange blue/green smudge on an image of what was otherwise a standard spiral galaxy, and she asked astronomers on the forum what it might be. They were baffled. And when scientists are baffled, they’re thrilled, because there’s a mystery to solve. They inexplicably rejected Hanny’s suggestion for calling the object “Unidentified Bluey Stuff,” and dubbed it Hanny’s Voorwerp instead.
The first theory scientists came up with was that the green glow is the remnants of a violent outburst of radiation: rather like a quasar light echo. They just couldn’t figure out what would cause such a flare-up.
The new evidence indicates that the spiral galaxy in question, IC 2497, has a supermassive black hole at its center. That black hole needs to eat a lot of surrounding matter to survive, and as matter falls in, there is a corresponding cone of radiation beaming out, causing the gas cloud to glow green.
We just can’t see the black hole directly because there’s another dusty gas cloud sitting between the Earth and the galaxy, obscuring our view. According to Darren Croton of Melbourne’s Swinburne University, it’s rare to spot a voorwerp because “the radiation cones form active galactic nuclei are highly directional so gas clouds would only get illuminated occasionally.”
Everyone loves this story because a young schoolteacher got to make a significant discovery — something that is much harder to accomplish in the 21st century than it was in William Herschel’s time. Projects like Galaxy Zoo are a great way of bringing amateurs back into the astronomy fold. In fact, there may be lots of other galaxies with active black holes, giving rise to numerous “voorwerpje’s” (junior voorwerps).
And now it seems as if Hanny’s wonderful tale is going to become the stuff of Web comics. I spent last weekend at CONvergence in Minneapolis, where I finally had the chance to meet astronomy educator/blogger Pamela Gay (StarStryder) in person. And she told me about a nifty new project underway to create a digitized Webcomic telling Hanny’s amazing story — except rather than just one person writing it, the comic is a collective effort.
Gay and sci-fi author Kelly McCullough ran a two-part workshop at CONvergence — dubbed “the writer’s sandbox” — to map out the narrative and illustrations, and collaborate in the writing, with oversight provided by the kind folks at Galaxy Zoo (because scientific accuracy is as important as the creative storytelling). The full comic will be released at Dragon-Con in Atlanta, Georgia, this fall, no doubt to great fanfare among astronomy buffs.
“By telling Hanny’s story we are showing how everyday people can sometimes rewrite science,” proclaims the new Zooniverse blog tied to the project. And all because one young woman dared to ask, “Hey — what’s that stuff?”