About time follows the story of Tim Lake, played by Domhnall Gleeson, as he navigates his family’s unusual talent. All the men in her family have the ability to time travel and relive moments they have experienced before. Tim uses this ability to attempt to improve his relationships, seeing his life as a movie that could be recast or remade with the clarity of seeing a life in fast motion.
Those of us in the real world don’t have the advantage of seeing our lives that way. Instead, the moments quickly pass through a relatively static planetary tapestry. These same challenges are present on a much grander scale in the field of astronomy, as scientists attempt to understand the immense complexity of the universe with momentary glimpses through telescopes.
Despite the incredible beauty of Hubble and JWST images, they are limited in what they can tell us because they see the universe in still life. These snapshots, striking in their detail, are but brief moments within a complex web of interactions dating back nearly 14 billion years. Often, astronomy is like watching a movie, but instead of one consistent moving image, you get a few dozen still images over a two-hour span. You might be able to deduce the broad outlines of what’s going on, but the story would necessarily be incomplete.
To get the full picture of what’s really going on, whether in a movie or in-universe, you need to see these stills stitched together to see how things move and interact with each other over time. Getting a movie from the entire cosmos is no easy task, we can’t really put all of reality on a soundstage, we can’t come up with stage directions, and we can’t shout cut. There are no retakes or second takes, but that didn’t stop us from trying.
NASA’s Near-Earth Object Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer, also known as NEOWISE, was originally designed as a tracking tool for distant objects outside our solar system. He used cryogenically cooled detectors to search the sky for infrared light. Then, in 2011, the onboard coolant ran out and its original mission ended. However, some of the tools on board the craft were still operational, and NASA tasked it with scanning the sky in all directions and monitoring movement in the background. The main objective of this new mission is to detect near-Earth objects and provide us with an early warning of any potential impactors. This is the kind of information that could be useful if we ever had to send something like DART into the void to save us from certain doom.
While doing this, 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 all directions. Every six months, these slices are stitched together into a map of the entire sky. Over the past decade, NEOWISE has taken 18 such sky maps, each capturing millions of individual objects. Now, scientists have taken these 18 cosmic maps and assembled them into a brief time-lapse movie.
These maps, even taken individually, provide important information to scientists studying the stars, but when taken together they reveal parts of our universe that might otherwise have been missed. During its extended mission, NEOWISE revealed the silent motions of countless celestial objects in incredible detail.
Using just the first two maps of the entire sky, astronomers have identified about 200 brown dwarf stars just 65 light-years from the Sun. The trick to these findings is the difference in apparent motion between near objects and more distant objects.
Imagine you are standing in a field and watching two people walk perpendicular to your vantage point. One of them is at 10 feet while another is at 1000 feet. Even when walking at the same speed, the person closest to you seems to cross the distance faster. The same thing happens with the stars.
When we look at the night sky at any given time, the stars appear to be mostly static. Any movement you see is most likely caused by the Earth’s rotation, not the movement of the stars themselves. However, when looking at the sky in time lapse, some objects are known by their rapid movement across the sky. In many cases, these objects are brown dwarfs, objects more massive than gas giant planets, but not large enough to fuse material and become a star. They don’t emit much visible light, but they do glow in the infrared, making them perfect for an instrument like NEOWISE.
According to NASA, many brown dwarfs are nomadic, drifting alone in the sky without planetary or stellar companions. And this drift can be seen when we look at the sky in time lapse. Brown dwarfs aren’t the only things revealed by the time lapse. Astronomers have also identified nearly 1,000 protostars, still being born inside star-forming nebulae. As stars pull matter into themselves, they twinkle and fade. Watching them evolve over time could give astronomers new insights into 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-long movie feels like the blink of an eye. But if NEOWISE, or other similar crafts, continue to take pictures and stitch them together, our vision of the cosmos and our understanding of our place within it will only become clearer.
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