An asteroid passing through our solar system appeared to fly across a star-forming nebula about 12,000 light-years away from Earth in a new infrared snapshot taken by a NASA space telescope.
The relative nearby asteroid, called 1719 Jens, just happened to be flying through space at the same NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) was studying the much more distant Tadpole nebula in the Auriga constellation. And like any interloper blocking a photographer's view, the asteroid popped up in the WISE observatory images.
In the asteroid photo, the space rock 1719 Jens appears as a series of yellow-green blobs peppering the otherwise colorful Tadpole nebula. A second asteroid even makes an appearance, which NASA highlighted in a box in the new photo.
But wait, there's more.
WISE was also able to use its infrared eye to spy two satellites that fly in orbits above its own (highlighted in the ovals in the photo). The satellites appear to streak through the frame, appearing as faint green trails in the busy image.
The apparent motion of asteroids is slower than satellites because asteroids are much more distant, so instead of appearing as streaks in a single frame, the asteroids appear as dots that move from one WISE frame to the next.
The site of all the action, the Tadpole region, is full of stars as young as only a million years old – relative infants in stellar terms – and has a mass of more than 10 times that of our sun.
The Tadpole nebula got its name because the masses of hot, young stars are blasting out ultraviolet radiation that has etched the gas into two tadpole-shaped pillars, known as Sim 129 and Sim 130.
These "tadpole" structures appear as the yellow squiggles near the center of the frame. The knotted regions at their heads probably contain new, young stars. WISE's infrared vision will help to unveil these types of hidden stars.
Asteroid 1719 Jens was discovered in 1950, and orbits in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It is about 12 miles (19 km) wide and completes one full rotation every 5.9 hours. The space rock orbits the sun every 4.3 years.
The new WISE image is a composite of twenty-five frames of the region, taken at all four of the wavelengths detected by WISE. The space telescope caught 1719 Jens in 11 successive frames.
Infrared light of 3.4 microns is color-coded blue: 4.6-micron light is cyan; 12-micron light is green; and 22-micron light is red.
NASA launched the $320 million WISE observatory in December 2009 on a nine-month mission. The space telescope surveys the entire sky, snapping pictures of everything from asteroids to stars to powerful, distant galaxies.
While some WISE mission scientists lobbied for a three-month life extension, a NASA panel is currently recommending not lengthening the observatory's mission.
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