This nebula is nestled in the star cluster known (in the West) as the Pleiades. This group of stars holds a place in the mythology and temporal structures of cultures the world over, each ascribing their own names and meaning to the same celestial object. The Pleiades’ seasonal position in the sky signaled, to the ancient Greeks, the beginning and end of the sailing and agricultural seasons. The dawn rising of the Matariki in late May-early June is the start of the Maori New Year.
Many legends (Greek, Native American) tell of 6 or 7 maidens or boys fleeing to the heavens to avoid pursuit or grief, corresponding to the 6 or 7 brightest starts most visible to the naked eye (there are over 400 in the cluster.) Other mythologies (Hindu, Turkish) link these stars to gods themselves or the ancestral origin of women (Aboriginal).
Whatever the name or the legend, the cluster is approximately 440 light years from Earth. The luminous clouds in which these orbs dance is not an aftereffect of these stars’ creation, but a haze of gas and dust within interstellar space into which the cluster has drifted. The gauzy, linear nature of these clouds is a result of the pull of the magnetic fields between the stars causing the dust particles to align.
Seeing with human eyes, the Pleiades are wreathed in a blue mist: the gas and dust reflect the blue-hot light of the stars themselves. The brilliant colors seen here are visible only when captured with infrared photography, in this case by the Spitzer Space Telescope.
The source image was captured/created by NASA/JPL-Caltech/J. Stauffer (SSC/Caltech).
Merope Detail 1
13” x 10 3⁄4”
cotton, crystal and glass beads
Currently Hanging: Zeitgeist Gallery, Beverly, MA
In November of 2013, during an open studios event in Somerville, MA, I was literally handed inspiration.
Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist working at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics as part of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory at Harvard, was very enthusiastic about my NASA-inspired needlework. The day after our initial brief but animated conversation, he presented me with the source image for this piece. I was struck by its dynamic nature and the sheer scope of this particular galaxy, and within two weeks had begun the process of rendering it in thread.
The scale and power of this particular galaxy is enormous. It is 370,000 light years across; for comparison, our own Milky Way is 100,000 light years wide and our solar system is only 2 light-years in diameter at its furthest gravitational limits. M82 is also 11 million light years away - what we see now when we gaze at M82 is how it actually looked during the Miocene Epoch, just after the development of grassland ecosystems and 5 million years before a mammoth ever took a step on the Earth.
M82 shows off a new supernova, on average every 10 years or so, which is much more energetic than most galaxies. The clouds of gas and dust which form the center “cigar” shape (which is also this galaxy’s nickname) are shot out of the galaxy at millions of kilometers per hour. The vast amounts of energy contained this one beautiful little spot in the cosmos appealed to me.
The source image is a composite, from three separate telescopes (Chandra, Spitzer, and Hubble), it shows x-ray (blue), infrared (red), and visible light (green, orange).
Source image credit: NASA/CXC/JHU/D.Strickland. Optical team: NASA/ESA/STSci/AURA/M. Mountain & the Hubble Heritage Team; IR team: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of AZ/C.Engelbracht & R. Kennart
Rhea floats serenely in front of Saturn’s rings, which cast a sloping shadow on the surface of the planet below. Epimetheus, her tiny fellow moon, is seen just below her.
In Greek mythology, Rhea and Epimetheus were both Titans, two of the first race of twelve beings born by Gaea and Uranus. Rhea and her husband-brother Cronus, in turn, bore half the Olympic pantheon; her grand stature as the second-largest moon of Saturn is fitting.
In humorous contrast, Epimetheus was charged with giving gifts to the newly-created creatures of the world; he gave so freely to the beasts of land, sea, and sky that he was without a suitable gift for mankind. He turned to his brother Prometheus (“forethought”) for help, and it was to aid his brother that Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to humanity. Epimetheus also married Pandora, that enduring personification of reckless curiosity. Perhaps it is apt that Epimetheus (“afterthought”) would be the namesake of a misshapen piece of rock circling around and amongst stately giants, an impulsive and irregular part of the story.
Using primarily 17 different shades of gray thread, this piece challenged a number of my normal assumptions and compositional habits, became a study in the art of subtlety.
The source image for this work was taken by the Cassini spacecraft using visible light, while the spacecraft was approximately 1.2 million kilometers away.
Inspiring image originally released to the public May 2010 by NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
8 1⁄2 x 10 3⁄4 in.
Currently Hanging: Zeitgeist Gallery, Beverly, MA
Helix is an interesting object, not least of which because it is a demonstration of how easy it is to anthropomorphize or deify what appears in the heavens. It’s a very young nebula, only about ten and a half thousand years old (give or take a thousand or two); it blossomed in our sky around the time of the rise of agriculture. It’s also very close: only 650 light-years away.
What I love most about this nebula is not only the striking, glorious colors of the fluorescing gases (blue oxygen, red hydrogen and nitrogen) but the fact it is, as NASA put it, the end of a “trillion-mile long tunnel of glowing gases”, all pointing back to a super-dense white dwarf star. It is that dying sun which is radiating the energy (not light – white dwarfs are very faint) that makes the gases glow.
This one gleaming bubble in the cosmos is a reminder that our perspective is everything, even as we look and imagine we are being observed in return.
The picture which inspired this piece was created from images from the Hubble Space Telescope and the Mosaic Camera at the Kitt Peak National Observatory. Specific credit belongs to: NASA, NOAO, ESA, the Hubble Helix Nebula Team, M. Meixner (STScI), and T.A. Rector (NRAO).