Friday, April 16, 2010

Microquasar in M82?

I'm seeing this story all over the Internet. Sadly I don't have time to make much comment on it.

The hard working and often sadly under-appreciated folks at Jodrell Bank have made a splash with news of the sudden appearance of a mysterious radio source (woo!) in M82, which is possibly a microquasar (e.g. like SS 433 in our own Galaxy. *). The official Jodrell Bank press release is definitely the best place to get the background on this exciting discovery, as the press stories tend to be... superficial.

It is unfortunate that the images used in all the press stories I've seen so far, and even the lead image on the Jodrell Bank press release, are NOT actual radio images of M82, let alone images showing the new source, but either the Hubble ACS image (i.e. optical light) or a Spitzer image (near Infra-red light). This is the tyranny of Hubble - its a pretty picture machine, but very often the real science can't be done in the optical. Yet what mission does the public associate with astronomy and astrophysics... Hubble. If your mission or observatory doesn't make pretty pictures, or perish the thought, doesn't make images at all (e.g. FUSE) then you have a public relations problem, and potentially a funding problem.

(*) Sadly the wikipedia entry on SS 433 doesn't do a great job in conveying how interesting and awesome this object is.

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