Hanny’s Voorwerp is a thing out in space and has the distinction of having probably the silliest name in all of astronomy. It all began back in 2007 when a school teacher named Hanny van Arkel (another silly-sounding name, not to Dutch-shame), was flipping through a bunch of photos on an amateur astronomy website to help actual paid astronomers categorize pictures of galaxies. Looking at one, she wondered “What’s the blue stuff below?” and posted this question on the website.
Figure One: Wrong Answer
She’s Dutch so someone looked up the Dutch word for “object” which is “voowerp”, and astronomy history was made. van Arkel is now of course world famous and lives the lavish lifestyle of someone who discovered a weird smudge in an astronomical photo, blogging about chumming around the lucrative astronomy talk circuit with Stephen Hawking and “my pal” Brian May. As one is wont to do.
Figure Two: Doctor Who And The Poor Video Effects; this is the photo she was looking at.
So what is Hanny’s Voorwerp itself? It’s a “quasar ionization echo” about 650 million light years away that’s just below the spiral galaxy IC 2497 in the constellation Leo Minor. OK, now that that’s all cleared up, on to my puerile joke! Wait, what? “More info? Sigh, OK.
Nineteen now-identified voorwerpjs (again, Dutch for “small objects” because Dutch is spelt weird; guess I couldn’t resist Dutch shaming after all) are huge blobs of hot gas that stretch thousands of light-years from the core of a nearby galaxy, and like Hanney’s Voorwerp (or “HsV” as it’s sometimes abbreviated) are a giant thing in their own right. HsV for example is about 16,000 light years across and reaches out from its galaxy about a hundred thousand light years. No, I’m not sure how it’s only that big yet reached that far, but those are the numbers I found; I blame the astronomers.
Figure Three: NuWho Production Values; this was taken by the Hubble Space telescope and looks like a spooky skeleton, or that just me?
Before I go further though, I have to info-dump on the galaxy IC 2497 itself. It’s a quasar, which is not a defunct brand of TV sets but a galactic nucleus that puts out a lot of light across the electromagnetic spectrum. That light comes from a supermassive black hole with a lot of gas orbiting it. Drop some gas inwards and it heats up and shines super super bright, like brighter than our entire galaxy. So IC 2497 here is the flashlight to HsV’s kitty eyes, creating LASER EYES OF DOOM when we look at it. The funny thing here is that IC 2497 actually stopped shining as a quasar some time ago, but we still get to see its energy reflecting off HsV because the extra time it takes light to travel to HsV before it then travels to us. This is the ionization or light echo mentioned above, something like when you hear a sound’s echo bouncing off a wall and reaching you after the initial sound itself. Apparently this is something you only get to notice light doing when you look out into space, because light travels so fast.
So anyway, after being discovered and named something silly, paid astronomers started wondering about where the voorwerp gas cloud came from and decided it’s probably from the galaxy itself that got shot out by the black hole via sling-shot effect, much like the Enterprise shooting around the sun, except the gas didn’t go back in time (sorry Doctor).
So yes, all this this was just a set-up to let me make a cosmic fart joke – “gas from a black hole!” Still, the pictures are pretty cool (turns out HsV is actually green not blue, that was an artifact based on the filters used for the original photo) and the name “Hanney’s Voorwerp” is still pretty silly. Also, van Arkel herself on her blog mentions some funny stuff like how she doesn’t own a telescope herself and once got to say the words “wow you can do a lot of things with just 8 cm!” in a report for an astronomy group. Also, included without comment, is the following from that same blog post.
“One of the guys had taken along his time machine [emphasis mine – MJM] (or some sort of telescope equipment of which I have no idea what it’s used for) and he needed to know how many cogs he had on this huge cogwheel. There were a lot, so I can see why he didn’t feel like just counting them. But I offered to do it, making a competition of it, which was like the citizen science assignment ‘guess how many beans in the pot”. The person who’d guess closest would win a hug from yours truly and with all the answers combined we could then calculate the average and see how well we did. Just for fun. The answer was 631 by the way.”