BACKGROUND: Using NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered a cosmic jet that looks like a giant tornado whirling in space. The "tornado" is actually a shock wave created by a jet of material flowing through a vast cloud of interstellar gas and dust. The jet slams into neighboring dust clouds at a speed of more than 100 miles per second, heating the dust so that it glows with infrared light. The Spitzer telescope detects that light.
WHAT ARE COSMIC JETS: Astronomers believe that cosmic jets form when a massive object, such as a neutron star or black hole, draws in matter, which forms a whirling "accretion disk" around the object. Friction within the disk can heat it to very high temperatures, so that excess energy is vented by ejecting subatomic particles from the poles of the disk at speeds approaching that of light. Scientists believe the jets start out fairly broad and then narrow into a funnel because of the strong magnetic field lines, which rotate and accelerate the jet of particles.
ABOUT THE SPITZER TELESCOPE: The Spitzer Space Telescope was launched on 25 August 2003. Spitzer detects the infrared energy radiated by objects in space. Most of this infrared radiation is blocked by the Earth's atmosphere and cannot be observed from the ground. Spitzer allows us to peer into regions of space that are hidden from optical telescopes. Many areas of space are filled with vast, dense clouds of gas and dust that block our view. Infrared light, however can penetrate these clouds, allowing us to peer into regions of star formation, the centers of galaxies, and into newly forming planetary systems. Infrared also brings us information about the cooler objects in space, such as smaller stars which are too dim to be detected by their visible light, extrasolar planets, and giant molecular clouds. Also, many molecules in space, including organic molecules, have their unique signatures in the infrared.
The American Astronomical Society contributed to the information contained in the TV portion of this report.