There are countless websites devoted to animated GIFs and the typically short, goofy animations they enable. While most of them center on offbeat humor (and lots of cats), an animated GIF created by J-P Metsävainio, an astrophotographer from Finland, may give them a good name once again.
Metsävainio has created a jaw-dropping three-dimensional GIF of a nebula near the constellation Cepheus, some 2,000 light years away. The nebula, IC 1396, is far enough away from Earth that J-P had to use software to create a false perspective, even though it's several hundred light years across.
"My work flow is based on scientific data from the object, distance and the sources of ionization are usually known," Metsävainio explains on his blog, Astro Anarchy. He uses this information to surmise a likely form, then the "rest of the missing information is ... replaced with an artistic vision."
Metsävainio took the original image of the nebula in November of 2011 in Finland near the Arctic Circle. Then he converted the two-dimensional picture into three dimensions using surface modeling software. The software, he writes, splits the image into various layers, then projects it onto a 3D form.
Because his observatory is located so far north, Metsävainio only has sufficient darkness to take pictures for six months of every year. As a result, he notes on Facebook, he only produces between 10 and 12 photos per year.
The results are spectacular. In the GIF below, Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy explains:
The star in the center is the ionizing source; that is, it’s a hot, young, massive star blasting out ultraviolet light, and that’s what’s making the nebula glow. The dark ribbons are filaments of dust which absorb optical light (the kind of light we see). Many of them seem to point toward the central star. That’s because at their head is a dense clump of matter, and that’s getting eaten away by the light and fierce winds from that hot star. Material from the clump gets blown back and away from the star, like sandbars in a stream.
LOOK at a 3-D interpretation of nebula IC 1396, below. Please allow time to load. Animation is approximately 7 megabytes. [copyright J-P Metsävainio]: