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The hubbub over the Hand

P.Slane et al. / SAO / NASA / CXC
A rapidly spinning neutron star known as PSR B1509-58 spews out patterns of
energy that look like a blue cosmic hand in this Chandra X-ray image.

An X-ray probe's picture of a celestial "Hand," 17,000 light-years from Earth, has stirred up spiritual responses on a par with the Hubble Space Telescope's famous Pillars of Creation and the Eye of God - plus a couple of lighthearted laughs.

The scientific story behind the Chandra X-ray Observatory's image of PSR B1509-58 (or B1509 for short) is powerful enough: The image shows a pulsar - that is, a rapidly spinning neutron star - in the southern constellation Circinus. The pulsar has a magnetic field at its surface that's estimated to be 15 trillion times as strong as Earth's, and that makes B1509 one of the most powerful electromagnetic generators in the galaxy.

All that energy drives streams of electrons and ions through the nebula surrounding the star, and in the picture above, those streams are shown in blue. When the magnetically charged torrents hit knots of material in a neighboring cloud of gas known as RCW 89, the energy is released in X-ray emissions that are shown here in red.

It just so happens that the blue streams of energy look like gigantic cosmic fingers, reaching out over scores of light-years of outer space to the gas cloud. And that's how this picture, released on April 3, came to be called "the Hand of God."

This week the online polls sprouted: Was this truly a divine revelation, or merely a natural phenomenon? As of today, 19 percent of the click-voters at the Weekly World News backed the idea that the image was "God showing us his presence," as opposed to 35 percent who said it was nothing more than an astronomical event and 46 percent who said it was "an explainable apparition but still illustrates the beauty of what God created."

At one point, 40 percent of the votes in the New York Daily News' poll supported the idea the picture captured the hand of God, with 60 percent going with the view that it was a natural stellar formation. We all know that these polls are pretty unscientific to begin with, but over on the Pharyngula blog, "godless" evolutionary biologist P.Z. Myers crowned the Daily News' effort as "the dumbest poll yet."

"My respect for humanity can only be restored if that 40 percent is reduced," Myers wrote.

Sure enough, the tally has now shifted to 96 percent for the natural stellar formation, and just 4 percent for the literal hand of God.

Or is that the hand of an alien Apollo reaching for a UFO?

In addition to delving into the astronomical wonders that gave rise to the image, Bad Astronomy's Phil Plait recalls the "Star Trek" episode in which a giant hand seizes control of the Starship Enterprise.

Meanwhile, on Discovery.com's Space Disco blog, Dave Mosher revealed what the Hand of God was really reaching for.

For extra doses of uplifting space imagery, check out our Space Gallery. If it's cosmic curiosities you're after, you won't want to miss the Red Rectangle, the Double Helix Nebula and the Cone Nebula, as well as the Hexagon and the One-Eyed Monster at Saturn. And if you're in a mischievous mood, you can reflect on the meaning of the Cosmic Finger of Friendship.