Moises Castillo / AP
Idaho State University anthropologist Richard Hansen shows a 2,300-year-old
stucco frieze found at the El Mirador archaeological site in northern Guatemala.
Archaeologists have unearthed a pair of monumental stucco panels in Guatemala that appear to depict one of the New World's oldest-known creation stories, going back thousands of years to what experts call "the cradle of Maya civilization." The discovery suggests that the saga, known as the Popol Vuh, was a centerpiece of Maya beliefs for well more than a millennium and stands as one of the world's enduring religious stories.
The Popol Vuh chronicles how the Maya gods created the world and made several attempts to fashion people to live in it, including "mud people" and "wooden people" that didn't quite meet the grade. Finally, the gods got it right, creating the people who inhabited the urban site now known as El Mirador - where the panels were found - and the hundreds of thousands of acres comprising the Serpent Kingdom.
A Quiche Maya text of the Popol Vuh was found in the highland town of Chichicastenango in 1700 and transcribed by a Dominican monk named Francisco Ximenez. The saga's two main characters are the Hero Twins, named Hunahpu and Xbanlanque, who are sort of like a double dose of Hercules.
The 26-foot-long (8-meter-long) El Mirador panels were made of carved and modeled lime plaster, and lined a water collection system in a part of the city known as the Central Acropolis. They date back to the Late Preclassic period of Maya culture, which goes from about 300 B.C. to the early 1st century A.D., according to an account of the find from Idaho State University.
|Click for video:
Msnbc.com's Dara Brown
reports on the mythic
The amazing thing about the panels is that they show a pair of swimmers, framed by cosmic monsters including an undulating serpent and an old-man deity with outstretched wings. Idaho State University's Richard Hansen, president of the Idaho-based FARES Foundation, said the swimmers appear to represent the fabled Hero Twins.
"One of the swimmers has a decapitated head on his flanks, which is likely the decapitated head of his father, who was known in Maya mythology as Hun Hunahpu," Hansen is quoted as saying in the university's account. The other swimmer wears a jaguar headdress, which would typically be associated with Xbalanque ("Young Jaguar Sun.").
"All in all, the scene is a complex blend of early Maya mythology and cosmology," Hansen said.
Hector Escobedo, Guatemala's vice minister of culture, said the find "suggests that the antiquity of the Popol Vuh as an authentic creation story extends far into the Preclassic eras." The find also adds to the importance attached to the Mirador Basin as a center of ancient Maya culture.
Hansen has been doing research for years in the remote Mirador Basin, which is at the center of a major forest conservation program established by the Guatemalan government. The Idaho researcher served as a consultant to actor/director Mel Gibson on the controversial movie "Apocalypto." And although that film is now far back on the DVD shelves, Gibson is still taking an interest in Mirador. Recently, he called the site "arguably the greatest archaeological find in the Western Hemisphere."
For more about Mirador, check out the Mirador Basin Web site.
Update for 10 p.m. ET: There's a lot of discussion in the comments below about the use of the word "myth" - in this context, I meant it in the same sense that one would talk about Greek or Roman myths. I've also reworded some references in this item just to avoid using the word "myth" over and over again.
Update for 11:55 a.m. ET March 13: I've added in the video about the find.
Update for 5 p.m. ET March 18: Here are some thoughtful observations from anthropologist/archaeologist James Q. Jacobs:
"I do not know who chose the title ['Maya Myth Revealed'], but I find it deceptive. What is revealed is a physical object. The 'myth' aspect is an interpretation based on writing from about 2,000 years later, and from a different location. We do not even know if the same culture group was extant when the Popol Vuh was written.
"The huge distinction between evidence and interpretation is often overlooked in archaeology in favor of our myths about the past. Science writers can aid in elucidating this chasm, especially when the temporal gap is this immense."
I admit that I wrote the title. Although the archaeologists involved with the dig emphasized the Popol Vuh connection, Jacobs makes a good point that one (or two) stucco panels may not be enough to nail down that connection. Here's an article in which Jacobs discusses the bugaboos involved in intepreting ancient art.
| Click for video: NBC
News' Tom Costello
reports on the space
station's close call.
The international space station's three crew members climbed into their Soyuz lifeboat as a "precautionary measure" while a piece of space junk passed by today, NASA said. The space agency said the debris from a spent satellite rocket motor zipped past, apparently without causing damage, and the crew was given the all-clear to return to the station and resume normal operations.
NASA spokesman Bill Jeffs said this sort of maneuver is not unprecedented - it's happened at least once before. Usually, NASA has enough advance warning to move the station well out of the way. In this case, however, military debris-trackers alerted NASA on Wednesday night, too late to plan an avoidance maneuver.
Space agency spokesmen said this afternoon that the debris was about 5 inches (12.7 centimeters) in size, which would be larger than the initial estimates of 0.35 inches (9 millimeters). The space junk, said to be from a PAM-D, or payload assist motor, was projected to pass about 4.5 kilometers (2.8 miles) from the station at 12:39 p.m. ET, Jeffs said.
That was close enough to cause concern: Another agency spokesman, Josh Byerly, told me that a collision alert is raised anytime an object is projected to come within an imaginary "pizza box" around the station, measuring 0.75 kilometers above and below the station and 25 kilometers on each side (0.47 miles up and down, by 15.6 by 15.6 miles).
That's why the crew was told to put the station into unmanned mode, get into their Russian-built Soyuz capsule and wait. If the debris had struck the station and breached the hull, the crew might have had to fly the Soyuz back down to Earth and leave the multibillion-dollar orbiting outpost under remote control.
The three crew members - station commander Mike Fincke and flight engineer Sandra Magnus from NASA, as well as Russian cosmonaut Yuri Lonchakov - waited for a tense 10 minutes, looking out the Soyuz windows. "We didn't see anything, of course," Fincke said later. "We were wondering how close we were."
Orbital debris has been a big issue for NASA and the military these days, in part due to last month's collision of a Russian military satellite and an Iridium telecommunications satellite that created hundreds of pieces of junk. The space agency also noted recently that the space-junk factor has raised the estimated risk for an upcoming shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope - from a 1-in-300 chance of catastrophe to a 1-in-185 chance.
A 5-inch-wide piece of metal might not sound like much, but it can be a big deal when it's traveling 18,000 miles (28,800 kilometers) per hour. Critical parts of the station have been shielded to withstand the impact of objects on the order of a centimeter wide, and ground controllers try to make sure that the station can be moved far away from bigger objects.
Over at Spaceflight Now, Bill Harwood points out that "a 0.4-inch-wide sphere of aluminum moving at orbital speeds packs the same punch as a 400-pound safe moving at 60 mph."
Update for 3:57 p.m. ET: NASA's Josh Byerly told me that the space station's crew has taken refuge in the Soyuz as many as five times before today due to concerns about passing space debris. You can listen to highlights from today's conversation between station crew members and Russian Mission Control by clicking through to this audio clip.
Update for 4:21 p.m. ET: Byerly has corrected the earlier estimate of the object's size. He said in an e-mail that the earlier, smaller number "was actually the radar cross section number, which equates to the larger size." The reference to the size has been revised above.
Update for 10:26 p.m. ET: The Associated Press report about the close call stresses the fact that there's much more junk where today's piece came from. "It's yet another warning shot that we really have to do something about space debris now. We have to do something on an international level," Harvard astrophysicist Jonathan McDowell told AP. Just yesterday, The Wall Street Journal delved into several heavy-duty methods for getting rid of space junk, including nets, magnets, lasers and rocket-powered water guns.
Earlier versions had the time for closest approach slightly wrong, and misstated one of the dimensions for the "pizza box" - which is an occupational hazard when a person has clumsy fingers and is trying to juggle a Twitter feed as well. (Tip o' the Log to Tom Sowa.)
Donna Coveney / MIT
A material called lithium iron phosphate, shown here in a lab dish, could soon be
used in batteries that can be charged up in a matter of seconds rather than hours.
How many hours does it usually take to charge up a battery pack? Researchers have tweaked a material already being used in lithium-ion batteries to cut that time down to a fraction of the usual wait. They say the technology could be used to juice up batteries in seconds rather than hours.
The tweak has the potential to change the way we use gizmos ranging from mobile phones and laptops to plug-in electric vehicles over the next couple of years. But as usual with these kinds of innovations, there's a catch or two.
MIT Professor Gerbrand Ceder and graduate student Byoungwoo Kang explain the technique in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature. It involves processing lithium iron phosphate, also known as LiFePO4, in a different way. This type of lithium-ion battery has been targeted for use in a variety of plug-in vehicles, including the Chevy Volt, but one of its shortcomings has been that the batteries are sluggish when it comes to taking in and pushing out electrical energy.
"They have a lot of energy, so you can drive at 55 mph for a long time, but the power is low," Ceder explained in a news release from MIT. "You can't accelerate quickly."
Ceder and his colleagues took a close look at the chemistry involved with lithium-ion transport, using computer simulations, and determined that there was no intrinsic reason why the ions should be moving so slowly through the battery's energy-storing material. The problem was that the ions had to move in specific directions across the surface of the material in order to enter nanoscale "tunnels" leading into the material itself. It was as if the ions had to follow a maze of surface streets to enter a transit tunnel.
Ceder and Kang found a way to cook the surface of the LiFePO4 material into a glassy structure that let the ions move around quickly, as if they were traveling on a beltway that bypassed surface streets. That sped the ions toward the tunnels and increased the charge/discharge rate by a factor of about 100. The researchers built a small test battery in the lab that usually needed six minutes for a full charge or discharge. When the material was tweaked, that time was cut to 10 or 20 seconds.
Further tests showed that the tweaked material doesn't degrade as much as unprocessed materials during repeated chargings and dischargings. Another plus is that LiFePO4 batteries don't go up in flames, as has sometimes been the case with other types of laptop batteries.
"The ability to charge and discharge batteries in a matter of seconds rather than hours may make possible new technological applications and induce lifestyle changes," the researchers observed. Based on their experiments, they estimate that the typical cellphone battery would take 10 seconds to charge.
If recharging becomes less of a pain, power-hogging mobile applications such as full-screen video might look more attractive to the devices' users. (iPhone owners, are you listening?)And laptop users might not have to hunt around so frequently for a wall outlet to plug into.
Batteries for small devices could be the first to benefit from the beltway tweaking, the researchers said. But in time, faster-charging batteries could change the way we think about plug-in vehicle power, and could provide backup storage for solar- or wind-generated electricity. MIT says that two companies have already licensed the technology, and Ceder thinks the first tweaked batteries could hit the market in two to three years. (The researchers declined to name the two companies, citing concerns about proprietary information.)
So what's the catch? Kang told me that it remains to be seen whether laptop and mobile-device batteries can be processed to build in the surface-level "beltways" while keeping them small enough to fit the required space. "In terms of volume, this material is not that good in comparison to commercial material," he said.
A plus for plug-ins
Kang said the technology would be well-suited for the bigger batteries used in plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.
"We think the plug-in hybrid is more proper for our material, because the material is quite stable and it discharges quickly, and you can achieve faster acceleration of the car," he said.
The catch for that application is that you wouldn't be able to pour in electrical power as quickly as you'd want to from your outlets at home. "Home does not have that kind of power," Kang said. "We need more power. ... The point is, with the battery, there's no limitation. The limitation comes from an external source."
The ideal situation would be to have a network of high-power electric charging stations, which would allow you to juice up your electric vehicle on the road much as people fuel up their gas guzzlers today. Ceder and Kang estimate that an 180-kilowatt power source could give a full charge to the typical plug-in car's 15-kilowatt-hour battery in five minutes.
The researchers say their tweaked material would provide the advantages of supercapacitors (high discharge rates) without the disadvantages (relatively low energy density). But scientists are coming up with a number of different technologies for better batteries - including silicon-based batteries, which I wrote about last year. How do all these battery breakthroughs compare? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section below.
|"The Quantum Frontier" focuses
on the Large Hadron Collider.
Scientists at the Large Hadron Collider have barely begun their quest to unlock the smallest mysteries of the universe - but there's already a book that explains the whole story, written by a researcher who's still deeply involved in the plot.
"The Quantum Frontier," by Fermilab physicist Don Lincoln, delves into the workings of the LHC as well as the basic (and not-so-basic) outlines of the scientific frontier the $10 billion machine was built to explore.
Far beneath the French-Swiss border, the LHC had its official startup last September - and soon afterward it suffered some serious glitches that required months of repair. The latest word is that the collider won't start up again until this coming September at the earliest. Once it's back in operation, scientists could discover how it is that some particles (like protons) have mass while others (like photons) don't. They could learn the nature of dark matter, or confirm that our universe has extra dimensions, or find whole classes of weird new subatomic particles.
Or they could discover something completely different.
"It's completely wrong-minded to say that 'the LHC was built to discover X,'" Lincoln writes. "That would mean that 'X' is understood well enough to know that it's there, and therefore to find it isn't really a discovery. No, the purpose of the LHC is to study the nature of matter under conditions that are seven times hotter and more energetic than ever before observed. We will see what we will see."
Fortunately, Lincoln doesn't stop there: He goes on to explain the ABCs of particle physics as well as the XYZs of scientific mysteries. One of Lincoln's favorite mysteries is the subject of his own research, which focuses on what he calls "the next layer of the onion."
If matter is made of molecules, and molecules are made of atoms, and atoms are made of particles like electrons and protons, and protons are made of quarks ... then what are quarks made of? No one really knows, although theorists have talked about the existence of pre-quarks or "preons." (Plenty of other names have been proposed for the theoretical particles; Lincoln's favorites are "quinks" and "tweedles").
In an interview, Lincoln noted that physicists now know enough about the various flavors of quarks (up, down, bottom, top, strange and charmed) to organize them into a periodic table of sorts. "That's telling me something," he said. "My guess is that this is evidence of something inside quarks."
The LHC could point to the things inside quarks if high-energy collisions produce characteristic sprays and jets of particles, Lincoln said. "You would expect to see more scatters than you would if in fact quarks had no size," he told me.
Another big mystery has to do with the origins of particle mass. For decades, scientists have suggested that a factor known as the Higgs field affects some particles to give them mass, while not affecting others. Lincoln describes the field as an "add-on" that modifies the way particles behave - just as air resistance is an add-on that determines why a lead ball falls faster than a feather through Earth's atmosphere.
Detecting the particle that's associated with the Higgs field - known as the Higgs boson or the "God Particle" - is one of modern physics' top quests. Lincoln happens to be part of two research groups involved in the search: the DZero collaboration at Fermilab and the Compact Muon Solenoid collaboration at the LHC.
For the past couple of years, scientists have wondered whether the first evidence of the Higgs boson would be found at Fermilab or the LHC. "It's not a race per se," Lincoln said, but the folks at Fermilab would love to make the discovery before handing off the baton to their colleagues at Europe's CERN particle physics lab.
Although there's no breakthrough to report yet, the researchers at Fermilab's Tevatron collider are getting closer to the big prize. Just this week, they reported the first detection of single top quarks, which is a significant accomplishment in itself and also advances the search for the Higgs. Last year, Fermilab reported results that narrowed down the energy range where the Higgs might lurk, and Lincoln told me there are new results in the works that will improve upon those previous results.
"Knowing where not to look is an important piece of the puzzle," he said.
Knowing what not to expect from the LHC is just as important, particularly when it comes to planet-destroying catastrophes. In the prologue to "The Quantum Frontier," Lincoln addresses the widely reported worries over microscopic black holes, strangelets and other nightmare scenarios - and he explains why "it is impossible that any of these scenarios are true." Essentially, the reason is that many, many reactions much more energetic than the LHC's collisions have occurred over a span of billions of years. The fact that we're still here is an indication that we're safe, Lincoln said.
"If you do the arithmetic, you'll find that you'd have to run the LHC for 100,000 years in order to have the same collisions that the universe has brought to Earth already," he said. "People do worry about this, and I think it's a completely fair question. But when you think about it for a little while, you see that there's absolutely no reason to be nervous."
Here are a few extra tidbits from the world of particle physics:
Update for 1:15 p.m. ET March 11: Fermilab just announced that its DZero team made an high-precision measurement of the mass of the W boson, which will in turn help narrow down mass estimates for the Higgs boson. If you must know, the exact mass of the particle measured by DZero is 80.401 +/- 0.044 GeV/c2. Click on over to the Symmetry Breaking blog for more information (plus a cute picture that actually helps explain what's going on).
Update for 12:30 p.m. ET March 13: But wait, there's more: Fermilab researchers report that they have excluded still more places where the Higgs boson may lurk. The latest findings suggest that the Higgs' mass should be between 114 and 160 GeV/c2, or between 170 and 185 GeV/c2. That is, if it exists at all. Once again, get the full story from Symmetry Breaking.
Check out our special report on "The Big Bang Machine" for 360-degree views, interactives that explain the LHC's workings, expert commentary on the nightmares and dreams generated by the LHC, and much, much more. And speaking of much, much more ... here are more postings about Big Science:
Win Mcnamee / Getty Images
President Obama wins applause Monday after signing an
executive order on stem cell research. Among the onlookers are
two Nobel laureates: Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Harold
Varmus, who is co-chairman of Obama's science advisory council.
President Obama made good on a campaign promise today by announcing a plan to raise the level of scientific integrity in policymaking - but the guy who is supposed to flesh out the plan is still stuck in Senate confirmation limbo.
"Promoting science isn't just about providing resources - it is also about protecting free and open inquiry," Obama said during today's signing ceremony. "It is about letting scientists like those here today do their jobs, free from manipulation or coercion, and listening to what they tell us, even when it's inconvenient - especially when it's inconvenient. It is about ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda - and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."
Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, told The Associated Press that the turnout for the ceremony included "more happy scientists than I've seen" at the White House during his 30 years in Washington.
Doug Melton, who is the co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute as well as the father of two children with Type I diabetes that could possibly be treated with stem cells, said he welcomed today's developments as "an enormous relief and a time for celebration."
"Science thrives when there is an open and collaborative exchange, not when there are artificial barriers, silos, constructed by the government," Melton said in a statement.
Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, came under criticism throughout his White House tenure for letting political leanings dictate federal policy on issues ranging from embryonic stem cells to environmental policies. There's a long list of horror stories, including the tales told about climate researcher Rick Piltz and wildlife biologist Andy Eller, as well as accounts from researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey and at NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Today's memo calls on the director of the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy to draw up a detailed plan over the next 120 days to make sure officials who deal with science and technology policy are selected because of their expertise rather than their politics. The plan also would seek to ensure that all the findings on which policy decisions are based will be made public, and that appropriate protections will be extended to "science whistleblowers" who question the basis for those decisions.
The memo makes good on a promise included in Obama's responses to a Science Debate 2008 questionnaire. Chris Mooney, author of "The Republican War on Science," said the memo breaks new ground by putting the White House's top science adviser in charge of guaranteeing scientific integrity at every federal agency. "It sounds like the people in the Cabinet will need to talk to him like an equal," Mooney said.
During the previous administration, White House science adviser John Marburger often seemed to be cast as an apologist for Bush's science policies rather than a watchdog, Mooney said. "Either Marburger or the agency would say, 'No, we didn't do anything wrong. This is standard agency procedure,'" he said.
"It's a different situation now. ... There are going to be rules, things you can't do - and at least nominally, that's more than the Bush administration did," Mooney added.
The only problem is that Obama's nominee for science adviser, Harvard physicist and climate expert John Holdren, hasn't yet been confirmed by the Senate. Neither has marine researcher Jane Lubchenco, Obama's choice to head NOAA.
The reasons for the delay are murky: Any senator can put a hold on a confirmation vote, and for a time it looked as if the culprit was Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. But late last week, Menendez's office told Talking Points Memo that the senator was no longer standing in the way. So who is?
Lubchenco has faced some criticism from Eastern fishing interests, but it's Holdren who has generated the most controversy. Some worry that Holdren holds extreme views on the global climate crisis, and that science policies might be slanted to fit those views. That's made him a lightning rod for commentators sounding the alarm about a "Democrat War on Science."
Mooney addressed those worries in a Science Progress blog posting in December and is keeping an eye on the controversy. In Mooney's view, the opposition is a political reaction to the years of criticism that Bush faced on the integrity issue. "What could be more obvious than to try to do a 180 and flip it, and say, 'No, it's Obama who's trying to get political'?" Mooney said.
For whatever reason, Holdren's appointment remains on hold - and thus Obama's plan for improving scientific integrity may have to be put on hold as well.
You'll find a variety of perspectives on Obama's policies from the National Academies, from TierneyLab at The New York Times, from Commonweal and the Union of Concerned Scientists. Feel free to weigh in with your own comments below.
|An online "trading card"
highlights the Gliese
876 planetary system.
The planet-hunting game is shifting into high gear with the launch of NASA's $591 million Kepler mission, but how can you possibly keep track of all those alien worlds without a program? Fortunately, the Planetary Society has just the thing: a free online catalog of exoplanets that will keep up with a tally expected to escalate into the thousands.
The catalog is designed to cater to all types, ranging from avid fans who gobble up the vital stats for every newfound world to the casual spectator who may wonder what the heck an exoplanet is, said Bruce Betts, the nonprofit group's director of projects.
"We've tried to make it accessible," he told me today. And that means including an animated "trading card" for each of the 300-plus planets detected so far.
The whole database is automated, which will make it easy to update the catalog with fresh finds from Kepler as well as from its European counterpart, the Corot space telescope, and a phalanx of ground-based telescopes monitoring faraway planetary systems.
How do scientists find faraway planets? A variety of methods come into play: Some research groups check for a characteristic gravitational wobble in a star's motion. Others watch for the way an unseen planet might distort the light coming from a more distant source. Kepler and Corot are designed to watch for the faint dimming of light when a planet passes over its parent star's disk (or when the planet passes behind the star). Our interactive on "Other Worlds" explains all those methods.
The technique used by Kepler, known as transit photometry, has even been used to analyze the atmosphere of an alien planet. In some cases, methane and water vapor have been detected - which are hopeful signs for the future identification of alien life.
Betts said the Planetary Society is committed to keeping the catalog current - which is something we haven't been able to do with our "Other Worlds" interactive. The society is getting advice from some of the top troops in the planet-hunting business, including Caltech graduate student Darin Ragozzine, a member of Mike Brown's dwarf-planet search team; and Berkeley Professor Geoffrey Marcy, a leader of one of the longest-running exoplanet search efforts.
"We live in an exciting era of discovery with exoplanets, with new worlds found every month, sometimes every week," Marcy said in the Planetary Society's news release. "The Planetary Society's online Catalog of Exoplanets is the perfect resource for the public to keep pace with new discoveries."
The Planetary Society's catalog isn't the only one out there: For years, the Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia has been the authoritative source for vital statistics about all the alien worlds detected so far. Another Web site, SolStation.com, provides a digest of discoveries for a wide assortment of stars, many of which have planetary systems associated with them.
Betts said the Planetary Society's catalog doesn't include some of the planetary systems reported over the years - including the pulsar planets, which were the first-ever worlds ever found orbiting an alien star (this star happened to be a radio-emitting neutron star), and free-floaters that could be considered oversized planets or undersized brown dwarfs.
Speaking of dwarfs, let's not leave out the dwarf planets in our own solar system: So far, five worlds fit the IAU's disputed definition: Eris, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake and Ceres. Uruguayan astronomers currently list more than a dozen additional candidates. Mike Brown thinks there should be around 50 on the list already, with the potential for thousands.
Is there something wrong with having thousands of dwarf planets in our solar system? Not in my book. I'd favor counting them as a subcategory of the full planetary list - just as I'd favor including the pulsar planets, the free-floaters and other weird worlds beyond our solar system. We'll have plenty of planets to choose from, once Kepler, Corot and other planet-hunting telescopes get deep into their surveys.
Or do you think we should be more discriminating with the planet label? Feel free to give vent your views as a comment below. And for more about the planet search, check out these archived posts:
Halton C. Arp / NED / Caltech
|Hubble's team will improve upon this
black-and-white view of the interacting
galaxies known as Arp 274.
The people have spoken, and that means the tangled-up group of galaxies known as Arp 274 will get an exclusive photo shoot with the Hubble Space Telescope. The interacting galaxies won almost half of the 139,944 votes cast in the Hubble team's first-ever "People's Choice" ballot.
Arp 274, which appears to be a cosmic smash-up involving two (or maybe three) galaxies, has never been seen before in high resolution. It was one of six astronomical targets offered for consideration by the Hubble team over the past month in its "You Decide" contest.
When all was said and done, Arp 274 garnered 67,021 votes by Sunday's deadline. Its closest competitor was the beautiful spiral galaxy NGC 5172 (with 26,987 votes), which could well deserve the full Hubble treatment as well.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that the interacting galaxies were the winners. "Hubble has shown that interacting galaxies are very photogenic because, under the relentless pull of gravity, they weave elegant twisted lanes of dust and stars, and brilliant blue clusters of newborn stars," the Hubble team said in today's announcement of the winner.
In his buildup to the vote, astronomer Frank Summers of the Space Telescope Science Institute said that the details of the galactic tangle can't be seen well in the black-and-white imagery that's been taken to date. "I guarantee you, when Hubble takes a look at this, you'll be able to see all sorts of detail in these interacting galaxies," he said.
Hubble will release its full-color picture during the "100 Hours of Astronomy" celebration, scheduled April 2-5 as part of the International Year of Astronomy. That view will no doubt be added to a wide array of cool cosmic crash scenes that have been captured over the years. Here's a sampling that should whet your appetite for April's stunner: