A Planetary Nebula That Looks Like the Firefox Logo

The ancients read their stories into the skies; we read corporate logos.

Photo by T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage) and H. Schweiker (WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF), via Slate/Phil Plait

If you're reading this web page using Chrome or Safari, beware: you are probably angering the universe. There is reason to believe, you see, that the universe -- the collection of all the planets, stars, galaxies, matter, and energy that have ever existed, and the sum total of all that we do and will know -- is actually partial to Mozilla products. Which means that there is reason to believe that the universe would really prefer, as you browse the web that connects our tiny little world, that you use Firefox.

I kid, I kid! Of course the universe, being unconscious and having, regardless, more important things to care about, has no real preference about your web browser. (Though if you're using IE, there's a good chance it's judging you a little). What the universe does have, however, is immensity -- an immensity that lends itself to pareidolia, the human tendency to see familiar images in unfamiliar things. The world that stretches beyond our own is a playground for that tendency, especially now that sophisticated imaging capabilities are producing more pictures than we've ever had access to before. It's cloud-watching made, literally, universal.

I mention all that because of this amazing photo of the planetary nebula Sharpless 2-188, located in the constellation Cassiopeia. It was captured by the astronomers Travis Rector and Heidi Schweiker using the Kitt Peak 4-meter telescope in Arizona. Sharpless 2-188, as its nebula designation suggests, is comprised of interstellar dust and gas. And, looking at the image of that distant nebula captured from here on Earth, the astronomer Phil Plait made a neatly pareidoliac discovery: Sharpless 2-188's gaseous winds, as captured in the picture, gusted in just such a way as to be reminiscent of a fox. Curved into a semi-circle. With its tail aaaaaalmost touching its forehead.

The cosmic configuration out in Cassiopeia resembled, in other words, this:


In part, it's worth noting, the Firefoxiness of the nebula is due to human choices made in the creation of the image itself: Rector and Schweiker, Plait points out, used two filters in the image, one showing hydrogen gas (orange) and the other showing oxygen (cyan). There's an orange-blue bias, essentially, built into the image. The nebula is also Firefoxily bright in its lower-left segment because its central star is quickly moving in that direction.

Which is to say the obvious: that the universe is not, actually, Firefoxphilic. If you're looking at this using Chrome or Safari or IE ... carry on. But the Firefox-in-the-Skies image is a nice reminder of how many things there are still to see in the universe, of how many familiar sights are left to be found in the foreign worlds we're witnessing for the first time, with a clarity we could previously only imagine. The ancients read their stories into the skies; we read our corporate logos into them. But it's the same game. It's ultimately human eyes, looking up into clouds, and making sense of them in the only way we know how.