The Sciences

Cosmic Halloween: Spotting Ghosts, Skulls & Witches in the Sky

Images of creepy skulls, witches and bleeding eyes—all found in nature.


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Is this a moaning skull, aflame with Halloween madness?

Actually, it's something far scarier: a gigantic black hole gobbling down matter and spewing out vast amounts of high-energy radiation.

In the heart of the Perseus cluster of galaxies lies the monster Perseus A, a huge galaxy that is blasting out X-rays. In this image by the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory, the galaxy is between the two "eyes", which are most likely gigantic bubbles of gas expanding away from the supermassive black hole at the heart of the galaxy. Those dark regions are each half the size of our own Milky Way galaxy, 100,000 light years across!

Image credit: NASA, IoA, A. Fabian et al.

Original blog post: Cosmically creepy chords (about emissions from space translated into sounds that are honestly pretty cool)

A rose, by any other name, would smell... like rotting corpses. Ewwww.

[... and yes, it's a real picture!] 

Image credit: Todd Terwilliger, used by permission

Original blog post

Glowing ominously green and yellow in this picture, the nebula W5 - nicknamed (seriously) the Soul Nebula - peers into your soul with its black eye sockets filled with pinprick stars...

But really it's a vast cloud of gas furiously churning out stars. The winds of subatomic particles and fierce light from those newborn stars carve out cavities in the gas, leaving what look like eye sockets and a nasal bone in a huge green skull.

I have to say... it looks a lot like the very creepy aliens called "The Silence" from Doctor Who.

This image was taken by astronomer 

César Cantú, who has dozens of other stunning astronomical photos on his site... but none quite so creepy.

Image credit: César Cantú

Original blog post: Heart and Skull nebula

At the center of our Milky Way galaxy lurks a massive black hole, which, for the moment, is quiet. The surrounding material barely glows in radio waves, but there, off to the right... is that the baleful face of a woman, just a half a light year from the monster? Why is she sad? What is she mourning?

Perhaps she perceives her own fate: being twisted around, the gas making up her visage warped and wrapped as it circles that black hole over thousands of years, eventually, it may be, to take the final plunge into eterity.

Image credit: Zhao & Goss, using the VLA radio telescope

Original image: Introduction to Radio Astronomy

OK, I made that name up. It's actually called DR 6, which isn't nearly as much fun, especially at this time of year.

This is an infrared Spitzer Space Telescope image of the gas cloud, which is forming a dozen or so stars inside it. The eyes and mouth are bubbles in the gas blown by the winds of the newborn stars. 

So in a way, it really is yelling. But at a distance of 4000 light years - and across the vacuum of space - there's nothing we can hear. 

Except: BOO!

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Carey (Caltech)

Original image: Star formation region DR 6

The knee of Orion is marked by the bright star Rigel, and just off to the side is the large glowing Witch Head nebula, which really does look like a classic depiction of a hag's face: open-mouth, scraggly nose, deep eyes, gaping as she looks off to the right. 

This image was taken by astrophotographer Rogelio Andreo, and was a small piece of a vast Orion mosaic he made. It was so incredibly beautiful that I picked it as my Number 1 Astronomy picture of 2010.

Image credit: Rogelio Andreo

Original blog post: The Top 14 Astronomy Pictures of 2010

What scares a ghost? Something must have frightened this poor guy, since he's running for his... uh... life? Death? Whatever.

This is one of my favorite nebulae in the sky, and if it looks familiar, it should: in a bizarre - and literal - twist of fate, it's actually the picture of the Witch Head Nebula turned sideways! 

I love that you can take an astronomical picture related to Halloween, turn it 90 degrees, and get a different Halloween picture! Turn your head to the left to see the Witch.

If you have a hard time seeing it, the ghost is running to the right; the upswept arc on the right is his arm (the Witch's chin), his head is the bump to the left (the Witch's lip), his other arm is the arc on the left (the Witch's nose), and his ghostly feet dangle below.

Image credit: Rogelio Andreo

Original blog post: The Top 14 Astronomy Pictures of 2010

Adam Block is a fantastic astrophotographer, using the 0.8 meter Schumann telescope in Arizona to take incredible images. This one shows gas and dust around the very young star V633 Cas, still in the throes of birth. When human babies are born, they scream, and from the looks of this star it is, too. But oits age is estimated as more than 30,000 years, which is a long, long time to wail...

This is a small part of a much larger and fantastically beautiful image of the region around the nebula vdB1, and I really recommend you take a look. It's breath-taking. 

Adam Block/Mount Lemmon Sky Center/University of Arizona

Original image

160,000 light years from home, the Tarantula nebula (how's that for a Halloweeny name?) is a factory cranking out thousands of stars. Some of these stars are so luminous they have heated the gas to millions of degrees, and this expanding hot gas (in blue) has pushed open bubbles in the cooler gas around them (red).

And if that were happening inside of you, I imagine you'd be screaming in fury as well. 

Man, that is one ticked off nebula. I'm glad it's so far away.

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/L.Townsley et al.; Infrared: NASA/JPL/PSU/L.Townsley et al.

In 2012, my wife and I hosted a group of science enthusiasts to a vacation at the C Lazy U dude ranch as part of Science Getaways - vacations with extra bonus science added. While out on our biology hike, we saw vast groves of aspen trees, and learned that they reproduce themselves by sending up runners from their rooots - clones, essentially.

One, though, must've suffered an error during the DNA transcription. Unless there's some evolutionary benefit for an aspen tree to have a bleeding eye in its trunk.

And if that's the case, I don't think I wanna know.

Image credit: me!

This seriously disturbing image is not actually a photo, and it's not actually an astronomical object! It's an image of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland when it was erupting in 2010, made using radar observations. 

But c'mon, look at it! How could I not include it?

Image credit: Icelandic Coastal Patrol

Original blog post: Blowin' off some scream

Even in space, you can't escape Halloween! I'm not sure what it is on the right that's chasing those two poor, terrified people running away with their arms up in the air, but it must be really scary.

This is SH2-136, a Bok globule, a dark blob of gas that forms stars deep within. Parts of it are lit up by nearby stars, allowing us to witness this act of cosmic trick-or-treatery.

Image credit: Adam Block/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Original: SH2-136

A vast cloud of gas surrounding two huge clusters of stars stares at you, glaring, knowing you should be working and not reading Halloween blogs.

Or is that your conscience speaking? This is actually a star-forming cloud called NGC 2467, as seen by the MPG/ESO telescope in Chile. Each eye is actually a cluster of stars, blowing huge holes in the gas cloud, forming what looks like two colorful eyes burning a hole into your very soul.

I have to note: this object is in the constellation of Puppis, the stern of a cosmic ship. So this really is a stern glare! 

Image credit: ESO

Original image: The cosmic Christmas ghost

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