The Sciences

The Best Images from Deep Space, 2011

Phil Plait's picks for the best deep space pictures of 2011.

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When you look up at the sky with just your eye, what you see mostly are stars, already millions or billions of years old. But when you turn a telescope to the heavens, especially an infrared telescope like Spitzer, the picture changes. In the colors our eyes cannot see, cold gas and dust glow brilliantly, especially where gigantic clouds are actively forming stars.

RCW 120 is one such nebula, located over 4000 light years away in the constellation of Scorpius. Several stars are in the process of being born here; look right in the center and you'll see a blue speck; that's a star that's already far larger and more powerful than the Sun. It floods the nebula with ultraviolet light and blows out a mighty solar wind that's compressing the gas around it, forming the bubble shape of the overall cloud. Other stars are forming around the rim of the bubble, and one of them is already massive enough that its fate is sealed: one day, million of years from now, it will explode. So will the star in the center, in fact, though it's unknown which will blow its top first.

Either way, get a good look now: in a million years or so RCW 120 will be torn apart by the expanding debris from a detonated star. 

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Stars are violent. They can explode when they die, and even mild, middle-aged stars like the Sun can blast off flares and other magnetically-driven paroxysms. But even when they're babies, stars can throw pretty epic tantrums.

M43 is a nebula, a cloud of gas actively churning out stars. Located in Orion, it's easily seen even in binoculars, but when you use Hubble, you get some fantastic detail. In this image we're seeing stars in the act of forming, and the violence of their birth is displayed. Stars form from whirling disks of material; the centers collapse to form stars, and the outer parts can coagulate to become planets like Earth. When the star is still very young, it blows off huge amounts of material. Magnetic fields as well as the presence of the disk tend to focus this material into beams, like two flashlights taped end-to-end. The outward-rushing matter slams into the junk floating in space around it - at speeds upwards of a million kilometers per hour! - puffing it up into elongated teardrop-shaped lobes. You can see one of these objects just left of center in this image. There's probably another lobe, hidden behind thick layers of opaque dust.

To the right and just below the bright star near the top of this image you can see a little flare of white light. This is actually the glow from an infant star, and in the high-res image you can see this looks like a hamburger; the patty is actually the disk of material seen edge-on. A few years back we knew such objects must exist, but it wasn't until Hubble that we got such clear views of them. We can now actually observe stars in every single stage of their lives. It's an amazing time to be an astronomer... or to be someone who appreciates the beauty of astronomy.

Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

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In 1998, Hubble was pointed at the nearby star HR 8799. At 130 light years away, it's one of a group of young stars that were suspected to have planets. Despite the best efforts of the astronomers involved, though, no planets were discovered.

Fast forward ten years. In 2008, planets were indeed found orbiting HR 8799. Those observations, using the ginormous Gemini 8-meter telescope, were among the first exoplanets directly imaged (as opposed to inferred using indirect techniques), and they made up the first exoplanet solar system ever directly seen.

Armed with this knowledge, in 2011 astronomers went back and looked once again at the 1998 Hubble data. Using sophisticated techniques and data unavailable 13 years ago, they were able to painstakingly subtract the light from the star, removing its glare, and revealing the planets as seen in the image above. In a sense, this image was the very first one to ever directly show exoplanets, but in reality that's not entirely fair.

Still, it's an incredibly important image: it gave us an extra 13 year baseline in observing these planets, long enough to actually detect their orbital motion around their star! The three planets seen take 100, 200, and 400 years to orbit once, so even these few years of extra data have helped astronomers understand better planets orbiting another star, over a thousand trillion kilometers away.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and R. Soummer (STScI)

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In the southern constellation of Circinus (the compass) lies a galaxy with the name ESO 97-G13. At a distance of a mere 15 million light years, it should be one of the most celebrated galaxies in the sky, the equal of the Whirlpool, the Pinwheel, and other big, bright galaxies. But ESO 97-G13, also called the Circinus Galaxy, is relatively unknown. Why?

It's because it lies in the plane of the Milky Way galaxy, and is dimmed to obscurity by all the dust in our galaxy - it's like trying to look out of room filled with smoke. But infrared light can travel through all that junk pretty well, so the view from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) is unparalleled.

The galaxy is actually pretty amazing. You can just make out the spiral arms, narrow and long, making a giant S in the sky; those were not seen before WISE took a look. But the picture is dominated by the galaxy's core, which in infrared outshines the rest of the galaxy's light combined. At the nucleus of Circinus is a monster black hole, and matter is spiraling into it. As it does so, it heats up to fantastic temperatures, blasting out X-rays and other forms of energy. This radiation heats up the dust around it - most galaxies are littered with the stuff - which then reradiates that away in the infrared. If you look just outside the intense core, you'll see a ring of light: that's probably where a lot of stars are forming, which again creates more dust that can glow in the IR.

Observatories like WISE open up a new window on the Universe, giving us a view of the sky that we might have otherwise missed... even when something is almost literally right next door.

Image credit: WISE: NASA/JPL-Caltech/WISE Team

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In this gallery I've talked about collisions of shock waves, winds from stars, even whole galaxies. But it turns out there are bigger collisions than that... way bigger.

Abell 2744 is a cluster of galaxies; thousands of galaxies swarm inside of it. But new observations reveal a startling result: it's actually the collision of four separate clusters of galaxies, all slamming into each other at the same time! The amount of material involved is staggering, beyond belief: over four hundred trillion times the mass of our Sun! That's well over a thousand times the mass of our entire Milky Way Galaxy.

Yikes.

This picture shows the object, nicknamed the Pandora Cluster. It combines visible light images from Hubble and the Very Large telescope (shown in blue, green, and red) - which show gas and stars - with X-ray images from Chandra (shown in pink) which picks out extremely hot gas in between the galaxies, heated by the collision. The region colored vivid blue is actually a model showing where dark matter lies: this invisible stuff makes up most of the budget of the Universe's mass, but is not directly viewable. However, it has gravity, and that distorts the light coming from more distant galaxies behind it. By carefully mapping out that distortion, the location and amount of dark matter in the cluster can be determined. Clusters like Pandora house a lot of dark matter, and are great places to look for it.

Dark matter doesn't interact with normal matter, but regular old gas sure does. When clusters collide, so does their gas, which can screech to a halt in a head-on collision, while the dark matter blows right on through. By mapping where normal matter is compared to where the dark matter is, the history of the cluster can be found, and that's how astronomers figured out four separate clusters were involved.

The next time you get involved in a fender bender in a car, keep that in mind! Things could've been a lot, lot worse.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, ESO, CXC, and D. Coe (STScI)/J. Merten (Heidelberg/Bologna)

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A brown dwarf is an object that's too big to be a planet - despite the lack of a good definition of what a planet actually is - and too small to be a star (most astronomers think of a star as an object that can have sustained fusion of hydrogen into helium in its core). They were theoretical until the first one was spotted in the 90s, and now we know of hundreds.

Brown dwarfs don't generate any heat through fusion, so once formed, they just basically sit there, cooling off. Once they're a few billion years old they're pretty hard to spot, since they don't give off much light. They're brightest in the infrared, and that's how most are discovered. The hotter they are the easier they are to find, and most have temperatures around 1000°C, much hotter than your oven (but far cooler than, say, the Sun).

WISE, NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, was a brown dwarf-finding machine, since it was built to look at just the wavelengths brown dwarfs emit. It's found quite a few, and most were easy to spot - due to the way the images were put together, brown dwarfs appear green in the pictures (though really the colors of brown dwarfs in visible light vary wildly). You can see one circled in the image above - it's called WISE 1828+2650 and what's amazing about it is that its temperature is a mere 25° C! That's right: it's basically room temperature. Now, it's actually a giant ball of gas the size of Jupiter but with probably dozens of times the mass, so you'd be crushed to death if you could stand on its surface, which you couldn't, because it doesn't really have a surface. But you'd be at a comfy temperature while it happened.

I studied brown dwarfs for a while when I was working on Hubble; at the time we didn't know much about them but I found them fascinating. And now I can say, without fear of being contradicted, that they are literally cool.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

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This is a Hubble image of the spiral galaxy NGC 2841. The thing that makes this galaxy odd is that it isn't odd.

It's about 30 - 40 million light years away, neither really close nor really far. It's maybe 70,000 light years across - smaller than our Milky Way, perhaps average for a spiral. It's not blasting energy out of its core as some galaxies do, nor is it totally quiet, like the Milky Way is. It doesn't have gigantic regions of star formation in its arms, it doesn't have a rectangular bar in its center, it doesn't appear to have large satellite galaxies. It's a run-of-the-mill, everyday, neither-here-nor-there galaxy.

But that's what makes it special: it's a control, a gauge, a ruler against which to measure other galaxies. How do you know if some galaxy is acting bizarrely if we don't know what normal is? NGC 2841 is normal.

But it's still gorgeous. I love the way the central region looks smooth and uniform, but the dust clouds in the arms are patchy, crinkly like the top of a snickerdoodle. Sometimes in these lists I like to pick the extreme objects, because in many cases in the extreme there lies beauty. But there can also be beauty in the mundane as well.

Image credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration Acknowledgment: M. Crockett and S. Kaviraj (Oxford University, UK), R. O’Connell (University of Virginia), B. Whitmore (STScI) and the WFC3 Scientific Oversight Committee

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When a star like the Sun dies, it blows material off into space. Once that outer layers of the star are sloughed off, the hot dense core can light that gas up until it glows. The hydrogen emits red, the oxygen green and blue... these so-called planetary nebulae are some of the most elegant and beautiful objects in the sky.

Among the most famous of them is NGC 6543, the Cat's Eye Nebula, named for the shape of the central region; it does resemble the eye of a cat. But in this very deep exposure taken using 2.5 meter Isaac Newton Telescope on the island of La Palma in the Canaries, we're seeing much more than that. It reveals the far fainter outer material, shed millennia ago by the star. This outer halo is pretty big: 6 light years across! Most planetary nebulae are only a light year or so across, so this is a fantastically vast and gossamer structure.

The knots and clumps are where the expanding gas encountered material between the stars, compressing it and forming those tendrils. Giant halos around planetaries are hard to observe because they're so faint, but several have been seen. They're like the preserved remnants of an ancient star, and examining them is like doing astronomical archaeology... on a scale 60 trillion kilometers (40 trillion miles) across.

Image credit: This image was obtained and processed by members of the IAC astrophotography group (A. Oscoz, D. López, P. Rodríguez-Gil and L. Chinarro).

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This picture is a little odd, I admit. And it's not 100% certain it is what it's thought to be. But if it is what it's thought to be, then it's worth putting in this list. And I think it is. What it's thought to be, I mean.

So what is it? It may very well be an image - the very first image ever - of a planet caught in the act of formation. How cool is that?

It's name is LkCa 15b, and the image was taken by the massive 10-meter Keck telescope in Hawaii. This is an infrared image, where the blue and red colors indicate different colors of IR light. Astronomers were observing a very young star (the position of which is marked in the image by the star shape) known to have a disk of material surrounding it, the kind that forms planets. The disk is actually an annulus, like a DVD with a hole in the middle. The hole is not completely devoid of matter, though. This picture is a closeup of a part of the material in the hole, and it may very well be that the blue spot is a planet, and the red swirl is material falling onto the planet - in other words, the planet is still forming from junk orbiting the star!

The researchers make a pretty good case of eliminating other possibilities (a background star or galaxy, for example) and all in all it really does look like they caught this planet while it was still accreting material. Like I said, it's not 100% certain, but the data look pretty convincing to me. It may turn out to be something else - there's always that possibility when doing cutting edge science - but either way, it's a very odd object and worth further study. And if it does turn out to be an infant planet, then it's an amazing discovery, and will be a boon to the science of planetary formation.

Image credit: Kraus and Ireland

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This is one of my favorite pictures of the entire year: a composite view of our neighbor the Andromeda galaxy, seen in both the far-infrared and in X-rays.

The IR part (colored orange) was taken by the space-based Herschel telescope, and shows cold, cold dust. Even though this dust is just a few degrees above absolute zero, it still emits feebly in the infrared; the power of the telescope coupled with the relatively small distance to the galaxy make it easier to spot.

The X-ray part of the picture (in blue) couldn't be more different. Taken with the orbiting Chandra Observatory, it shows the hottest, most violent objects in the galaxy: black holes gobbling down matter, gas heated to millions of degrees by dense, whirling neutron stars, and the high-energy radiation from stars that have exploded, sending out vast amounts of material that slam into surrounding gas, creating shock waves that heat the gas tremendously, generating X-rays.

I love the color contrast in this image, the fact that we're seeing entirely different populations of objects, and also the simple idea that this is such a strange view of the Andromeda galaxy, a huge spiral so bright and close it's easily visible to the unaided eye from a dark site. I've seen it countless times with my own eyes, through binoculars, and with telescopes, but never like this. Sometimes, seeing an old friend with different eyes is a great way to be reacquainted with it.

Image credit: IR: ESA/Herschel/PACS/SPIRE/J.Fritz; X-ray: U.Gent/XMM-Newton/EPIC/W. Pietsch, MPE

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Despite what you might think, it's actually pretty rare to see a circular object in space (though it does sometimes happen). Things spin, or are affected by other forces, and the resulting shape is almost never a nice neat circle. But the supernova remnant SNR 0509, shown here in this Hubble image, comes close.

As it happens, it's not really a circle, but a sphere, or more accurately, a spherical shell like a balloon. A long time ago, thousands of years ago, a star blew up. Matter screamed away from it at thousands of kilometers per second, sweeping up material around it and getting compressed. Over time the material slowed considerably, and what we're left with is this thin-shelled soap bubble in space. A bubble 20 light years - 20 thousand trillion kilometers - across.

I love this picture. It was released last year literally the same day I posted my Top Astronomy Pictures. So technically it's from 2010, but I'm happy to list it here since it missed the cut off last time.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA). Acknowledgement: J. Hughes (Rutgers University)

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When I first saw this Hubble image of the galaxy UGC 12158, I did a double-take: it's a near identical twin of our own Milky Way galaxy!

It's a spiral galaxy, like ours. It has multiple arms, wound fairly tightly, like ours, several of which split and have disconnected spurs, like ours. It even has that rectangular feature in the middle called a bar, caused by the odd gravitational interactions of several billion stars as they orbit near the galactic center. If you could travel a few hundred thousand light years straight out of our galaxy, you'd see something very much like UGC 12158.

...except for one small thing. Actually, a big thing: the Milky Way is among the biggest galaxies in the Universe, being 100,000 light years from side-to-side. But UGC 12158 has us cleanly whipped in the size department: it's 140,000 light years across! That's huge! Only a handful of spiral galaxies are bigger than this, making it one of the bruisers of the cosmos.

Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

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Galaxy Zoo is an online citizen science project: people, any people, can look through vast numbers of pictures of galaxies, classifying them. Spirals, irregulars, ellipticals: with a little training (provided by the site itself) it's easy, and as it turns out, hugely addicting to do.

A young Dutch woman named Hanny van Arkel was combing through Galaxy Zoo images one day and found a spiral galaxy, but next to it was a weird, green smear of light. What was it? She tagged it and asked around, and the mystery deepened. It was real, but odd. What could it be?

Astronomer Bill Keel wondered as well. He got time on Hubble to observe this strange object, now called Hanny's Voorwerp (which is Dutch for "thing"), and now we think we know what it is: a huge cloud of gas, as big as our own Milky Way, lit up by the nearby spiral! Every galaxy has a supermassive black hole in its core, and as material falls in it heats up and emits huge amounts of light. Some of this light coming from the galaxy's core hit the Voorwerp, causing it to glow. The thing is, the galaxy's black hole is no longer emitting this light! At some point, the material falling in must have run out, shutting off the light switch. But the gas in the Voorwerp is still glowing; it takes a long time for that material to fade away. It's been about 200,000 years or so, which is a long time for us humans, but is the blink of an eye in the life of a galaxy.

Long enough, of course, for Hanny to find it. And oh, did I mention that Hanny, a musician, found out about Galaxy Zoo because Brian May, of the rock group Queen, blogged about it? Yup. She wasn't an astronomy enthusiast before all this, yet now she has an object named after her, and the knowledge that Hubble was pointed at a target because of something she just up and decided to do. If there's a life lesson in this, feel free to figure it out for yourself.

Image credit: NASA, ESA, W. Keel (University of Alabama), and the Galaxy Zoo Team

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When you look at this picture of NGC 2100, you're forgiven if you think it shows a globular cluster. That's what I thought it was at first!

But it's not. Globulars are ancient ball-shaped collections of hundreds of thousands of stars bound by their own gravity. NGC 2100, though, is actually far smaller, and is called an open cluster. For one thing, NGC 2100 doesn't have as many stars as a globular does, and for another, it's quite young, only 15 million years old. Globulars are billions of years old!

This picture, taken with the European Southern Observatory's New Technology Telescope, is lovely. The cluster is sitting near or in a lot of gas; it's in the outskirts of the vast (and I mean vast) Tarantula nebula. The fact that the gas above it is blue and below it is red is telling us something. At the core of the Tarantula (to the upper right, off-screen) is another cluster of stars, but this cluster is younger, more vigorous, and has a large number of extremely massive and hot stars, luminous enough to cause oxygen in the gas to glow blue. However, farther away their light dims and cannot excite that gas. It glows red there due to warm hydrogen, which doesn't take as much energy to light up. Most likely NGC 2100 has little or no influence on this gas; the stars in it don't have the oomph needed to light it up. But note the arc of material just above the cluster; could that be gas being pushed by the combined winds of the stars in NGC 2100? It's the right size, and centered right on the cluster. Maybe!

But having a dense cluster like that sitting, from our view, right where the gas in the nebula changes degree makes for a fantastic picture, even if it did fool me into thinking it was something it wasn't.

Image credit: ESO

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If you go outside and look east not long after sunset in the winter, you'll see Orion rising. In his familiar outline, his left shoulder is marked by the red supergiant Betelgeuse, and his other shoulder by the blue giant Bellatrix. Just above these two stars, where Orion's head would be, looks empty. But deep exposures reveal a sprawling cloud of hydrogen there, a vast nebular star factory.

The cloud is choked with dust as well, which is opaque and dark in visible light. But when NASA's WISE observatory turns its infared-sensitive eye to this object, it sees the picture above: a huge ring of softly glowing dust. The star in the center is Lambda Orionis, a red supergiant like Betelgeuse (which itself is the bright star in the lower left, looking blue in this false color image), dimmed considerably by the thick dust. Lambda Ori, along with several other stars, warms the dust, making it glow in the infrared. Long fingers point to the center of the structure; these are dense towers of gas and dust being eroded by the radiation of the stars in the center, like sandbars in a river. Eventually they will completely dissolve away.

Sometime before then, though, Lambda Ori will most likely explode, which will expand outward into this bubble. It may not have enough power to destroy this huge structure, but it will probably be joined by other stars over time, and the cloud will disperse, revealing all the other stars there. Once that happens, Orion's head will glow brilliantly from the combined light of all the stars born there... and he may no longer look much like a hunter. I wonder if future generations will rename him?

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

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This may be the weirdest entry in the gallery this year: Tycho's supernova remnant, looking for all the world (Universe?) like some sort of bizarre protozoan floating in space.

It's actually the expanding debris from a star first seen in 1572 by astronomer Tycho Brahe. This image was taken by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and shows very high-energy X-rays in blue, and lower energy X-rays in red (both have been superposed on a sky survey image of stars representing the location of the nebula). The initial blast wave from the supernova is slamming into gas around it, compressing it, heating it, and generating crazy strong and chaotic magnetic fields. These fields accelerate electrons to super high velocities, making the X-rays shown in blue. The X-rays shown in red are from the supernova material itself - the outer layers of the star expanding outward behind the shock wave.

These Chandra observations showed that expanding debris from a supernova can accelerate subatomic particles faster than previously thought, and in fact can account for the highest-energy protons that come from outer space and are seen hitting the Earth's upper atmosphere. It had long been suspected this was the case, but these data provided pretty strong evidence this was the case. In fact, just before posting this Top Pictures list, a NASA press release came out saying the Fermi satellite has seen gamma rays from this object, which is another very strong piece of evidence for this; gamma rays are the very highest energy form of light, and should be made when subatomic particles bounce around in supernova shock waves.

So while the Tycho supernova remnant may look like some sort of blastocyte, it's really a blast site. Ironically, supernovae make heavy elements that get dispersed into space, which eventually form stars and planets... and life. So maybe "blastocyte" isn't too far off.

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Rutgers/K.Eriksen et al.; Optical: DSS

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Is there any deep space object more recognizable and more beautiful than the Orion Nebula? Vast, flowing, colorful, and simply breath-takingly gorgeous, it's so immense that even from 1350 light years away it can be seen with the unaided eye (it's the middle star in Orion's dagger). Through binoculars it can be seen as a fuzzy splotch, and even using a small telescope the overall shape can be seen. But when a 2.2 meter telescope is pointed at it, and have an image constructed by amateur astrophotgrapher Igor Chekalin, what you get is fine art.

This nebula is one of the biggest in the Milky Way - I imagine aliens taking a peek from the Andromeda galaxy chittering excitedly as they view it through their own 'scopes - and is forming countless stars at its heart. Four of these, called the Trapezium, are so massive and hot their radiation lights up the entire cloud of gas.

But what you're seeing here is not just gas floating in space. This is actually part of a much larger dark cloud of dense material that you can't see, stretching well beyond the borders of this image. Stars like the Trapezium formed in this denser stuff, and once they switched on their intense radiation started eating away at the surrounding material. They carved a vast bubble in the cloud, which burst out through one wall of the cloud, more or less in our direction. Inside the cavity is much thinner gas, heated and glowing from the stars' ultraviolet light.

That's what you're seeing: the ethereal mist filling a burst bubble. The tenuous gas flows in ribbons, sheets, and filaments, forming those incredibly intricate wisps, and all of this sits inside a concave hole scooped out of one side of a larger complex. It's fantastic.

I can't imagine leaving you with a better picture than this. Or maybe I can, since I can point you to a much larger 4000 x 3800 pixel version. But even that might not be enough, so why not take a look at the huge9000 x 8600 pixel (TIF) version? It's 142 Mb, but it may be the only true way to explore the profound beauty of this amazing galactic treasure.

Image credit: ESO/Igor ChekalinOriginal Image

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Astronomy is all about cycles: sunrise, sunset, eclipses, orbits... and even the cycle of life, if we wish to be metaphorical. Stars are born, live out their lives, and then die. Some fade away, and others explode, leaving a lasting imprint on space around them for a long, long way.

This cycle is played out everywhere, including the weird trunk-like nebula called IC 5146, seen here in the far-infrared by Europe's space-based Herschel Observatory. The light you're seeing here has wavelengths hundreds of times what our eye can see, meaning it has hundredths the energy. This stuff is cold; mere degrees above absolute zero. What's glowing here is actually quite dark in visible light, with the exception of the glob on the left, which is where stars are being born - they light up the surrounding gas, making it visible to us.

But that long filament that stretches to the right? That is actually dust that's been riled up by exploding stars. When a supernova goes off, a shock wave of material blows away from it. That wave slams into waves from other stars that have exploded, and the gas gets all mixed up, like contrails from two passing jets. It's turbulent, and that tends to create long filaments like the one in IC 5146. They're all over the sky, a testament to the number and sheer power of supernovae. And that gas can compress, too, and form new stars... starting that cycle all over again.

Image credit: ESA/Herschel/SPIRE/PACS/D. Arzoumanian (CEA Saclay) for the “Gould Belt survey” Key Programme Consortium

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Oh, do I love me some globular clusters! These are compact balls of hundreds of thousands of stars, bound by their own gravity, orbiting each other every which way like bees circling a hive. Even through a small telescope they're magnificent. Of course, when you point Hubble at one, it's spectacular.

M15 was always one of my favorites as a young man, standing with my 'scope at the end of my driveway in the late summer and early fall when Pegasus and the cluster were high in the sky. Bright, large, and easy to find, it was so pretty that I would stare at it and wonder what it would be like to be on a planet inside there, with hundreds of stars blazing away as bright as Venus...

What I didn't know then is that one particular star was different. Just below and to the left of the cluster center is a vividly blue star (see the super-duper high-res embiggened version to get a better look). It turns out that's a star like the Sun, but it's dying. It's shedding material at a furious rate, and lighting it up like a neon sign. Although it has nothing to do with planets, this is called a planetary nebula. While globular clusters are billions of years old, the planetary nebula phase of a star's life only lasts for a few thousand years, so it's exceedingly rare to find them in globulars. And even though it's marking the end of a star's existence, that flash of cerulean blue makes this cluster just that much more exquisite. 

Image credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA

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450 light years from Earth is the star named Zeta Ophiuchi, the star just left of center in this picture. It's a blue, massive star, and it also happens to be screaming through space at high speed; nearly 90,000 kph (54,000 mph)! It probably used to be part of a binary system. When the other star exploded, it flung Zeta Oph off like water shaken off a dog.

Because it's such a big star, it's blowing a big wind, like a super solar wind. This gas is slamming into and compressing the material floating in between stars, lighting it up. This image shows the result: taken by NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explore, what you see as green is undisturbed dust, but the yellow shows where this material is getting rammed by the star and its wind. It's very similar to the bow wave you see off the front of a ship as it moves through water... but on a somewhat larger scale.

And while this structure was born in violence - a supernova is as nasty as it gets in the Universe, pretty much - and glows from violence, it's amazingly delicate-looking and wondrous. From a safe distance, the Universe can be really lovely... from a very safe distance.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

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Galaxies are big. Tens or even hundreds of thousands of light years across, they alone in the Universe have a size that isn't dwarfed to insignificance compared to the distance between them. Put it this way: You could line up 11,000 Earths between the actual Earth and the Sun. It would take 30 million Suns to fill the gap between us and Alpha Centauri, the nearest star. But fewer than 30 Milky Ways would fit between us and our big spiral neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy.

Because they're big, sometimes galaxies get close together. Too close. Close enough that their gravity can affect each other, drawing out long arms of gas and stars, distorting each other into weird and beautiful shapes. It happens a lot.

Such is Arp 273, seen here in a Hubble image taken to celebrate the observatory's 20th anniversary in space. These two big galaxies passed each other in the recent past (like, a few million years ago). Both were probably normal enough before the encounter, but are now twisted and asymmetric. Reds and yellows are dust and old stars, and blue is where the recent collision has spurred star formation. And you might think this is a remote event that doesn't affect us at all - and at 300 million light years distant, you're right - but keep in mind that a similar fate awaits us and Andromeda... in a billion years or two.

Image credit: NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

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On March 28, 2011, NASA's orbiting Swift satellite detected a flash of high-energy gamma rays in the sky. While this marks an extraordinary event - the amount of energy given off by these types of things dwarfs the Sun's entire lifetime supply of light! - Swift sees an event like this nearly every day, so at first no one thought much of it.

But on further examination, this event turned out to be more amazing than usual. The way the explosion got brighter and then faded didn't match with what we knew of the usual flavor of gamma-ray bursts. In fact, the only thing that made sense was that astronomers had witnessed what nightmares are made of: an entire star being literally torn apart by the ferocious gravity of a black hole!

The scale of this disaster is staggering: octillions of tons of matter were ripped away from the star, shredding it entirely. This material fell around and formed a disk circling the black hole, heating up to millions of degrees, and blasting out a beam of energy that marched across the Universe for four billion years until it fell into Swift's detectors. The image above shows the hard X-rays (seen here as red and yellow) as well as visible and ultraviolet light (white and purple) detected by Swift. The linear rays coming out of it are an artifact of the telescope and aren't real, but they do lend some drama to the image.

And what can be more dramatic than this? Most stars end their lives either slowly fading away or exploding as a supernova. To be torn apart by a black hole... well. What a way to go!

Image credit: NASA/Swift/Stefan Immler

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