12 Amazing Images


1Red Spider Planetary Nebula

Oh what a tangled web a planetary nebula can weave. The Red Spider Planetary Nebula shows the complex structure that can result when a normal star ejects its outer gases and becomes a white dwarf star. Officially tagged NGC 6537, this two-lobed symmetric planetary nebula houses one of the hottest white dwarfs ever observed, probably as part of a binary star system. Internal winds emanating from the central stars, visible in the center, have been measured in excess of 1000 kilometers per second. These winds expand the nebula, flow along the nebula’s walls, and cause waves of hot gas and dust to collide. Atoms caught in these colliding shocks radiate light shown in the above representative-color picture by the Hubble Space Telescope. The Red Spider Nebula lies toward the constellation of the Archer (Sagittarius). Its distance is not well known but has been estimated by some to be about 4,000 light-years.

2Zeta Oph: Runaway Star

Like a ship plowing through cosmic seas, runaway star Zeta Ophiuchi produces the arcing interstellar bow wave or bow shock seen in this stunning infrared portrait. In the false-color view, bluish Zeta Oph, a star about 20 times more massive than the Sun, lies near the center of the frame, moving toward the left at 24 kilometers per second. Its strong stellar wind precedes it, compressing and heating the dusty interstellar material and shaping the curved shock front. What set this star in motion? Zeta Oph was likely once a member of a binary star system, its companion star was more massive and hence shorter lived. When the companion exploded as a supernova catastrophically losing mass, Zeta Oph was flung out of the system. About 460 light-years away, Zeta Oph is 65,000 times more luminous than the Sun and would be one of the brighter stars in the sky if it weren’t surrounded by obscuring dust. The image spans about 1.5 degrees or 12 light-years at the estimated distance of Zeta Ophiuchi.

3Central Cygnus Skyscape

In cosmic brush strokes of glowing hydrogen gas, this beautiful skyscape unfolds across the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy near the northern end of the Great Rift and the center of the constellation Cygnus the Swan. A 36 panel mosaic of telescopic image data, the scene spans about six degrees. Bright supergiant star Gamma Cygni (Sadr) to the upper left of the image center lies in the foreground of the complex gas and dust clouds and crowded star fields. Left of Gamma Cygni, shaped like two luminous wings divided by a long dark dust lane is IC 1318 whose popular name is understandably the Butterfly Nebula. The more compact, bright nebula at the lower right is NGC 6888, the Crescent Nebula. Some distance estimates for Gamma Cygni place it at around 1,800 light-years while estimates for IC 1318 and NGC 6888 range from 2,000 to 5,000 light-years.

4Propeller Shadows on Saturn’s Rings

Explanation: What created these unusually long shadows on Saturn’s rings? The dark shadows — visible near the middle of the image — extend opposite the Sun and, given their length, stem from objects having heights up to a few kilometers. The long shadows were unexpected given that the usual thickness of Saturn’s A and B rings is only about 10 meters. After considering the choppy but elongated shapes apparent near the B-ring edge, however, a leading theory has emerged that some kilometer-sized moonlets exist there that have enough gravity to create even larger vertical deflections of nearby small ring particles. The resulting ring waves are called propellers, named for how they appear individually. It is these coherent groups of smaller ring particles that are hypothesized to be casting the long shadows. The featured image was taken by the robotic Cassini spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn. The image was captured in 2009, near Saturn’s equinox, when sunlight streamed directly over the ring plane and caused the longest shadows to be cast.


5Cylindrical Mountains on Venus

Explanation: What could cause a huge cylindrical mountain to rise from the surface of Venus? Such features that occur on Venus are known as coronas. Pictured here in the foreground is 500-kilometer wide Atete Corona found in a region of Venus known as the Galindo. The featured image was created by combining multiple radar maps of the region to form a computer-generated three-dimensional perspective. The series of dark rectangles that cross the image from top to bottom were created by the imaging procedure and are not real. The origin of massive coronas remains a topic of research although speculation holds they result from volcanism. Studying Venusian coronas help scientists better understand the inner structure of both Venus and Earth.

6The Milky Way Sets

Explanation: Under dark skies the setting of the Milky Way can be a dramatic sight. Stretching nearly parallel to the horizon, this rich, edge-on vista of our galaxy above the dusty Namibian desert stretches from bright, southern Centaurus (left) to Cepheus in the north (right). From early August, the digitally stitched, panoramic night skyscape captures the Milky Way’s congeries of stars and rivers of cosmic dust, along with colors of nebulae not readily seen with the eye. Mars, Saturn, and Antares, visible even in more luminous night skies, form the the bright celestial triangle just touching the trees below the galaxy’s central bulge. Of course, our own galaxy is not the only galaxy in the scene. Two other major members of our local group, the Andromeda Galaxy and the Triangulum Galaxy, lie near the right edge of the frame, beyond the arc of the setting Milky Way.

7Falcon 9: Launch and Landing

Explanation: Shortly after midnight on July 18 a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched from Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, planet Earth. About 9 minutes later, the rocket’s first stage returned to the spaceport. This single time exposure captures the rocket’s launch arc and landing streak from Jetty Park only a few miles away. Along a climbing, curving trajectory the launch is traced by the initial burn of the first stage, ending near the top of the bright arc before stage separation. Due to perspective the next bright burn appears above the top of the launch arc in the photo, the returning first stage descending closer to the Cape. The final landing burn creates a long streak as the first stage slows and comes to rest at Landing Zone 1. Yesterday the Dragon cargo spacecraft delivered to orbit by the rocket’s second stage was attached to the International Space Station.

8Chasing Juno

Explanation: Wait for me! In 2011, NASA’s robotic mission Juno launched for Jupiter from Cape Canaveral, Florida, USA. Last week, Juno reached Jupiter and fired internal rockets to become only the second spacecraft to orbit our Solar System’s largest planet. Juno, tasked with studying the jovian giant over the next two years, is in a highly elliptical orbit that will next bringing it near Jupiter’s cloud tops in late August. Of course, the three-year-old pictured was not able to catch up to the launching rocket. Today, however, five years later, he is eight-years-old and still chasing rockets — in that now he wants to be an astronaut.

9LL Orionis: When Cosmic Winds Collide

Explanation: What created this great arc in space? This arcing, graceful structure is actually a bow shock about half a light-year across, created as the wind from young star LL Orionis collides with the Orion Nebula flow. Adrift in Orion’s stellar nursery and still in its formative years, variable star LL Orionis produces a wind more energetic than the wind from our own middle-aged sun. As the fast stellar wind runs into slow moving gas a shock front is formed, analogous to the bow wave of a boat moving through water or a plane traveling at supersonic speed. The slower gas is flowing away from the Orion Nebula’s hot central star cluster, the Trapezium, located off the lower right hand edge of the picture. In three dimensions, LL Ori’s wrap-around shock front is shaped like a bowl that appears brightest when viewed along the “bottom” edge. The complex stellar nursery in Orion shows a myriad of similar fluid shapes associated with star formation, including the bow shock surrounding a faint star at the upper right. Part of a mosaic covering the Great Nebula in Orion, this composite color image was recorded in 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope.

10The International Space Station over Earth

Explanation: The International Space Station is the largest object ever constructed by humans in space. The station perimeter extends over roughly the area of a football field, although only a small fraction of this is composed of modules habitable by humans. The station is so large that it could not be launched all at once — it continues to be built piecemeal. To function, the ISS needs huge trusses, some over 15 meters long and with masses over 10,000 kilograms, to keep it rigid and to route electricity and liquid coolants. Pictured above, the immense space station was photographed from the now-retired space shuttle Atlantis after a week-long stay in 2010. Across the image top hangs part of a bright blue Earth, in stark contrast to the darkness of interstellar space across the bottom.

11Northern Pluto

Explanation: Gaze across the frozen canyons of northern Pluto in this contrast enhanced color scene, imaged last July by the New Horizons spacecraft. Currently known as Lowell Regio, the region has been informally named for Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell Observatory. Also famous for his speculation that there were canals on Mars, in 1906 Lowell started the search that ultimately led to Pluto’s discovery. Pluto’s North Pole itself is above and left of center in the the frame. The pale bluish floor of the broad canyon on the left is about 70 kilometers (45 miles) wide, running vertically toward the south. Higher elevations take on a yellowish hue. New Horizon’s measurements have determined that in addition to nitrogen ice, methane ice is abundant across northern Pluto’s Lowell Regio.

12A Starry Night of Iceland

Explanation: On some nights, the sky is the best show in town. On this night, the sky was not only the best show in town, but a composite image of the sky won an international competition for landscape astrophotography. The featured winning image was taken in 2011 over Jökulsárlón, the largest glacial lake in Iceland. The photographer combined six exposures to capture not only two green auroral rings, but their reflections off the serene lake. Visible in the distant background sky is the band of our Milky Way Galaxy and the Andromeda galaxy. A powerful coronal mass ejection from the Sun caused auroras to be seen as far south as Wisconsin, USA. Solar activity over the past week has resulted in auroras just over the past few days.