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.
Stars are forming in the gigantic dust pillar called the Cone Nebula. Cones, pillars, and majestic flowing shapes abound in stellar nurseries where natal clouds of gas and dust are buffeted by energetic winds from newborn stars. The Cone Nebula, a well-known example, lies within the bright galactic star-forming region NGC 2264. The Cone was captured in unprecedented detail in this close-up composite of several observations from the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. While the Cone Nebula, about 2,500 light-years away in Monoceros, is around 7 light-years long, the region pictured here surrounding the cone’s blunted head is a mere 2.5 light-years across. In our neck of the galaxy that distance is just over half way from our Sun to its nearest stellar neighbors in the Alpha Centauri star system. The massive star NGC 2264 IRS, seen by Hubble’s infrared camera in 1997, is the likely source of the wind sculpting the Cone Nebula and lies off the top of the image. The Cone Nebula‘s reddish veil is produced by glowing hydrogen gas.
Near the center of this sharp cosmic portrait, at the heart of the Orion Nebula, are four hot, massive stars known as the Trapezium. Tightly gathered within a region about 1.5 light-years in radius, they dominate the core of the dense Orion Nebula Star Cluster. Ultraviolet ionizing radiation from the Trapezium stars, mostly from the brightest star Theta-1 Orionis C powers the complex star forming region’s entire visible glow. About three million years old, the Orion Nebula Cluster was even more compact in its younger years and a dynamical study indicates that runaway stellar collisions at an earlier age may have formed a black hole with more than 100 times the mass of the Sun. The presence of a black hole within the cluster could explain the observed high velocities of the Trapezium stars. The Orion Nebula’s distance of some 1,500 light-years would make it the closest known black hole to planet Earth.
Why does this galaxy spin so fast? To start, even identifying which type of galaxy UGC 12591 is difficult — it has dark dust lanes like a spiral galaxy but a large diffuse bulge of stars like a lenticular. Surprisingly observations show that UGC 12591 spins at about 480 km/sec, almost twice as fast as our Milky Way, and the fastest rotation rate yet measured. The mass needed to hold together a galaxy spinning this fast is several times the mass of our Milky Way Galaxy. Progenitor scenarios for UGC 12591 include slow growth by accreting ambient matter, or rapid growth through a recent galaxy collision or collisions — future observations may tell. The light we see today from UGC 12591 left about 400 million years ago, when trees were first developing on Earth.
You don’t always see a scene this beautiful when you hike to an ancient volcano — you have to be lucky. When the astrophotographer realized that aurora were visible two-weeks ago, he made a night-time run for the top of the caldera to see if he could capture them also reflected in the central lake. When he arrived, he found that … the northern lights were even brighter and more impressive than before! And his image of them is the featured 13-frame panoramic mosaic. The crater lake in the center is called Kerid (Icelandic: Kerið) and is about 3,000 years old. The aurora overhead shows impressive colors and banding, with the red colors occurring higher in the Earth’s atmosphere than the green. The background sky is filled with icons of the northern night including Polaris, the Pleiades star cluster, and the stars that compose the handle of the Big Dipper.
From within the boundaries of the constellation Cassiopeia (left) to Andromeda (right), this telescopic mosaic spans over 10 degrees in planet Earth’s skies. The celestial scene is constructed of panels that are part of a high-resolution astronomical survey of the Milky Way in hydrogen-alpha light. Processing the monochromatic image data has brought out the region’s faintest structures, relatively unexplored filaments of hydrogen gas near the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy. Large but faint and also relatively unknown nebula Sivan 2 is at the upper left in the field. The nearby Andromeda Galaxy, M31, is at center right, while the faint, pervasive hydrogen nebulosities stretch towards M31 across the foreground in the wide field of view. The broad survey image demonstrates the intriguing faint hydrogen clouds recently imaged by astronomer Rogelio Bernal Andreo really are within the Milky Way, along the line-of-sight to the Andromeda Galaxy.
From northern Patagonia, morning skies were clear and blue on Sunday, February 26. This sweeping composite scene, overlooking Hermoso Valle, Facundo, Chubut, Argentina, follows the Sun after sunrise, capturing an annular solar eclipse. Created from a series of exposures at three minute intervals, it shows the year’s first solar eclipse beginning well above the distant eastern horizon. An exposure close to mid-eclipse recorded the expected ring of fire, the silhouette of the New Moon only slightly too small to cover the bright Sun. At that location on planet Earth, the annular phase of the eclipse lasted a brief 45 seconds.