The Witch Head Nebula


Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble …. maybe Macbeth should have consulted the Witch Head Nebula. A frighteningly shaped reflection nebula, this cosmic crone is about 800 light-years away though. Its malevolent visage seems to glare toward nearby bright star Rigel in Orion, just off the right edge of this frame. More formally known as IC 2118, the interstellar cloud of dust and gas is nearly 70 light-years across, its dust grains reflecting Rigel’s starlight. In this composite portrait, the nebula’s color is caused not only by the star’s intense bluish light but because the dust grains scatter blue light more efficiently than red. The same physical process causes Earth’s daytime sky to appear blue, although the scatterers in planet Earth’s atmosphere are molecules of nitrogen and oxygen.

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IC 1871: Inside the Soul Nebula


This cosmic close-up looks deep inside the Soul Nebula. The dark and brooding dust clouds outlined by bright ridges of glowing gas are cataloged as IC 1871. About 25 light-years across, the telescopic field of view spans only a small part of the much larger Heart and Soul nebulae. At an estimated distance of 6,500 light-years the star-forming complex lies within the Perseus spiral arm of the Milky Way, seen in planet Earth’s skies toward the constellation Cassiopeia. An example of triggered star formation, the dense star-forming clouds of IC 1871 are themselves sculpted by the intense winds and radiation of the region’s massive young stars. This color image adopts a palette made popular in Hubble images of star-forming regions.

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Bright from the Heart Nebula


What’s that inside the Heart Nebula? First, the large emission nebula dubbed IC 1805 looks, in whole, like a human heart. The nebula glows brightly in red light emitted by its most prominent element: hydrogen. The red glow and the larger shape are all created by a small group of stars near the nebula’s center. In the center of the Heart Nebula are young stars from the open star cluster Melotte 15 that are eroding away several picturesque dust pillars with their energetic light and winds. The open cluster of stars contains a few bright stars nearly 50 times the mass of our Sun, many dim stars only a fraction of the mass of our Sun, and an absent microquasar that was expelled millions of years ago. The Heart Nebula is located about 7,500 light years away toward the constellation of Cassiopeia. At the top right is the companion Fishhead Nebula.

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Charon and the Small Moons of Pluto


What do the moons of Pluto look like? Before a decade ago, only the largest moon Charon was known, but never imaged. As the robotic New Horizons spacecraft was prepared and launched, other moons were identified on Hubble images but remained only specks of light. Finally, this past summer, New Horizons swept right past Pluto, photographed Pluto and Charon in detail, and took the best images of Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra that it could. The featured image composite shows the results — each moon is seen to have a distinct shape, while underlying complexity is only hinted. Even though not satisfyingly resolved, these images are likely to be the best available to humanity for some time. This is because the moons are too small and distant for contemporary Earth-based telescopes to resolve, and no new missions to the Pluto system are planned.

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Jupiter and Venus from Earth


It was visible around the world. The sunset conjunction of Jupiter and Venus in 2012 was visible almost no matter where you lived on Earth. Anyone on the planet with a clear western horizon at sunset could see them. Pictured above in 2012, a creative photographer traveled away from the town lights of Szubin, Poland to image a near closest approach of the two planets. The bright planets were separated only by three degrees and his daughter striking a humorous pose. A faint red sunset still glowed in the background. Jupiter and Venus will be at it again this week before sunrise, passing under two degree from each other — and even with bonus planet Mars nearby.

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Jupiter in 2015


Two remarkable global maps of Jupiter’s banded cloud tops can be compared by just sliding your cursor over this sharp projection (or follow this link) of image data from the Hubble Space Telescope. Both captured on January 19, during back-to-back 10 hour rotations of the ruling gas giant, the all-planet projections represent the first in a series of planned annual portraits by the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy program. Comparing the two highlights cloud movements and measures wind speeds in the planet’s dynamic atmosphere. In fact, the Great Red Spot, the famous long-lived swirling storm boasting 300 mile per hour winds, is seen sporting a rotating, twisting filament. The images confirm that Great Red Spot is still shrinking, though still larger than planet Earth. Posing next to it (lower right) is Oval BA, also known as Red Spot Junior.

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Starburst Galaxy Messier 94


Beautiful island universe Messier 94 lies a mere 15 million light-years distant in the northern constellation of the hunting dogs, Canes Venatici. A popular target for earth-based astronomers, the face-on spiral galaxy is about 30,000 light-years across, with spiral arms sweeping through the outskirts of its broad disk. But this Hubble Space Telescope field of view spans about 7,000 light-years or so across M94’s central region. The sharp close-up examines the galaxy’s compact, bright nucleus and prominent inner dust lanes, surrounded by a remarkable bluish ring of young, massive stars. The massive stars in the ring are all likely less than 10 million years old, indicating the galaxy experienced a well-defined era of rapid star formation. As a result, while the small, bright nucleus is typical of the Seyfert class of active galaxies, M94 is also known as a starburst galaxy. Because M94 is relatively nearby, astronomers can explore in detail reasons for the galaxy’s burst of star formation.

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