Four laser beams cut across this startling image of the Orion Nebula, as seen from ESO’s Paranal Observatory in the Atacama desert on planet Earth. Not part of an interstellar conflict, the lasers are being used for an observation of Orion by UT4, one of the observatory’s very large telescopes, in a technical test of an image-sharpening adaptive optics system. This view of the nebula with laser beams was captured by a small telescope from outside the UT4 enclosure. The beams are visible from that perspective because in the first few kilometers above the observatory the Earth’s dense lower atmosphere scatters the laser light. The four small segments appearing beyond the beams are emission from an atmospheric layer of sodium atoms excited by the laser light at higher altitudes of 80-90 kilometers. Seen from the perspective of the UT4, those segments form bright spots or artificial guide stars. Their fluctuations are used in real-time to correct for atmospheric blurring along the line-of-sight by controlling a deformable mirror in the telescope’s optical path.
Comet 41P/Tuttle-Giacobini-Kresak poses for a Messier moment in this telescopic snapshot from March 21. In fact it shares the 1 degree wide field-of-view with two well-known entries in the 18th century comet-hunting astronomer’s famous catalog. Sweeping through northern springtime skies just below the Big Dipper, the faint greenish comet was about 75 light-seconds from our fair planet. Dusty, edge-on spiral galaxy Messier 108 (bottom center) is more like 45 million light-years away. At upper right, the planetary nebula with an aging but intensely hot central star, the owlish Messier 97 is only about 12 thousand light-years distant though, still well within our own Milky Way galaxy. Named for its discoverer and re-discoverers, this faint periodic comet was first sighted in 1858 and not again until 1907 and 1951. Matching orbit calculations indicated that the same comet had been observed at widely separated times. Nearing its best apparition and closest approach to Earth in over 100 years on April 1, comet 41P orbits the Sun with a period of about 5.4 years.
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.