The small, northern constellation Triangulum harbors this magnificent face-on spiral galaxy, M33. Its popular names include the Pinwheel Galaxy or just the Triangulum Galaxy. M33 is over 50,000 light-years in diameter, third largest in the Local Group of galaxies after the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), and our own Milky Way. About 3 million light-years from the Milky Way, M33 is itself thought to be a satellite of the Andromeda Galaxy and astronomers in these two galaxies would likely have spectacular views of each other’s grand spiral star systems. As for the view from planet Earth, this sharp composite image nicely shows off M33’s blue star clusters and pinkish star forming regions along the galaxy’s loosely wound spiral arms. In fact, the cavernous NGC 604 is the brightest star forming region, seen here at about the 7 o’clock position from the galaxy center. Like M31, M33’s population of well-measured variable stars have helped make this nearby spiral a cosmic yardstick for establishing the distance scale of the Universe.
Few astronomical sights excite the imagination like the nearby stellar nursery known as the Orion Nebula. The Nebula‘s glowing gas surrounds hot young stars at the edge of an immense interstellar molecular cloud. Many of the filamentary structures visible in the featured image are actually shock waves – fronts where fast moving material encounters slow moving gas. The Orion Nebula spans about 40 light years and is located about 1500 light years away in the same spiral arm of our Galaxy as the Sun. The Great Nebula in Orion can be found with the unaided eye just below and to the left of the easily identifiable belt of three stars in the popular constellation Orion. The featured image, taken last month, shows a two-hour exposure of the nebula in three colors. The whole Orion Nebula cloud complex, which includes the Horsehead Nebula, will slowly disperse over the next 100,000 years.
Some storms on Jupiter are quite complex. The swirling storm was captured late last month by the NASA’s robotic Juno spacecraft currently orbiting the Solar System’s largest planet. The featured image spans about 30,000 kilometers, making this storm system just about as wide as planet Earth. The disturbance rotates counter-clockwise and shows a cloud pattern that includes light-colored updrafts thought to be composed predominantly of ammonia ice. These light clouds are the highest up and even cast discernable shadows toward the right. Juno will continue to orbit and probe Jupiter over the next few years as it tries to return data that help us to better understand Jupiter‘s atmospheric water abundance and if the planet has a solid surface underneath these fascinating clouds.
Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, are the bright bluish stars from east to west (lower right to upper left) along the diagonal in this cosmic vista. Otherwise known as the Belt of Orion, these three blue supergiant stars are hotter and much more massive than the Sun. They lie from 800 to 1,500 light-years away, born of Orion’s well-studied interstellar clouds. In fact, clouds of gas and dust adrift in this region have some surprisingly familiar shapes, including the dark Horsehead Nebula and Flame Nebula near Alnitak at the lower right. The famous Orion Nebula itself is off the right edge of this colorful starfield. This well-framed, 2-panel telescopic mosaic spans about 4 degrees on the sky.
Nothing like it has ever been seen before. The unusual space rock ‘Oumuamua is so intriguing mainly because it is the first asteroid ever detected from outside our Solar System — although likely many more are to follow given modern computer-driven sky monitoring. Therefore humanity’s telescopes — of nearly every variety — have put ‘Oumuamua into their observing schedule to help better understand this unusual interstellar visitor. Pictured is an artist’s illustration of what ‘Oumuamua might look like up close. ‘Oumuamua is also intriguing, however, because it has unexpected parallels to Rama, a famous fictional interstellar spaceship created by the late science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. Like Rama, ‘Oumuamua is unusually elongated, should be made of strong material to avoid breaking apart, is only passing through our Solar System, and passed unusually close to the Sun for something gravitationally unbound. Unlike a visiting spaceship, though, ‘Oumuamua’s trajectory, speed, color, and even probability of detection are consistent with it forming naturally around a normal star many millions of years ago, being expelled after gravitationally encountering a normal planet, and subsequently orbiting in our Galaxy alone. Even given ‘Oumuamua‘s likely conventional origin, perhaps humanity can hold hope that one day we will have the technology to engineer ‘Oumuamua — or another Solar System interloper — into an interstellar Rama of our own.
Yes, but have you ever taken a selfie on Mars? The Curiosity rover on Mars has. This selfie was compiled from many smaller images — which is why the mechanical arm holding the camera is not visible. (Although its shadow is!) Taken in mid-2015, the featured image shows not only the adventurous rover, but dark layered rocks, the light colored peak of Mount Sharp, and the rusting red sand that pervades Mars. If you look closely, you can even see that a small rock is stuck into one of Curiosity’s aging wheels. Now nearing the end of 2017, Curiosity continues to explore the layers of sedimentary rocks it has discovered on Vera Rubin Ridge in order to better understand, generally, the ancient geologic history of Mars and, specifically, why these types of rocks exist there.
Young stars themselves are clearing out their nursery in NGC 7822. Within the nebula, bright edges and complex dust sculptures dominate this detailed skyscape taken in infrared light by NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite. NGC 7822 lies at the edge of a giant molecular cloud toward the northern constellation Cepheus, a glowing star forming region that lies about 3,000 light-years away. The atomic emission of light by the nebula’s gas is powered by energetic radiation from the hot stars, whose powerful winds and light also sculpt and erode the denser pillar shapes. Stars could still be forming inside the pillars by gravitational collapse, but as the pillars are eroded away, any forming stars will ultimately be cut off from their reservoir of star stuff. This field spans around 40 light-years at the estimated distance of NGC 7822.