Few cosmic vistas excite the imagination like the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. Spanning about 40 light-years across the region, this infrared image from the Spitzer Space Telescope was constructed from data intended to monitor the brightness of the nebula’s young stars, many still surrounded by dusty, planet-forming disks. Orion’s young stars are only about 1 million years old, compared to the Sun’s age of 4.6 billion years. The region’s hottest stars are found in the Trapezium Cluster, the brightest cluster near picture center. Launched into orbit around the Sun on August 25, 2003 Spitzer’s liquid helium coolant ran out in May 2009. The infrared space telescope continues to operate though, its mission scheduled to end on January 30, 2020. Recorded in 2010, this false color view is from two channels that still remain sensitive to infrared light at Spitzer’s warmer operating temperatures.
This wide-field telescopic image looks toward the constellation Cepheus and an intriguing visual pairing of dusty reflection nebula NGC 7129 (right) and open star cluster NGC 7142. The two appear separated by only half a degree on the sky, but they actually lie at quite different distances. In the foreground, dusty nebula NGC 7129 is about 3,000 light-years distant, while open cluster NGC 7142 is likely over 6,000 light-years away. In fact, pervasive and clumpy foreground dust clouds in this region redden the light from NGC 7142, complicating astronomical explorations of the cluster. Still, NGC 7142 is thought to be an older open star cluster, while the bright stars embedded in NGC 7129 are perhaps a few million years young. The telltale reddish crescent shapes around NGC 7129 are associated with energetic jets streaming away from newborn stars.
Image data from the Hubble Space Telescope, the European Southern Observatory, and small telescopes on planet Earth are combined in this magnificent portrait of face-on spiral galaxy Messier 61 (M61). A mere 55 million light-years away in the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies, M61 is also known as NGC 4303. It’s considered to be an example of a barred spiral galaxy similar to our own Milky Way. Like other spiral galaxies, M61 also features sweeping spiral arms, cosmic dust lanes, pinkish star forming regions, and young blue star clusters. The bright galactic core is offset to the left in this 50 thousand light-year wide close-up.
Globular star cluster Omega Centauri, also known as NGC 5139, is some 15,000 light-years away. The cluster is packed with about 10 million stars much older than the Sun within a volume about 150 light-years in diameter. It’s the largest and brightest of 200 or so known globular clusters that roam the halo of our Milky Way galaxy. Though most star clusters consist of stars with the same age and composition, the enigmatic Omega Cen exhibits the presence of different stellar populations with a spread of ages and chemical abundances. In fact, Omega Cen may be the remnant core of a small galaxy merging with the Milky Way.
Drifting through the Orion Arm of the spiral Milky Way Galaxy, this cosmic cloud by chance echoes the outline of California on the west coast of the United States. Our own Sun also lies within the Milky Way’s Orion Arm, only about 1,500 light-years from the California Nebula. Also known as NGC 1499, the classic emission nebula is around 100 light-years long. The California Nebula shines with the telltale reddish glow characteristic of hydrogen atoms recombining with long lost electrons. The electrons have been stripped away, ionized by energetic starlight. Most likely providing the energetic starlight that ionizes much of the nebular gas is the bright, hot, bluish star Xi Persei just to the right of the nebula. A popular target for astrophotographers, this deep California Nebula image is a 6 panel telecopic mosaic and covers a wide field of view. The nebula lies toward the constellation Perseus, not far from the Pleiades.
Large spiral galaxy NGC 4945 is seen edge-on near the center of this cosmic galaxy portrait. In fact, it’s almost the size of our Milky Way Galaxy. NGC 4945’s own dusty disk, young blue star clusters, and pink star forming regions standout in the sharp, colorful telescopic image. About 13 million light-years distant toward the expansive southern constellation Centaurus, NGC 4945 is only about six times farther away than Andromeda, the nearest large spiral galaxy to the Milky Way. Though this galaxy’s central region is largely hidden from view for optical telescopes, X-ray and infrared observations indicate significant high energy emission and star formation in the core of NGC 4945. Its obscured but active nucleus qualifies the gorgeous island universe as a Seyfert galaxy and home to a central supermassive black hole.
Do you recognize this constellation? Although it is one of the most recognizable star groupings on the sky, this is a more full Orion than you can see — an Orion only revealed with long exposure digital camera imaging and post-processing. Here the cool red giant Betelgeuse takes on a strong orange tint as the brightest star at the lower left. Orion’s hot blue stars are numerous, with supergiant Rigel balancing Betelgeuse on the upper right, and Bellatrix at the upper left. Lined up in Orion’s belt are three stars all about 1,500 light-years away, born from the constellation’s well-studied interstellar clouds. To the right of Orion’s belt is a bright but fuzzy patch that might also look familiar — the stellar nursery known as Orion’s Nebula. Finally, just barely visible to the unaided eye but quite striking here is Barnard’s Loop — a huge gaseous emission nebula surrounding Orion’s Belt and Nebula discovered over 100 years ago by the pioneering Orion photographer E. E. Barnard.