Central NGC 1316: After Galaxies Collide

How did this strange-looking galaxy form? Astronomers turn detectives when trying to figure out the cause of unusual jumbles of stars, gas, and dust like NGC 1316. Inspection indicates that NGC 1316 is an enormous elliptical galaxy that somehow includes dark dust lanes usually found in a spiral galaxy. Detailed images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope shows details, however, that help in reconstructing the history of this gigantic tangle. Deep and wide images show huge collisional shells, while deep central images reveal fewer globular clusters of stars toward NGC 1316’s interior. Such effects are expected in galaxies that have undergone collisions or merging with other galaxies in the past few billion years. The dark knots and lanes of dust, prominent in the featured image, indicate that one or more of the devoured galaxies were spiral galaxies. NGC 1316 spans about 50,000 light years and lies about 60 million light years away toward the constellation of the Furnace (Fornax).

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Southern Cross over Chilean Volcano

Have you ever seen the Southern Cross? This famous four-star icon is best seen from Earth’s Southern Hemisphere. The featured image was taken last month in Chile and captures the Southern Cross just to the left of erupting Villarrica, one of the most active volcanos in our Solar System. Connecting the reddest Southern Cross star Gacrux through the brightest star Acrux points near the most southern location in the sky: the South Celestial Pole (SCP), around which all southern stars appear to spin as the Earth turns. In modern times, no bright star resides near the SCP, unlike in the north where bright Polaris now appears near the NCP. Extending the Gacrux – Acrux line still further (from about four to about seven times their angular separation) leads near the Small Magellanic Cloud, a bright satellite galaxy of our Milky Way Galaxy. The Southern Cross asterism dominates the Crux constellation, a deeper array of stars that includes four Cepheid variable stars visible to the unaided eye. Just above the volcano in the image, and looking like a dark plume, is the Coalsack Nebula, while the large red star-forming Carina Nebula is visible on the upper left.

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Massive Nearby Spiral Galaxy NGC 2841

It is one of the more massive galaxies known. A mere 46 million light-years distant, spiral galaxy NGC 2841 can be found in the northern constellation of Ursa Major. This sharp view of the gorgeous island universe shows off a striking yellow nucleus and galactic disk. Dust lanes, small, pink star-forming regions, and young blue star clusters are embedded in the patchy, tightly wound spiral arms. In contrast, many other spirals exhibit grand, sweeping arms with large star-forming regions. NGC 2841 has a diameter of over 150,000 light-years, even larger than our own Milky Way. The featured composite image merges exposures from the orbiting 2.4-meter Hubble Space Telescope and the ground-based 8.2-meter Subaru Telescope. X-ray images suggest that resulting winds and stellar explosions create plumes of hot gas extending into a halo around NGC 2841.

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Recycling Cassiopeia A

Massive stars in our Milky Way Galaxy live spectacular lives. Collapsing from vast cosmic clouds, their nuclear furnaces ignite and create heavy elements in their cores. After a few million years, the enriched material is blasted back into interstellar space where star formation can begin anew. The expanding debris cloud known as Cassiopeia A is an example of this final phase of the stellar life cycle. Light from the explosion which created this supernova remnant would have been first seen in planet Earth’s sky about 350 years ago, although it took that light about 11,000 years to reach us. This false-color image, composed of X-ray and optical image data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory and Hubble Space Telescope, shows the still hot filaments and knots in the remnant. It spans about 30 light-years at the estimated distance of Cassiopeia A. High-energy X-ray emission from specific elements has been color coded, silicon in red, sulfur in yellow, calcium in green and iron in purple, to help astronomers explore the recycling of our galaxy’s star stuff. Still expanding, the outer blast wave is seen in blue hues. The bright speck near the center is a neutron star, the incredibly dense, collapsed remains of the massive stellar core.

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The Milky Ring

An expanse of cosmic dust, stars and nebulae along the plane of our Milky Way galaxy form a beautiful ring in this projected all-sky view. The creative panorama covers the entire galaxy visible from planet Earth, an ambitious 360 degree mosaic that took two years to complete. Northern hemisphere sites in western China and southern hemisphere sites in New Zealand were used to collect the image data. Like a glowing jewel set in the milky ring, the bulge of the galactic center, is at the very top. Bright planet Jupiter is the beacon just above the central bulge and left of red giant star Antares. Along the plane and almost 180 degrees from the galactic center, at the bottom of the ring is the area around Orion, denizen of the northern hemisphere’s evening winter skies. In this projection the ring of the Milky Way encompasses two notable galaxies in southern skies, the large and small Magellanic clouds.

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M78 Wide Field

Interstellar dust clouds and glowing nebulae abound in the fertile constellation of Orion. One of the brightest, M78, is centered in this colorful, wide field view, covering an area north of Orion’s belt. At a distance of about 1,500 light-years, the bluish reflection nebula is around 5 light-years across. Its tint is due to dust preferentially reflecting the blue light of hot, young stars. Reflection nebula NGC 2071 is just to the left of M78. Flecks of emission from Herbig-Haro objects, energetic jets from stars in the process of formation, stand out against the dark dust lanes. The exposure also brings out the region’s fainter, pervasive reddish glow of atomic hydrogen gas.

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The Magnetic Field of the Whirlpool Galaxy

Do magnetic fields always flow along spiral arms? Our face-on view of the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) allows a spectacularly clear view of the spiral wave pattern in a disk-shaped galaxy. When observed with a radio telescope, the magnetic field appears to trace the arms’ curvature. However, with NASA��������s flying Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) observatory, the magnetic field at the outer edge of M51’s disk appears to weave across the arms instead. Magnetic fields are inferred by grains of dust aligning in one direction and acting like polaroid glasses on infrared light. In the featured image, the field orientations determined from this polarized light are algorithmically connected, creating streamlines. Possibly the gravitational tug of the companion galaxy, at the top of the frame, on the dusty gas of the reddish star-forming regions, visible in the Hubble Space Telescope image, enhances turbulence — stirring the dust and lines to produce the unexpected field pattern of the outer arms.

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A Lunar Corona with Jupiter and Saturn

Why does a cloudy moon sometimes appear colorful? The effect, called a lunar corona, is created by the quantum mechanical diffraction of light around individual, similarly-sized water droplets in an intervening but mostly-transparent cloud. Since light of different colors has different wavelengths, each color diffracts differently. Lunar Coronae are one of the few quantum mechanical color effects that can be easily seen with the unaided eye. Solar coronae are also sometimes evident. The featured composite image was captured a few days before the close Great Conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter last month. In the foreground, the Italian village of Pieve di Cadore is visible in front of the Sfornioi Mountains.

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The Medulla Nebula Supernova Remnant

What powers this unusual nebula? CTB-1 is the expanding gas shell that was left when a massive star toward the constellation of Cassiopeia exploded about 10,000 years ago. The star likely detonated when it ran out of elements, near its core, that could create stabilizing pressure with nuclear fusion. The resulting supernova remnant, nicknamed the Medulla Nebula for its brain-like shape, still glows in visible light by the heat generated by its collision with confining interstellar gas. Why the nebula also glows in X-ray light, though, remains a mystery. One hypothesis holds that an energetic pulsar was co-created that powers the nebula with a fast outwardly moving wind. Following this lead, a pulsar has recently been found in radio waves that appears to have been expelled by the supernova explosion at over 1000 kilometers per second. Although the Medulla Nebula appears as large as a full moon, it is so faint that it took 130-hours of exposure with two small telescopes in New Mexico, USA, to create the featured image.

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Jets from Unusual Galaxy Centaurus A

The jets emanating from Centaurus A are over a million light years long. These jets of streaming plasma, expelled by a giant black hole in the center of this spiral galaxy, light up this composite image of Cen A. Exactly how the central black hole expels infalling matter remains unknown. After clearing the galaxy, however, the jets inflate large radio bubbles that likely glow for millions of years. If energized by a passing gas cloud, the radio bubbles can even light up again after billions of years. X-ray light is depicted in the featured composite image in blue, while microwave light is colored orange. The base of the jet in radio light shows details of the innermost light year of the central jet.

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