From our vantage point in the Milky Way Galaxy, we see NGC 6946 face-on. The big, beautiful spiral galaxy is located just 10 million light-years away, behind a veil of foreground dust and stars in the high and far-off constellation of Cepheus. From the core outward, the galaxy’s colors change from the yellowish light of old stars in the center to young blue star clusters and reddish star forming regions along the loose, fragmented spiral arms. NGC 6946 is also bright in infrared light and rich in gas and dust, exhibiting a high star birth and death rate. In fact, since the early 20th century at least nine supernovae, the death explosions of massive stars, were discovered in NGC 6946. Nearly 40,000 light-years across, NGC 6946 is also known as the Fireworks Galaxy. This remarkable portrait of NGC 6946 is a composite that includes image data from the 8.2 meter Subaru Telescope on Mauna Kea.
Get out your red/blue glasses and check out this awesome stereo view of another world. The scene was recorded by Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene Cernan on December 11, 1972, one orbit before descending to land on the Moon. The stereo anaglyph was assembled from two photographs (AS17-147-22465, AS17-147-22466) captured from his vantage point on board the Lunar Module Challenger as he and Dr. Harrison Schmitt flew over Apollo 17’s landing site in the Taurus-Littrow Valley. The broad, sunlit face of the mountain dubbed South Massif rises near the center of the frame, above the dark floor of Taurus-Littrow to its left. Beyond the mountains, toward the lunar limb, lies the Moon’s Mare Serenitatis. Piloted by Ron Evans, the Command Module America is visible in orbit in the foreground against the South Massif’s peak.
Jupiter looks a bit different in infrared light. To better understand Jupiter‘s cloud motions and to help NASA’s robotic Juno spacecraft understand the Hubble Space Telescope is being directed to regularly image the entire Jovian giant. The colors of Jupiter being monitored go beyond the normal human visual range to include both ultraviolet and infrared light. Featured here in 2016, three bands of near-infrared light have been digitally reassigned into a mapped color image. Jupiter appears different in infrared partly because the amount of sunlight reflected back is distinct, giving differing cloud heights and latitudes discrepant brightnesess. Nevertheless, many familiar features on Jupiter remain, including the light zones and dark belts that circle the planet near the equator, the Great Red Spot on the lower left, and the string-of-pearls storm systems south of the Great Red Spot. The poles glow because high altitute haze there is energized by charged particles from Jupiter’s magnetosphere. Juno has now completed 10 of 12 planned science orbits of Jupiter and continues to record data that are helping humanity to understand not only Jupiter’s weather but what lies beneath Jupiter’s thick clouds.
How did we get here? We know that we live on a planet orbiting a star orbiting a galaxy, but how did all of this form? To understand details better, astrophysicists upgraded the famous Illustris Simulation into IllustrisTNG — now the most sophisticated computer model of how galaxies evolved in our universe. Specifically, this featured video tracks magnetic fields from the early universe (redshift 5) until today (redshift 0). Here blue represents relatively weak magnetic fields, while white depicts strong. These B fields are closely matched with galaxies and galaxy clusters. As the simulation begins, a virtual camera circles the virtual IllustrisTNG universe showing a young region — 30-million light years across — to be quite filamentary. Gravity causes galaxies to form and merge as the universe expands and evolves. At the end, the simulated IllustrisTNG universe is a good statistical match to our present real universe, although some interesting differences arise — for example a discrepancy involving the power in radio waves emitted by rapidly moving charged particles.
Stars can make waves in the Orion Nebula’s sea of gas and dust. This esthetic close-up of cosmic clouds and stellar winds features LL Orionis, interacting with the Orion Nebula flow. Adrift in Orion’s stellar nursery and still in its formative years, variable star LL Orionis produces a wind more energetic than the wind from our own middle-aged Sun. As the fast stellar wind runs into slow moving gas a shock front is formed, analogous to the bow wave of a boat moving through water or a plane traveling at supersonic speed. The small, arcing, graceful structure just above and left of center is LL Ori’s cosmic bow shock, measuring about half a light-year across. The slower gas is flowing away from the Orion Nebula‘s hot central star cluster, the Trapezium, located off the upper left corner of the picture. In three dimensions, LL Ori’s wrap-around shock front is shaped like a bowl that appears brightest when viewed along the “bottom” edge. This beautiful painting-like photograph is part of a large mosaic view of the complex stellar nursery in Orion, filled with a myriad of fluid shapes associated with star formation.
The comet PanSTARRS, also known as the blue comet (C/2016 R2), really is near the lower left edge of this stunning, wide field view recorded on January 13. Spanning nearly 20 degrees on the sky, the cosmic landscape is explored by well-exposed and processed frames from a sensitive digital camera. It consists of colorful clouds and dusty dark nebulae otherwise too faint for your eye to see, though. At top right, the California Nebula (aka NGC 1499) does have a familiar shape. Its coastline is over 60 light-years long and lies some 1,500 light-years away. The nebula’s pronounced reddish glow is from hydrogen atoms ionized by luminous blue star Xi Persei just below it. Near bottom center, the famous Pleiades star cluster is some 400 light-years distant and around 15 light-years across. Its spectacular blue color is due to the reflection of starlight by interstellar dust. In between are hot stars of the Perseus OB2 association and dusty, dark nebulae along the edge of the nearby, massive Taurus and Perseus molecular clouds. Emission from unusually abundant ionized carbon monoxide (CO+) molecules fluorescing in sunlight is largely responsible for the telltale blue tint of the remarkable comet’s tail. The comet was about 17 light minutes from Earth.
One of our Solar System’s most tantalizing worlds, Enceladus is backlit by the Sun in this Cassini spacecraft image from November 1, 2009. The dramatic illumination reveals the plumes that continuously spew into space from the south pole of Saturn’s 500 kilometer diameter moon. Discovered by Cassini in 2005, the icy plumes are likely connected to an ocean beneath the ice shell of Enceladus. They supply material directly to Saturn’s outer, tenuous E ring and make the surface of Enceladus as reflective as snow. Across the scene, Saturn’s icy rings scatter sunlight toward Cassini’s cameras. Beyond the rings, the night side of 80 kilometer diameter moon Pandora is faintly lit by Saturnlight.