Monday, April 28, 2008

Cool astronomy photographs

In awe...
Ghost Head Nebula

One of a chain of star-forming regions lying south of the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud . Two bright regions (the eyes of the ghost), named A1 and A2, are very hot, glowing blobs of hydrogen and oxygen. The bubble in A1 is produced by the hot, intense radiation and powerful stellar wind from a single massive star. A2 has a more complex appearance due to the presence of more dust, and it contains several hidden, massive stars. The massive stars in A1 and A2 must have formed within the last 10,000 years since their natal gas shrouds are not yet disrupted by the powerful radiation of the newly born stars.-- David Darling/Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy & Spaceflight.

Red Spider Planetary Nebula

Oh what a tangled web a planetary nebula can weave. The Red Spider Planetary Nebula shows the complex structure that can result when a normal star ejects its outer gases and becomes a white dwarf star. Officially tagged NGC 6537, this two-lobed symmetric planetary nebula houses one of the hottest white dwarfs ever observed, probably as part of binary star system. Internal winds emanating from the central stars, visible in the center, have been measured in excess of 1000 kilometers per second. These winds expand the nebula, flow along the nebula's walls, and cause waves of hot gas and dust to collide. Atoms caught in these colliding shocks radiate light shown in the above representative-color picture. The Red Spider Nebula lies toward the constellation of Sagittarius. It's distance is not well known but estimated by some to be about 4000 light-years.

Witch's Broom Nebula

Ten thousand years ago, before the dawn of recorded human history, a new light must suddenly have appeared in the night sky and faded after a few weeks. Today we know this light was an exploding star and record the colorful expanding cloud as the Veil Nebula. Pictured above is the west end of the Veil Nebula known technically as NGC 6960 but less formally as the Witch's Broom Nebula. The rampaging gas gains its colors by impacting and exciting existing nearby gas. The supernova remnant lies about 1400 light-years away towards the constellation of Cygnus. This Witch's Broom actually spans over three times the angular size of the full Moon. The bright blue star 52 Cygnus is visible with the unaided eye from a dark location but unrelated to the ancient supernova.

Cat's Eye Nebula

Three thousand light-years away, a dying star throws off shells of glowing gas. This image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals The Cat's Eye Nebula to be one of the most complex planetary nebulae known. In fact, the features seen in the Cat's Eye are so complex that astronomers suspect the bright central object may actually be a binary star system. The term planetary nebula, used to describe this general class of objects, is misleading. Although these objects may appear round and planet-like in small telescopes, high resolution images reveal them to be stars surrounded by cocoons of gas blown off in the late stages of stellar evolution.

Wings of a Butterfly Nebula

Are stars better appreciated for their art after they die? Actually, stars usually create their most artistic displays as they die. In the case of low-mass stars like our Sun and M2-9 pictured above, the stars transform themselves from normal stars to white dwarfs by casting off their outer gaseous envelopes. The expended gas frequently forms an impressive display called a planetary nebula that fades gradually over thousand of years. M2-9, a butterfly planetary nebula 2100 light-years away shown in representative colors, has wings that tell a strange but incomplete tale. In the center, two stars orbit inside a gaseous disk 10 times the orbit of Pluto. The expelled envelope of the dying star breaks out from the disk creating the bipolar appearance. Much remains unknown about the physical processes that cause planetary nebula.

Christmas Tree Cluster

Newborn stars, hidden behind thick dust, are revealed in this image of a section of the Christmas Tree Cluster from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.
Star-forming clouds like this one are dynamic and evolving structures. Since the stars trace the straight line pattern of spokes of a wheel, scientists believe that these are newborn stars, or "protostars." At a mere 100,000 years old, these infant structures have yet to "crawl" away from their location of birth. Over time, the natural drifting motions of each star will break this order, and the snowflake design will be no more.

Thor's Emerald Helmet

This helmet-shaped cosmic cloud with wing-like appendages is popularly called Thor's Helmet. Heroically sized even for a Norse god, Thor's Helmet is about 30 light-years across. In fact, the helmet is actually more like an interstellar bubble, blown as a fast wind from the bright, massive star near the bubble's center sweeps through a surrounding molecular cloud. Known as a Wolf-Rayet star, the central star is an extremely hot giant thought to be in a brief, pre-supernova stage of evolution. Cataloged as NGC 2359, the nebula is located about 15,000 light-years away in the constellation Canis Major. The sharp image captures striking details of the nebula's filamentary structures and also records an almost emerald color from strong emission due to oxygen atoms in the glowing gas.

Crab Nebula

This is the mess that is left when a star explodes. The Crab Nebula, the result of a supernova seen in 1054 AD, is filled with mysterious filaments. The filaments are not only tremendously complex, but appear to have less mass than expelled in the original supernova and a higher speed than expected from a free explosion. The above image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, is presented in three colors chosen for scientific interest. The Crab Nebula spans about 10 light-years. In the nebula's very center lies a pulsar: a neutron star as massive as the Sun but with only the size of a small town. The Crab Pulsar rotates about 30 times each second.

Cat's Paw Nebula

Nebulae are perhaps as famous for being identified with familiar shapes as perhaps cats are for getting into trouble. Still, no known cat could have created the vast Cat's Paw Nebula visible in Scorpius. At 5,500 light years distant, Cat's Paw is an emission nebula with a red color that originates from an abundance of ionized hydrogen atoms. Alternatively known as the Bear Claw Nebula or NGC 6334, stars nearly ten times the mass of our Sun have been born there in only the past few million years. Pictured above, the end of the Cat's Paw nebula was imaged from Mayall 4-Meter Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, USA.

Rosette Nebula

Would the Rosette Nebula by any other name look as sweet? The bland New General Catalog designation of NGC 2237 doesn't appear to diminish the appearance of the this flowery emission nebula. Inside the nebula lies an open cluster of bright young stars designated NGC 2244. These stars formed about four million years ago from the nebular material and their stellar winds are clearing a hole in the nebula's center, insulated by a layer of dust and hot gas. Ultraviolet light from the hot cluster stars causes the surrounding nebula to glow. The Rosette Nebula spans about 100 light-years across, lies about 5000 light-years away, and can be seen with a small telescope towards the constellation of Monoceros.

Snowflake Cluster versus the Cone Nebula

Strange shapes and textures can be found in the neighborhood of the Cone Nebula. These patterns result from the tumultuous unrest that accompanies the formation of the open cluster of stars known as NGC 2264, the Snowflake cluster. To better understand this process, a detailed image of this region was taken in two colors of infrared light by the orbiting Spitzer Space Telescope. Bright stars from the Snowflake cluster dot the field. These stars soon heat up and destroy the gas and dust mountains in which they formed. One such dust mountain is the famous Cone Nebula, visible in the above image on the left, pointing toward a bright star near the center of the field. The entire NGC 2264 region is located about 2,500 light years away toward the constellation of the Unicorn (Monoceros).

Markarian's Eyes

Across the heart of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster lies a string of galaxies known as Markarian's Chain. Prominent in Markarian's Chain are these two interacting galaxies, NGC 4438 (left) and NGC 4435 - also known as The Eyes. About 50 million light-years away, the two galaxies appear to be about 100,000 light-years apart in this sharp close-up, but have likely approached to within an estimated 16,000 light-years of each other in their cosmic past. Gravitational tides from the close encounter have ripped away at their stars, gas, and dust. The more massive NGC 4438 managed to hold on to much of the material torn out in the collision, while material from the smaller NGC 4435 was more easily lost. The remarkably deep image of this crowded region of the universe also includes many more distant background galaxies.

Iris Nebula

Like delicate cosmic petals, these clouds of interstellar dust and gas have blossomed 1,300 light-years away in the fertile star fields of the constellation Cepheus. Sometimes called the Iris Nebula and dutifully cataloged as NGC 7023, this is not the only nebula in the sky to evoke the imagery of flowers. Still, this beautiful digital image shows off the Iris Nebula's range of colors and symmetries in impressive detail. Within the Iris, dusty nebular material surrounds a massive, hot, young star in its formative years. Central filaments of cosmic dust glow with a reddish photoluminescence as some dust grains effectively convert the star's invisible ultraviolet radiation to visible red light. Yet the dominant color of the nebula is blue, characteristic of dust grains reflecting starlight. Dark, obscuring clouds of dust and cold molecular gas are also present and can lead the eye to see other convoluted and fantastic shapes. Infrared observations indicate that this nebula may contain complex carbon molecules known as PAHs. As shown here, the Iris Nebula is about 6 light-years across.

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