Cool Science Space Photo |Wired Science

Mystic Mountain

Hubble's 20th anniversary image shows a mountain of dust and gas rising in the Carina Nebula. The top of a three-light-year tall pillar of cool hydrogen is being worn away by the radiation of nearby stars, while stars within the pillar unleash jets of gas that stream from the peaks.

Star-Forming Heart

Generations of stars can be seen in this infrared portrait from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. In this wispy star-forming region, called W5, the oldest stars can be seen as blue dots in the centers of the two hollow cavities (other blue dots are background and foreground stars not associated with the region).
Younger stars line the rims of the cavities, and some can be seen as pink dots at the tips of the elephant-trunk-like pillars. The white knotty areas are where the youngest stars are forming. Red shows heated dust that pervades the region's cavities, while green highlights dense clouds.

Glorious Spiral Galaxy

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope – with a little help from an amateur astronomer – has produced one of the best views yet of nearby spiral galaxy Messier 106. Located a little over 20 million light-years away, practically a neighbour by cosmic standards, Messier 106 is one of the brightest and nearest spiral galaxies to our own.
Despite its appearance, which looks much like countless other galaxies, Messier 106 hides a number of secrets. Thanks to this image, which combines data from Hubble with observations by amateur astronomers Robert Gendler and Jay GaBany, they are revealed as never before. At its heart, as in most spiral galaxies, is a supermassive black hole, but this one is particularly active. Unlike the black hole at the centre of the Milky Way, which pulls in wisps of gas only occasionally, Messier 106’s black hole is actively gobbling up material. As the gas spirals towards the black hole, it heats up and emits powerful radiation. Part of the emission from the centre of Messier 106 is produced by a process that is somewhat similar to that in a laser - although here the process produces bright microwave radiation.
As well as this microwave emission from Messier 106’s heart, the galaxy has another startling feature - instead of two spiral arms, it appears to have four. Although the second pair of arms can be seen in visible light images as ghostly wisps of gas, as in this image, they are even more prominent in observations made outside of the visible spectrum, such as those using X-ray or radio waves. Unlike the normal arms, these two extra arms are made up of hot gas rather than stars, and their origin remained unexplained until recently. Astronomers think that these, like the microwave emission from the galactic centre, are caused by the black hole at Messier 106’s heart, and so are a totally different phenomenon from the galaxy’s normal, star-filled arms.
The extra arms appear to be an indirect result of jets of material produced by the violent churning of matter around the black hole. As these jets travel through the galactic matter they disrupt and heat up the surrounding gas, which in turn excites the denser gas in the galactic plane and causes it to glow brightly. This denser gas closer to the centre of the galaxy is tightly-bound, and so the arms appear to be straight. However, the looser disc gas further out is blown above or below the disc in the opposite direction from the jet, so that the gas curves out of the disc — producing the arching red arms seen here. Despite carrying his name, Messier 106 was neither discovered nor catalogued by the renowned 18th century astronomer Charles Messier. Discovered by his assistant, Pierre Méchain, the galaxy was never added to the catalogue in his lifetime. Along with six other objects discovered but not logged by the pair, Messier 106 was posthumously added to the Messier catalogue in the 20th century.
Amateur astronomer Robert Gendler retrieved archival Hubble images of M 106 to assemble a mosaic of the centre of the galaxy. He then used his own and fellow astrophotographer Jay GaBany’s observations of M 106 to combine with the Hubble data in areas where there was less coverage, and finally, to fill in the holes and gaps where no Hubble data existed. The centre of the galaxy is composed almost entirely of Hubble data taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys, Wide Field Camera 3, and Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 detectors. The outer spiral arms are predominantly HST data colourised with ground-based data taken by Gendler’s and GaBany’s 12.5-inch and 20-inch telescopes, located at very dark remote sites in New Mexico, USA. Gendler was a prizewinner in the recent Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition. Another prizewinner, André van der Hoeven, entered a different version of Messier 106, combining Hubble and NOAO data.

Wings of the Seagull Nebula

This image shows the intricate structure of part of the Seagull Nebula, known more formally as IC 2177. These wisps of gas and dust are known as Sharpless 2-296 (officially Sh 2-296) and form part of the “wings” of the celestial bird. This region of the sky is a fascinating muddle of intriguing astronomical objects — a mix of dark and glowing red clouds, weaving amongst bright stars. This new view was captured by the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile.

Prominent Solar Flare

A solar eruption gracefully rose up from the sun on Dec. 31, 2012, twisting and turning. Magnetic forces drove the flow of plasma, but without sufficient force to overcome the sun’s gravity much of the plasma fell back into the sun. The length of the eruption extends about 160,000 miles out from the Sun. With Earth about 7,900 miles in diameter, this relatively minor eruption is about 20 times the diameter of our planet.

Supermassive Star Eta Carinae

A huge, billowing pair of gas and dust clouds are captured in this stunning NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of the supermassive star Eta Carinae.
Using a combination of image processing techniques (dithering, subsampling and deconvolution), astronomers created one of the highest resolution images of an extended object ever produced by the Hubble Space Telescope. The resulting picture reveals astonishing detail. Even though Eta Carinae is more than 8,000 light-years away, structures only 10 billion miles across (about the diameter of our solar system) can be distinguished. Dust lanes, tiny condensations, and strange radial streaks all appear with unprecedented clarity.
Eta Carinae was observed by Hubble in September 1995 with the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 (WFPC2). Images taken through red and near-ultraviolet filters were subsequently combined to produce the color image shown. A sequence of eight exposures was necessary to cover the object's huge dynamic range: the outer ejecta blobs are 100,000 times fainter than the brilliant central star.
Eta Carinae was the site of a giant outburst about 150 years ago, when it became one of the brightest stars in the southern sky. Though the star released as much visible light as a supernova explosion, it survived the outburst. Somehow, the explosion produced two polar lobes and a large thin equatorial disk, all moving outward at about 1.5 million miles per hour.
The new observation shows that excess violet light escapes along the equatorial plane between the bipolar lobes. Apparently there is relatively little dusty debris between the lobes down by the star; most of the blue light is able to escape. The lobes, on the other hand, contain large amounts of dust which preferentially absorb blue light, causing the lobes to appear reddish. Estimated to be 100 times more massive than our Sun, Eta Carinae may be one of the most massive stars in our Galaxy. It radiates about five million times more power than our Sun. The star remains one of the great mysteries of stellar astronomy, and the new Hubble images raise further puzzles. Eventually, this star's outburst may provide unique clues to other, more modest stellar bipolar explosions and to hydrodynamic flows from stars in general.

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