Beautiful Space Photos

Here are some beautiful space photos that have been posted on the Internet in recent weeks.  Enjoy!

Helix Nebula
The Helix Nebula from the VISTA Telescope. Credit: ESO/VISTA/J. Emerson; Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

Will our Sun look like this one day? The Helix Nebula, located in the Name A Star Live constellation Aquarius, is one of brightest and closest examples of a planetary nebula, a gas cloud created at the end of the life of a Sun-like star. The outer gasses of the star expelled into space appear from our vantage point as if we are looking down a helix. The remnant central stellar core, destined to become a white dwarf star, glows in light so energetic it causes the previously expelled gas to fluoresce. The Helix Nebula, given a technical designation of NGC 7293, lies about 700 light-years away and spans about 2.5 light-years. The above picture was taken in three colors on infrared light by the 4.1-meter Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in Chile.

Ringside with Titan and Dione. Credit : Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

Orbiting in the plane of Saturn’s rings, Saturnian moons have a perpetual ringside view of the gorgeous gas giant planet. Of course, while passing near the ring plane the Cassini spacecraft also shares their stunning perspective. The rings themselves can be seen slicing across the middle of this Cassini snapshot. The scene features Titan, largest, and Dione, third largest moon of Saturn. Remarkably thin, the bright rings still cast arcing shadows across the planet’s cloud tops at the bottom of the frame. Pale Dione is about 1,100 kilometers across and orbits over 300,000 kilometers from the visible outer edge of the A ring. Dione is seen through Titan’s atmospheric haze. At 5,150 kilometers across, Titan is about 2.3 million kilometers from Cassini, while Dione is 3.2 million kilometers away.

The Large Magellanic Cloud
Infrared Portrait of the Large Magellanic Cloud. Credit: ESA / NASA / JPL-Caltech / STScI

Cosmic dust clouds ripple across this infrared portrait of our Milky Way’s satellite galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is visible in the southern hemisphere constellations Dorado and Mensa. In fact, the remarkable composite image from the Herschel Space Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope show that dust clouds fill this neighboring dwarf galaxy, much like dust along the plane of the Milky Way itself. The dust temperatures tend to trace star forming activity. Spitzer data in blue hues indicate warm dust heated by young stars. Herschel‘s instruments contributed the image data shown in red and green, revealing dust emission from cooler and intermediate regions where star formation is just beginning or has stopped. Dominated by dust emission, the Large Magellanic Cloud’s infrared appearance is different from views in optical images. But this galaxy’s well-known Tarantula Nebula still stands out, easily seen here as the brightest region to the left of center. A mere 160,000 light-years distant, the Large Cloud of Magellan is about 30,000 light-years across.

Grand Spiral Galaxy NGC 1232. Image Credit: FORS, 8.2-meter VLT Antu, ESO

Galaxies are fascinating not only for what is visible, but for what is invisible. Grand Spiral Galaxy NGC 1232, captured in detail by one of the new Very Large Telescopes, is a good example. The visible is dominated by millions of bright stars and dark dust, caught up in a gravitational swirl of spiral arms revolving about the center. Open clusters containing bright blue stars can be seen sprinkled along these spiral arms, while dark lanes of dense interstellar dust can be seen sprinkled between them. Less visible, but detectable, are billions of dim normal stars and vast tracts of interstellar gas, together wielding such high mass that they dominate the dynamics of the inner galaxy. Invisible are even greater amounts of matter in a form we don’t yet know – pervasive dark matter needed to explain the motions of the visible in the outer galaxy.  The Grand Spiral Galaxy is located in the constellation Eridanus, right below the Name A Star Live constellation Taurus.

The Northern Lights as viewed from an Arctic research station.

In late January 2012 a strong solar storm hit Earth’s atmosphere. Charged particles from the sun interacted with the Earth’s magnetic field to create spectacular night shows of green light — the “Northern Lights,” or “Aurora Borealis.”  See a beautiful video of the Northern Lights shot in late January from Norway!

See a Stellar Nursery!

The next two months are the best time of year to see one of the most beautiful and famous objects in the night sky — the Orion Nebula, a giant cloud of gas and dust where stars are born.  You can even see this nebula without the use of a telescope!

The Orion Nebula
The Orion Nebula. This cloud of dust and gas is illuminated by newly born stars. This is a combination of an infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and a visible image from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory, headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Megeath (University of Toledo)

The nebula appears as the ‘middle star’ in Orion’s sword.  If you observe the nebula through a telescope, you should see an image much fainter than the one above: Through amateur telescopes the nebula looks like a beautiful, wispy, grey-green cloud.

Outline of the constellation Orion. The Orion Nebula is located in the sword of Orion.

Orion was a hunter in classical mythology.  The brightest stars of Orion mark his feet, his belt (of three stars), his sword (hanging down from his belt), his shoulders, head, arms and raised club.  Compare the diagram above with the 17th century illustration below.  The Orion Nebula is the middle ‘star’ in Orion’s sword.

A print of the copperplate engraving for Johann Bayer's "Uranometria" (1661) showing the constellation Orion. Orion was a hunter in classical mythology. Image Credit: United States Naval Observatory Library

To give you a sense of just how large and far away the Orion Nebula is … it takes light 24 years to travel from one side of the nebula to the opposite side.  Although Orion is the closest star-formation region to Earth, it takes almost 1,600 years for the light from Orion to reach us.  By contrast, it takes light a little over 8 minutes to travel from the sun to Earth.

Orion is easy to spot at this time of year: Just look south during the evening hours (between sunset and midnight).  You should easily recognize Orion, which will represent a large section of the night sky.  (If you live in the southern hemisphere of Earth, such as in Australia or New Zealand, you’ll find Orion toward the north: The constellation will appear to be ‘upside down’ compared to the diagrams above.)  The Orion Nebula is one of the prettiest and most observed objects in the night sky.  So pull out your telescope over the next few months and enjoy the view!

The planets this month

Jupiter appears toward the southwest after sunset (towards the northwest, if you’re in the southern hemisphere of Earth): It’s a very bright point of light that’s easy to spot.  Right now, Jupiter is located within the Name A Star Live constellation Pisces.

Venus and Saturn will be in the Name A Star Live constellations Libra and Virgo, respectively, in January.  Venus will appear in the eastern sky before sunrise.  Saturn will rise in the east after midnight, and will be toward the south before dawn.  (For those of you in the southern hemisphere, Saturn will be toward the north before dawn.)

Mars is on the other side of the Sun now, so we cannot see the Red Planet this month.

When to go stargazing this month

Moonlight ‘drowns out’ the faint light of many stars and other celestial objects, so the best time  to view the stars is when the Moon is not visible.  If you’re going to stargaze between sunset and midnight, then the best time to do that this month is during the first 8 or 9 days of January, and during the last few days of January.

Finding your star in the night sky

Stars are located within constellations, which are just areas of the night sky. Scorpius, Aries and Taurus are examples of constellations. Your Name A Star Live Star Certificate displays the name of your constellation.

You can use our online World Constellation Guide to determine if you can see your constellation during the evening hours (between sunset and midnight). Of course, you’ll need a telescope to see your star. (That’s why we include the SLOOH online telescope experience in our Deluxe, Framed and Ultimate Gift Sets!) But you can see your constellation without the use of a telescope.

You can also find your constellation by using our Virtual Planetarium™ astronomy software. A planisphere is another useful device.