Hot, young stars and cosmic pillars of gas and dust seem to crowd into NGC 7822. At the edge of a giant molecular cloud toward the northern constellation Cepheus, the glowing star forming region lies about 3,000 light-years away. Within the nebula, bright edges and dark shapes stand out in this colorful telescopic skyscape. The image includes data from narrowband filters, mapping emission from atomic oxygen, hydrogen, and sulfur into blue, green, and red hues. The emission line and color combination has become well-known as the Hubble palette. The atomic emission is powered by energetic radiation from the central hot stars. Their powerful winds and radiation sculpt and erode the denser pillar shapes and clear out a characteristic cavity light-years across the center of the natal cloud. Stars could still be forming inside the pillars by gravitational collapse but as the pillars are eroded away, any forming stars will ultimately be cutoff from their reservoir of star stuff. This field of view spans about 40 light-years at the estimated distance of NGC 7822.
The most distant object easily visible to the unaided eye is M31, the great Andromeda Galaxy. Even at some two and a half million light-years distant, this immense spiral galaxy – spanning over 200,000 light years – is visible, although as a faint, nebulous cloud in the constellation Andromeda. In contrast, a bright yellow nucleus, dark winding dust lanes, and expansive spiral arms dotted with blue star clusters and red nebulae, are recorded in this stunning telescopic image which combines data from orbiting Hubble with ground-based images from Subaru and Mayall. In only about 5 billion years, the Andromeda galaxy may be even easier to see – as it will likely span the entire night sky – just before it merges with our Milky Way Galaxy.
Sometimes the dark dust of interstellar space has an angular elegance. Such is the case toward the far-south constellation of Chamaeleon. Normally too faint to see, dark dust is best known for blocking visible light from stars and galaxies behind it. In this four-hour exposure, however, the dust is seen mostly in light of its own, with its strong red and near-infrared colors giving creating a brown hue. Contrastingly blue, the bright star Beta Chamaeleontis is visible just to the right of center, with the dust that surrounds it preferentially reflecting blue light from its primarily blue-white color. All of the pictured stars and dust occur in our own Milky Way Galaxy with – but one notable exception: the white spot just below Beta Chamaeleontis is the galaxy IC 3104 which lies far in the distance. Interstellar dust is mostly created in the cool atmospheres of giant stars and dispersed into space by stellar light, stellar winds, and stellar explosions such as supernovas.
Looping through the Jovian system in the late 1990s, the Galileo spacecraft recorded stunning views of Europa and uncovered evidence that the moon’s icy surface likely hides a deep, global ocean. Galileo’s Europa image data has been remastered here, with improved calibrations to produce a color image approximating what the human eye might see. Europa’s long curving fractures hint at the subsurface liquid water. The tidal flexing the large moon experiences in its elliptical orbit around Jupiter supplies the energy to keep the ocean liquid. But more tantalizing is the possibility that even in the absence of sunlight that process could also supply the energy to support life, making Europa one of the best places to look for life beyond Earth. What kind of life could thrive in a deep, dark, subsurface ocean? Consider planet Earth’s own extreme shrimp.
Sand dunes seen from afar seem smooth and unwrinkled, like silk sheets spread across the desert. But a closer inspection reveals much more. As you approach the dunes, you may notice ripples in the sand. Touch the surface and you would find individual grains. The same is true for digital images: zoom far enough into an apparently perfect portrait and you will discover the distinct pixels that make the picture.
The universe itself may be similarly pixelated. Scientists such as Rana Adhikari, professor of physics at Caltech, think the space we live in may not be perfectly smooth but rather made of incredibly small discrete units. “A spacetime pixel is so small that if you were to enlarge things so that it becomes the size of a grain of sand, then atoms would be as large as galaxies,” he says.
An island universe of billions of stars, NGC 1566 lies about 60 million light-years away in the southern constellation Dorado. Popularly known as the Spanish Dancer galaxy, it’s seen face-on from our Milky Way perspective. A gorgeous grand design spiral, this galaxy’s two graceful spiral arms span over 100,000 light-years, traced by bright blue star clusters, pinkish starforming regions, and swirling cosmic dust lanes. NGC 1566’s flaring center makes the spiral one of the closest and brightest Seyfert galaxies. It likely houses a central supermassive black hole wreaking havoc on surrounding stars, gas, and dust. In this sharp southern galaxy portrait, the spiky stars lie well within the Milky Way.
What does Comet Leonard look like up close? Although we can’t go there, imaging the comet’s coma and inner tails through a small telescope gives us a good idea. As the name implies, the ion tail is made of ionized gas – gas energized by ultraviolet light from the Sun and pushed outward by the solar wind. The solar wind is quite structured and sculpted by the Sun’s complex and ever changing magnetic field. The effect of the variable solar wind combined with different gas jets venting from the comet’s nucleus accounts for the tail’s complex structure. Following the wind, structure in Comet Leonard’s tail can be seen to move outward from the Sun even alter its wavy appearance over time. The blue color of the ion tail is dominated by recombining carbon monoxide molecules, while the green color of the coma surrounding the head of the comet is created mostly by a slight amount of recombining diatomic carbon molecules. Diatomic carbon is destroyed by sunlight in about 50 hours – which is why its green glow does not make it far into the ion tail. The featured image was taken on January 2 from Siding Spring Observatory in Australia. Comet Leonard, presently best viewed from Earth’s Southern Hemisphere, has rounded the Sun and is now headed out of the Solar System.
It’s easy to get lost following the intricate, looping, twisting filaments in this detailed image of supernova remnant Simeis 147. Also cataloged as Sharpless 2-240 it goes by the popular nickname, the Spaghetti Nebula. Seen toward the boundary of the constellations Taurus and Auriga, it covers nearly 3 degrees or 6 full moons on the sky. That’s about 150 light-years at the stellar debris cloud’s estimated distance of 3,000 light-years. This composite includes image data taken through narrow-band filters where reddish emission from ionized hydrogen atoms and doubly ionized oxygen atoms in faint blue-green hues trace the shocked, glowing gas. The supernova remnant has an estimated age of about 40,000 years, meaning light from the massive stellar explosion first reached Earth 40,000 years ago. But the expanding remnant is not the only aftermath. The cosmic catastrophe also left behind a spinning neutron star or pulsar, all that remains of the original star’s core.
You may have seen Orion’s belt before – but not like this. The three bright stars across this image are, from left to right, Mintaka, Alnilam, and Alnitak: the iconic belt stars of Orion. The rest of the stars in the frame have been digitally removed to highlight the surrounding clouds of glowing gas and dark dust. Some of these clouds have intriguing shapes, including the Horsehead and Flame Nebulas, both near Alnitak on the lower right. This deep image, taken last month from the Marathon Skypark and Observatory in Marathon, Texas, USA, spans about 5 degrees, required about 20 hours of exposure, and was processed to reveal the gas and dust that we would really see if we were much closer. The famous Orion Nebula is off to the upper right of this colorful field. The entire region lies only about 1,500 light-years distant and so is one of the closest and best studied star formation nurseries known.
Why does Comet Leonard’s tail wag? The featured time-lapse video shows the ion tail of Comet C/2021 A1 (Leonard) as it changed over ten days early last month. The video was taken by NASA’s Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory-Ahead (STEREO-A) spacecraft that co-orbits the Sun at roughly the same distance as the Earth. Each image in this 29-degree field was subtracted from following image to create frames that highlight differences. The video clearly shows Comet Leonard’s long ion tail extending, wagging, and otherwise being blown around by the solar wind – a stream of fast-moving ions that stream out from the Sun. Since the video was taken, Comet Leonard continued plunging toward the Sun, reached its closest approach to the Sun between the orbits of Mercury and Venus, survived this closest approach without breaking apart, and is now fading as heads out of our Solar System.
For the very first time, astronomers have imaged in real time the dramatic end to a red supergiant’s life, watching the massive star’s rapid self-destruction and final death throes before it collapsed into a Type II supernova.
Using two Hawaiʻi telescopes – the University of Hawaiʻi Institute for Astronomy Pan-STARRS on Haleakalā, Maui and W. M. Keck Observatory on Maunakea, Hawaiʻi Island – a team of researchers conducting the Young Supernova Experiment (YSE) transient survey observed the red supergiant during its last 130 days leading up to its deadly detonation.
Three years ago, Filippo Fraternali and his colleagues spotted a half dozen mysteriously diffuse galaxies, which looked like sprawling cities of stars and gas. But unlike almost every other galaxy ever seen—including our own Milky Way—they didn’t seem to be enshrouded in huge masses of dark matter, which would normally hold those stellar metropolises together with their gravity. The scientists picked one to zoom in on, a modest-sized galaxy about 250,000 light-years away, and they pointed the 27 radio telescope antennas of the Very Large Array in New Mexico at it.
After gathering 40 hours’ worth of data, they mapped out the stars and gas and confirmed what the earlier snapshots had hinted at: “The dark matter content that we infer in this galaxy is much, much smaller than what you would expect,” says Fraternali, an astronomer at Kapteyn Astronomical Institute of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. If the team or their competitors find other such galaxies, it could pose a challenge for scientists’ view of dark matter, the dominant perspective in the field for at least 20 years. Fraternali and his team published their findings in December in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
What will become of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot? Gas giant Jupiter is the solar system’s largest world with about 320 times the mass of planet Earth. Jupiter is home to one of the largest and longest lasting storm systems known, the Great Red Spot (GRS), visible to the left. The GRS is so large it could swallow Earth, although it has been shrinking. Comparison with historical notes indicate that the storm spans only about one third of the exposed surface area it had 150 years ago. NASA’s Outer Planets Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) program has been monitoring the storm more recently using the Hubble Space Telescope. The featured Hubble OPAL image shows Jupiter as it appeared in 2016, processed in a way that makes red hues appear quite vibrant. Modern GRS data indicate that the storm continues to constrict its surface area, but is also becoming slightly taller, vertically. No one knows the future of the GRS, including the possibility that if the shrinking trend continues, the GRS might one day even do what smaller spots on Jupiter have done – disappear completely.
As NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope makes its way out to its intended orbit, ground teams monitor its vitals using a comprehensive set of sensors located throughout the entire spacecraft. Mechanical, thermal, and electrical sensors provide a wide array of critical information on the current state and performance of Webb while it is in space.
A system of surveillance cameras to watch deployments was considered for inclusion in Webb’s toolkit of diagnostics and was studied in-depth during Webb’s design phase, but ultimately this was rejected.
“Adding cameras to watch an unprecedently complicated deployment of such a precious spacecraft as Webb sounds like a no-brainer, but in Webb’s case, there’s much more to it than meets the eye,” said Paul Geithner, deputy project manager – technical for the Webb telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “It’s not as straightforward as adding a doorbell cam or even a rocket cam.”
Named for a forgotten constellation, the Quadrantid Meteor Shower puts on an annual show for planet Earth’s northern hemisphere skygazers. The shower’s radiant on the sky lies within the old, astronomically obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis. That location is not far from the Big Dipper, at the boundaries of the modern constellations Bootes and Draco. In fact north star Polaris is just below center in this frame and the Big Dipper asterism (known to some as the Plough) is above it, with the meteor shower radiant to the right. Pointing back toward the radiant, Quadrantid meteors streak through the night in the panoramic skyscape, a composite of images taken in the hours around the shower’s peak on January 4, 2022. Arrayed in the foreground are radio telescopes of the Chinese Spectral Radioheliograph, Mingantu Observing Station, Inner Mongolia, China. A likely source of the dust stream that produces Quadrantid meteors was identified in 2003 as an asteroid.
What’s happened to that moon of Saturn? Nothing – Saturn’s moon Rhea is just partly hidden behind Saturn’s rings. In 2010, the robotic Cassini spacecraft then orbiting Saturn took this narrow-angle view looking across the Solar System’s most famous rings. Rings visible in the foreground include the thin F ring on the outside and the much wider A and B rings just interior to it. Although it seems to be hovering over the rings, Saturn’s moon Janus is actually far behind them. Janus is one of Saturn’s smaller moons and measures only about 180 kilometers across. Farther out from the camera is the heavily cratered Rhea, a much larger moon measuring 1,500 kilometers across. The top of Rhea is visible only through gaps in the rings. After more than a decade of exploration and discovery, the Cassini spacecraft ran low on fuel in 2017 and was directed to enter Saturn’s atmosphere, where it surely melted.