Nature never ceases to amaze, as this week's collection of images from the skies above attest. See gorgeous pictures that evoke images of lifeforms that exist (maybe?) only on earth.


The Butterfly Nebula from Hubble

The bright clusters and nebulae of planet Earth's night sky are often named for flowers or insects. Though its wingspan covers over 3 light-years, NGC 6302 is no exception. With an estimated surface temperature of about 250,000 degrees C, the dying central star of this particular planetary nebula has become exceptionally hot, shining brightly in ultraviolet light but hidden from direct view by a dense torus of dust. This sharp close-up of the dying star's nebula was recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope and is presented here in reprocessed colors. Cutting across a bright cavity of ionized gas, the dust torus surrounding the central star is near the center of this view, almost edge-on to the line-of-sight. Molecular hydrogen has been detected in the hot star's dusty cosmic shroud. NGC 6302 lies about 4,000 light-years away in the arachnologically correct constellation of the Scorpion (Scorpius).

Photography: NASA, ESA, Hubble, HLA; Reprocessing & Copyright: Jesús M.Vargas & Maritxu Poyal

Milky Way with Airglow Australis

Captured last April after sunset on a Chilean autumn night an exceptionally intense airglow flooded this scene. The panoramic skyscape is also filled with stars, clusters, and nebulae along the southern Milky Way including the Large and Small Magellanic clouds. Originating at an altitude similar to aurorae, the luminous airglow is due to chemiluminescence, the production of light through chemical excitation. Commonly recorded with a greenish tinge by sensitive digital cameras, both red and green airglow emission here is predominately from atmospheric oxygen atoms at extremely low densities and has often been present in southern hemisphere nights during the last few years. Like the Milky Way on that dark night the strong airglow was visible to the eye, but seen without color. Mars, Saturn, and bright star Antares in Scorpius form the celestial triangle anchoring the scene on the left. The road leads toward the 2,600 meter high mountain Cerro Paranal and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescopes.

Photography: Yuri Beletsky (Carnegie Las Campanas Observatory, TWAN)

NGC 6357: The Lobster Nebula

Why is the Lobster Nebula forming some of the most massive stars known? No one is yet sure. Near the more obvious Cat's Paw nebula on the upper right, the Lobster Nebula, on the lower left and cataloged as NGC 6357, houses the open star cluster Pismis 24, home to these tremendously bright and blue stars. The overall red glow near the inner star forming region results from the emission of ionized hydrogen gas. The surrounding nebula, featured here, holds a complex tapestry of gas, dark dust, stars still forming, and newly born stars. The intricate patterns are caused by complex interactions between interstellar winds, radiation pressures, magnetic fields, and gravity. The full zoomable version of this image contains about two billion pixels, making it one of the largest space images ever released. NGC 6357 spans about 400 light years and lies about 8,000 light years away toward the constellation of the Scorpion.

Photography: ESO, VLT Survey Telescope

The Porpoise Galaxy from Hubble

What's happening to this spiral galaxy? Just a few hundred million years ago, NGC 2936, the upper of the two large galaxies shown, was likely a normal spiral galaxy -- spinning, creating stars -- and minding its own business. But then it got too close to the massive elliptical galaxy NGC 2937 below and took a dive. Dubbed the Porpoise Galaxy for its iconic shape, NGC 2936 is not only being deflected but also being distorted by the close gravitational interaction. A burst of young blue stars forms the nose of the porpoise toward the right of the upper galaxy, while the center of the spiral appears as an eye. Alternatively, the galaxy pair, together known as Arp 142, look to some like a penguin protecting an egg. Either way, intricate dark dust lanes and bright blue star streams trail the troubled galaxy to the lower right. The featured re-processed image showing Arp 142 in unprecedented detail was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope last year. Arp 142 lies about 300 million light years away toward the constellation, coincidently, of the Water Snake (Hydra). In a billion years or so the two galaxies will likely merge into one larger galaxy.

Photography: NASA, ESA, Hubble, HLA; Reprocessing & Copyright: Raul Villaverde

N159 in the Large Magellanic Cloud

Over 150 light-years across, this cosmic maelstrom of gas and dust is not too far away. It lies south of the Tarantula Nebula in our satellite galaxy the Large Magellanic Cloud a mere 180,000 light-years distant. Massive stars have formed within. Their energetic radiation and powerful stellar winds sculpt the gas and dust and power the glow of this HII region, entered into the Henize catalog of emission stars and nebulae in the Magellanic Clouds as N159. The bright, compact, butterfly-shaped nebula above and left of center likely contains massive stars in a very early stage of formation. Resolved for the first time in Hubble images, the compact blob of ionized gas has come to be known as the Papillon Nebula.

Photography: NASA, ESA, Hubble Space Telescope