HUNGRY BLACK HOLES & LASER BEAMS

See what happens when a black hole devours a star, a nebula hiding in a cave and laser beams across Orion in this selection of space images from NASA.

apod.nasa.gov

Nebula with Laser Beams


Four laser beams cut across this startling image of the Orion Nebula, as seen from ESO's Paranal Observatory in the Atacama desert on planet Earth. Not part of an interstellar conflict, the lasers are being used for an observation of Orion by UT4, one of the observatory's very large telescopes, in a technical test of an image-sharpening adaptive optics system. This view of the nebula with laser beams was captured by a small telescope from outside the UT4 enclosure. The beams are visible from that perspective because in the first few kilometers above the observatory the Earth's dense lower atmosphere scatters the laser light. The four small segments appearing beyond the beams are emission from an atmospheric layer of sodium atoms excited by the laser light at higher altitudes of 80-90 kilometers. Seen from the perspective of the UT4, those segments form bright spots or artificial guide stars. Their fluctuations are used in real-time to correct for atmospheric blurring along the line-of-sight by controlling a deformable mirror in the telescope's optical path.

Photography: Stéphane Guisard (Los Cielos de America, TWAN)

Central Cygnus Skyscape


In cosmic brush strokes of glowing hydrogen gas, this beautiful skyscape unfolds across the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy near the northern end of the Great Rift and the center of the constellation Cygnus the Swan. A 36 panel mosaic of telescopic image data, the scene spans about six degrees. Bright supergiant star Gamma Cygni (Sadr) to the upper left of the image center lies in the foreground of the complex gas and dust clouds and crowded star fields. Left of Gamma Cygni, shaped like two luminous wings divided by a long dark dust lane is IC 1318 whose popular name is understandably the Butterfly Nebula. The more compact, bright nebula at the lower right is NGC 6888, the Crescent Nebula. Some distance estimates for Gamma Cygni place it at around 1,800 light-years while estimates for IC 1318 and NGC 6888 range from 2,000 to 5,000 light-years.

Photography: Robert Gendler, DSS, BYU

Black Hole Accreting with Jet


What happens when a black hole devours a star? Many details remain unknown, but recent observations are providing new clues. In 2014, a powerful explosion was recorded by the ground-based robotic telescopes of the All Sky Automated Survey for SuperNovae (ASAS-SN) project, and followed up by instruments including NASA's Earth-orbiting Swift satellite. Computer modeling of these emissions fit a star being ripped apart by a distant supermassive black hole. The results of such a collision are portrayed in the featured artistic illustration. The black hole itself is a depicted as a tiny black dot in the center. As matter falls toward the hole, it collides with other matter and heats up. Surrounding the black hole is an accretion disk of hot matter that used to be the star, with a jet emanating from the black hole's spin axis.

Illustration: NASA, Swift, Aurore Simonnet (Sonoma State U.)

King of Wings Hoodoo under the Milky Way


This rock structure is not only surreal -- it's real. The reason it's not more famous is that it is, perhaps, smaller than one might guess: the capstone rock overhangs only a few meters. Even so, the King of Wings outcrop, located in New Mexico, USA, is a fascinating example of an unusual type of rock structure called a hoodoo. Hoodoos may form when a layer of hard rock overlays a layer of eroding softer rock. Figuring out the details of incorporating this hoodoo into a night-sky photoshoot took over a year. Besides waiting for a suitably picturesque night behind a sky with few clouds, the foreground had to be artificially lit just right relative to the natural glow of the background. After much planning and waiting, the final shot, featured here, was taken in May 2016. Mimicking the horizontal bar, the background sky features the band of our Milky Way Galaxy stretching overhead.

Photography: Wayne Pinkston (LightCrafter Photography)

SH2-155: The Cave Nebula


This skyscape features dusty Sharpless catalog emission region Sh2-155, the Cave Nebula. In the telescopic image, data taken through a narrowband filter tracks the reddish glow of ionized hydrogen atoms. About 2,400 light-years away, the scene lies along the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy toward the royal northern constellation of Cepheus. Astronomical explorations of the region reveal that it has formed at the boundary of the massive Cepheus B molecular cloud and the hot, young stars of the Cepheus OB 3 association. The bright rim of ionized hydrogen gas is energized by radiation from the hot stars, dominated by the brightest star above and left of picture center. Radiation driven ionization fronts are likely triggering collapsing cores and new star formation within. Appropriately sized for a stellar nursery, the cosmic cave is over 10 light-years across