See a preview of what our sun will look like when it dies, reconcile why Chicago is inverted and visit one of the dustiest observable galaxies in this week's picks from NASA.
The first hint of what will become of our Sun was discovered inadvertently in 1764. At that time, Charles Messier was compiling a list of diffuse objects not to be confused with comets. The 27th object on Messier's list, now known as M27 or the Dumbbell Nebula, is a planetary nebula, the type of nebula our Sun will produce when nuclear fusion stops in its core. M27 is one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky, and can be seen toward the constellation of the Fox (Vulpecula) with binoculars. It takes light about 1,000 years to reach us from M27, shown above in colors emitted by hydrogen and oxygen. Understanding the physics and significance of M27 was well beyond 18th century science. Even today, many things remain mysterious about bipolar planetary nebula like M27, including the physical mechanism that expels a low-mass star's gaseous outer-envelope, leaving an X-ray hot white dwarf.
Photography: John Hayes
How could that city be upside-down? The city, Chicago, was actually perfectly right-side up. The long shadows it projected onto nearby Lake Michigan near sunset, however, when seen in reflection, made the buildings appear inverted. This fascinating, puzzling, yet beautiful image was captured by a photographer in 2014 on an airplane on approach to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. The Sun can be seen both above and below the cloud deck, with the latter reflected in the calm lake. As a bonus, if you look really closely -- and this is quite a challenge -- you can find another airplane in the image, likely also on approach to the same airport.
Photography: Mark Hersch
It is the largest and most complex star forming region in the entire galactic neighborhood. Located in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy orbiting our Milky Way galaxy, the region's spidery appearance is responsible for its popular name, the Tarantula nebula. This tarantula, however, is about 1,000 light-years across. Were it placed at the distance of Milky Way's Orion Nebula, only 1,500 light-years distant and the nearest stellar nursery to Earth, it would appear to cover about 30 degrees (60 full moons) on the sky. Intriguing details of the nebula are visible in the featured image shown in colors emitted predominantly by hydrogen and oxygen. The spindly arms of the Tarantula nebula surround NGC 2070, a star cluster that contains some of the brightest, most massive stars known, visible in blue in the image center. Since massive stars live fast and die young, it is not so surprising that the cosmic Tarantula also lies near the site of the closest recent supernova.
Photography: Josep Drudis
Look through the cosmic cloud cataloged as NGC 281 and you might miss the stars of open cluster IC 1590. Still, formed within the nebula that cluster's young, massive stars ultimately power the pervasive nebular glow. The eye-catching shapes looming in this portrait of NGC 281 are sculpted columns and dense dust globules seen in silhouette, eroded by intense, energetic winds and radiation from the hot cluster stars. If they survive long enough, the dusty structures could also be sites of future star formation. Playfully called the Pacman Nebula because of its overall shape, NGC 281 is about 10,000 light-years away in the constellation Cassiopeia. This sharp composite image was made through narrow-band filters, combining emission from the nebula's hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen atoms in green, red, and blue hues. It spans over 80 light-years at the estimated distance of NGC 281.
Photography: Ken Crawford (Rancho Del Sol Observatory)
Shiny NGC 253 is one of the brightest spiral galaxies visible, and also one of the dustiest. Some call it the Silver Dollar Galaxy for its appearance in small telescopes, or just the Sculptor Galaxy for its location within the boundaries of the southern constellation Sculptor. First swept up in 1783 by mathematician and astronomer Caroline Herschel, the dusty island universe lies a mere 10 million light-years away. About 70 thousand light-years across, NGC 253 is the largest member of the Sculptor Group of Galaxies, the nearest to our own Local Group of Galaxies. In addition to its spiral dust lanes, tendrils of dust seem to be rising from a galactic disk laced with young star clusters and star forming regions in this sharp color image. The high dust content accompanies frantic star formation, earning NGC 253 the designation of a starburst galaxy. NGC 253 is also known to be a strong source of high-energy x-rays and gamma rays, likely due to massive black holes near the galaxy's center.
Photography: Dietmar Hager, Eric Benson
A mere 20,000 light-years from the Sun lies NGC 3603, a resident of the nearby Carina spiral arm of our Milky Way Galaxy. NGC 3603 is well known to astronomers as one of the Milky Way's largest star-forming regions. The central open star cluster contains thousands of stars more massive than our Sun, stars that likely formed only one or two million years ago in a single burst of star formation. In fact, nearby NGC 3603 is thought to contain a convenient example of the massive star clusters that populate much more distant starburst galaxies. Surrounding the cluster are natal clouds of glowing interstellar gas and obscuring dust, sculpted by energetic stellar radiation and winds. Recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope, the image spans about 17 light-years.
Photography: NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-ESA/ Hubble Collaboration; Acknowledgment: J. Maiz Apellaniz (Inst. Astrofisica Andalucia) et al., & Davide de Martin (skyfactory.org)