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Weekly space gallery for January 18, 2014

WELCOME TO THE FIRST of our weekly collections of the best astronomy and space exploration images taken by observatories around the world and in space. Each week we’ll bring you a selection of our favourite recent images – if you like them (and we hope you do), please share them with your friends. And don’t forget you can elect to have this and other stories emailed direct to your inbox, just by signing up to our free email service – see the Subscribe box in the column at right.

So, let’s get started on this week’s images.

1. The Orion Nebula

Orion Nebula

An infrared view of the Orion Nebula.

One of the most famous sights in the sky, the Orion Nebula is a huge cloud of gas and dust about 1,500 light-years from Earth. Astronomers call it a ‘stellar nursery’ because many stars have been born, or are in the process of being born, out of all that gas and dust. See all the tiny red dots? Those are newly born stars. This false-colour image was taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, which views the universe at infrared wavelengths. Courtesy NASA.

2. The Coma Cluster

Coma Cluster

The Coma Cluster of galaxies.

Galaxies tend to clump together in groups, or clusters. Some clusters comprise only a handful of galaxies, others have more than a thousand. The Coma Cluster – so-called because it is seen in the direction of the constellation Coma Berenices, which means ‘Berenice’s Hair’ (named after an ancient Egyptian queen) – is located about 350 million light years from Earth. Most of its 1,000-plus galaxies are elliptical (one of the two main galaxy shapes, the other being spiral). Pretty much all of the dots and blobs of light you can see in this Hubble Space Telescope image are galaxies; the three main ones are called IC 4041 (left), IC 4042 (middle) and GP 236 (right). The Coma Cluster is itself part of a larger grouping that also contains the Leo Cluster, and is called the Coma Supercluster. Courtesy ESA / Hubble & NASA; D. Carter (LJMU).

3. The Topsy Turvy galaxy

Topsy Turvy galaxy

The Topsy Turvy galaxy, with X-ray emission from regions surrounding two black holes shown in purple.

The Topsy Turvy galaxy (also known by its catalogue number, NGC 1313) is located about 13 million light years from Earth. Hidden within it are two black holes, whose presence is given away – where the purple patches are (false colour) – by energetic X-rays coming from gas being siphoned from companion stars. The X-ray data comes from NASA’s NuSTAR space telescope, while the background image is from the Digitised Sky Survey (made from pictures taken by ground-based telescopes). Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / IRAP.

4. Planets in the dust

Dust ring around the star HD 142527

Dust around the star HD 142527 could be giving birth to planets.

Japanese astronomers have been studying a star called HD 142527, about 450 light years Earth. HD 142527 is a young star, surrounded by a huge, slightly lop-sided ring of gas and dust. The astronomers say that a dense spot in the ring is where planets could be forming. (Due to the wavelength used, the star is not visible in this image.) Courtesy ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO), NAOJ.

5. The Tarantula Nebula

The Tarantula Nebula

The Tarantula Nebula

The Tarantula Nebula is a huge cloud of gas and dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighbouring galaxy to our Milky Way. This Hubble Space Telescope infrared view shows cloudy whisps and many thousands of sparkling stars. Just to the left of centre is a tight group of stars known as R136. In early photographs, R136 seemed to be a single, giant star, and no one could work out how a star could grow to be so big. But eventually better imaging revealed it to be a cluster of stars – so many and so bright, that the light the emit is the main reason why the Tarantula’s gas and dust is all lit up. Courtesy NASA, ESA, E. Sabbi (STScI).

6. Looking down on Venus

South pole view of Venus.

The view looking down on Venus’ southern polar regions.

This black and white image of Venus was taken by the European Space Agency’s Venus Express spacecraft, which has been orbiting the planet since April 2006. The viewpoint is looking down on the south pole from an altitude of 50,000 kilometres. Venus is perpetually covered by thick clouds, but Venus Express’ instruments can pick out bands within those clouds, which are being blown by the prevailing winds from east to west (the opposite to winds here on Earth). The small black blobs are not real; they are artefacts of the imaging equipment. Courtesy ESA / MPS / DLR / IDA.

7. Rima Marius

Rima Marius

Rima Marius stretches 280 kilometres across the Moon.

Rima Marius is a lunar ‘rille’ or channel. Such channels are thought to form when a tunnel through which lava once flowed, collapses in on itself. Rima Marius is 280 kilometres long, winding its way across a flat plain known as the Oceanus Procellarum, or Ocean of Storms. This image was taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft. Courtesy NASA / GSFC / Arizona State University.

8. Tracks on Mars

Orbital shot showing tracks left by the Curiosity rover

An orbital shot showing tracks left by the Curiosity rover on Mars.

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped this image of the martian surface on December 11, 2013. It clearly shows the tracks left by the Curiosity rover as it slowly makes it way across the floor of Gale Crater (the rover itself is out of frame). The rover has six wheels, three on each side; the distance between left and right wheels is about 3 metres. See if you can follow the tracks all the way from top right to bottom left. Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona.

9. Shadows on Saturn


The shadows of Saturn’s rings cast upon the planet’s cloud tops.

Shadows cast by Saturn’s rings make the planet look like it has been painted with Indian ink while spinning on a potter’s wheel. The rings themselves are out of view in this image, taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute.

10. Docking at the Station

Cgynus craft docked at the International Space Station

Cgynus cargo craft docked at the International Space Station

Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Cygnus commercial cargo spacecraft is seen docked to the Harmony module of the International Space Station. Attached is the Station’s robot arm, called Canadarm2 (being the second generation of robot arm supplied by Canada). The Cygnus craft was launched aboard an Antares rocket on January 9. Courtesy NASA.

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GALLERY: Orion’s fiery sword

WISE image of the Orion Nebula

The Orion Nebula – seen here at infrared wavelengths in a WISE space observatory image – is a dusty, turbulent region where stars are being born.

THE TANGLE OF CLOUDS and stars that lie in Orion’s sword is showcased in a new, expansive view from NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, spacecraft.

The constellation Orion, named for a mythical hunter, is visible in evening skies throughout the world from about December through April. The constellation appears tranquil and still to the naked eye, but in the hunter’s ‘sword’, what at first appears to be a slightly fuzzy star is actually a turbulent cauldron of stellar birth – the Orion Nebula.

WISE captured this vast view of the nebula in infrared light, picking up the glow from interstellar dust heated by newborn stars. The colours green and red in this false-colour view, highlight the warmed dust, while the white regions are even hotter. The energy from massive stars has ‘burned’ through the dust, carving out cavities, the largest of which is seen at the centre of the picture.

Astronomers think that our Sun was probably born in a similar cloud some five billion years ago. Over time, the cloud would have dispersed and the stars would have drifted apart, leaving us more isolated in space. The crowded newborn stars in the Orion nebula are less than 10 million years old – billions of years from now, they will likely spread out.

Adapted from information issued by NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA.

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New view of Orion

Orion Nebula

A new image of the Orion Nebula, a huge gas cloud in which new stars are being born.

THIS ETHERAL-LOOKING IMAGE of the Orion Nebula was captured using the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) La Silla Observatory in Chile.

This nebula is much more than just a pretty face, offering astronomers a close-up view of a massive star-forming region to help advance our understanding of stellar birth and evolution.

The Orion Nebula, also known as Messier 42, is one of the most easily recognisable and best-studied celestial objects. It is a huge complex of gas and dust where massive stars are forming and is the closest such region to the Earth.

The glowing gas is so bright that it can be seen with the unaided eye and is a fascinating sight through a telescope.

Despite its familiarity and closeness, there is still much to learn about the Orion Nebula. It was only in 2007, for instance, that it was shown to be closer to us than previously thought—1,350 light-years, rather than about 1,500 light-years.

See a wallpaper-size version of the image here.

ESO 2.2m telescope

The MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope

A winning image

The data used to produce the image were selected by Igor Chekalin from Russia, who participated in ESO’s Hidden Treasures 2010 astrophotography competition.

Igor’s composition of the Orion Nebula was the seventh highest ranked entry in the competition, although another of Igor’s images was the eventual overall winner.

The Hidden Treasures competition gave amateur astronomers the opportunity to search through ESO’s vast archives of astronomical data, hoping to find a well-hidden gem that needed “polishing”.

Participants submitted nearly 100 entries and ten skilled people were awarded some extremely attractive prizes, including an all-expenses-paid trip for the overall winner to ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) on Cerro Paranal in Chile.

Igor searched through ESO’s archive and identified datasets that he used to compose the image of Messier 42.

He also was awarded the first prize of the competition for his composition of Messier 78, and he also submitted an image of NGC3169, NGC3166 and SN 2003cg, which was ranked second highest.

Igor’s Orion Nebula image is a composite of several exposures taken through a total of five different filters. Light that passed through a red filter as well as light from a filter that shows the glowing hydrogen gas, were coloured red. Light in the yellow–green part of the spectrum is coloured green, blue light is coloured blue and light that passed through an ultraviolet filter has been coloured purple. The exposure times were about 52 minutes through each filter.

Adapted from information issued by ESO and Igor Chekalin.

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