The wonders of space

December 28, 2012 • 6:08 am

Over at Slate, Phil Plait has published a stunning series of 21 photos in “The best astronomy images of 2012.” While it doesn’t quite come up to “The best cats of 2012,” which will appear December 31, the photos are truly amazing.  I will put up only five, but you owe it to yourself to head over to Slate, gawk at the photos, and, especially, read the captions, without which the images lose considerable force. I’m made the pictures as big as I can. Thanks, Phil!

Oh, and when you read the captions, remember all the scientific work that went into figuring out not only how to visualize these things, but especially to interpret what we’re seeing, which is what really makes the magic. No other species can do anything close (though humans can’t crack filberts with their teeth).

Monster in the Middle (all captions by Plait), a black hole sucking stuff in and pushing stuff away:

Deep in the heart of the galaxy Hercules A is a monster black hole. Vast amounts of material are falling into it, swirling in a disk that’s heated to millions of degrees. The disk is so hot in the center that material wants to expand violently and blow away. Magnetism, friction, and other forces focus that expanding material into twin beams which blast out of the poles of the disk with such speed and ferocity that they travel for hundreds of thousands of light years before finally slowing down and puffing out into twin lobes of matter. This image is a combination of observations from the Hubble Space Telescope—which shows the galaxy Hercules A, stars, and background galaxies—and the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, which detects the radio waves emitted by the jets and lobes. The structure is well over a million light years end-to-end, but what else would you expect from an object whose central engine is a black hole with 2.5 billion times the Sun’s mass?

NASA, ESA, S. Baum and C. O'Dea (RIT), R. Perley and W. Cotton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

NASA, ESA, S. Baum and C. O’Dea (RIT), R. Perley and W. Cotton (NRAO/AUI/NSF), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA).

The Chaos of Creation: a star nursery

30 Doradus is another vast star-forming factory, and this image is Hubble’s view of it. You’d never guess it’s located about 170,000 light years away, 25 times the distance to the Carina Nebula! 30 Dor is one of the largest stellar nurseries known, with some estimates of it having more than 100,000 stars inside. It’s ridiculously complex, as you can tell if you get the 4,000 x 3,000 pixel image, and most certainly if you get the monster 20,000 x 16,000 pixel one. That one will keep you busy for a long time; you’ll see stars being born, stars dying, shock waves compressing material into filaments, and just crazy beauty everywhere you look. I seriously can’t recommend enough you explore it.

I agree: check out that very large image, which will take a while to load. You might want to use it as the background image on your computer.


The Ghost in the Shell: an enlarging star.

Like R Scupltoris, the star named U Camelopardalis (or U Cam for short) is dying. Unlike R Scul, it’s a solitary star. Its core is going through some pretty epic paroxysms, spasms that episodically eject vast spherical shells of gas into space. This Hubble Space Telescope image shows the latest shell, ejected just 700 years ago. The amount of material in it is pretty small by stellar standards, just a tenth the mass of the Earth. But it’s enough to make the beautiful and slightly eerie object you see here. I’ll note that U Cam used to be a star very much like the Sun. When you look at it, you may be seeing the Sun’s future, about 8 billion years from now.


Icy Aurora. One of several photos on Earth.

On March 28, 2012, photographer Helge Mortensen was in Tromso, Norway on a mission to capture the aurora borealis, the northern lights. He succeeded magnificently, taking this beautiful shot of the eerily-glowing green lights over the icy landscape. You can see the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, and the Pleaides cluster in the picture as the particles from the solar wind slam into Earth’s atmosphere, lighting up atoms of oxygen and nitrogen. I also like the water flowing in the bottom part of the shot; in the 10-second exposure it forms a soft, smooth surface. By coincidence, one part of it forms a pattern remarkably like a face, an aquatic Shroud of Turin. Can you spot it?

Photo: Helge Mortensen.
Photo: Helge Mortensen.

Milky Way and Mashed Potato Mountain

“This means something.”

Photographer Randy Halverson took this moody picture of the Milky Way rising behind the iconic silhouette of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, known to countless dorks like me as the location of the alien rendezvous in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Halverson is amazing, and his time-lapse video “Temporal Distortion” is well worth your time to watch.


I can’t resist one more for the road, for we’ve been following this for a while:

The Best Vacation Photo Ever

One of the single biggest events of the year was the successful—if hair-raising—touchdown of the Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity, on the surface of the red planet. The most advanced piece of hardware ever to set foot wheel on another world, Curiosity is equipped with an array of cameras, geological tools, and even a high-powered laser to zap rocks and determine their composition. On Halloween, it used its Mars Hand Lens Imager to take 55 high-resolution pictures of itself, which were assembled to create this amazing self-portrait. The reason you can’t see the arm holding the camera is that it was essentially edited out of the final shot by careful selection of which pictures were used in the mosaic.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Malin Space Science Systems.

h/t: Kenan Malik via Matthew Cobb

23 thoughts on “The wonders of space

  1. Seems to me there’s a whole Internets full of WEIT regulars in need of their morning beverage of choice, or I wouldn’t be the first here after this has already been up for the better part of an hour.


    There — that otter do it….


  2. Wow. Spectacular! Also, NASA has just released two free ebooks about both the Hubble telescope and the James Webb telescope (not yet launched). If you have an iPad you can get them at the Apple iBookstore or you can download a free PDF at

  3. Why does the matter being ejected from the black hole in the first picture slow down and ‘puff out’? I thought moving objects would carry unless they collided with something else?

    1. Though the intergalactic medium is very tenuous, there is matter out there, and you have to grasp the scale of the structure. It is on the order of a million light years across. Given enough time and space for interactions to occur, they will and what you see in that image happens.

  4. “(though humans can’t crack filberts with their teeth)” When I was just a little kid I could do that no problem. Now that I’m older, wiser and less toothified I would never try.

  5. “No other species can do anything close (though humans can’t crack filberts with their teeth).”

    There are lots of things that other species can do that humans cannot.

    Turns out that most of what humans can do is overwhelmingly destructive of most other species and Life itself.

    1. Actually, as it turns out, humans are quite notable athletes in two ways.

      First, we are the unquestioned long-distance running champions. Few other animals could even compete in the marathon, and I don’t think any could finish a double marathon. And humans can do triple and even quadruple marathons.

      Second, though we don’t excel in anything else, we’re far more versatile than any other species. We can run, swim, climb, jump, and more. Pick any animal that can do better than us in its specialty, and we’ll generally clean its clock in some other competition.

      Our closest challengers would be tigers, but we’re significantly better divers (and far better long-distance runners, of course).

      And then, of course, aside from our athletic abilities, there’s our manual dexterity, our intelligence, our language, our technology….


      1. Several web sites list the Pronghorn antelope as the best marathon runner, they “can sustain 30 mph for about an hour”… Where as only a very few humans can even complete a marathon.

        No antelope has ever completed a triathlon – the bicycle gets ’em every time!

        1. I don’t know about the pronghorn, but our African cousins hunt their african cousins by chasing them down — and, yes, it may take a day or two to tire out the antelope.

          And, of course — I’m only referring to actual athletes and / or hunters. Your archetypal American who thinks hefting a gallon-sized soft drink is a hard workout certainly wouldn’t qualify.


  6. “Mashed Potato Mountain”

    It’s leucite phonolite porphyry, and definitely worth a visit.
    The real mountain has more presence than you’d think from the silly movie. It’s spectacularly beautiful. Spend the night at a nearby campground to see it evening and morning, with different light effects.

  7. That 20,000×16,000 pixel image of the star-forming region crashed my Firefox every time I tried to set it as my desktop background! So I had to settle for the smaller version. Still looks great!

  8. The Universe is beautiful.

    Which is interesting. It doesn’t have to be; it could be all colorless and weird and lumpy.

    First of all, much of what we see here is in fact not just colorless but invisible to the naked eye: radio, IR, and UV wavelengths rendered into false color in these images for illustrative purposes.

    Granted, there’s a lot of real color in the sky as well. But we shouldn’t find that surprising; on the contrary, it would be a remarkable happenstance in need of explanation if astronomical phenomena did not span the entire visible spectrum and more.

    A similar argument can be made for beauty in general. Evolution has endowed us with an aesthetic sense for presumanbly adaptive reasons. Our ancestors needed to be able to evaluate the fitness of potential mates and the suitability of possible nesting sites, and to distinguish good weather from threatening weather, and so on. And they needed to do all this without the benefit of our reasoning brains. So an instinctive sense of aesthetics seems like an evolutionary requirement on some level.

    Given such an aesthetic sense, it’s not far-fetched to suppose that there could be phenomena in the natural world of no immediate adaptive significance that through sheer coincidence could nevertheless appear beautiful to us. And it would be remarkable if astronomical phenomena were somehow exempt from this spandrel effect and appeared uniformly bland or ugly.

    So I think Plait is wrong to claim that the universe didn’t have to be beautiful. I think it was probably inevitable that we should have some sense of beauty, and that some astronomical phenomena should be capable of activating it.

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