Category: Bugs, birds & animals

Butterflies along a ridge of light

ESA/PACS & SPIRE Consortia, T. Hill, F. Motte, Laboratoire AIM Paris-Saclay, CEA/IRFU – CNRS/INSU – Uni. Paris Diderot, HOBYS Key Programme Consortium

A blue and yellow butterfly flits along a ridge of starlight in an image of the Vela C region by ESA’s Herschel space observatory

Explore the intricate web of filaments and cool dust in this infrared image. What stories or pictures do you see? Leave a note in the comments below.

Vela C is one of the most massive star-making regions in the Milky Way Galaxy. And it’s close, making it ideal to study the birth of stars. Herschel sees the Universe in infrared. The infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum lies just below what our eyes can see but we feel this energy as heat. Even cool clouds of gas and dust glow brightly against the cold of space and Herschel can peer into dark clouds to spot clumps of gas and dust that may be new stars.

Throughout the image a ribbon of dust made up of finer filaments meanders through the complex weave. Zoom in and look for point-like dots of light. These are protostars, seeds of new stars. Explore the blue butterfly shape in the center of the image along with the blue bubble just above. The gas and dust in these areas glow from the heat of hot new stars. Blistering radiation from these stars excite atoms in the nebula causing them to glow. These stars are also massive and will live just 10 million years or so before exploding as supernovae. Compared to our Sun’s expected 8 billion year lifespan, this is a short time.

Vela C is the most massive of four parts of the Vela molecular cloud. Found just 2,300 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Vela, the Sail of the mythical ship Argo, the nebula is one of the largest star-forming areas known by astronomers.

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Turbulent Gassy Worms

NASA, ESA and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

A turbulent jet of heated gas resembles a worm in this image of Herbig-Haro 110 from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Explore the streamer of gas. What shapes and stories do you see? Leave a note in the comments below.

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Elephants in the Mist


A couple of elephants wander across a celestial savannah in this image from the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope.

Zoom across the pink clouds of NGC 6357. What stories or pictures do you see? Leave a note in the comments below.

NGC 6357 lies deep in the heart of the Milky Way galaxy in the constellation Scorpius, the Scorpion. Zoom into the bright stars at the center of the broad ribbon of dust. These bright blue stars are just a few million years old. New stars are being born in this chaotic cloud of gas and dust. Intense ultraviolet radiation and streaming solar winds hollow out the dust forming cavities and sculpt it into fantastic shapes. To the right, where the image was originally centered, look for the elephant trunk-like columns. These are similar to the “Pillars of Creation” in the Eagle Nebula.

Some observers think the nebula looks like a lobster. English astronomer Sir John Herschel first observed NGC 6357 during an observing trip to South Africa in 1837. It was only in the 20th century with the aid of photography that the full extent of the huge nebula was found. In infrared images (this one is in visible light), scientists noted that a dove shape dominated the left side of the nebula while the right side resembled a skull. They gave it the name “War and Peace Nebula.”

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Sam and a Billion Fireflies

ESO/S. Guisard (

Sam, the owl, in hues of pink, yellow and blue glares out of the panorama of a billion fireflies in an image from the European Southern Observatory.

Explore the rich star fields of Sagittarius and Scorpius. What stories or pictures do you see? Leave a note in the comments below.

The owl, to the right in the image, is actually Rho Opiuchi cloud complex and Antares. This nebula, similar to the Great Nebula in Orion, is just over 400 light-years away, making it one of the closest star-making regions to Earth. As gas and dust interact within these nebulae, they begin to swirl and collapse under gravity. When enough material collects, the temperature rises. Sometimes the temperature rises enough so that hydrogen atoms begin to fuse. When this happens a new star is born. some of the stars in these gas-and-dust rich areas are many times more massive and brighter than our Sun. These stars give off strong solar winds that clear out a space around the star. The huge stars also send out a torrent of ultraviolet radiation that excites hydrogen atoms in the nebula causing it to glow.

The bright glow of stars to the left is the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. Between here and there a dusty spiral arm blocks the light. In this image, look for the S-shaped dark nebula near the center of the image toward the top. Astronomers call this Snake Nebula. It is part of a larger structure known as the Dark Horse Nebula. The horse is standing up and down. The Snake Nebula forms its front leg while the back legs are outlined in a dark ribbon of dark dust just below. That leg also forms what’s known as the Pipe Nebula.

As we dive deeper into the dark lane of dust, look for the reddish nebulae, including Trifid Nebula and the Lagoon Nebula. Toward the bottom of the image, look for NGC 6357 and the Cat’s Paw Nebula, or NGC 6334. New stars are forming in all of these nebulae.

This image, taken by astrophotographer Stéphane Guisard, is part of ESO’s GigaGalaxy Zoom project. The mosaic was assembled from about 1200 individual images taken at the observatory at Cerro Paranal in Chile.

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Stars in the Belly


Brilliant stars lurk in the belly of stellar dragon or bird with sweeping wings in this image from the European Southern Observatory.

Zoom into the heart of the Tarantula Nebula in this image. What stories or images do you see? Leave a note in the comments below.

The Tarantula Nebula is one of the largest star-making regions known to scientists. Located at the edge of the Large Magellanic Cloud, the gas and dust in that region come together to form stars of all sizes and colors. At the very center of this image is a brilliant star known as VFTS 682. The star may be a runaway from the nearby rich star cluster R 136.

Large stars with whipping solar winds and strong ultraviolet radiation cause this cloud to glow. As you zoom into the gas clouds in the region look for the reddish lanes of dark dust. These dust clouds are between Earth and the nebula. They don’t glow glow like the other clouds. Those clouds block light from the nebula but are just as interesting to explore.

VFTS 682 and R136 are found about 170,000 light-years from Earth toward the southern constellation Doradus. The Large Magellanic Cloud is a small dwarf galaxy traveling near the Milky Way Galaxy. The LMC and another small galaxy called the Small Magellanic Cloud can be seen as faint cloud-like objects in the skies of the southern hemisphere. They were described to Europeans by famous sea explorer Ferdinand Magellan in the 17th century but they were were well known in the sky lore of the south.

Astronomers combined visible and infrared images from the Wide Field Imager at the 2.2-metre MPG/ESO at the La Silla Observatory and the 4.1-metre infrared VISTA telescope at Paranal to create this single image.

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The ancient peoples saw pictures in the sky. From those patterns in the heavens, ancient storytellers created legends about heroes, maidens, dragons, bears, centaurs, dogs and mythical creatures...
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