Category: Fantasy Creatures

Dragons of Mars

Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

A dragon, tongue flicking out, struts along this rocky landscape on Mars in this image from NASA’s HiRISE camera aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Explore this image of this terrain dominated with rocky hills and sand dunes within Holden Crater. Share other shapes and stories you see in this image by leaving a note below.

Holden Crater, in the tropics of Mars, is one of several landing sites scientists are considering for the Curiosity mission. The car-sized rover, a big brother to the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, will roam the surface analyzing and gathering samples and taking photos along the way. The image shows some of the reasons why scientists are interested in sending Curiosity to Holden Crater. Look for light-toned layered rock covered by the darker, windblown dunes. The layers may have been deposited by ancient lakes. Perhaps these lakes were home to ancient life on Mars. If we could zoom out to see all of Holden Crater, scientists think they see evidence for massive flooding. The flooding would have rearranged boulders, bringing new material to the surface.

Launched with Mars Recon­nais­sance Orbiter, or MRO, in 2005, HiRISE is one of six instru­ments aboard the space­craft orbit­ing Mars. HiRISEs cam­era can see objects on the sur­face as small as a beach ball. The instru­ment can also offer sci­en­tists stereo views of the sur­face.

Filaments of Medusa

Credit: H. Schweiker/NOAO/AURA/NSF and T. A. Rector/University of Alaska Anchorage and NOAO/AURA/NSF

Braided filaments of glowing gas and dust snake around the dim Medusa Nebula in this image from National Optical Astronomy Observatory, or NAOA.

Explore the twisted remnants of this ancient planetary nebula. Like its mythological namesake, these glowing tendrils of gas and dust look like a mess of snakes from telescopes on Earth. Also known as Abell 21, the Medusa Nebula was once thought to be a supernova remnant because of its immense size. The nebula spans more than four light-years; it would take a starship traveling at six trillion miles per year, more than four years to cross from one side of the nebula to the other. In the 1970s, however, Soviet astronomers determined that the object was probably a planetary nebula. A planetary nebula represents the final stage in the evolution of smaller stars like our Sun. At the ends of their lives, stars like our Sun transform into red giants when their hydrogen fuel runs out. The stars puff up, shrugging their outer layers creating an expanding shell of material that becomes the planetary nebula. A super-hot white dwarf star, the dead core of the star, is all that remains. Ultraviolet radiation spews from the white dwarf causing gas in the expanding bubble of material to glow.

As you explore, notice the dozens of far-off galaxies in this deep image of the nebula.

The Medusa Nebula is found about 1,500 light-years from Earth toward the zodiacal constellation Gemini, the Twins.

Dark Dragons

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/M. Povich (Penn State Univ.)

A dark dragon appears to shoot out of a bright nebula in this image of M17 from NASA‘s Spitzer Space Telescope.

M17 is a dusty place where stars are born. In this infrared image from Spitzer, M17 glows with the light of giant newborn stars. Explore the wispy clouds, dark lanes of dust and bubbles of this nebula. The bright blaze of light and color near the bottom is home to the most massive type of star, known as an O-type star. These stars are many times heavier than our Sun. Intense winds from these stars blow bubbles in the nebula.

Right now, M17 is moving through the Sagittarius spiral arm of our Milky Way Galaxy. Waves of star formation will be triggered as the gas and dust of the nebula interacts with gas and dust of the spiral arm. New stars are being born within the dusty dragon, called M17SWex. Sometime in the future, the dark nebula will flare up like the bright nebula nearby.

Also known as the Omega Nebula or the Swan Nebula, M17 is found about 6,800 light-years from Earth toward the rich starfields of the constellation Sagittarius. Swiss astronomer Philippe Loys de Chéseaux discovered the bright nebula in 1745. French astronomer Charles Messier catalogued the object in 1764.


Credit: ESO

The twisted remains of a dying star resemble a Chinese dragon in this image of NGC 5189 by the European Southern Observatory.

Explore the red and green filaments. NGC 5189 has a curious “S” shape with a central bar spewing out jets. At the end of its life, stars like our Sun start puffing out their outer layers as they run out of hydrogen gas that fuels fusion in their cores. These expanding bubbles of gas are usually shaped like bubbles and look like gas planets in telescopes. That’s where the name planetary nebulae came from. All that is left behind is the dead, dense, hot-white core of the star. Intense radiation coming from this white dwarf causes the gas within the expanding shell to glow with the colors we see.

NGC 5189 is obviously different. One possibility is that a very close, unseen companion star pulls the material as the orbit drifts around the star.

This image was taken with the New Technology Telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. The 3.58-meter telescope was the first in the world to have a computer-controlled main mirror. Many current large telescopes now use this technology.

Spitting Dragon

Credit: NASA, ESA, N. Smith (University of California, Berkeley), and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

A dragon spits star dust in the Carina Nebula. This dragon is part of a huge glowing and swirling cloud of gas and dust. In this image we see star birth as well as star death within the Great Nebula in Carina, also known as NGC 3372.

But it’s more than that. We find that giant stars, on the verge of going supernova, cause the gas to swirl and glow. And inky, dark dust globs that look like tadpoles, called Bok globules, hide new stars. We also find new shapes to explore and ponder; birds, caterpillars and sea monsters. We see all this in the larger mosaic of images taken by NASA‘s Hubble Space Telescope.

Share what you see as you explore the nebula.

From side to side, the entire Carina Nebula spans 300 light years. A light year is the distance light travels in a year, about 6 trillion miles. It is a very large nebula in Earth’s skies but it lies far in the southern hemisphere so it’s not well known. Astronomer Nicolas Louis de Lacaille discovered the nebula in 1751-52 during a science trip to the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa.

The Carina Nebula is about 7,500 light-years away toward the constellation Carina the Keel. Carina is a constellation in the southern hemisphere. it is part of an older constellation group called Argo Navis, after the ship that carried Jason and the Argonauts.


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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