Category: Plants/Flowers

Giant Ferns of Antoniadi

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Dark branches resembling giant ferns cross the floor of Antoniadi Crater in this image from the HiRISE camera aboard NASA‘s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Explore the cracked and cratered landscape on Mars. What stories or pictures do you see? Leave a note in the comments below.

While the landscape resembles fossilized ferns, these branching features are many kilometers in size and are made up of minerals that are resistant to wind erosion. Scientists think these features formed on a wetter Mars. The stubby branches resemble a process on Earth called groundwater sapping where spring water seeps into the ground at the head of the channel causing the ground to collapse. As this process repeats itself, the channel grows upstream. Over billions of years of wind erosion, the surrounding landscape eroded away leaving the harder fossilized stream beds to rise above the surrounding terrain. Where once was a valley, a ridge now exists. The cracked surface is similar to other locations on Mars that scientists know contain hydrated minerals such as clay.

Because of evidence that water flowed through this area, NASA scientists considered Antoniadi Crater, named after French astronomer Eugène Michael Antoniadi, a possible landing site for the Mars Science Laboratory, or the Curiosity Rover, that successfully landed on Mars on August 6. One of the missions of the mobile science lab is to search for evidence of past life on Mars that probably consisted of microorganisms.

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Billowy Flower

Z. Levay (STScI/AURA/NASA), T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage) and H. Schweiker (NOAO/AURA/NSF)

Billowy filaments of gas and dust create the flower shaped NGC 1999 in this image from the National Science Foundation’s Mayall 4-meter telescope on Kitt Peak.

Zoom into the network of filaments, jets, arcs and clouds. What pictures or stories do you see? Leave a note in the comments below.

At the center of this celestial garden is the young star V380 Orionis. Instead of glowing like some nebulae, this area reflects the bright light of V380 Orionis. If you zoom in close to this bright area, look for a dark keyhole shaped area. This part of the nebula is truly empty space. But surrounding this area, powerful winds and jets from this newly formed star push material away. Eventually a cavity will be formed. For now, follow the spoke-like tendrils outward.

Two features may strike your attention. The pizza-slice shaped cloud to the right and the bright waterfall arc near the center. Both of these features are the first Herbig-Haro objects to be found. Guillermo Haro and George Herbig first described HH-1 and HH-2 in the 1950s. These objects are young stars with powerful jets. As this jet slams into the relatively calm nebula, a bow shock is created. Much like a boat moving through water, these shockwaves move the nebula aside. They move at tremendous speeds, heating the nebula and causing it to glow. The slice-shaped cloud is more than ten light-years long. Big and small Herbig-Haro objects are found throughout the image.

NGC 1999 is found about 1,500 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Orion.

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Rosy Nursery

Credit: ESO


Smoky tendrils of dust line the rose-colored gas of the Omega Nebula in this image from the European Southern Observatory.

Explore the detailed cosmic landscape of this stellar nursery. What shapes and stories do you see? Leave a note below.

The Omega Nebula, also known as Messier 17, is a star-making factory. The reddish-colored gas and dark strands of dust are the raw materials for making new stars. Near the bottom center of the image, a blazing blue star lights up this section of the nebula. Intense radiation and strong solar winds stream from the new star born from this nebula. Ultraviolet radiation warms and excites hydrogen atoms in the cloud giving it the red color.

Messier 17 is found about 6,000 light-years from Earth toward the rich star fields in the constellation Sagittarius, the Archer. Swiss astronomer Philippe Loys de Chéseaux first described the nebula in 1745. But it was English astronomer John Herschel, in 1833, who described the nebula as looking like the Greek letter, omega. Other astronomers offered names such as the Horseshoe Nebula, Swan Nebula, Checkmark Nebula and even Lobster Nebula to describe their observations.

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A Shrouded Petal

Credit: ESA/NASA Hubble

A shrouded star opens its irregular petals in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Explore the planetary nebula known as Henize 3-1333. What shapes and stories do you see? Leave a note below.

The expanding layers and irregular globes of glowing gas surrounding Hen 3-1333 is all that is left of a star that was much like our Sun. Those globes of gas make the petals of our star flower. During the death throes of Sun-like, medium sized stars, they puff off their outer layers. Sometimes the layers come off in circular patterns like the Ring Nebula or Helix Nebula. Other times the layers become more complicated because of possible companion stars or uneven spinning. At the heart of the planetary nebula is the exposed, hot core of the star called a white dwarf. Strong solar winds and blistering ultraviolet radiation from the core shapes the expanding clouds and cause them to glow.

Hen 3-1333 interests astronomers because our Sun is destined to become a planetary nebula. The light from the star also changes dramatically from time to time. Astronomers call this type of star a Wolf-Rayet type star. Astronomers believe that the light fluctuates because a thick disk of dust occasionally blocks light from the star. This change in brightness mimics a Wolf-Rayet star.

Wolf-Rayet stars change their brightness quickly because of unstable conditions within the star. Their cores no longer burn hydrogen as they had during the billions of years of its life. It takes more energy to burn helium and other heavier elements. So the star becomes smaller and contracts. Surface temperatures soar to 25,000 to 50,000 degrees Celsius. This is far hotter than the Sun’s 5,500 degree surface.

Hen 3-1333 is found in the H-shaped southern constellation of Ara, the Altar. In Greek mythology, Centaurus the centaur sacrificed Lupus the wolf from this altar. According to myths, the altar was constructed by the Cyclopes as a place to sacrifice to the Olympian gods. If you turn the altar over, the Milky Way creates a “smoke” rising from this constellation.

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Baubles and Flowers

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ.Potsdam/L.Oskinova et al & ESA/XMM-Newton; Optical: AURA/NOAO/CTIO/Univ.Potsdam/L.Oskinova et al

A glowing bauble highlights a star-forming flower in this image from NASA‘s Chandra X-ray Observatory.

Explore the faint bubble and veils of gas and dust in the Small Magellanic Cloud near a pulsar known as SXP 1062. What shapes or stories can you see? Leave a note below.

Pulsars are spinning, super-dense stars. They are all that remains of a star that exploded as a supernova. They also glow brightly as an X-ray source. The pulsar in this image is the bright blue star in on the right. Usually pulsars spin very fast, up to several times a minute. This pulsar rotates slowly, once every 18 minutes. The faint bubble surrounding the pulsar is the expanding shell of material blasted into space by the supernova explosion. The explosion occurred between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago. Other optical imagery was added to the image showing us the incredible veils and formations of gas and dust in the nearby star-making region.

This image of SXP 1062 spans about 744 light-years. Light traveling at 6 trillion miles per year has taken about 180,000 years to reach our eyes on Earth from the Small Magellanic Cloud in the constellation of Tucana, the Toucan. Tucana is a new constellation. Petrus Plancius first visualized the constellation in 1589. The celestial cartographer noted many of the strange creatures encountered on early voyages of discovery in the 16th century.


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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