Category: Spitzer

Snaking Stars

Credit: ESA/NASA Hubble

Stars swirl around the bright core of barred spiral NGC 1073 in this image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Zoom across the broad bar of this galaxy. What shapes or stories do you see? Leave a note below. Do you see two snakes chasing each other?

The coolest thing about this galaxy besides being so gorgeous is that astronomers believe it looks a lot like our home, the Milky Way Galaxy. Images like this help astronomers learn more about our galaxy and how galaxies evolve.

NGC 1073 shows the a normal central structure common in barred spirals. Scientists believe that the star-filled bars form as waves of material sweep gas toward the galactic core. This gas helps create new stars. As we travel from the core outward, notice the color of the stars. The center is dominated by older yellow and red colored stars. At the edge of the galaxy, young hot blue stars are created among vast pink clouds of interstellar gas similar to the Orion Nebula.

NGC 1073 is found about 60 million light years from Earth toward the constellation Cetus, the sea monster. While it has taken light from the galaxy a long time to reach our eyes on Earth, 60 million light-years is fairly close in astronomical terms. This image gives us a look at a deeper look into the Universe. Galaxies peek through the dust of the closer NGC 1073. Hubble also spies something even more distant. Three bright points of light in this image are not nearby stars but quasars. Quasars are incredibly bright. They are also among the most distant objects in the Universe. They are billions of light-years from Earth. Super-hot matter falling into supermassive black holes creates their brilliant light.

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Floppy Ears

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/E. Churchwell (University of Wisconsin)

An elephant with big floppy ears peers from in this cloud of cold gas and dust in an image of RCW 49 from NASA‘s Spitzer Space Telescope.

Explore this stellar nursery. What shapes or stories do you see? Leave a note below.

Elephants have never flown into space but many of the shapes and patterns in nebulae and galaxies look like a starry zoo. As we zoom into the plumes of gas and dust, RCW 49 shows intricate and lacy patterns that we can’t see with our own eyes. Spitzer sees the universe in infrared. We feel infrared as heat. Deep within the cold dust of RCW 49, stars are being born. Their new light warms the dust just enough that it lights up in infrared. Each color of the image represents a different temperature of dust. Red and pink are tendrils of dust. Green colors are pockets of gas.

Zoom into the center to look closely at a tightly packed group of blue jewels, a small star cluster. Solar winds and radiation from this swarm of stars is beginning to clear out a bubble in the nebula.

Using telescopes like Spitzer allow astronomers to look inside a nebula showing the nebula’s newborn stars. This image is helping scientists understand how stars form.

RCW 49, also known as NGC 3247 or Gum 29, is found about 13,700 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Centaurus, the Centaur.

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Stellar Factory

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA

Standing and flying birds hide in a jungle of eyes in a star-making factory known as Cygnus X in this image from NASA‘s Spitzer Space Telescope.

Zoom into the intricate bubbles, folds and layers of dust in this infrared image. Let us know in the comments below what you see; what patterns you find or what stories you create.

Cygnus X is a vast star nursery. This part of our Milky Way Galaxy is the most active and chaotic regions of star birth. Cavities, or bubbles, carved out by vicious radiation and winds from the most massive stars in the cloud, dominate the scene. These huge stars will likely have short lives and end blowing themselves apart in supernova explosions. As gas and dust are pushed outward from these explosions, new stars will form where the material is pushed together. As these shockwaves move outward more new stars will form.

Spitzer allows astronomers a chance to peer into the thick dust of this nebula. On Earth, we feel infrared light as heat on our skin. Visible light is blocked by the dark dust but infrared light is not. As we look into this cloud, new bright stars appear. Some are smaller than our Sun. Others are among the largest in the galaxy. We see young stars growing in pillars of gas. New stars are also seen tucked into cocoons of dust lining the edges of the bubbles. Astronomers think that our Sun was created in a smaller and less chaotic version of this star cloud.

Cygnus X is found about 4,500 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Cygnus, the Swan.

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Growing, glowing spider

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/L.Townsley et al.; Infrared: NASA/JPL/PSU/L.Townsley et al.

A glowing spider is grows inside this massive star-forming region known as the Tarantula Nebula.

Explore the spider outlines in this image from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope. What stories or patterns does your imagination see? Leave a note below.

The Tarantula Nebula or 30 Doradus, is one of the largest star-making regions known to astronomers. It is huge and it is growing. It takes light more than 1,100 years, traveling nine trillion kilometers per year, to cross the nebula. The gargantuan nebula is found in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighboring dwarf galaxy, about 160,000 light-years from Earth. About 2,400 massive lie in the heart of the Tarantula Nebula. Scorching radiation and powerful winds from these stars sculpt and shape the surrounding nebula. The ultraviolet radiation from the stars also causes the hydrogen gas within the nebula to glow bright red.

Look deep in the nebula for bubbles in the nebula. Shockwaves, like ripples in a pond, move out from the massive stars. Bubbles also form as the massive stars destroy themselves as supernovae.

The Tarantula Nebula has enough material to make 450,000 sun-like stars. Astronomers speculate that one day the nebula will form a globular cluster. The Tarantula Nebula is similar to the closer Orion Nebula. If the much brighter Tarantula Nebula was as close to Earth as the Orion Nebula, it would cast shadows.

Turtle and the Bird

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI/H. Inami (SSC/Caltech)

Merging galaxies form the shapes of a turtle and bird in this image from NASA‘s Hubble Space Telescope.

Explore the image of these interacting galaxies known as II Zw 096. What stories or pictures do you see? Leave a note below. I imagine a story of a bird and turtle created from a single egg. The bird, to the left, takes flight after being born while brother turtle, to the right, swims upward.

The collection of stars is really a galactic merger. Usually galaxies are very far apart. Sometimes they come close to each other. The gravity of both bring them closer and closer. In hundreds of millions of years, they will become one larger elliptical galaxy. Other examples of galactic smashups include the Antennae Galaxy and the Tadpole Galaxy.

As galaxies pass close to each other, gas and dust in the outer arms of the galaxies is pushed and pulled together like taffy. This creates a perfect environment for stars to form. A bloom of stars is taking place within this galactic merger. Astronomers call these starburst galaxies. Look at the center of the image between the two galaxies. In infrared, this region glows brightly. Infrared is a portion of the light spectrum just below what our eyes can see. We feel infrared light as heat. The heat of lots of stars being created creates the red glow we see. Thick dust blocks the visible light from this burst of new star formation.

From the nose of our bird and turtle, the galaxies span about 50,000 light years. The light from II Zw 096 is more than a half billion years old. The ancient light of these galaxies has been traveling from the direction of the constellation Delphinus, the Dolphin, for about 525 million years.


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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