The "jewel" in Orion's sword, the star-forming cloud known as M42 shines with new light in a picture released yesterday by the European Southern Observatory's 2.2-meter telescope in La Silla, Chile. Also called the Orion Nebula, the bright cloud is just 1,350 light-years away and is one of the best studied celestial objects.
The raw data used to make this image was unearthed from ESO's archives during the agency's Hidden Treasures 2010 astrophotography contest. Amateur astronomer Igor Chekalin of Russia found the original data and processed it to bring out structural details in the famed nebula. His prize-winning picture prompted ESO to ask its professional image processors to take a crack at the data, producing the shot above.
Hot for Mercury
The Mercury Magnetospheric Orbiter sits inside a European space simulator during recent tests to see whether the craft could survive the hellish environment around Mercury, the innermost planet. Made in Japan, the orbiter will be part of the European Space Agency's BepiColombo mission, slated to launch in 2014.
Once at Mercury, BepiColombo will face ten times the intensity of the solar radiation that hits a satellite in Earth orbit. During the recent test, the spacecraft and its sun shield successfully withstood temperatures higher than 662 degrees F (350 degrees C), ESA announced Tuesday.
So-called barchans cut across a Martian crater like decorative blades in a newly released picture taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. A barchan is a dune featuring steep faces between two "horns" that point downwind.
In this picture, the dunes show that the wind is sweeping from the southeast along the rocky floor of Arkhangelsky Crater in Mars's southern hemisphere.
Down the Drain
Fiery lanes of dust seem to spiral into the center of M51, aka the Whirlpool Galaxy, in a new Hubble Space Telescope picture released Sunday.
The image is the sharpest view yet of the galaxy's skeleton of dense dust, revealed by taking pictures in near-infrared light. In visible light the Whirlpool's curving arms are more defined and are spangled with pink star-forming regions and brilliant blue strands of star clusters.
About 12 million light-years from Earth, stars are living and dying in the fast lane in a galaxy known as M82. Now, a new x-ray picture of the so-called starburst galaxy has revealed 104 distinct points of light—some of which may be ravenous black holes.
Likely spurred by a close brush with a neighboring galaxy long ago, M82 is forming new stars at a rapid clip, compared with normal galaxies. The new image, taken by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, shows that eight of the points of light are especially bright in x-rays, and they are undergoing periodic changes in brightness. This indicates that the light sources are black holes that are regularly pulling material from companion stars.
The darker disk at top right is Saturn's "wispy" moon Dione. The brighter orb is the icy moon Enceladus. When Cassini took this shot in December, the craft was closer to Enceladus, which may appear farther away because it's almost half the size of Dione.
At the time, Cassini was 317,000 miles (510,000 kilometers) from Enceladus and 516,000 miles (830,000 kilometers) from Dione.
In A.D. 1054 Chinese astronomers made the first record of the brilliant supernova that gave birth to the Crab Nebula, seen above in a picture taken by the Chandra X-ray Observatory and recently released by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
The complex cloud of debris has since become one of the brightest—and most reliable—x-ray sources in the cosmos. Because of its consistency, astronomers have used the Crab for years as a standard for calibrating their x-ray instruments.
But new observations by a suite of international satellites shows that the Crab's light actually varies by a few percent every year. In fact, two craft recently found huge gamma-ray flares coming from the Crab Nebula, challenging how the nebula might be used by future scientists.