The remains of a sunlike star paint butterfly wings across the cosmos in a newly released infrared picture of Messier 27, aka the Dumbbell nebula, taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope.
The object is what's known as a planetary nebula, so named because early astronomers thought the faint interstellar clouds resembled Jupiter-like planets. In fact, such nebulae are what's left when midsize stars die and shed their outer layers of gas.
M27 was discovered in 1764 by Charles Messier, who included it in his now famous catalog of nebulous objects. Although Messier didn't realize it at the time, the Dumbbell was the first planetary nebula he described.
A recently released satellite picture from NOAA illustrates the changes in nighttime lights in Europe between 1992 and 2009. Yellow regions show where lights have increased, purple places indicate where lights have decreased, and white areas show no change.
The picture highlights dramatic changes in Eastern Europe, most likely tied to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1992, as more people moved west and urbanization of the former Soviet states declined.
Diagram courtesy NOAA
Light reflecting off the sea creates a silver halo around western Crete in a picture taken July 22 by an astronaut aboard the Internation Space Station.
Crete is the largest and most heavily populated Greek island, stretching 161 miles (260 kilometers) from east to west. From 2700 to 1420 B.C. the island was the cultural center of the Minoan civilization and is said to have been the home of the legendary Minotaur.
Photograph courtesy NASA
Dense, bright knots of gas shine like jewels in a recently released Hubble Space Telescope picture of the Necklace nebula, a planetary nebula about 15,000 light-years away. Discovered in 2005, the cosmic adornment is actually a cloud of gas and dust created by the death of a sunlike star.
About 10,000 years ago the dying star swelled into a red giant and enveloped a close stellar companion. This caused the dead star's core and the companion star—seen together above as a central dot—to whirl around each other so fast that they now complete an orbit in less than a day.
Due to centrifugal force, most of the gas from the swollen star escaped along the star's equator, producing the unusual ring.
Image courtesy ESA/NASA
Like veins of jade running through cave walls, the green-tinged waters of Omulyakhskaya and Khromskaya Bays (see map) cut into the northern Siberian coast in a NASA satellite picture released August 11. The land around the bays is dotted with so-called thermokarst lakes, which are created by water released as permafrost thaws.
Thawing permafrost and thermokarst lakes both release the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, so scientists monitor such landscapes closely to tease out any implications for future climate change.
Image courtesy Landsat-5/NASA
A small crater at the edge of the larger Oskison crater on Mercury is cast in high relief in a picture taken by NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft and released August 15. The angle of sunlight casts deep shadows that help show the crater's terraced walls and smooth floor.
The image is part of a set being compiled by MESSENGER to create a high-resolution base map. The map will eventually cover 90 percent of the planet's surface, helping scientists better understand the battered world's topography.
Image courtesy NASA/Johns Hopkins/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Smoke cascades southward over the Outer Banks of North Carolina in a picture of southern Virginia's Lateral West wildfire taken by a NASA satellite on August 10. Lightning started the fire on August 4 in the dry grass and pine brush of the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge.
As of August 9 the fire had burned through 3,200 acres (1,295 hectares), and fire managers say it will take at least 6 inches (15 centimeters) of rainfall in a short period to put out the blaze naturally.