Best Space Pictures: Sun Erupts, Gamma Rays Burst, and Fires Flare

Firefighters hold the line in Oregon, the sun throws a temper tantrum, and scientists spy a gamma ray burst.

An image of the dust ring around nearby star HR 4796A, in the constellation Centaurus.

Europe's new exoplanet finder SPHERE captured what looks like the Eye of Sauron in one of the instrument's first images.

The "eye" is really a ring of dust surrounding nearby star HR 4796A, located in the southern constellation Centaurus. SPHERE's creators designed their instrument to reduce the glare from very bright stars, hoping to glimpse many more exoplanets hidden in alien solar systems.

Oregon's fire season started three weeks early this year, inaugurated with a fast-growing fire dubbed Two Bulls. Located northwest of Bend, Oregon (map), the fire had scorched more than 6,000 acres (2,400 hectares) of land as of June 9.

Crews are using helicopters and air tankers to drop water and fire retardant on the blaze, hoping to snuff it out before the flames reach Bend. In an image taken June 7, an MD-87 air tanker drops a line of bright orange fire retardant ahead of some flames.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft says hello and goodbye to Saturn's craggy outer moon Phoebe. The composite image, released June 11, shows Phoebe on Cassini's approach (left) as the spacecraft leaves (right).

Cassini took the original images on June 11, 2004, during its only close flyby of Saturn's outer moons. NASA re-released the pictures to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of the spacecraft's pass, which preceded its first arrival at the ringed planet.

An artist's conception of a gamma ray burst—the most powerful type of explosion in the universe—highlights swirls of gas and dust. The illustration, released on June 11, demonstrates the environment in galaxy GRB 020819B, which played host to one such explosion.

Researchers have yet to see an actual gamma ray burst, which can pump out as much energy in its initial seconds as the sun will in its ten-billion-year lifetime. Instead, they must rely on studying their aftereffects.

The Milky Way galaxy cuts across a star-filled sky over Martha's Vineyard on June 8, in an image submitted by YourShot member Julian Tempelsman.

Our world resides on just one spiral arm of the Milky Way, some 26,000 light-years from its star-filled center. A supermassive black hole likely hides there, in the heart of our galaxy. (Related: "Black Holes: Star Eater.")

Our sun blasted out two X-class flares—the strongest category—about an hour apart on June 9. The image above shows the first of the two flares, captured in extreme ultraviolet light by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.

The same region of the sun gave off a third X-class flare and a medium-size flare on June 10.

The resulting coronal mass ejection—a flurry of superheated molecules that can wreak havoc with satellite communications and electronics—is headed for a glancing blow with Earth, likely today, Friday the 13th. (See "Solar Storm Heading Toward Earth.")