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Astronomers share galactic glories

NASA / JPL-Caltech / CfA

A bubbling cauldron of starbirth is highlighted in this new image of the Cygnus X star-forming region from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The colors indicate different wavelengths of infrared light, ranging from the blue of stars to the red and green of interstellar dust. The stars have blown bubbles, or cavities, in the dust and gas — a violent process that triggers both the death and birth of stars. The brightest, yellow-white regions are warm centers of star formation. Cygnus X is about 4,500 light-years away in the constellation Cygnus, or the Swan.

It's a great day for the world's great observatories: Astronomers around the world have saved up some of their most groundbreaking images to share during this week's meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Austin, Texas.

The Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the European Southern Observatory have teamed up to present their view of "El Gordo," a big, fat galaxy cluster weighed down with the mass of 2 quadrillion suns. Meanwhile, the Hubble Space Telescope's science team is showing off pictures of the most distant developing galaxy cluster ever detected, 13.1 billion light-years away.

Here are a few pictures from some of the world's other top space observatories: NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, which focused on a star-forming region in our Milky Way galaxy known as Cygnus X; NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, which scanned a broad section of the Milky Way; and portraits of the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, two of the Milky Way's satellite galaxies, courtesy of Spitzer and the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Telescope.

Stay tuned for more wonders from the AAS meeting as the week wears on — and if you haven't seen it yet, be sure to spread your browser wide and click through our Year in Space Pictures Slideshow.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA

This enormous section of the Milky Way galaxy is a mosaic of images from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE. The different colors represent specific wavelengths of infrared light: The blue points of light are stars, while green and red represent light mostly emitted by interstellar dust. The constellations Cassiopeia and Cepheus are featured in this 1,000-square degree expanse.

ESA / NASA / JPL-Caltech / STScI

This image shows the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy in infrared light as seen by the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. In the instruments' combined data, this nearby dwarf galaxy looks like a fiery, circular explosion. Rather than fire, however, those ribbons are actually giant ripples of dust spanning tens or hundreds of light-years. Significant fields of star formation are noticeable in the center, just left of center and at right. The brightest center-left region is called 30 Doradus, or the Tarantula Nebula, for its appearance in visible light.

ESA / NASA / JPL-Caltech / STScI

This image shows the Small Magellanic Cloud galaxy in infrared light from the European Space Agency's Herschel Space Observatory and NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are the two biggest satellite galaxies of our home galaxy, the Milky Way. In this composite view, the irregular distribution of dust in the Small Magellanic Cloud becomes clear. A stream of dust extends to the left in this image, known as the galaxy's "wing," and a bar of star formation appears on the right. The colors indicate different temperatures in the dust that permeates the Cloud.

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.