If anyone questioned whether Comet Lovejoy would become the star of the season — and a lot of people did — the pictures of the past few days have removed any doubt. In the Southern Hemisphere, the death-defying comet is truly this year's "Star of Wonder."
"For me, this comet is a Christmas present to the people who will stay at Paranal over Christmas," said Guillaume Blanchard, who snapped a picture of dawn at Paranal with the Milky Way and Lovejoy dominating the sky.
Gabriel Brammer put together a time-lapse sequence of the comet rising just before the sun. For devotees of the night sky, it's the latest must-see video. The clip also features the pencil-thin laser beam that Paranal's Very Large Telescope uses as a guide star for its astronomical observations. Expand the video to full screen to increase the awesomeness.
A laser beam and lightning light up the night sky above the Allgau Public Observatory in southwestern Bavaria, Germany, on Aug. 18. A summer thunderstorm happened to coincide with tests carried out on the European Southern Observatory (ESO) Wendelstein laser guide star unit.
This spectacular image of Mother Nature and manmade technology facing off in the night sky was captured by Martin Kornmesser of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) during testing of their laser guide star, a very cool-sounding piece of kit that uses a powerful beam to create an artificial star 90 kilometers (just under 56 miles) up in the Earth's atmosphere. The ESO explains:
Measurements of this artificial star can be used to correct for the blurring effect of the atmosphere in astronomical observations — a technique known as adaptive optics.
The laser in this photograph is a powerful one, with a 20-watt beam, but the power in a bolt of lightning peaks at a trillion (one million million) watts, albeit for just a fraction of a second!
It may look like the stuff of science fiction fantasy, but the ESO stressed that the timing of the lightning strike was purely coincidental. Read more on their website.
O. Maliy / ESO
This picture of the nearby galaxy NGC 3521 was taken using the FORS1 instrument on the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile. The large spiral galaxy lies in the constellation of Leo and is only 35 million light-years distant. This picture was created from exposures taken through three different filters that passed blue light, yellow/green light and near-infrared light. These are shown in this picture as blue, green and red, respectively.
The spiral galaxy NGC 3521 spans 50,000 light-years and holds billions upon billions of blazing stars. Like most spiral galaxies, it's thought to contain a supermassive black hole at its center. It's a swirling maw of raw cosmic power. So how could you call it "fluffy"?
NGC 3521, which is 35 million light-years away in the constellation Leo, is called a flocculent spiral galaxy because of the patchy, woolly look of its spiral arms. (Webster's defines "flocculent" as being "like wool or tufts of wool; fluffy.") Grand-design spirals such as the Whirlpool Galaxy have well-defined arms, but NGC 3521's irregular arms are heavy with interstellar dust. The galaxy has a warm and fuzzy look in this new image from the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile.
The galaxy is actually easy to spot with a small telescope, but the folks behind NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day say it's often overlooked by amateur astronomers in favor of the constellation's better-known spirals, such as the three amigos that form the Leo Triplet. That'd be a shame. Ukrainian amateur astronomer Oleg Maliy didn't forget about NGC 3521. He picked up on the ESO's archived imagery of the flocculent spiral, and submitted this processed image for the ESO's "Hidden Treasures 2010" competition. The picture ended up being ranked No. 15 on the treasure list. Diakuiu, Oleg!
Using data from the VISTA infrared survey telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile, an international team of astronomers has discovered 96 new open clusters hidden by the dust in the Milky Way. Thirty of the clusters are shown in this mosaic.
If you're looking for hidden treasures, the dusty disk of our Milky Way galaxy might not be the first place you'd look. But that's exactly where the European Southern Observatory found almost a hundred glittering prizes.
These 30 pictures show just a portion of the treasure trove: 96 open star clusters hiding in the galaxy's dusty core. These stars can't be seen in the visible-light spectrum because they're shrouded within clouds of dust, but the ESO's VISTA infrared survey telescope is able to see through the dust. And that's not all: Sophisticated software was able to remove the glare of foreground stars, allowing the dimmer clusters to stand out.
Why go to all that trouble? Well, astronomers surmise that the majority of stars that are at least 50 percent bigger than our own sun are formed within these types of open clusters, and yet not that many of them have been seen — primarily due to all that pesky dust. Getting a better read on the distribution and composition of open clusters will provide new pieces to the puzzle of our galaxy's formation.
"We found that most of the clusters are very small and only have about 10 to 20 stars. Compared to typical open clusters, these are very faint and compact objects — the dust in front of these clusters makes them appear 10,000 to 100 million times fainter in visible light. It’s no wonder they were hidden," Radostin Kurtev, a member of the team making the observations, said in today's image advisory from the ESO.
The team's findings are to be published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics. But these discoveries may well be merely a first taste of the treasure. "We’ve just started to use more sophisticated automatic software to search for less concentrated and older clusters," said Jura Borissova, the lead author of the study. "I am confident that many more are coming soon."
This image of the Orion Nebula was captured using the Wide Field Imager camera on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile. This image is a composite of several exposures taken through five different filters. The exposure times were about 52 minutes through each filter.
By Alan Boyle, Science Editor, NBC News
The Orion Nebula is one of the best-known star-forming regions in our celestial neighborhood, but astronomers can still find some "hidden treasures" if they just look at the nebula in a different light.
Case in point: this ethereal picture of the Orion Nebula, featured today by the European Southern Observatory in Chile. The image is based on data from the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, and submitted by Russia's Igor Chekalin for the ESO's Hidden Treasures astrophotography competition. This particular image took seventh place. Another one of Chekalin's entries, showing the M78 reflection nebula in Orion, won first prize (and earned Chekalin a trip to Chile).
The Orion Nebula, also known as M42, is a huge complex of gas and dust where massive stars are constantly being squeezed into existence. It's about 1,350 light-years away, which is pretty close by astronomical standards. You've probably already figured out that the nebula is in the constellation Orion, which is at center stage in the night sky at this time of year.
The hidden treasures that Chekalin found were data sets from roughly 52-minute exposures taken in five different wavelengths. The rays of light that passed through a red filter and through a filter sensitive to glowing hydrogen gas are represented as red in this image. Light in the yellow-green part of the spectrum is shown here as green. The blue-filter image is reproduced as blue, and ultraviolet shows up as purple. The result is a beautiful picture that sheds new light on the nebula's gauzy structure.
For additional perspectives, check out this ESO vidcast from last year, which compares infrared and visible-light imagery of the Orion Nebula:
The infrared-vs.-visible view is a major focus for NASA researchers using the brand-new Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. During last week's winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Seattle, the researchers in charge of SOFIA's airborne telescope showed off an infrared mosaic image of the Orion Nebula that was captured during their "Short Science 1" observing program in December.
Infrared-sensitive telescopes are particularly good at tracing the structures within dusty star-forming regions. Here's a comparison of the Hubble Space Telescope's visible-light view (left), ESO's near-infrared view (middle) and SOFIA's mid-infrared view (right):
These images show the Orion Nebula as seen by the Hubble Space Telescope in visible light (left), the European Southern Observatory in near-infrared wavelengths (middle) and the SOFIA airborne observatory in mid-infrared wavelengths (right). Credits for the visible-light image: NASA/ESA/HST/AURA/STScI/O'Dell & Wong. Near-infrared image: ESO/McCaughrean et al. Mid-infrared image: NASA/DLR/SOFIA/USRA/DSI/FORCAST Team.
The dense cloud of interstellar dust at upper left is completely opaque in visible light, partially transparent in the near-infrared and glowing with heat in the mid-infrared. Dust-shrouded stars can easily be seen shining at upper right in the mid-infrared, but they're less apparent in the near-infrared and completely hidden in visible light. In contrast, the hot stars of the Trapezium Cluster sparkle in visible light and near-infrared, but are barely visible in SOFIA's mid-infrared view.
For astronomers, this isn't just a game of hide-and-seek. Comparing different views, in different wavelengths, is how scientists figure out what's going on deep within distant nebulas and galaxies. The scientific insights gained through such comparisons are the true "hidden treasures" of the cosmos.