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Space Photos of the Week: The Life and Death of Stars

Sometimes in space, what we’re gazing out on is but a beautiful corpse. Consider these leftovers from a violent death some 20,000 light years away, a supernova remnant called G54.1+0.3. What once was a star has collapsed upon itself and imploded with such force that material including gas and plasma are being shot into space, creating this watercolor-like effect.

But after death comes life. Look at the bright blues in the top center: They’re known as Herbig-Haro objects, which are rare in the universe. They travel away from the star that created them at 250,000 kilometers per hour and disappear from space within some tens of thousands of years. In this image (the nebula NGC 1333, about 1,000 light years from Earth) these specific Herbig-Haro objects, numbered 7 to 11, are speeding away from the very young star SVS 13, which had spit out highly energized jets of gas that then interacted with surrounding clouds.

Trivia question: Which three planets in our solar system have rings? There’s Saturn, of course, and Uranus, and … anyone else? Bueller? Turns out it’s Jupiter; Voyager 1 spotted them as it flew past the planet in 1979. And now NASA’s Juno craft can take a closer look at these dusty features around the gas giant. This photo dates back from July 2018, when the spacecraft flew inside the rings. The slightly brighter inner band is the main ring; to the left lies what’s called the halo ring; to the right are the broad and faint gossamer rings. (All those points of light? Those are stars.)

Spirograph fans, eat your hearts out: Messier 61 is one of the most beautiful spirals out there. First discovered in 1779 (hello, Charles Messier!), this barred spiral galaxy—with its arms linking to the center by a sort of walkway made of stars—has been capturing our attention for centuries. Astronomers are agog over Messier 61 because they have seen six supernova coming from the galaxy, driving acute interest (dare we say morbid curiosity) in the circumstances of stars’ demise.

What happens when a star is born? A familiar constellation offers an origin story out of dark Hollywood. This rainbow-colored photo of the Orion nebula, captured by NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, shows a newborn star in the nebula that has pushed a lot of gas and dust around the region. What’s remarkable is that this stellar wind has blown away the material needed for other stars to form. Way to be all Lady Gaga on the edge of glory, diva new star!

Hidden among these rosy clouds (and inside the white crosshairs) is a star called Gaia 17bpi, observed with the Spitzer Space Telescope late last year. Scientists have been observing Gaia 17bpi because it was caught forming very quickly, an uncommon phenomenon. Usually when stars are spotted this young, they are but a few million years old—and to date only 25 have been found, making Gaia 17bpi a stellar treat.


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