The Best Astronomy Images of 2012
I couldn’t pick just 10—you have to see all 21 of these mind-bending shots.
Cold Fire in Orion
In astronomy, as in life, what you see depends on how you see it. Our eyes are sensitive to visible light, a very narrow slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. When we look at M78, a cloud of gas and dust near Orion’s belt, we see only the material that emits or reflects visible light. Interstellar dust, thickly spread throughout the region, is cold and black.
But if you had infrared eyes, that dust would glow with thermal light in the far, far infrared. The APEX telescope is designed to see that light, and when combined with a visible light image from the Digitized Sky Survey, you get the incredible picture above. The APEX shot is colored orange, so what looks black to our eyes glows like fire in this image. The bright knots of light are where new stars are being born, enshrouded in thick dust. If all we could see was visible light, those stars would be completely invisible, and we’d be missing the best part of the show.
Monster in the Middle
Deep in the heart of the galaxy Hercules A is a monster black hole. Vast amounts of material are falling into it, swirling in a disk that’s heated to millions of degrees. The disk is so hot in the center that material wants to expand violently and blow away. Magnetism, friction, and other forces focus that expanding material into twin beams which blast out of the poles of the disk with such speed and ferocity that they travel for hundreds of thousands of light years before finally slowing down and puffing out into twin lobes of matter. This image is a combination of observations from the Hubble Space Telescope—which shows the galaxy Hercules A, stars, and background galaxies—and the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array, which detects the radio waves emitted by the jets and lobes. The structure is well over a million light years end-to-end, but what else would you expect from an object whose central engine is a black hole with 2.5 billion times the Sun’s mass?
Orion Over the Temple of the Serpent God
Astrophotographer Stéphane Guisard took this remarkable picture of Orion rising over the Temple of Kukulkan in the ancient Maya city of Chichen Itza. The temple is 30 meters (100 feet) high, a monument to the architectural savvy of the Maya. In Orion you can see the orange glow of Betelegeuse, bright blue Rigel, and the fuzzy pink glow of the Orion Nebula (below the belt), a star-forming nebula over 1,000 light years away.
Going Deep. Really, Really Deep
The image you see here is nothing short of mind-blowing, for any number of reasons. Called the Hubble Extreme Deep Field, it’s a combination of 2,000 separate exposures by the orbiting observatory for a total of over two million seconds, or 23 days! For another, nearly every single object you see in that picture is actually a galaxy, a vast collection of billions of stars. Yet this region of the sky was chosen for this observation specifically because it was previously thought to be relatively empty! Hubble’s sharp and sensitive vision reveals that the Universe, no matter where you look, is never empty. Extrapolating from this image to the rest of the sky, it means there are hundreds of billions of galaxies in our Universe, most, like those seen here, billions of light years away. The current record-holder for most distant galaxy ever seen was detected in this picture as well. It’s a profound and thought-provoking picture—a common characteristic of astronomical images.
On March 28, 2012, photographer Helge Mortensen was in Tromso, Norway on a mission to capture the aurora borealis, the northern lights. He succeeded magnificently, taking this beautiful shot of the eerily-glowing green lights over the icy landscape. You can see the Moon, Venus, Jupiter, and the Pleaides cluster in the picture as the particles from the solar wind slam into Earth’s atmosphere, lighting up atoms of oxygen and nitrogen. I also like the water flowing in the bottom part of the shot; in the 10-second exposure it forms a soft, smooth surface. By coincidence, one part of it forms a pattern remarkably like a face, an aquatic Shroud of Turin. Can you spot it?
Milky Way and Mashed Potato Mountain
“This means something.”
Photographer Randy Halverson took this moody picture of the Milky Way rising behind the iconic silhouette of Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, known to countless dorks like me as the location of the alien rendezvous in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Halverson is amazing, and his time-lapse video “Temporal Distortion” is well worth your time to watch.
Galaxy With Arms Flung Wide
For sheer beauty, there is little in the sky to match a magnificent open-armed spiral galaxy. This is NGC 5033, which is located 50 million light years away from Earth. That’s relatively close by cosmic standards, allowing us to get a good peek at it even though we see it at a low angle. Accomplished astronomer Adam Block took this image using the 0.8-meter Schulman Telescope on Mount Lemmon in Arizona, and it’s a total exposure of 13 hours. You can see the combined glow of billions of older, redder stars in the center, and the blue light from younger stars being born in the arms—the pink blobs festooned on the arms are gigantic nebulae, clouds of gas and dust, where stars are being born and lit from within by those stars. The oddly distorted shape to the arms (together with some other unusual features) makes me think NGC 5033 recently had a close encounter with another galaxy, its gravity warping the shape of the spiral. That’s actually pretty common in the life of big galaxies like this. It’s a dangerous Universe out there.
Phil Plait, the creator of Bad Astronomy, is an astronomer, lecturer, and author. After 10years working on Hubble Space Telescope data and six more working on astronomy education, he struck out on his own as a writer. His two books are Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax" and Death from the Skies! These Are the Ways the Universe Will End. He has also written dozens of magazine articles and 12 bazillion blog articles. He is a skeptic and fights the abuse of science, but his true love is praising the wonders of real science.