Massive stars do not go gentle into that good night; they rage, rage against the dying of the light. In fact, they do more than rage: They explode. A hundred centuries ago, a far-away star did just that. At the end of its life, the forces inside it tore it apart, detonating it, blasting away the star’s outer layers in the most violent event in the Universe: a supernova. What you see here is called the Pencil Nebula, one small part of the vast Vela Supernova Remnant, what was once a star but is now an ever expanding cloud of gas. Material from the explosion is moving outward at thousands of kilometers per second, slamming into gas floating in space, compressing it and causing it to glow. The colors in this picture, taken by the Wide Field Imager on the MPG/ESO 2.2-meter telescope, represent different elements: Oxygen is blue, and hydrogen red. Mixed in there are also elements like iron, nitrogen, carbon, and more. These are essential for life as we know it, and in fact all the iron in your blood and calcium in your bones were created in stellar explosions like this one. You are, very literally, made out of the ashes of stars long—and violently—dead.
Rocket. Laser. Aurora
If you asked a space nerd what the ultimate picture would be, they would say one that has a rocket, a laser, and the aurora in it. Behold! Your wish is granted. (If it had a T. rex eating bacon it would be too awesome to even gaze upon.) This picture, taken by Lee Wingfield, shows a rocket launch on Feb. 18, 2012 from a launch facility near Fairbanks, Alaska. The rocket carried an instrument on board to measure how the Earth’s magnetic field interacts with storms from the Sun that cause aurorae. The laser is a nice touch, but also has a scientific purpose: It can be used to measure the properties of the atmosphere at different heights, dovetailing with the observations made by the detector on the rocket. Experiments like this will help scientists understand the phenomenon of “space weather,” which can affect satellites in orbit and our power grid here on Earth. But also? This picture is just pure awesome.
In late 2011, a new comet was discovered. Named Comet Lovejoy (after its discoverer), it has an orbital period of more than 600 years, and at closest approach to the Sun skims right over the surface of our star at a distance of 150,000 kilometers (90,000 miles). It reached this point in its orbit in December, and most people thought it wouldn’t survive … but it did. And as it pulled away from the Sun, the intense heat blew a magnificent tail from the comet that extended for millions of kilometers. This picture, taken in late December 2011, shows the comet rising in the pre-dawn sky next to one of the domes of the European Very Large Telescope in Chile, which was using a laser at the time to help it focus on its astronomical target. The Moon and Milky Way punctuate this shot, as well as the stars Alpha and Beta Centauri. If you follow the tail down, you’ll see it get redder nearer the horizon, which is due to dust in our own atmosphere scattering away blue light from the comet, leaving only the red to get through to our eyes.
Stars are born in clouds of gas and dust that collapse (perhaps when they collide with each other, or a star nearby explodes and compresses the cloud). These nebulae can be small, enough to form a single star, or huge, forming thousands. The Carina Nebula is one of these monsters: Even from more than 7,000 light years away, it’s bright enough to see with the unaided eye. This stunning image is from the VLT Survey Telescope and shows very nearly the entire cloud, a span of about 100 light years.
The Chaos of Creation
30 Doradus is another vast star-forming factory, and this image is Hubble’s view of it. You’d never guess it’s located about 170,000 light years away, 25 times the distance to the Carina Nebula! 30 Dor is one of the largest stellar nurseries known, with some estimates of it having more than 100,000 stars inside. It’s ridiculously complex, as you can tell if you get the 4,000 x 3,000 pixel image, and most certainly if you get the monster 20,000 x 16,000 pixel one. That one will keep you busy for a long time; you’ll see stars being born, stars dying, shock waves compressing material into filaments, and just crazy beauty everywhere you look. I seriously can’t recommend enough you explore it.
Garden Sprinkler Star
R Sculptoris is a star in trouble. It’s old and dying. It’s a red giant, a star once like our Sun but now swollen, bloated, and blowing off a dense wind of particles into space. However, it’s not all bad: It has a friend, probably a low-mass star orbiting it. They actually orbit each other, and as R Sculptoris dances in a circle, the wind that blows off from it forms a spiral pattern like a garden sprinkler shooting out water. This picture is actually a slice of three-dimensional data taken by the ALMA radio telescope, a new telescope designed to see cold dust and gas like that blown out of R Sculptoris. I’ll note the details of what this star is doing are fascinating, and I suggest you read the original post I wrote about it. It’s amazing, though, what subtle beauty can be created when a star beings to die.
The Ghost in the Shell
Like R Scupltoris, the star named U Camelopardalis (or U Cam for short) is dying. Unlike R Scul, it’s a solitary star. Its core is going through some pretty epic paroxysms, spasms that episodically eject vast spherical shells of gas into space. This Hubble Space Telescope image shows the latest shell, ejected just 700 years ago. The amount of material in it is pretty small by stellar standards, just a tenth the mass of the Earth. But it’s enough to make the beautiful and slightly eerie object you see here. I’ll note that U Cam used to be a star very much like the Sun. When you look at it, you may be seeing the Sun’s future, about 8 billion years from now.