I have been behind in my cool-astronomy-posting, and haven't mentioned the GigaGalaxy Zoom project, an ambitious and totally awesome three-part image series by the European Southern Observatory. The first part was to create a magnificent all-sky view of the heavens; the second was a zoom in on the Milky Way showing a region choked with stars and dust.
The third is of the Lagoon Nebula, a star forming region a quadrillion miles across and 4000 light years in toward the center of the galaxy. And the image? Well, if you want the full-res version, you'd better have some room on your drive: it has 370 million pixels and will eat up a whopping 700 Mb of disk space.
And what does it look like? Heh heh heh. Like this:
[You know the drill, click to embiggen. Do it! Now!]
Oh. Wow. And that's low-res! Here's the monster one if you want it.
The depth and detail are simply and truly jaw-dropping. You can zoom in and see young stars, massive stars, dark clouds, ribbons and sheets of gas sculpted by vast winds of subatomic particles blown off of supergiant stars.
The Lagoon was always a favorite target of mine in the summer months when the center of the Milky Way in Scorpius and Sagittarius would just clear my neighbor's trees. A nearby streetlight always made observing in that direction a pain, but even from a distance of 40 quadrillion kilometers away the nebulous glow of gas and newly-born stars still shone through. I wouldn't have been able to imagine back then that I'd be able to zoom in on the Lagoon using a 2.2 meter telescope equipped with a 67 megapixel camera!
There is science in this picture, to be sure. We can study it to look at the shape of the nebula, how it interacts with the stars and other nearby nebulae, and much more. But you know what? At this exact moment, I don't care.
Because my oh my, the Universe is a beautiful place. And sometimes, for just a little while, that's enough.