Space Photos of the Week: The Galaxy Next Door

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Before stars are stars and solar systems emerge, there is nothing but gas and dust.


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Behold the Large Magellanic Cloud! This mesmerizing gathering of neon-beer-sign blue gas near our Milky Way is full of newly forming stars. The European Southern Observatory’s Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer instrument captured this photo during its Digitized Sky Survey 2, and then created a color composite image using data collected over several years. If you’re able to divert your eyes from the big show in the upper right, take a look at the object in the center of the image: That blue cloud is LHA 120-N 180B, likely an active star-forming region.

Zooming in a bit closer with the Multi Unit Spectroscopic Explorer, this colorful nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud appears to be bubbling with star formation. As the newborn stars grow, the instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope allows us to see glorious details of gas and dust being pushed out into space.

Jupiter’s atmosphere always has a showpiece, namely the Great Red Spot, which peeks out from the upper left. Yet the planet also has a few other storms that are relatively new, like counterclockwise-rotating (but less impressively named) Oval BA.

In the outer reaches of the Large Magellanic Cloud lies NGC 1466, this globular cluster of stars. Globular clusters like these are so enormous that their own gravity holds them together; this one has a mass equivalent to 140,000 of our suns. Scientists are very interested in NGC 1466, because it is almost as old as the universe itself—13.1 billion years. On top of that, its luminous stars are key to astronomy’s cosmic distance ladder, and their brightness is used as a gauge to measure distances to astral objects.

NASA’s Kepler mission to detect exoplanets was far and away one of the most successful space missions in the past 20 years. This spacecraft discovered more than 2,600 planets orbiting other stars, fundamentally changing our perspective on our sense of uniqueness in the universe. Kepler’s swan song image shows starlight dusted throughout each rectangular grid. After running out of fuel and becoming unable to point its telescope, Kepler was retired by NASA on October 30, 2018.

Have you ever wondered how a solar system gets made? Well, the ESO’s ALMA radio telescope in Chile can offer some answers. Consider this image of AS 209, which features what are known as protoplanetary discs around a central star. These discs made of dust and gas are what’s left over from the star’s formation. Eventually, the theory goes, material in the discs begins to coalesce, becoming larger and larger. Over millions of years, the dust and bits transform into orbiting planets.

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