A jewel of the southern sky, the Great Carina Nebula, also known as NGC 3372, spans over 300 light-years, one of our galaxy’s largest star forming regions. Like the smaller, more northerly Great Orion Nebula, the Carina Nebula is easily visible to the unaided eye, though at a distance of 7,500 light-years it is some 5 times farther away. This gorgeous telescopic close-up reveals remarkable details of the region’s central glowing filaments of interstellar gas and obscuring cosmic dust clouds in a field of view nearly 20 light-years across. The Carina Nebula is home to young, extremely massive stars, including the still enigmatic and violently variable Eta Carinae, a star system with well over 100 times the mass of the Sun. In the processed composite of space and ground-based image data a dusty, two-lobed Homunculus Nebula appears to surround Eta Carinae itself just below and left of center. While Eta Carinae is likely on the verge of a supernova explosion, X-ray images indicate that the Great Carina Nebula has been a veritable supernova factory.
On Valentine’s Day in 1990, cruising four billion miles from the Sun, the Voyager 1 spacecraft looked back one last time to make the first ever Solar System family portrait. The portrait consists of the Sun and six planets in a 60 frame mosaic made from a vantage point 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. Planet Earth was captured within a single pixel in this single frame. It’s the pale blue dot within the sunbeam just right of center in this reprocessed version of the now famous view from Voyager. Astronomer Carl Sagan originated the idea of using Voyager’s camera to look back toward home from a distant perspective. Thirty years later, on this Valentine’s day, look again at the pale blue dot.
Home in Arizona
The Trifid Nebula, also known as Messier 20, is easy to find with a small telescope. About 30 light-years across and 5,500 light-years distant it’s a popular stop for cosmic tourists in the nebula rich constellation Sagittarius. As its name suggests, visible light pictures show the nebula divided into three parts by dark, obscuring dust lanes. But this penetrating infrared image reveals the Trifid’s filaments of glowing dust clouds and newborn stars. The spectacular false-color view is courtesy of the Spitzer Space Telescope. Astronomers have used the infrared image data to count newborn and embryonic stars which otherwise can lie hidden in the natal dust and gas clouds of this intriguing stellar nursery. Launched in 2003, Spitzer explored the infrared Universe from an Earth-trailing solar orbit until its science operations were brought to a close earlier this year, on January 30.