Brilliant, blue, supergiant star Rigel marks the foot of Orion the Hunter in planet Earth's night. Designated Beta Orionis, it's at the center of this remarkably deep and wide field of view. Rigel's blue color indicates that it is much hotter than its rival supergiant in Orion the yellowish Betelgeuse (Alpha Orionis), though both stars are massive enough to eventually end their days as core collapse supernovae. Some 860 light-years away, Rigel is hotter than the Sun too and extends to about 74 times the solar radius. That's about the size of the orbit of Mercury. In the 10 degree wide frame toward the nebula rich constellation, the Orion Nebula is at the upper left. To the right of Rigel and illuminated by its brilliant blue starlight lies the dusty Witch Head Nebula. Rigel is part of a multiple star system, though its companion stars are much fainter.
Majestic on a truly cosmic scale, M100 is appropriately known as a grand design spiral galaxy. It is a large galaxy of over 100 billion stars with well-defined spiral arms that is similar to our own Milky Way Galaxy. One of the brightest members of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, M100 (alias NGC 4321) is 56 million light-years distant toward the constellation of Berenice's Hair (Coma Berenices). This Hubble Space Telescope image of M100 was taken with the Wide Field Camera 3 and accentuates bright blue star clusters and intricate winding dust lanes which are hallmarks of this class of galaxies. Studies of variable stars in M100 have played an important role in determining the size and age of the Universe.
To some, it looks like a giant chicken running across the sky. To others, it looks like a gaseous nebula where star formation takes place. Cataloged as IC 2944, the Running Chicken Nebula spans about 100 light years and lies about 6,000 light years away toward the constellation of the Centaur (Centaurus). The featured image, shown in scientifically assigned colors, was captured recently in a 16-hour exposure over three nights. The star cluster Collinder 249 is visible embedded in the nebula's glowing gas. Although difficult to discern here, several dark molecular clouds with distinct shapes can be found inside the nebula.
Why is Polaris called the North Star? First, Polaris is the nearest bright star toward the north spin axis of the Earth. Therefore, as the Earth turns, stars appear to revolve around Polaris, but Polaris itself always stays in the same northerly direction -- making it the North Star. Since no bright star is near the south spin axis of the Earth, there is currently no bright South Star. Thousands of years ago, Earth's spin axis pointed in a slightly different direction so that Vega was the North Star. Although Polaris is not the brightest star on the sky, it is easily located because it is nearly aligned with two stars in the cup of the Big Dipper. Polaris is near the center of the eight-degree wide featured image, a digital composite of hundreds of exposures that brings out faint gas and dust of the Integrated Flux Nebula (IFN) all over the frame as well as the globular star cluster NGC 188 on the far left. The surface of Cepheid Polaris slowly pulsates, causing the famous star to change its brightness by a few percent over the course of a few days.
Spanning light-years, this suggestive shape known as the Seahorse Nebula appears in silhouette against a rich, luminous background of stars. Seen toward the royal northern constellation of Cepheus, the dusty, obscuring clouds are part of a Milky Way molecular cloud some 1,200 light-years distant. It is also listed as Barnard 150 (B150), one of 182 dark markings of the sky cataloged in the early 20th century by astronomer E. E. Barnard. Packs of low mass stars are forming within, but their collapsing cores are only visible at long infrared wavelengths. Still, the colorful stars of Cepheus add to this pretty, galactic skyscape.
What powers this unusual nebula? CTB-1 is the expanding gas shell that was left when a massive star toward the constellation of Cassiopeia exploded about 10,000 years ago. The star likely detonated when it ran out of elements near its core that could create stabilizing pressure with nuclear fusion. The resulting supernova remnant, nicknamed the Medulla Nebula for its brain-like shape, still glows in visible light by the heat generated by its collision with confining interstellar gas. Why the nebula also glows in X-ray light, though, remains a mystery. One hypothesis holds that an energetic pulsar was co-created that powers the nebula with a fast outwardly moving wind. Following this lead, a pulsar has recently been found in radio waves that appears to have been expelled by the supernova explosion at over 1000 kilometers per second. Although the Medulla Nebula appears as large as a full moon, it is so faint that it took many hours of exposure with a telescope in Seven Persons, Alberta, Canada to create the featured image.
The Tarantula Nebula, also known as 30 Doradus, is more than a thousand light-years in diameter, a giant star forming region within nearby satellite galaxy the Large Magellanic Cloud. About 160 thousand light-years away, it's the largest, most violent star forming region known in the whole Local Group of galaxies. The cosmic arachnid is near the center of this spectacular image taken during the flight of SuperBIT (Super Pressure Balloon Imaging Telescope), NASA's balloon-borne 0.5 meter telescope now floating near the edge of space. Within the well-studied Tarantula (NGC 2070), intense radiation, stellar winds and supernova shocks from the central young cluster of massive stars, cataloged as R136, energize the nebular glow and shape the spidery filaments. Around the Tarantula are other star forming regions with young star clusters, filaments, and blown-out bubble-shaped clouds. SuperBIT's field of view spans about 1/3 of a degree in the southern constellation Dorado.