NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2013-12

A Laser Strike at the Galactic Center

Why are these people shooting a powerful laser into the center of our Galaxy? Fortunately, this is not meant to be the first step in a Galactic war. Rather, astronomers at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) site in Chile are trying to measure the distortions of Earth's ever changing atmosphere. Constant imaging of high-altitude atoms excited by the laser -- which appear like an artificial star -- allow astronomers to instantly measure atmospheric blurring. This information is fed back to a VLT telescope mirror which is then slightly deformed to minimize this blurring. In this case, a VLT was observing our Galaxy's center, and so Earth's atmospheric blurring in that direction was needed. As for inter-galaxy warfare, when viewed from our Galaxy's center, no casualties are expected. In fact, the light from this powerful laser would combine with light from our Sun to together appear only as bright as a faint and distant star. If Time Continues: Free APOD 2014 Calendar in PDF format

Comet Lovejoy Before Galaxy M63

Comet Lovejoy was captured last week passing well in front of spiral galaxy M63. Discovered only three months ago and currently near its maximum brightness, Comet Lovejoy can be seen near the Big Dipper from dark northerly locations before dawn with the unaided eye. An unexpected rival to Comet ISON, C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy), pictured above, is currently sporting a large green coma and a beautifully textured ion tail. Comet Lovejoy is now headed back to the outer Solar System but should remain a good sight in binoculars for another few weeks. Conversely, spiral galaxy M63, lies far in the distance and is expected to remain stationary on the sky and hold its relative brightness for at least the next few million years. Late ISON News: The continuing saga of Comet ISON | In memoriam

The Colorful Clouds of Rho Ophiuchi

The many spectacular colors of the Rho Ophiuchi (oh'-fee-yu-kee) clouds highlight the many processes that occur there. The blue regions shine primarily by reflected light. Blue light from the star Rho Ophiuchi and nearby stars reflects more efficiently off this portion of the nebula than red light. The Earth's daytime sky appears blue for the same reason. The red and yellow regions shine primarily because of emission from the nebula's atomic and molecular gas. Light from nearby blue stars - more energetic than the bright star Antares - knocks electrons away from the gas, which then shines when the electrons recombine with the gas. The dark brown regions are caused by dust grains - born in young stellar atmospheres - which effectively block light emitted behind them. The Rho Ophiuchi star clouds, well in front of the globular cluster M4 visible above on lower left, are even more colorful than humans can see - the clouds emits light in every wavelength band from the radio to the gamma-ray. Budget Universe: Free APOD 2014 Calendar in PDF format

Comet Lovejoy through Mörby Castle Ruins

This new comet is quite photogenic. Comet Lovejoy, discovered only three months ago, was imaged through ruins of ancient Mörby Castle in Sweden last week sporting a green-glowing coma and tails trailing several degrees. The past few weeks have been an unusually active time for comet watchers as four comets were visible simultaneously with binoculars: ISON, Lovejoy, Encke, and LINEAR. C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) comet is currently visible to the unaided eye from a dark location. As Monday's new Moon will provide little glare, the next few days provide a good time to see Comet Lovejoy as it reaches its peak brightness. In two and a half weeks, Comet Lovejoy will reach its closest approach to the Sun at a distance just inside the orbital distance of the Earth. Late ISON News: Multiple views from Sun-observing spacecraft

Planetary Nebula Abell 7

Very faint planetary nebula Abell 7 is some 1,800 light-years distant, just south of Orion in planet Earth's skies in the constellation Lepus, The Hare. Surrounded by Milky Way stars and near the line-of-sight to distant background galaxies, its generally simple spherical shape, about 8 light-years in diameter, is outlined in this deep telescopic image. Within its confines are beautiful, more complex details enhanced by the use of narrowband filters. Emission from hydrogen and nitrogen is shown in reddish hues with oxygen emission mapped to a bluish-green color, giving Abell 7 a more natural appearance that would otherwise be much too faint to be appreciated by eye. A planetary nebula represents a very brief final phase in stellar evolution that our own Sun will experience 5 billion years hence, as the nebula's central, once sun-like star shrugs off its outer layers. Abell 7 itself is estimated to be 20,000 years old. Its central star is seen here as a fading white dwarf some 10 billion years old.

Gamma-Ray Earth and Sky

For an Earth-orbiting gamma-ray telescope, Earth is actually the brightest source of gamma-rays, the most energetic form of light. Gamma-rays from Earth are produced when high energy particles, cosmic rays from space, crash into the atmosphere. While that interaction blocks harmful radiation from reaching the surface, those gamma-rays dominate in this remarkable Earth and sky view from the orbiting Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope's Large Area Telescope. The image was constructed using only observations made when the center of our Milky Way galaxy was near the zenith, directly above the Fermi satellite. The zenith is mapped to the center of the field. The Earth and points near the nadir, directly below the satellite, are mapped to the edges of the field resulting in an Earth and all-sky projection from Fermi's orbital perspective. The color scheme shows low intensities of gamma-rays as blue and high intensities as yellowish hues on a logarithmic scale. Our fair planet's brighter gamma-ray glow floods the edges of field, the high intensity yellow ring tracing Earth's limb. Gamma-ray sources in the sky along the relatively faint Milky Way stretch diagonally across the middle. Launched June 11, 2008 to explore the high-energy Universe, this week Fermi celebrated its 2,000th day in low Earth orbit.

Naked Eye Nova Centauri 2013

Brightest stellar beacons of the constellation Centaurus, Alpha and Beta Centauri are easy to spot from the southern hemisphere. For now, so is new naked eye Nova Centauri 2013. In this night skyscape recorded near Las Campanas Observatory in the Chilean southern Atacama desert on December 5, the new star joins the old in the expansive constellation, seen at early morning hours through a greenish airglow. Caught by nova hunter John Seach from Australia on December 2 as it approached near naked eye brightness, Nova Cen 2013 has been spectroscopically identified as a classical nova, an interacting binary star system composed of a dense, hot white dwarf and cool, giant companion. Material from the companion star builds up as it falls onto the white dwarf's surface triggering a thermonuclear event. The cataclysmic blast results in a drastic increase in brightness and an expanding shell of debris. The stars are not destroyed, though. Classical novae are thought to recur when the flow of material onto the white dwarf eventually resumes and produces another outburst.

Everest Panorama from Mars

If you could stand on Mars -- what might you see? Scroll right to find out. The robotic Spirit rover that rolled around Mars from 2004 to 2009 Mars climbed to the top of a hill in 2005 and took a series of images over three days that were then digitally combined into a 360 degree panorama. Spirit was instructed to take images having the same resolution as a human with 20-20 eyesight. The full panoramic result can be found by clicking on the above image and has a level of detail unparalleled in the history of Martian surface photography. The panorama was taken from the pinnacle of Husband Hill and has been dubbed the Everest panorama, in honor of the view from the tallest mountain on Earth. Visible in Gusev Crater are rocks, rusting sand, a Martian sundial, vast plains, nearby peaks, faraway peaks, and sand drifts. In the distance, fast moving dust devils can be seen as slight apparitions of red, green, or blue, the colors of filters used to build up this natural color vista. Latest Images + Classic APODs: Look into the Sky on Facebook

Comet Lovejoy Over a Windmill

Lovejoy continues to be an impressive camera comet. Pictured above, Comet C/2013 R1 (Lovejoy) was imaged above the windmill in Saint-Michel-l'Observatoire in southern France with a six-second exposure. In the foreground is a field of lavender. Comet Lovejoy should remain available for photo opportunities for northern observers during much of December and during much of the night, although it will be fading as the month progresses and highest in the sky before sunrise. In person, the comet will be best viewed with binoculars. A giant dirty snowball, Comet Lovejoy last visited the inner Solar System about 7,000 years ago, around the time that humans developed the wheel. Budget Universe: Free APOD 2014 Calendar in PDF format

Seyfert's Sextet

What will survive this battle of the galaxies? Known as Seyfert's Sextet, this intriguing group of galaxies lies in the head portion of the split constellation of the Snake (Serpens). The sextet actually contains only four interacting galaxies, though. Near the center of this Hubble Space Telescope picture, the small face-on spiral galaxy lies in the distant background and appears only by chance aligned with the main group. Also, the prominent condensation on the upper left is likely not a separate galaxy at all, but a tidal tail of stars flung out by the galaxies' gravitational interactions. About 190 million light-years away, the interacting galaxies are tightly packed into a region around 100,000 light-years across, comparable to the size of our own Milky Way galaxy, making this one of the densest known galaxy groups. Bound by gravity, the close-knit group may coalesce into a single large galaxy over the next few billion years. Free lecture: APOD editor to speak in NYC on Jan. 3

The Coldest Place on Earth

How cold can it get on Earth? In the interior of the Antarctica, a record low temperature of -93.2 °C (-135.8 °F) has been recorded. This is about 25 °C (45 °F) colder than the coldest lows noted for any place humans live permanently. The record temperature occurred in 2010 August -- winter in Antarctica -- and was found by scientists sifting through decades of climate data taken by Earth-orbiting satellites. The coldest spots were found near peaks because higher air is generally colder, although specifically in depressions near these peaks because relatively dense cold air settled there and was further cooled by the frozen ground. Summer is a much better time to visit Antarctica, as some regions will warm up as high as 15 °C (59 °F). Astrophysicists: Browse 600+ codes in the Astrophysics Source Code Library

Alnitak, Alnilam, Mintaka

Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, are the bright bluish stars from east to west (lower right to upper left) along the diagonal in this gorgeous cosmic vista. Otherwise known as the Belt of Orion, these three blue supergiant stars are hotter and much more massive than the Sun. They lie about 1,500 light-years away, born of Orion's well-studied interstellar clouds. In fact, clouds of gas and dust adrift in this region have intriguing and some surprisingly familiar shapes, including the dark Horsehead Nebula and Flame Nebula near Alnitak at the lower right. The famous Orion Nebula itself is off the right edge of this colorful star field. The well-framed, wide-field telescopic image spans about 4 degrees on the sky. Watch: The Geminid Meteor Shower

Geminid Meteor Shower over Dashanbao Wetlands

The annual Geminid meteor shower is raining down on planet Earth this week. Despite the waxing gibbous moonlight, the reliable Geminids should be enjoyable tonight (night of December 13/14) near the shower's peak. Recorded near last year's peak in the early hours of December 14, 2012, this skyscape captures many of Gemini's lovely shooting stars. The careful composite of exposures was made during a three hour period overlooking the Dashanbao Wetlands in central China. Dark skies above are shared with bright Jupiter (right), Orion, (right of center) and the faint band of the Milky Way. The shower's radiant in the constellation Gemini, the apparent source of all the meteor streaks, lies just above the top of the frame. Dust swept up from the orbit of active asteroid 3200 Phaethon, Gemini's meteors enter the atmosphere traveling at about 22 kilometers per second. Watch Tonight: The Geminid Meteor Shower

The Bubble Nebula

Blown by the wind from a massive star, this interstellar apparition has a surprisingly familiar shape. Cataloged as NGC 7635, it is also known simply as The Bubble Nebula. Although it looks delicate, the 10 light-year diameter bubble offers evidence of violent processes at work. Above and right of the Bubble's center is a hot, O star, several hundred thousand times more luminous and around 45 times more massive than the Sun. A fierce stellar wind and intense radiation from that star has blasted out the structure of glowing gas against denser material in a surrounding molecular cloud. The intriguing Bubble Nebula lies a mere 11,000 light-years away toward the boastful constellation Cassiopeia. This natural looking view of the cosmic bubble is composed from narrowband image data, also used to create a 3D model.

Gibbous Europa

Although the phase of this moon might appear familiar, the moon itself might not. In fact, this gibbous phase shows part of Jupiter's moon Europa. The robot spacecraft Galileo captured this image mosaic during its mission orbiting Jupiter from 1995 - 2003. Visible are plains of bright ice, cracks that run to the horizon, and dark patches that likely contain both ice and dirt. Raised terrain is particularly apparent near the terminator, where it casts shadows. Europa is nearly the same size as Earth's Moon, but much smoother, showing few highlands or large impact craters. Evidence and images from the Galileo spacecraft, indicated that liquid oceans might exist below the icy surface. To test speculation that these seas hold life, ESA has started preliminary development of the Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer (JUICE), a spacecraft proposed for launch around 2022 that would further explore Jupiter and in particular Europa. Recent observations by the Hubble Space Telescope have uncovered new evidence that Europa, like Saturn's moon Enceladus, has ice venting from its surface. Budget Universe: Free APOD 2014 Calendar in PDF format

Yutu Rover Rolls onto the Moon

A new desk-sized rover has begun exploring the Moon. Launched two weeks ago by the Chinese National Space Administration, the Chang'e 3 spacecraft landed on the Moon yesterday and deployed the robotic rover. Yutu, named for a folklore lunar Jade Rabbit, has a scheduled three-month mission to explore several kilometers inside the Sinus Iridum (Latin for "Bay of Rainbows") impact crater. Yutu's cameras and spectrometers will investigate surface features and composition while ground penetrating radar will investigate deep soil structure. Chang'e 3 achieved the first soft Moon landing since the Soviet Union's Luna 24 in 1976, and Yutu is the first lunar rover deployed since the USSR's Lunokhod 2 in 1973. Pictured above, Yutu was imaged from its lander yesterday soon after rolling onto the Moon. Note: APOD is available in Chinese from the Beijing Planetarium.

Geminid Meteors over Teide Volcano

On some nights it rains meteors. Peaking two nights ago, asteroid dust streaked through the dark skies of Earth, showering down during the annual Geminids meteor shower. Astrophotographer Juan Carlos Casado captured the space weather event, as pictured above, in a series of exposures spanning about 2.3 hours using a wide angle lens. The snowcapped Teide volcano of the Canary Islands of Spain towers in the foreground, while the picturesque constellation of Orion highlights the background. The star appearing just near the top of the volcano is Rigel. Although the asteroid dust particles are traveling parallel to each other, the resulting meteor streaks appear to radiate from a single point on the sky, in this case in the constellation of Gemini, off the top of the image. Like train tracks appearing to converge in the distance, the meteor radiant effect is due to perspective. The astrophotographer has estimated that there are about 50 Geminids visible in the above composite image -- how many do you see? Budget Universe: Free APOD 2014 Calendar in PDF format

Light Pillars over Finland

What's happening behind those houses? Pictured above are not aurora but nearby light pillars, a local phenomenon that can appear as a distant one. In most places on Earth, a lucky viewer can see a Sun-pillar, a column of light appearing to extend up from the Sun caused by flat fluttering ice-crystals reflecting sunlight from the upper atmosphere. Usually these ice crystals evaporate before reaching the ground. During freezing temperatures, however, flat fluttering ice crystals may form near the ground in a form of light snow, sometimes known as a crystal fog. These ice crystals may then reflect ground lights in columns not unlike a Sun-pillar. While going out to buy cat food, a quick thinking photographer captured the above light pillars extending up from bright parking lot lights in Oulu, Finland. Free lecture: APOD editor to speak in NYC on Jan. 3

A Colorful Moon

The Moon is normally seen in subtle shades of grey or yellow. But small, measurable color differences have been greatly exaggerated to make this telescopic, multicolored, moonscape captured during the Moon's full phase. The different colors are recognized to correspond to real differences in the chemical makeup of the lunar surface. Blue hues reveal titanium rich areas while orange and purple colors show regions relatively poor in titanium and iron. The familiar Sea of Tranquility, or Mare Tranquillitatis, is the blue area in the upper right corner of the frame. White lines radiate across the orange-hued southern lunar highlands from 85 kilometer wide ray crater Tycho at bottom left. Above it, darker rays from crater Copernicus extend into the Sea of Rains (Mare Imbrium) at the upper left. Calibrated by rock samples from the Apollo missions, similar multicolor images from spacecraft have been used to explore the Moon's global surface composition.

Titan's Land of Lakes

Saturn's large moon Titan would be unique in our solar system, the only world with stable liquid lakes and seas on its surface ... except for planet Earth of course. Centered on the north pole, this colorized map shows Titan's bodies of methane and ethane in blue and black, still liquid at frigid surface temperatures of -180 degrees C (-292 degrees F). The map is based on data from the Cassini spacecraft's radar, taken during flybys between 2004 and 2013. Roughly heart-shaped, the lake above and right of the pole is Ligeia Mare, the second largest known body of liquid on Titan and larger than Lake Superior on Earth. Just below the north pole is Punga Mare. The sprawling sea below and right of Punga is the (hopefully sleeping) Kraken Mare, Titan's largest known sea. Above and left of the pole, the moon's surface is dotted with smaller lakes that range up to 50 kilometers across.

SDO's Multiwavelength Sun

Today, the solstice is at 17:11 Universal Time, the Sun reaching the southernmost declination in its yearly journey through planet Earth's sky. The December solstice marks the astronomical beginning of winter in the northern hemisphere and summer in the south. To celebrate, explore this creative visualization of the Sun from visible to extreme ultraviolet wavelengths, using image data from the orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). Against a base image made at a visible wavelengths, the wedge-shaped segments show the solar disk at increasingly shorter ultraviolet and extreme ultraviolet wavelengths. Shown in false-color and rotating in a clockwise direction, the filters decrease in wavelength from 170 nanometers (in pink) through 9.4 nanometers (green). At shorter wavelengths, the altitude and temperature of the regions revealed in the solar atmosphere tend to increase. Bright at visible wavelengths, the solar photosphere looks darker in the ultraviolet, but sunspots glow and bright plasma traces looping magnetic fields. Watch the filters sweep around the solar disk in this animation of SDO's multiwavelength view of the Sun.

Tutulemma: Solar Eclipse Analemma

If you went outside at exactly the same time every day and took a picture that included the Sun, how would the Sun's position change? With great planning and effort, such a series of images can be taken. The figure-8 path the Sun follows over the course of a year is called an analemma. Yesterday, the Winter Solstice day in Earth's northern hemisphere, the Sun appeared at the bottom of the analemma. Analemmas created from different latitudes would appear at least slightly different, as well as analemmas created at a different time each day. With even greater planning and effort, the series can include a total eclipse of the Sun as one of the images. Pictured is such a total solar eclipse analemma or Tutulemma - a term coined by the photographers based on the Turkish word for eclipse. The above composite image sequence was recorded from Turkey starting in 2005. The base image for the sequence is from the total phase of a solar eclipse as viewed from Side, Turkey on 2006 March 29. Venus was also visible during totality, toward the lower right. Budget Universe: Free APOD 2014 Calendar in PDF format

Geminid Meteors over Chile

From a radiant point in the constellation of the Twins, the annual Geminid meteor shower rained down on planet Earth over the past few weeks. Recorded near the shower's peak over the night of December 13 and 14, the above skyscape captures Gemini's shooting stars in a four-hour composite from the dark skies of the Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. In the foreground the 2.5-meter du Pont Telescope is visible as well as the 1-meter SWOPE telescope. The skies beyond the meteors are highlighted by Jupiter, seen as the bright spot near the image center, the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy, seen vertically on the image left, and the pinkish Orion Nebula on the far left. Dust swept up from the orbit of active asteroid 3200 Phaethon, Gemini's meteors enter the atmosphere traveling at about 22 kilometers per second. Free lecture: APOD editor to speak in New York City on Jan. 3

Sharpless 308: Star Bubble

Blown by fast winds from a hot, massive star, this cosmic bubble is huge. Cataloged as Sharpless 2-308 it lies some 5,200 light-years away toward the constellation of the Big Dog (Canis Major) and covers slightly more of the sky than a Full Moon. That corresponds to a diameter of 60 light-years at its estimated distance. The massive star that created the bubble, a Wolf-Rayet star, is the bright one near the center of the nebula. Wolf-Rayet stars have over 20 times the mass of the Sun and are thought to be in a brief, pre-supernova phase of massive star evolution. Fast winds from this Wolf-Rayet star create the bubble-shaped nebula as they sweep up slower moving material from an earlier phase of evolution. The windblown nebula has an age of about 70,000 years. Relatively faint emission captured in the expansive image is dominated by the glow of ionized oxygen atoms mapped to violet hues. Budget Universe: Free APOD 2014 Calendar in PDF format

Phobos 360

What does the Martian moon Phobos look like? To better visualize this unusual object, images from ESA's Mars Express orbiter have been combined into a virtual rotation movie. The rotation is actually a digital illusion -- tidally-locked Phobos always keeps the same face toward its home planet, as does Earth's moon. The above video highlights Phobos' chunky shape and an unusually dark surface covered with craters and grooves. What lies beneath the surface is a topic of research since the moon is not dense enough to be filled with solid rock. Phobos is losing about of centimeter of altitude a year and is expected to break up and crash onto Mars within the next 50 million years. To better understand this unusual world, Mars Express is on course to make the closest flyby ever on Sunday.

The Hydrogen Clouds of M33

Gorgeous spiral galaxy M33 seems to have more than its fair share of glowing hydrogen gas. A prominent member of the local group of galaxies, M33 is also known as the Triangulum Galaxy and lies about 3 million light-years distant. Its inner 30,000 light-years are shown in this telescopic galaxy portrait that enhances the reddish ionized hydrogen clouds or HII regions. Sprawling along loose spiral arms that wind toward the core, M33's giant HII regions are some of the largest known stellar nurseries, sites of the formation of short-lived but very massive stars. Intense ultraviolet radiation from the luminous, massive stars ionizes the surrounding hydrogen gas and ultimately produces the characteristic red glow. To enhance this image, broadband data was used to produce a color view of the galaxy and combined with narrowband data recorded through a hydrogen-alpha filter, transmitting the light of the strongest hydrogen emission line. To see the monochromatic narrowband data alone, move your cursor over the image, or take this video tour of the hydrogen clouds of M33.

Melotte 15 in the Heart

Cosmic clouds seem to form fantastic shapes in the central regions of emission nebula IC 1805. Of course, the clouds are sculpted by stellar winds and radiation from massive hot stars in the nebula's newborn star cluster, Melotte 15. About 1.5 million years young, the cluster stars are near the center of this colorful skyscape, along with dark dust clouds in silhouette. Dominated by emission from atomic hydrogen, the telescopic view spans about 30 light-years. But wider field images reveal that IC 1805's simpler, overall outline suggests its popular name - The Heart Nebula. IC 1805 is located along the northern Milky Way, about 7,500 light years distant toward the constellation Cassiopeia.

Alaska Aurora Sequence

A remarkably intense auroral band flooded the northern night with shimmering colors on December 7. The stunning sequence captured here was made with a camera fixed to a tripod under cold, clear skies near Ester, just outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. Left to right, spanning a period of about 30 minutes, the panels follow changes in the dancing curtains of northern lights extending to altitudes of over 100 kilometers in a band arcing directly overhead. The panels span 150 degrees vertically, covering about 500 kilometers of aurora laying across the sky from edge to edge. The auroral activity was triggered by a moderate level geomagnetic storm, as a high speed solar wind stream buffeted planet Earth's magnetosphere.

Time-Lapse Auroras Over Norway

Sometimes, after your eyes adapt to the dark, a spectacular sky appears. Such was the case in 2011 March when one of the largest auroral displays in recent years appeared over northern locations like the border between Norway and Russia. Pictured in the above time-lapse movie, auroras flow over snow covered landscapes, trees, clouds, mountains and lakes found near Kirkenes, Norway. Many times the auroras are green, as high energy particles strike the Earth's atmosphere, causing the air to glow as electrons resettle into their oxygen hosts. Other colors are occasionally noticeable as atmospheric nitrogen also becomes affected. In later sequences the Moon and rising stars are also visible. With the Sun currently hovering near its time of maximum activity, there may be many opportunities to see similarly spectacular auroras personally, even from areas much closer to the equator. Free lecture: APOD editor to speak in NYC on Jan. 3

Quantum Streampunk Fantasy Fractal Landscape

What strange world is this? Pictured above is no real place but rather a purely mathematical visualization of a generalization of a fractal into three dimensions. Classical fractal diagrams are typically confined to the two dimensions inherent in the complex number plane, demarking regions where an iterative function diverges. Recently explored additions expand the Mandelbrot set of fractals to three dimensions with prescriptions dubbed Mandelbox and Mandelbulb sets. The results are often visually stunning creations of virtual worlds with limitless detail, some of which you can fly through. Pictured above is one such mathematical fantasy, possibly reminiscent of some sort of steam-punkian, quantum-mechanical landscape. Downloadable Universe: Free APOD 2014 Calendar in PDF format

The Horsehead Nebula

The Horsehead Nebula is one of the most famous nebulae on the sky. It is visible as the dark indentation to the red emission nebula in the center of the above photograph. The horse-head feature is dark because it is really an opaque dust cloud that lies in front of the bright red emission nebula. Like clouds in Earth's atmosphere, this cosmic cloud has assumed a recognizable shape by chance. After many thousands of years, the internal motions of the cloud will alter its appearance. The emission nebula's red color is caused by electrons recombining with protons to form hydrogen atoms. Also visible at the bottom left of the picture is a greenish reflection nebulae that preferentially reflects the blue light from nearby stars. Free lecture: APOD editor to speak in NYC on Jan. 3

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