Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2007

By Phil Plait | December 13, 2007 7:00 am

Astronomy is arguably the most beautiful of the sciences. I’m biased, of course, but it’s nearly impossible to gaze upon a picture of a galaxy, a moon, a nebula, and not see in it something compellingly artistic. Sometimes it’s the color, sometimes the shape, and sometimes it’s the knowledge that we can understand the subject of the picture itself.

Science doesn’t take away from the beauty of nature. It enhances it, multiplies it.

There are so many incredible astronomical photographs released every year that picking ten as the most beautiful is a substantial task. But it becomes easier when you consider the science behind the image as well. Does this image tell us more than that one? Was the scientific result drawn from an image surprising, or did it firm up a previously considered hypothesis?

Still, there’s something to be said for a simple, drop dead gorgeous picture.

So here I present my Top Ten Astronomy Pictures for 2007.

A note: I tried to avoid repeating using images that were too similar to the ones I posted last year, so you may be surprised at some of my picks, or some pictures I didn’t pick. You may even disagree with me, so if you have a favorite that missed being on this list, leave a link in the comments! I just bet ten images aren’t enough for most people anyway.

All of the pictures here are clickable, and link to higher resolution versions; some substantially so.


Number 10: A Comet Bursts Forth

I remember when I first heard of Comet Holmes: I’d received an email in October from a BABloggee telling me about it, and I couldn’t wait for the sky to darken so I could see it with my own eyes. Naked eye comets are rare, but a run-of-the-mill faint one to suddenly brighten by a factor of a million; well, that’s a must-see.

People all over the world took pictures of the comet’s outburst (the cause of which is still something of a mystery). For a while, the outburst appeared as a circular shell surrounding the comet, though eventually a more tail-like appearance took shape… but it was still just plain ol’ odd.

This picture was taken on November 29, 2007 by the gifted astrophotographer Tamas Ladanyi (he also has another picture taken on December 5 which shows the motion of the comet, too). This remarkable shot covers several degrees of sky; by this time the comet was getting difficult to see with the unaided eye (it got fainter as the debris cloud expanded), and at the time the cloud was bigger than the full Moon in the sky. I love the starry background in this picture, and the small open cluster of stars on the right.

As I write this, Comet Holmes is still fading away. But will it brighten again? In 1892, just after it was first discovered, Holmes had an outburst very similar to this modern one. So even as it dims and moves into the outer solar system, is it gearing up for another exciting run?

I’ve written quite a bit about this comet, if you want the background info, and I even made a video.

Number 9: A Black Hole on Mars

[Update (January 20, 2010: I was just informed I had the wrong link to the original image in my post! Oops. I fixed it below.]

What is it about Mars that draws us in? Even through a big telescope it’s small, distant, and fuzzy. But when you gaze up on it in the night sky it’s a bright bloody beacon, a glaring eye staring back at you. No wonder the ancients thought it the god of war!

We’ve been exploring the Red Planet for decades now, and we have learned so much about it. Sometime over the past few decades, Mars transformed from an astronomical object to a place, an actual location where we can go and look around.

And even though terabytes of data have been taken, Mars still has a surprise or two up its sleeve.

Update: I had originally described this hole as a skylight to a cavern, but that turns out to be incorrect. I would normally keep the incorrect text here and strike it through so you could see my mistake, but the way I had written it makes that hard. So instead, I’ll simply delete the incorrect text, admit my mistake, thank commenter AJ Milne for pointing it out, and post the correct description!

When I saw this image, my jaw dropped. Other images of the surface showed black spots suspected to be cavern entrances or pits, but they showed featureless black holes. But then I saw this picture, and once again Mars reinforced the idea that it’s a place.

The picture (taken with the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter) shows a pit crater, a collapsed shaft going down into the surface of Mars. It’s on the side of a volcano, and similar features are seen in Hawaiian volcanoes. Most likely they form when magma under the surface subsides, and the ground above it collapses.

In this hi-res picture, with the Sun off to the side, we can see rocks and debris littering the floor. It looks like the pit leads to a tunnel off to the right, but that may be an illusion caused by the shadowing. It tricked me at first! But it’s probable that this does not lead to an underground cavern. Still, I’ve stood at cavern entrances in Virginia and Kentucky (and a sinkhole, once) that aren’t too different in appearance from this pit, bringing home the fact that Mars, like Earth, is an actual world.

When I look at this picture my sense of exploration, of wanting to walk into that pit and poke around, is nearly overwhelming. I can’t help thinking that Jules Verne would have felt at home standing at the lip of that crater.

Number 8: The Wonderful

The red giant star Mira is called "The Wonderful" because it brightens and dims noticeably to the naked eye, sometimes going from quite bright to total invisibility in just a few weeks. Mira is a star on its death bed; it is in the final stages of sloughing off its outer layers, and in a few hundred thousand years the entire envelope of the star will have been ejected, leaving only a naked and very hot white dwarf star.

It’s been studied extensively for decades, centuries– but when the Galex spacecraft pointed its ultraviolet camera at the sky near Mira, astronomers got quite a surprise.

Mira is like a comet! But a lot, lot bigger: the tail of Mira is 13 light years (130 trillion kilometers/80 trillion miles) long.

The tail is really the gas ejected by the star as it dies. As Mira moves through space, the gas between the stars slows the ejected material, forming the long streamer. It reminds me of The Little Astronomer’s hair flowing behind her as she runs. But Mira is moving substantially faster than my daughter can run; it’s tooling along at 140 kilometers/second (90 miles/second). It’s taken the star 30,000 years to move the length of its tail. In the picture, the motion is left to right, so the left-hand side of the tail is the oldest. On the right you can actually see the bow shock as the star plows through the gas between stars.

This image isn’t the highest resolution, or the prettiest of the lot. But it has so much to say. Mira is much like the way the Sun will be in a few billion years when its time runs out, for one, so by studying this image we are perhaps peering into our own future. But it also tells us that even a familiar object can surprise us, when we look at it with different eyes.

For far more detail on the story of this remarkable object, read my blog entry on it.

Number 7: The Lover’s Embrace of Arp 87

Galaxies seem like immutable giants of the cosmos; serene, majestic, and unmoving. But that’s an illusion. Everything in space is in motion, including galaxies. As you can imagine, when you take a collection of several hundred billion stars and set it in motion, it can be pretty hard to stop it. Galaxies move through space at numbing speeds, and the forces built up are mighty.

But then, sometimes, another galaxy gets in the way.

Then those vast forces come into play. Gravity twists and pulls at the galaxies as they dance past each other. And, as if they resist the inevitable recession of their partner, they reach out to one another in what looks like a tender embrace, but is in reality a stark (if lovely) portent of the destruction wrought on both galaxies.

Arp 87 is the name given to the system of two galaxies, NGC 3808A and NGC 3808B. They passed each other just as the age of dinosaurs was starting to get going on Earth, 200 million years ago. The gravity of B (the cigar-shaped galaxy on the left) drew out a long tentacle from the much larger A (the spiral on the right), and it appears as if the passage also wrapped the tendril around B, perhaps more than once. It’s also possible the tendril flared out, separating into streams that only appear to entwine the smaller galaxy.

The pair is 300 million light years away, and the power of the Hubble Space Telescope is clear when that forbidding distance is taken in. We can see reddish gas clouds collapsing to form stars in the galaxies, and we can (just barely) tell that NGC 3808B is looking a little disturbed. Will the two galaxies continue to separate, or will gravity eventually win, drawing them together? Perhaps the latter. In a few hundred million years the merged remnant will settle down and look like a normal galaxy once again. And while this may look like a totally alien tableau, keep in mind that the Milky Way Galaxy has suffered through such collisions in the past… and will again: the Andromeda Galaxy is bearing down on us. In a couple of billion years, the fireworks here will begin.

My original blog entry about Arp 87 is here.

Number 6: Lightning at Weikerscheim Observatory

Astronomy only plays a tangential role in this picture… you can see stars in the sky, and the observatory is pretty obvious. But it’s the terrestrial drama that steals the show.

Jens Hackmann took this stunning picture of a lightning storm near the Weikerscheim Observatory; the 300 second exposure is enough to see the stars streak and the observatory lit up by ambient light. Sometimes, when it’s cloudy, observing is difficult… but you can still get incredible pictures.

Number 5: A Meeting of the Moons

Jupiter is fantastically massive, and its fearsome gravity holds thrall over a retinue of moons that might otherwise be called planets in their on right. By far, the most interesting of its family are the moons Europa and Io. Europa is an ice world, covered in a thick sheet of ice that might reach down to depths of over perhaps several kilometers. It’s nearly a dead certainty that underneath that forbidding icecap is an ocean of water, kept liquid from energy input by gravitational stress as Europa passes by her sister moons. Of all the real estate in the solar system, many astronomers have their money on Europa as the best place to look for alien life.

Io, on the other hand, is perhaps the worst place for life. It has an incredibly high sulfur content, for one thing. For another, the same gravitational heating that keeps Europa’s ocean liquid also keeps Io’s interior molten, but it gives the moon a cosmic case of indigestion.

Io is wracked with volcanoes. They are almost constantly erupting, spewing molten sulfur over a kilometer high in the low gravity, and plumes of dust and gas blast hundreds of kilometers off the surface. This activity was first discovered when the Voyager 1 probe passed the moon in 1979, but subsequent space probes have gotten even more detailed images. When the New Horizons Pluto probe passed Jupiter in March 2007 for a gravity boost, it snapped a beautiful picture of the sisters.

Europa is the crescent on the lower left, and Io (obviously) is the one on the upper right. The plume you see is from the volcano Tvashtar, which has been active for quite some time now. If you look right at the bottom of the plume, you can see molten sulfur glowing red. Two other volcanoes appear to be making some noise as well.

While they appear to be close together, the two moons were actually nearly 800,000 kilometers apart when this picture was taken; Io was on one side of Jupiter and Europa on the other, but from the spacecraft’s perspective they were next to each other in the sky. This picture is actually a composite of two images; one was greyscale and had high resolution, and the other was in color but had lower resolution. By merging the two, we can see more details than we could from the color image alone, and we get the benefit of having the colors enhance the scene.

When I first saw this image, I knew right away the two moons were not close together at all. My secret? I saw that the dark side of Europa was truly dark, but Io’s dark side was lighter. That meant that Io was positioned such that Jupiter was illuminating its otherwise dark half, while Europa must have been on the other side of Jupiter, where it was dark. Sometimes, you can tell a lot just by looking at a image and picturing the geometry in your head.

Funny: I almost picked a movie sequence of Tvashtar erupting for this Top Ten list, but I had to cull it due to the other images I liked better. Plus, the animation is 752 kb, and I didn’t want to choke my server. But you can see it on Emily Lakdawalla’s Planetary Society Blog. It’s worth watching!

Number 4: Dark Matter Makes an Appearance

It’s baffling, and a little humbling, to think that what we can see, taste, and feel makes up only a tiny fraction of the Universe. Normal matter only constitutes 4% of the cosmic budget, with dark energy eating up a whopping 73%. The remaining 23% belongs to the mysterious dark matter: some exotic form of material that does not emit light, but does exert a gravitational force. Astronomers knew it was out there for decades; it pulled on galaxies and clusters and galaxies, changing their speeds. We just couldn’t see it!

But the gravity of dark matter has a subtle effect: it acts like a lens, bending the path of light coming from objects behind it. We can use telescopes to map out the location of normal matter, and then measure the distortion of background objects from the intervening dark matter. When that is done, spectacular results emerge.

In this Hubble image, the white dots are entire galaxies. They are part of a cluster called CL0024+1652, which is a whopping 5 billion light years away. The blue glow is the location of the dark matter, revealed by its distortion of the shapes of more distant galaxies behind it. The dark matter is in the shape of a ring surrounding the cluster, which indicates that a long time ago, CL0024 suffered a mighty blow, colliding head-on with another cluster. The dark matter from the two clusters passed right through each other, and their gravity caused the material to form the ring shape. We’re seeing this right down the barrel of the collision.

This image is a stunning confirmation of the existence of dark matter, and our understanding of how it works. Many people — who don’t understand the science — claim dark matter doesn’t exist, and that astronomers are making it all up. Well, there’s a giant smoke ring in the sky indicating they are quite wrong.

However, that’s not to say we understand everything about such events. In a picture I almost picked for the Top Ten, we see evidence that there are holes in our knowledge.

In this composite image of the galaxy cluster Abell 520 using Chandra, CFHT, and the Subaru telescope, red is normal matter heated to millions of degrees, and blue shows the location of the dark matter. The problem is, where the normal matter is densest the dark matter is least dense, and vice-versa. That’s the opposite of what’s expected here. Perhaps dark matter particles interact with each other differently than we think, or there was some odd factor in the cluster collision that’s throwing a monkey wrench into the works.

There’s a lot more about dark matter to learn, and images like these will help us solve these mysteries. Right now there a lot we don’t know… but we’ll figure it out. That’s why astronomy is so much fun.

Number 3: Chaos in Vela

I have long been a fan of Davide De Martin from Sky Factory. He takes images from professional observatories and stitches them together to make images of indescribable beauty, elegance, and wonder. His work is, simply, breathtaking.

This image shows the devastation wrought when a star explodes. The Vela Supernova Remnant formed when a massive star 800 light years away blew up 11,000 years ago. Expanding at a ferocious velocity, it is now 8 degrees across in the sky — 16 times the apparent width of the Moon, and about the size of your outstretched fist! David’s mosaic shows a stunning amount of detail, tracing the variety of shapes and patterns the expanding gas makes as it slams into the interstellar junk floating around it.

And if that’s not enough, the full-size image he has on his site is well over a billion pixels in size. Think about that the next time you brag about your digital camera.

I wrote more about David and his Vela image on my blog.

Number 2: STEREO Eclipse

Technically, this one is not a picture, but I had to include it anyway. It’s just so cool!

Studying the Sun seems like a pretty good idea; as the major source of light and heat for our planet, it’s a good thing that we try to understand it. And the Sun is a star, with all that implies: it’s huge in size, and frightening in its energy production.

To better understand it and the complicated nature of its surface activity, NASA launched a pair of satellites that can take pictures of the Sun simultaneously from different angles, providing a 3D view of our nearest star. They’re called the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory, or (haha) STEREO.

One satellite orbits the Sun ahead of the Earth, and the other behind. They stay in the same orbital plane as the Earth does in its travels around the Sun, and that means that sometimes you get interesting geometric situations which arise. The STEREO team realized that there would be a time when the Moon would pass in front of the Sun as seen by one of the spacecraft. Solar eclipses are rare on Earth, but from STEREO’s vantage it would be even more unusual.

From the Earth, the Sun is about 400 times farther away than the Moon, and is also about 400 times the Moon’s physical size. These two characteristics cancel out, meaning the Sun and Moon are about the same apparent size in the sky, so every solar eclipse has the Moon slipping in front of the Sun, with the dark disk of the Moon just barely (if even) covering the bright disk of the Sun.

That is, every solar eclipse as seen from the Earth.

But STEREO was receding from the Earth and Moon. To it, the Moon appeared much smaller than we see it, stuck as we are on the surface of our planet. The Sun, however, was still at about the same distance, and therefore looked the same size as we see it. This means that, to STEREO, the Moon appeared far smaller than the Sun.

Not long after launch, the situation arose that the Moon would pass directly in front of the Sun as seen from one of the spacecraft. STEREO turned its eye that way, and recorded what may be the most remarkable footage of a solar eclipse ever taken.

This sequence shows something we can never see from the Earth: a shrunken Moon passing in front of the Sun. Technically, it’s not even really an eclipse; it’s a transit (when something small crosses in front of something large). That video, only 8 seconds long, is incredible. We see the Sun and Moon literally every day, of course, and it totally shook me to see them look so different.

That’s why I chose this sequence. I love seeing the familiar become unfamiliar, grasping a new perspective on the everyday, the ordinary. You see? There is something new under the Sun.

By the way, STEREO has taken some truly excellent images of the sky, including an astonishing sequence of Comet McNaught.

And the Number One Astronomy Picture of 2007 is…

The Beautiful Face of IC 342

I am a sucker for spiral galaxies, especially ones that are face-on. They are sweeping, majestic, chillingly beautiful, and utterly mesmerizing. There are many such grand design spirals in the sky, and astronomers are almost all familiar with the roster: M81, M51, M101, and others. But there is one that is a bit less seen, less well known. That’s because it hides itself, tucked away in a part of the sky where stars and dust are thick, obscured by the fog of our own Galaxy.

But it is no less gorgeous for being demure.

This creature is IC 342, a nearby spiral lying only 11 million light years away, very close on a galactic scale. If IC342 were located in a region of the sky where our own Milky Way didn’t interfere with the view so much, it would be one of the most celebrated objects in the sky, and would most likely sport a proper name and not just a numerical designation. But because we see it through so much murk, it remains mostly unknown.

What a misfortune! It is a spectacular object. The power of the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak in Arizona reveals the true beauty of this galaxy. Almost all the stars in the image are actually in our Galaxy, much closer than IC 342 (imagine looking out a dirty window to see a bird sitting on a fence to get an idea of what’s going on). But look at it! The arms trace out the births of countless stars, punctuated by glowing red gas as the young stars heat their cocoons. Dark dust lanes hide the stars behind them, mimicking the way the Milky Way dust hides IC 342 itself. You can trace the magnificent arms all the way in to the center, where they meet in a pinwheel of colossal proportions.

In the highest resolution images (click here if you dare!) the picture is even more boggling: you can see far more distant galaxies in the background, some edge-on spirals, and even one ring galaxy. Huge clumps of star-forming regions in IC 342 reveal themselves, and you can spot places where the spiral arms split into separate spurs. Even the foreground stars, so much closer to home, provide a polychromatically spangled vista against which the much more regal spiral lies.

All in all, a devastating picture. The colors, the features, the composition… and it shows us that sometimes, beauty and grandeur can be missed, even when it’s in your own back yard.

And that’s why it’s my Number One Astronomy Picture of 2007.


Comments (218)

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  1. Larry

    Marvelous selection, BA! Unfortunately, the eclipse movie doesn’t seem to be available any longer. Even so, what remains still fills me with wonder about what is out there. The image demonstrating dark matter is simply amazing with the clustering of all those galaxies as well as the final image of IC342. I loaded the entire image and spent some time viewing it at its maximum size. Its like staring down into a well. Looking at even a small patch reveals so many faint and impossibly far-off galaxies.

    It gives me shivers thinking about it.

  2. Christian X Burnham

    Submitted to Reddit. This post is worthy of climbing to the top of both Digg and Reddit.

    A great end of year present from the BA. Thanks.

  3. Heh. I forgot to change the privacy settings on the video. It’s fixed now, and should work. :-)

  4. Re the Mars Reconaissance Image of the ‘skylight’, it’s cool, but the source site doesn’t seem to think it is such a thing. See … and — where the text sez: “This time the pit was imaged from the west. Since the picture was taken at about 2:30 p.m. local (Mars) time, the sun was also shining from the west. We can now see the eastern wall of the pit catching the sunlight… This confirms that this pit is essentially a vertical shaft cut through the lava flows on the flank of the volcano. Such pits form on similar volcanoes in Hawaii and are called “pit craters.” They generally do not connect to long open caverns but are the result of deep underground collapse. From the shadow of the rim cast onto the wall of the pit we can calculate that the pit is at least 78 meters (255 feet) deep. The pit is 150 x 157 meters (492 x 515 feet) across.”

  5. RawheaD

    Great selection! I remember it was one of these Top 10 galleries that first lured me into this site.

    Still, a little surprised that Comet McNaught didn’t make it on the list. Sure, unlike Comet Holmes, McNaught was nothing but a “normal” great comet we’ll get to see (or for us northerners, not see) every 2-3 decades… but some of the pictures I’ve seen were absolutely stunning. In the “maybe not as beautiful, but nonetheless mind-boggling” arena, McNaught also faired well, e.g., with pictures of its tail visible from the northern hemisphere, long after the head of the comet sunk down yonder.

  6. Chris Owen

    Fantastic images, all of them!

    I’m a little surprised that Comet McNaught didn’t get a mention in the 2007 or 2006 images, but comets were featured in both, so I guess it’s alright. 😛 Nevertheless, I’ll go ahead and post some links to various APOD images of it, just for the fun of it! You can never have too many nice astronomy images. 😀

    Keep up the good work! :)

  7. PK

    Thank you, thank you, thank you! For next year, I vote for a top 20…

  8. Navneeth

    That hole in Mars!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    Why didn’t I see that picture before????????????????????????

    I have seen those that show the holes as a black discs on the surface but, details within the tunnel/cavern?! That’s amazing…and to think that it was taken by an orbiter…WOW!

  9. Foretopman

    I think there’s a typo in the length of Mira’s tail. 80 Million miles should probably be 80 TRillion miles.

  10. dh

    …why was there no mention about the rings around uranus?

  11. Christian X Burnham

    So, is the MOND/dark-matter debate largely settled, with dark-matter winning?

  12. Gary Ansorge

    Foretopman: So many trillions would add up to nearly 12 LIGHT YEARS, so I expect the 80 million is accurate.

    I just have to say, it’s a darn good thing I have a 500 GB Hard drive on this iMac, ’cause I have to save these,,,

    Maybe we should send some to Dubya and waken his inner child???

    I agree, spelunking on Mars would be so fracking COOOOLL! I can see a number of good SciFi stories in this,,,

    GAry 7

  13. Phil:
    Thanks for the “Year in Review”! Great stuff.
    This is why Astronomy is the greatest science!
    What pretty pix come out of Chemistry? Biology? (Maybe that new Jerboa?) Geology? Uh, can’t think of any.
    But Astronomy rocks!
    Thanks 10^6!

  14. Oops! No, it’s 80 trillion. The tail is indeed 13 light years long. I fixed it.

    I didn’t realize the hole on Mars isn’t really a cavern. I didn’t find that link until almost literally the last minute (the image I had was “orphaned”, sent to me by a friend) and didn’t read it carefully enough. I’ll fix that section in a moment.

    As for McNaught, I had one in mind, but couldn’t secure permission to use the image. There was another image I liked, but it wasn’t high enough resolution. You can see the pitfalls of creating this list… :-)

  15. Christian X Burnham

    RBD: I’m going to pretend I didn’t read that.

  16. Gareth

    Great pics! Makes me wish I had not given up on astronomy 10 years ago! 😀

  17. RawheaD

    >> but couldn’t secure permission to use the image

    Ahh, I see. I feel better 😉

  18. Chris R.

    So many awesome photos, so few PC desktops!

  19. Colin M

    I’m a bit confused about #7, mostly because time confuses me 😉

    BA says: “They passed each other just as the age of dinosaurs was starting to get going on Earth, 200 million years ago. … The pair is 300 million light years away”

    So does this mean they actually passed each other 500 million years ago, but the light emitted by these galaxies at that time reached Earth during the age of the dinosaurs — 200 million years ago?

    Regarding #3 and billion-pixel digital cameras — people have in fact been collecting billion-pixel images from digicams here on Earth, using a robotic picture-taker and stitching software. See for more details — some of the images there are multiple gigapixels, and truly stunning. My personal favorite is probably this one:

  20. Ivan Seredni

    One of the best top tens I’ve enjoyed.

  21. One more comment re the Mars pit thing: y’know, I know it goes entirely without saying a guy like Phil P would simply fix something like that, when it’s pointed out, but still, I gotta highlight the contrast with a certain other mindset anyway:

    I can think of any number of folk (*cough Hoagland*) who, when choosing between what the evidence actually shows and what they want to believe would absolutely go with the latter. A face on Mars is simply way cooler than no face on Mars, in their opinion, so that’s what they’ll say is there, even when you bring them higher res images debunking it… hell, presumably, even if you were to fly them to the surface and let ’em look around…

    And like a few of us have reflected: it’d be awesome to go spelunking, such a place as that photo shows. No slight is intended against the folk who said so here (I feel exactly the same way), but I can also easily imagine other folk so enthralled with that same vision that they’d pull a Hoagland on this very image, for just that reason. And insist, all evidence to the contrary, to the very end, that yes, that’s still a skylight. And, y’know, that there’s probably a spreading labyrinth of caverns connected to it, right there. Just because, y’know, that’s what they’d *like* to believe. Because it’d be cooler.

    And a guy like Phil P, when you show him the shadow says something different at a different angle of the sun will simply say: oops. Missed that. Sinkhole it is.

    Which is an attitude which, really, is way cooler, so long as I’m on the subject of what’s cool.

  22. nowoo

    “The Vela Supernova Remnant formed when a massive star 800 light years away blew up 11,00 years ago.”

    Looks like you’re missing a zero there.

  23. Steeev

    If the galaxies of Arp 87 had passed each other 200 million years ago, and are 300 million light-years away, we wouldn’t know about it for another 100 million years. Maybe it happened 500 million years ago?

  24. Colin M

    I’m slightly confused by #7.

    BA says: “They passed each other just as the age of dinosaurs was starting to get going on Earth, 200 million years ago. … The pair is 300 million light years away”.

    Does this mean that they actually passed each other 500 million years ago, and that the light produced while they were passing reached each during the age of dinosaurs, 200 million years ago? Time confuses me :(

    Re #3: some people have in fact taken stunning gigapixel photos with their digital cameras here on Earth, thanks to the Gigapan project, which used a robotic picture-taker and software stitching. See for more details. I’m particularly fond of this one:

  25. Bob H

    Wonderful wonderful list. Thanks for doing it again.

  26. Nice collection, Phil!

    But there is a minor misspelling:
    “Weikersheim” without the “c”;)

  27. Nuts. I checked and rechecked for typos, and yt there they are. Grrr.

    I hate to keep fixing them, because every time I edit the post, people who get it through email or an RSS feed get a repeat copy. I’ll save up the list and make the changes later to avoid flooding them. :-)

    So if you find one, comment!

  28. Heather

    I don’t usually like top ten lists, but this one has me spellbound. It was nice to see the objects of some of my fave posts of yours all in one spot. :)

    Was #6 ~really~ a 300 second exposure?!

    Oh, and I’m with PK-definitely a top 20 next year. 😉

  29. Chip

    BA: (About pit crater on Mars) “When I look at this picture my sense of exploration, of wanting to walk into that pit and poke around, is nearly overwhelming. I can’t help thinking that Jules Verne would have felt at home standing at the lip of that crater.”

    Yes. May I come along too? I can translate Mr. Verne’s French. I’ll also sweep up, do the dishes, carry supplies, whatever you need.
    Amazing pictures!

  30. My daughter really loved this. She caught me reading it and was instantly fascinated. Oh what questions a 4 year old comes up with! Blogs like this one I’m sure produce many future astronomers.

  31. Duane

    >>Does this mean that they actually passed each other 500 million years ago, and that the light produced while they were passing reached each during the age of dinosaurs, 200 million years ago? Time confuses me <<

    Me too!

    I believe we reference the event from the time WE observe it. I’m sure there are technical, relativistic (and simply pragmatic) reasons we do this, but I’ll let someone more versed than I explain in more detail.

    Then we’ll BOTH know!

  32. dkary

    Since Phil imlied that others may have different choices, I’d like to throw in one that would make my top 10 list this year. It’s the Carina Star Formation panorama from HST (which Phil featured here a few months ago). Here’s the link to the APOD version:
    If you start looking at the high resolution version it’s easy to get lost for hours in all of the details of this one. I have a large hardcopy that I pass around my classes while I’m talking about star or planet formation and say “Here. This is the sort of environment where star formation happens.”

  33. andy

    #3 is probably my favourite out of those. #7 and #9 are my runner ups.

  34. Volunteer Heliochromologist

    Very nice selection, BA. This annual event is already a classic in my book.

  35. Neil

    I love pretty much all of your posts, Phil. I love the skepticism posts, I love the much needed anti-science watchdogging, and I love the more technical astronomy posts. But this is just…wow. I’ve been looking at cool astronomy pictures since the fifth grade, and it NEVER gets old. Perfect for a yuletide meditation, too. The humbling wonder, the awe I feel must be something like what religious devotees feel in their “spiritual ecstasy,” except the objects of my awe are the real wonders of the universe. Thanks for helping bring them to us here on earth!

    I was not familiar with ring galaxies, so I looked at the full resolution picture of IC 342, and I think I spotted it. Is it the gold colored ring just below and right of IC 342? I would’ve mistaken it for a planetary nebula.

  36. Chip

    Rob C. wrote:
    “My daughter really loved this. She caught me reading it and was instantly fascinated. Oh what questions a 4 year old comes up with! Blogs like this one I’m sure produce many future astronomers.”

    Not presuming to speak for Phil, but this is one of the nicest posts I’ve read on his blog. :)

  37. yoyo

    the best reason I ever seen to be an atheist thank you so very much!

  38. Billions and billions of pixels making up a gallery of galaxies.

    It has been said that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, this quotation is not totally true all the time. Some of the text descriptions, in this thread, make for some very interesting reading along with looking at images that can make one speechless.

  39. Bill Nettles

    What about a calendar? Are there copyright issues with that?

  40. I had actually started to miss the astronomy on here and them BAM!

    No disappointment here.

  41. Though I should point out that, technically, there are 18 days left in 2007, which does not preclude the possibility of a better picture emerging.

  42. Oh, these are great. Why didn’t I find your blog years ago?

  43. During the middle of a boring and repetitive conference call I needed something to keep me awake. This post did not disappoint. The word “awesome” has become a cliche’. It should be reserved for things like this that really do inspire awe.

    Thanks Phil.

  44. Ken

    I love seeing the sun like that. Seeing it as a 3d rotating sphere makes my head feel funny in a good way.

    Glad there were no lunar eclipse pics. Everytime I see that red moon I curse my weak body for sleeping through it.

    //I lie, I want to see the red moon.

  45. So much better than religion.

  46. CM

    Excellent post. Some truly breathtaking images.
    That being said, I have to take issue with the discussion of #4. I’m in no way an expert when it comes to astronomy or astrophysics, but I was under the impression that the existence of dark matter is one (albeit the most popular) among several hypotheses that are attempting to account for large-scale gravitational anomolies. One can certainly doubt the prospects of these alternative hypotheses/models, but saying things like “Many people — who don’t understand the science — claim dark matter doesn’t exist, and that astronomers are making it all up.” is utterly uncharitable and contrary to honest scientific inquiry and debate. I hope this doesn’t come off as overly harsh, but it just annoys me when legitmate debate is passed off as merely the product of ignorance, or perhaps worse.

  47. Jake

    I would have to say that, while these images are breathtaking, The author’s (Bad Astronomer?, sorry I’m new here) descriptions and captions, and sense of awe and wonder, are what drew me in even more. Reminds me of when me and the old man would take a 4″ telescope out in the winters as a kid. He had the same way with words…

  48. Science Teacher

    Beautiful…but what it has to do with being an atheist escapes me.

    I will send my students to this link for some sweet extra-credit goodness.

  49. David

    I just had an astrophysics final, and came out mentally sore and slightly disenchanted with space sciences. Looking at these images reminded me why we choose to do this stuff. This blog is definitely a new addition to my RSS reader. Thanks Phil!

  50. Ragutis

    Fantastic selection, Phil! I’ve really dug many of the HiRISE images, and your #1 is amazing, but the interactive version of the Vela remnant simply takes the cake. Utter slackjawed wonder and awe is the only possible human reaction to that, I reckon.

  51. I never realized that the sun looks like that… Brilliant selection of photos.

  52. Marco_Napolitan_in_Holland

    I would call this collection “shock and awe”…really great shots and compliments for the tough selection. I’m sure it was quite difficult to make choices. I will show this great pictures to my daughter (3 years old) who already loves stars and planets, she will be delighted. Think that she already knows the name of all the solar planets and knows how to find them on the starry night software. Those nerdy kids can really suprise me. The Vela supernova is for me the top, it brings me in a different state of mind and consciousness!!

  53. Art Scott

    Great aesthetic sense.
    Beautiful in so many ways.

  54. schmedrake

    Hi, Phil. I don’t know anything about astronomy. I followed a link to your site to see pretty pictures. 😀

    But I wanted you to know that you did an excellent job of explaining the photos. I not only learned a lot from visiting your site, I was able to see the passion and sheer joy you derive from astronomy, making it more compelling for me as a reader. Thank you so much for that gift!

  55. just amazing! I like galaxy pictures and Mira comet. My mind do not understand these things :(

  56. Doug Ellison

    Not sure which HiRISE image the cool ‘hole’ is from – but I’m fairly sure it isn’t – the hole in that one is not as well lit, nor as detailed as the one in your Top Ten Phil


  57. Stunning photos all, and I really liked the video of the sun.

    Thank you! and happy holidays.

  58. rafael

    Me parecen muy buenas e impresinantes estas imagenes. Felicito al creador de la pagina.
    Rafael Testa, Venezuela

  59. Nigel Depledge

    Ragutis said:
    “Fantastic selection, Phil! I’ve really dug many of the HiRISE images, and your #1 is amazing, but the interactive version of the Vela remnant simply takes the cake. Utter slackjawed wonder and awe is the only possible human reaction to that, I reckon.”


  60. Garyfrom Canada

    Inspired choices BA. MERRY CHRISTMAS!

  61. I’d just like to say great list and I personaly think #3 is the best 😛 and really like #8 as well…

    Maybe it’s just me but looking at the top right hand corner of the high res version from #1 I see something a little wierd… the right of light around the one star looks like it has a square corner cut out of it :S

    I don’t think it was 500 million years ago, I think it “They passed each other just as the age of dinosaurs was starting” implys that it was durring that time that they started to pass and I think he ment in one picture not stitched together as you are refering to.

  62. Colin

    The picture of vela is great, but the first thing I notice is the Schmidt ghost in the upper right.

  63. GM

    Fantastic! Thank you.

  64. I love your blog, and this is the perfect article to show to friends who don’t have the patience to read the regular entries. Some really fantastic things here, and it just shows that even though we’ve “mastered” spaceflight, we still have a long, long way to go.

  65. No evidence of ET life yet?

    Can’t find anybody yet, huh?

    Why do you waste our time like this?


  66. Javier Peralta
  67. RLS in AZ

    Wow, BA! I’m just an interested civilian; linked to your list from and have just spent a most enjoyable, educational and entertaining 90 min reading, viewing and perusing the comments. Thank you very, very much! I would think the reality of our cosmos as seen in these pics would inspire awe in the believer and non-believer equally….words are inadequate. I’m fwding your list to my brother, nephew and several friends who share my general interests and curiosity about the universe we live in. Thanks for a fantastic post and Happy Holidays to you and yours!

  68. Wow,

    Fantastic Photos. Astronomy is fantastic. As technology advances we can understand and learn so much more. I can’t wait till the new wave of telescopes are finished around 2015.

  69. I like the description of Mars as a *place*. It really is a kind of paradigm shift, if you think about it. We will probably visit (and stay) there someday, rather than just observe it.
    Nice job, Phil.

  70. Everytime I see new pictures from astrophotographers and NASA I am always surprised and amazed. It just keeps getting better all the time. Thank you for your list and your passion that helps us to realize how small we truly are physically compared to the other magnificent energies out there in space.

  71. Amazing Universe always brings us surprizes. Very very nice photos.

  72. sasquatch

    Ah..they look like crap. Totally phoney.
    Bah Humbug!

    Just kiddin’…loved ’em.

  73. Jami

    I think one of the things I like most about being a star gazer is how nice it is to get lost in all the wondering. To let the mundane of our self emposed issues fall away and simply enjoy the beauty that is beyond. Thank-you for some dream time and other wordly experience of this list.

  74. Find a new home for the the few sane humans that do not want to come back to the hell called earth.

  75. Kathleen Wilbeck
  76. Jingchun Chen

    Very nice pictures.

    That being said, I also want to say that it is regrettable that the comment

    “Many people — who don’t understand the science — claim dark matter doesn’t exist, and that astronomers are making it all up.”

    was made in the blog. To me, this doesn’t sound like being put forward by a true “skeptic”. If anything, it is a really pale argument in any debating by claiming the other party doesn’t know “the science”.

    Look forward to better science in Astronomy in the new year!

  77. Andri

    i need image / picture satelit in the orbit
    for my training design
    T Q …
    i wait

  78. My thanks too for the effort and knowledge that went into compiling the list (and the also-rans). it brightened my morning more than somewhat.

    However, like Jingchun Chen above, I didn’t find this comment helpful:

    “Many people — who don’t understand the science — claim dark matter doesn’t exist, and that astronomers are making it all up. Well, there’s a giant smoke ring in the sky indicating they are quite wrong.”

    For starters, there are alternative minority theories, such as MOND.

    Secondly, as a devotee of Karl Popper’s philosophy of science, what I have read of “Dark Matter” gives me pause for thought. Popper’s central concept is of scientific method as a series of conjectures and refutations. Scientists make conjectures that generate predictions which can then be tested experimentally. If the experiement agrees with the prediction, then the theory is corroborated, but never proved; there’s always another experiement round the corner which may result in a refutation of the theory. Thus did Newton’s theory of gravitation prove wanting after a few hundred years of nothing but corroborative observations.

    Popper also draws attention to those theories that make tough predictions that then turn out to be correct eg General Relativity predicted that light would be bent around the Sun, an effect that had not been observed at that time.

    Dark Matter theory clearly started life as a patch to hold existing cosmological theories together. Patches are acceptable and sometimes necessary, but Popper counsels caution when the patch creates additional problems of verification. The lack of progress in identifying the Dark Matter is just such a probleem of verification.

    It reminds me of the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture, which provides links between the branches of mathematics known as algebraic geometry and complex analysis. This was stated, without proof, in 1955 and became an important building block for further analysis, but researchers using it always had to state “assuming that the Taniyama-Shimura conjecture is true,” rather like an auditor’s exception to a set of financial accounts. As far as I understand, and the maths involved is beyond all but the most gifted in the field, in 1994, Andrew Wiles proved the T-S conjecture (unlike science, you can prove things in maths as it is an axiomatic structure) on the way to proving Fermat’s Last Theorem and thereby put a whole raft of mathematics on a sounder basis.

    We seem to have be at a similar stage with Dark Matter, but without astronomers acknowledging that it remains a conjecture/hypothesis.

    New evidence seems to be moving in the right direction in terms of Popper’s “conjectures and refutations” model. However, I have read elsewhere that the “…giant smoke ring…” is now viewed with suspicion. The fact that Mr Plait jumps on this piece of evidence with such glee does suggest an underlying insecurity.

    To sum up: “Many people….claim dark matter doesn’t exist…” Well, this person thinks that dark matter is the best candidate around as an explanation of what astronomers observe. So guys: it’s fine to devote your lives to lines of research that depend on the dark matter hypothesis and to win a livelihood based on that assumption. But, please don’t overstate the theoretical verification of your dark matter patch on cosmological theory.

  79. The I-Man

    Trully Awsome!!!!!! And a great many people think we are alone! A Big Space with simple little minds!

  80. My Lord! Awesome photos! Personally I like pictures number 3 and 6 the most. Expecially 6 is really stunning! Great pictures you have found. Thanks for sharing.

  81. Thank you for the wonderful work! I know nothing about astronomy, but I look at the sky every night with awe. I love how you manage to write about the most complex mysteries of astrophysics in a way that even I can understand and enjoy what you’re talking about.

  82. jgirvine

    All I can say is; Wow. Thanks for compiling this list, I had a great time looking through the pictures, amazed.

  83. Madi

    First off, I’m not an astronomer, I’m an archaeologist, so my astronomy knowledge is limited to the more cultural aspects.

    Anyway, I clicked on the huge, honkin’ IC342 picture, and started looking at it in detail. When I got to the extreme right of the very top aspect, I found something rather odd. There’s a very large, bright double star system (the two are almost “touching”) with several smaller stars around it. Then, about half an “inch” to the left of it, there’s smaller star not quite parallel to the bigger two. Anyway, in between the two, there’s a black, “right angle” square-ish looking thing that cuts into the light of the larger star system. The smaller star looks to be in front of it, along the top line of the right angle (one line is horizontal and the other is vertical, making a fairly close looking right angle). I’m nowhere close to an astronomer, but I’ve never heard of a real “right angle” in astronomical pictures, outside of the red system that apparently almost as close to geometically perfect as possible.

    But it’s just such an odd looking thing that I had to ask about it. It could be a trick with the camera or I’m just seeing things that aren’t there (like a mirage). At any rate, I did want to ask about it, because it is very strange looking. It’s just “black,” but you can make thefaint outline of something with definition. My guess is that it is a glitch in either the camera or the editing process, but that’s just me.


  84. Scott Florance

    The universe is about 42.777 trillion light years times 81 in size. There are about 938 universis around ours . Ours is mostly jade green with magneta color with only 3% of the galaxies in our universe having life in them. 201 of the other universis contain oxygen

  85. 3% of the galaxies in our universe have life? Aren’t we still without evidence of life anywhere else but our galaxy; and planet? I figure I would have heard about more life on the news.

  86. wilfrido

    good work,good pictures

  87. Great pix, great site!
    You should check out the work of an artist called Peter Mckay – he makes images like this with potatoes and cellophane in his bedroom!

  88. This is so amazing! I like number 8 very much.

  89. The images are heavenly.

  90. Juan Castillo R.

    In Spanish:
    ¿A quién le interesa?
    ¿por qué cuando se muestran fotografías de galaxias estrellas, planetas o cuerpos espaciales lejanos, no aparecen aquellos que debieran aparecer en primer plano?

  91. Charo

    Gracias por el esfuerzo de vuestro trabajo que nos permite apreciar que hermoso y grande es nuestro sistema solar, he visitado esta página con mi sobrina que está en el colegio, nosotras somos de Lima y sería muy interesante que pudeiran de alguna manera tener una traductor de vuestra página para poder leer y conocer con detalle todo lo que escriben detallando los conocimientos que tiene a la fecha del universo.
    Felicidades !!!

  92. This is absolutely beautiful. Quality in the web… Thank you very much to give sense to this invention: internet… Thank you, thanks again. Apart of more sensations, one of my feelings after read and look with atention your work, is that it helps me to understand our Creator. I am a believer and things like this drawn me closer to the Wise and Brilliant mind of God. Please, I’d like to read more about it. You have a lovely dedication.

  93. charlotte

    It makes mi so small and so big in the same time!!!

  94. These images are very beautiful and many of the descriptions is to know. I like space and everything associated with it
    although I 11m, as is Lithuania.
    But I have a telescope, and is sometimes seen through it, but not Don ‘t go, I observe in these photos. I prefer to fly away into space, it is my dream (:

  95. Amazing really amazing, space has something special… I really like number 3

  96. BatMan on Drugs
  97. From Malaysia

    Real amazing. I like all of it.

  98. Fantastic Photos. Astronomy is fantastic. As technology advances we can understand and learn so much more. I can’t wait till the new wave of telescopes are finished around 2015.

  99. hi guys and gals,

    i love this space out pictures. they remind that how small we are.

    i wrote a song about the face of mars. in this song, humans species betrayed the martians and left them all to die on the dying planet. an ark was built for every living creatures that believe that they can live on sharing the planet earth together. the martians were betrayed. on the last attempt of their lives, they built a landmark as a reminder of their face that we are only able to view on 1976. up to this day, the humans are unable to live in peace together. greed is still with them. please visit

    if you want to hear the song.

    warm regards,


    p.s. yes, i’m full of fantasises and fictions, believe me.

  100. tryme

    Look at these and try to tell me There isn’t a God out there

  101. I have a huge crush on most of the cosmos pictures. Fantastic photos indeed

  102. The black whole is something that I find hard to understand even I”ve read a lot about it


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