Favorite Pictures of the Universe

By JoAnne Hewett | June 12, 2006 9:21 pm

I’m at an all day meeting, not nearly as fun as SUSY06, but one of those things where you are locked in a windowless room all day with endless discussion about the future of particle physics. I’m sitting in the middle of a gang of astrophysicists, so I have pleasant company and can enjoy discussions during our breaks. Speaking of breaks, we could use a pleasant one on this blog right now, so I’ve asked each of my astro colleagues for their favorite pretty astronomy picture. Here are the results:

The Horsehead Nebula (taken taken with the NOAO Mosaic CCD camera on the 0.9-meter telescope located at Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tucson, AZ.):

The Sombrero Galaxy (taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2003):

The galaxy cluster Abell 1689 (taken by the Hubble Space Telescope)

This last one is a spectacular example of gravitational lensing. The arc-like pattern spread across the picture like a spider web is an illusion caused by the gravitational field of the cluster. The cluster is so massive and compact that light rays passing through it are deflected by its gravitational field, much as an optical lens bends light to form an image. The process magnifies, brightens and distorts images of objects that lie far beyond the cluster and makes very faint and distant objects visible.

The universe is amazing, isn’t it! Thanks to my colleagues Andy Albrecht (UCDavis), Bill Carithers (LBNL), and Steve Ritz (NASA-Goddard)!!

  • Supernova

    Nice collection of excellent images! Here’s one of my recent favorites (lots more excellent astropix at this site too):

    Comet Meets Ring Nebula

  • Moshe

    Pretty! those would make some nice Cosmic Variance T-shirts (yes, it is good time to think merchandisng).

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/02/space-final-frontier.html Plato

    The gallery of Hubble sure has some amazing pictures, besides the favorites of the people you are working with.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    More great pictures here in the comment thread. YES! Keep sending them in….

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Don’t forget Spitzer! (link to their gallery).

    Closer to home,
    This is the zodiacal light, framed by Hale-Bopp, Mercury, and Pleiades from the slopes of Stromboli. (this pic by Fulle became the cover of the Interplanetary Dust book by Springer Verlag, 2001). It’s a graphic demonstration of a solar system object (zodical cloud) and one of the main contributors to the cloud (comets).

    Old pictures that don’t qualify for the pretty contest, but instead conveys the excitement of scientific discoveries: Voyager2 at Jupiter: A Human’s First Snapshots of Another World.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    sorry for last link, it is here: http://www.amara.com/vgr2/vgr2@Jup.html

  • Navneeth

    I find it very difficult choosing a favourite astro-pic. One of my all-time favourites is that of Jupiter taken by the Cassini probe during its flyby of the planet in 2000.


    (not exactly “a picture of the Universe” – I guess only the COBE and WMAP pics would come under that category 😛 )

    The Abell 2218 is definitely an amazing picture. It stayed as my desktop background for sometime after the press release. SOHO wonderfully captures images of the sun in all it’s glory. And, of course, there are the unforgettable images of the Pillars of Creation (M16), the Hubble Deep Field and the Ultra Deep Field.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    The previous Spitzer link was the ‘Legacy’, the larger and more spectacular/interesting collection of public release images is here.

  • Supernova

    Ah, the Jupiter picture reminded me of another classic:

    Impact on Jupiter

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    And that (Impact G) science.

  • Olli

    Not to be picky, but the cluster is Abell 1689, not Abell 2218 (which is also great).

  • Navneeth

    Supernova on Jun 13th, 2006 at 2:11 am

    Ah, the Jupiter picture reminded me of another classic:

    Impact on Jupiter

    I don’t think I’ve seen that one before. Thanks for the link. :)

  • http://brahms.phy.vanderbilt.edu/~rknop/blog/ Rob Knop

    I believe that the aspect ratio on your lensing cluster image is mucked up — I could be wrong, but I think you’ve set the size tags for the image to squeeze it horizontally.

  • Vince

    What about pictures of the Andromeda galaxy? Those are the best!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Rob was right, and I fixed the aspect ratios. (No need to separately specify height and width; do one and the other is automatic.) I will also take the opportunity to plug Andromeda in the infrared:


  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/joanne/ JoAnne

    Thanks, Sean, I am only slowly moving out of the point & click era.

    Olli, thanks as well. My source had sent me the photo separately and then to the nasa web site for Abell 2218 for explanation, hence the confusion.

  • stevem

    I have the Horsehead Nebula on one wall of my study and the supernova remnant in Vela on the other. For some stunning images check out the space art portfolio of Don Dixon, who was also an artist who worked on C Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ series. Click on the link then the numbers listed there:


  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Some nearby objects can be seen using binoculars. The Andromeda galaxy is the most distant object that can be seen with the naked eye, see here where to look>

    Andromeda is M31. The galaxy M33 can be seen using a binocular. It is easiest to first try to spot Pegasus, which is a big square in the sky. Around this time of the year this will appear in the Eastern sky late in the evening. The top left corner of the square is the star Sirrah that is depicted in the chart.

    The galaxies M51 and M101 are not too difficult to spot using a binocular. They are close to the big dipper constellation see here for the map

    I think that M51 is the most distant object you can se using a binocular at a distant of 31 million lightyears.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Vince: Here is a Multiwavelength Andromeda for you.

  • Harv

    Actually, Count Iblis, M33 can also be seen naked eye. (of course, a really dark site is needed for this)

    My favorite pictures are:

    Hubble’s Tadpole Galaxy (UGC 10214) picture: (also one of the deepest images taken with Hubble – so fascinating to look at the background too)

    The Antennae Galaxies (NGC 4038/9)

    These are both galaxies that I have studied or are studying now for my thesis.

    The Antennae Galaxy picture came out during my first semester of undergrad and my mom sent me the picture from the local paper back home which I put on my dorm room wall. I realized suddenly my senior year that I was studying that galaxy! A great feeling!

    The Tadpole picture helped me formulate my thesis project.

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ quasar9

    WOW! Magic Post JoAnne, Celestial, Majestic, Divine, inspiring. The sombrero should be called somethin like: “The Diamond of Rings”. The horse nebula, well running with horses: “The Wings of Pegasus”

    Thank you all for all the other links to Magic moments, Visions & Sights. Q

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Here is a beautiful combination to span the birth and death of stars. The birth: The Orion Nebula (M42): http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/newsdesk/archive/releases/2006/01/image/a+zoom (an interactive image) and the death: The Crab Nebula (M1): http://www.ewellobservatory.com/astronomy/interactives/crab/ m1zoom.html (an interactive Image). They are in the same relative region of the sky. Here is a sky map (1.8Mb) from my location in Rome, two years ago that could be useful, look for the M1 and M42 markers, and here is some M1 and M42 text (from my astro100 course) for interested observers to learn more about these two objects.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    long URLs are hard: the second had an extra space. Here it is again.

  • quasar9

    Breathtaking! Thanks Amara. -Q

  • http://www.jumplive.com chimpanzee

    Amateur Astrophotogray is a hobby of mine, my photos have been used in physics/astronomy texts. Even got calls from York Films (UK) [ they do a lot of Science shows you see on Discovery & Science channels ], wanting a meteor shot & eclipse shot (for program on Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity..the 1919 Eddington eclipse expeidtion).

    I’m known for my comet+landscape “renderings”, that’s what Dr. Richard West/ESO (European Southern Observatory head) calls it.

    M31 & M33..standard stuff.

    The challenge among amateur astrophotographers, are FAINT objects. A well known amateur using film-camera got the Stephan’s Quintet galaxy cluster in a MANUALLY-GUIDED 4 hr exposure. Yeah, he started at the guiding eyepiece for FOUR hrs. These days, they have CCD-based auto-guiders, so this kind of stuff is easy: just goto bed, set the alarm for 2 hrs (or whatever exposure you want), wakeup & stop the exposure. Whoal, plug&play astrophotography!

  • http://jenniferhead.cfa.harvard.edu Jennifer

    The latest x-ray image of Andromeda, from Chandra and beautiful:

    My favorite image is of the Whirlpool galaxy, I think M51, from Lick observatory, I found a photo in their teeny tiny gift shop on my first ever observing run…I cannot find it online, but it is beautiful and looks like a mama galaxy holding hands (ok, arms) with a baby galaxy…

    It’s funny, sometimes in astrophysics there is an interesting reaction to pretty images like these – in my old press job for Chandra I heard “but it’s just a pretty picture” on occasion from scientists, as a complaint against a press release. But I think that pretty pictures are dead useful, in many ways, first of which are motivation and curiosity. I remember when the Crab was first observed (1999 I think) with Chandra and two of my professors at Santa Barbara printed out that gorgeous image with a big swirling donut around a tiny dot and long thin-ish jets perpendicular to the donut. The desire to figure out what in the world was going on in that system got so much stronger when that image came out. Plus it was beautiful and inspiring, it was all in purple (I know it was false color but still) and I loved having it up on the wall in front of me, it’s nice to live in a universe that has so much beauty in it.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis


    I’ve never succeeded in seeing M33 with the naked eye, there is too much light pollution here. Some of my friends did manage to see it and also the globular cluster M13 with the naked eye while on vacation in southern France.

    Chimpanzee, that looks like more than “just a hobby” :)

    M31 is indeed easy stuff, but it is used to be a challenge to let it see to someone who isn’t familiar with the night sky. It’s a bit easier now using green laser pointers

    If people have seen M31, M33, M51 etc. with their own binoculars they can appreciate more your pictures and the images from Hubble. :)

  • http://jenniferhead.cfa.harvard.edu Jennifer

    Wow, just looked at Chimpanzee’s Hale-Bopp images, seriously beautiful, especially the one with a cactus in the frame….

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    Jennifer: The Whirlpool galaxy (M51) is a beautiful galaxy to show to people for another reason in addition to aesthetics: there’s an interesting piece of science that you can teach because two galaxies are colliding. You can ask: why do galaxies collide but stars rarely collide? This is a proof that can be understood by young people once you show the radii of the objects and the distances between. Here is the NOAO web site of beautiful images: there are several lovely M51 images there. http://www.noao.edu/image_gallery/galaxies.html

    When I want to introduce new people to astronomy one thought I keep in my mind is to inject “movement” into the description because astronomy in pictures usually give an impression of something static. Pretty, but it could be boring to the viewer, dependent on the age of the person. Ten year old kids like lots of explosions, so showing movies of the prominences on the Sun works well. Teenagers and older become more interested when the astronomy is exotic like black holes and time travel through white-holes, living on neutron stars, etc. So colliding galaxies shows a lot of movement, sparking extra interest in the viewer, and teaches some simple scale relationships at the same time.

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    P.S. This 42 hour exposure of M51 I just found is stunning: http://www.universetoday.com/am/publish/m51_052106.html

  • quasar9

    I have to agree M51 stunning. Thanks!

  • http://www.philipdowney.com Philip Downey

    It’s odd how everyone has focused on professional telescopes. They all have very narrow fields of view, which always limits them to one object, or a zillion faint ones in the case of lensed clusters. Even the Hubble galaxy shots are composites of multiple images.

    It’s all great detail, but only amateurs with smaller telescopes can get stunning wide field views (admittedly a composite image):


  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ quasar9

    Hi philip great link.

    PS: “Photons captured by me and redistributed to you” great title. Great stuff! on your photography pages. Q

  • http://jenniferhead.cfa.harvard.edu Jennifer

    Amara thanks for the links, the images are beautiful….I agree with you, images of objects with dynamics that we understand are a great way to teach science, especially colliding or exploding objects. I found that kids tend to like the “when” question too – as in how long before they crash? And what’s going to happen at the end? I like to say that at the end they’ll turn into a big egg of a galaxy if they evolve the way we think they do. And then pop up images of ellipticals. But ellipticals are not quite as fascinating…

    Philip, gorgeous pictures….

  • citrine

    To me, the most spectacular Astronomical images are the ones dealing with the birth and death of stars. Besides being visually wondrous, they convey an idea of the forces that keep the Universe running.

    These picture DO speak a thousand words or more!! I became interested in the Physical sciences after seeing Astronomical images. I think that these pics are a great motivational tool for Science educators.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    When Hubble was just launched and it transpired that it wasn’t working well, there was a cartoon in some journal (I think it was American Scientist) about the Hubble pictures. It showed a warped image of Saturn, some other deformed/warped objects. Then the Hubble looked down at Earth and a deformed picture of the angry taxpayers was shown :)

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    HST was a joke outside of the US too, in those early times. In July 1991, I visited Estonia’s Tartu Observatory and saw an exhibit in the front lobby that showed the amount of money spent and the condition of HST. Even though the language escaped me, the idea of the exhibit was clear.

  • Navneeth

    Here’s another favourite of mine from one of my favourite (advanced) amateurs, Jay Ballauer.


    And this is a picture of comet Machholz “shooting out” of the Pleiades.


  • Cynthia

    Amara thanks also for the link from your comment#30…

    When the author of this article made a passing reference to “falling trees,” I became reminded of a typical Einstein-like question being posed to Bohr: “If a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody around to hear it, does it still make a sound?” When Einstein expressed disdain for the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, I still – at times – find myself becoming quite empathetic towards his conviction: the conviction to reveal a deeper truth in the universe. Moreover, when my thoughts become unconstrained, I find myself wondering: How, what, when, where and why does the quantum world distinguish itself from the classical world? Perhaps I simply having a childish moment with a set of childish questions…

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Thank you HST!

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Asteroid XP14 flyby this Monday

    Take Monday off to sleep in, if you have a 4.5-inch or larger telescope this will be worth checking out. 2004 XP14 will appear to be about 11th magnitude, and it will cross more than 7 arc-seconds per second. It will be crossing an angle equivalent to the size of the full moon in less than ten minutes. To find it, pick a star from the chart that is within one eyepiece radius of the asteroid’s path, and wait for it to swing through.


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