Explanation: The Great Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda (aka M31), a mere 2.5 million light-years distant, is the closest large spiral to our own Milky Way. Andromeda is visible to the unaided eye as a small, faint, fuzzy patch, but because its surface brightness is so low, casual skygazers can’t appreciate the galaxy’s impressive extent in planet Earth’s sky. This entertaining composite image compares the angular size of the nearby galaxy to a brighter, more familiar celestial sight. In it, a deep exposure of Andromeda, tracing beautiful blue star clusters in spiral arms far beyond the bright yellow core, is combined with a typical view of a nearly full Moon. Shown at the same angular scale, the Moon covers about 1/2 degree on the sky, while the galaxy is clearly several times that size. The deep Andromeda exposure also includes two bright satellite galaxies, M32 and M110 (bottom).
Explanation: This intriguing monument can be found in Taiwan between the cities of Hualian and Taitong. Split into two sides, it straddles a special circle of latitude on planet Earth, near 23.5 degrees north, known as the Tropic of Cancer. Points along the Tropic of Cancer are the northernmost locations where the Sun can pass directly overhead, an event that occurs once a year during the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice. The latitude that defines the Tropic of Cancer corresponds to the tilt of planet Earth’s rotation axis with respect to its orbital plane. The name refers to the zodiacal constellation Cancer the Crab. Historically the Sun’s position was within Cancer during the northern summer solstice, but because of the precession of Earth’s axis, that solstice Sun is currently within the boundaries of Taurus. In this starry night scene the otherwise all white structure is colored by city lights, with its orange side just south of the Tropic of Cancer and the white side just north. Of course, there is a southern hemisphere counterpart of the Tropic of Cancer. It’s called the Tropic of Capricorn.
Explanation: A careful look at this colorful cosmic snapshot reveals a surprising number of galaxies both near and far toward the constellation Ursa Major. The most striking is NGC 3718, the warped spiral galaxy near picture center. NGC 3718’s spiral arms look twisted and extended, mottled with young blue star clusters. Drawn out dust lanes obscure its yellowish central regions. A mere 150 thousand light-years to the right is another large spiral galaxy, NGC 3729. The two are likely interacting gravitationally, accounting for the peculiar appearance of NGC 3718. While this galaxy pair lies about 52 million light-years away, the remarkable Hickson Group 56 can also be seen clustered above NGC 3718, near the top of the frame. Hickson Group 56 consists of five interacting galaxies and lies over 400 million light-years away. This picture was chosen as the overall winner in the 2013 David Malin Astrophotography Competition.
Explanation: Like the downtown area of your favorite city and any self-respecting web site … Io’s surface is constantly under construction. This moon of Jupiter holds the distinction of being the Solar System’s most volcanically active body — its bizarre looking surface continuously formed and reformed by lava flows. Generated using 1996 data from NASA’s Galileo spacecraft, this high resolution composite image is centered on the side of Io that always faces away from Jupiter. It has been enhanced to emphasize Io’s surface brightness and color variations, revealing features as small as 1.5 miles across. The notable absence of impact craters suggests that the entire surface is covered with new volcanic deposits much more rapidly than craters are created. What drives this volcanic powerhouse? A likely energy source is the changing gravitational tides caused by Jupiter and the other Galilean moons as Io orbits the massive gas giant planet. Heating Io’s interior, the pumping tides would generate the sulfurous volcanic activity.
Explanation: Strange shapes and textures can be found in neighborhood of the Cone Nebula. The unusual shapes originate from fine interstellar dust reacting in complex ways with the energetic light and hot gas being expelled by the young stars. The brightest star on the right of the above picture is S Mon, while the region just below it has been nicknamed the Fox Fur Nebula for its color and structure. The blue glow directly surrounding S Mon results from reflection, where neighboring dust reflects light from the bright star. The red glow that encompasses the whole region results not only from dust reflection but also emission from hydrogen gas ionized by starlight. S Mon is part of a young open cluster of stars named NGC 2264, located about 2500 light years away toward the constellation of the Unicorn (Monoceros). Even though it points right at S Mon, details of the origin of the mysterious geometric Cone Nebula, visible on the far left, remain a mystery.