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Planets and Planetary Nebulae

Most pics courtesy of NASA

3D View Of Jupiter's Clouds

Nightside view of Saturn

          Explanation:  From a spectacular vantage point over 1.4 billion kilometers from the sun, the Voyager 1 spacecraft looked back toward the inner solar system to record this startling view of Saturn's nightside.  The picture was taken on November 16, 1980, some four days after the robot spacecraft's closest approach to the gorgeous gas giant.  The crescent planet casts a broad shadow across its bright rings while the translucent rings themselves can be seen to cast a shadow on Saturn's cloud tops.  Since Earth is closer to the sun than Saturn, only Saturn's dayside is visible to Earth-bound telescopes which could never take a picture like this one.  After this successful flyby two decades ago, Voyager 1 has continued outward bound and is presently humanity's most distant spacecraft.  The next spacecraft to approach Saturn will be Cassini, on course to arrive in 2004.


Mercury on the Horizon

Credit:  Juan Carlos Casado

          Explanation:  Have you ever seen the planet Mercury?  Because Mercury orbits so close to the Sun, it is never seen far from the Sun, and so is only visible near sunrise or sunset.  If trailing the Sun, Mercury will be visible for several minutes before it follows the Sun behind the Earth.  If leading the Sun, Mercury will be visible for only minutes before the Sun rises and hides it with increasing glare.  An informed skygazer can usually pick Mercury out of a dark horizon glow with little more than determination.  Above, a lot of determination has been combined with a little digital trickery to show Mercury's successive positions during the middle of February, 2000.  Each picture was taken from the same location in Spain when the Sun was 10 degrees below the horizon and superimposed on the single most photogenic sunset.

Shapley 1:  Annular Planetary Nebula

Credit & Copyright:  D. Malin (AAO), AATB

          Explanation:  What happens when a star runs out of nuclear fuel?  The center condenses into a white dwarf while the outer atmospheric layers are expelled into space and appear as a planetary nebula.  This particular planetary nebula, designated Shapley 1 after the famous astronomer Harlow Shapley, has a very apparent annular ring-like structure.  Although some of these nebulae appear like planets on the sky (hence their name), they actually surround stars far outside our Solar System.

NGC 3132:  The Eight Burst Nebula

Credit:  Hubble Heritage Team (AURA/STScI /NASA)

          Explanation:  It's the dim star, not the bright one, near the center of NGC 3132 that created this odd but beautiful planetary nebula.  Nicknamed the Eight-Burst Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula, the glowing gas originated in the outer layers of a star like our Sun.  In this representative color picture, the hot blue pool of light seen surrounding this binary system is energized by the hot surface of the faint star.  Although photographed to explore unusual symmetries, it's the asymmetries that help make this planetary nebula so intriguing.  Neither the unusual shape of the surrounding cooler shell nor the structure and placements of the cool filamentary dust lanes running across NGC 3132 are well understood.

The Cygnus Loop

Credit:  J. Hester (ASU), NASA

          Explanation:  The shockwave from a 20,000 year-old supernova in the constellation of Cygnus supernova explosion is still expanding into interstellar space.  The collision of this fast moving wall of gas with a stationary cloud has heated it, causing it to glow in visible as well as high energy radiation, producing the nebula known as the Cygnus Loop (NGC 6960/95).  The nebula is located a mere 1,400 light-years away.  The colors used here indicate emission from different kinds of atoms excited by the shock:  oxygen-blue, sulfur-red, and hydrogen-green.  This picture was taken with the Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 on board the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Pulsar Powered Crab

Credit:  J. Hester & P. Scowen (ASU), NASA

          Explanation:  In the summer of 1054 A.D., Chinese astronomers reported that a star in the constellation of Taurus suddenly became as bright as the full Moon.  Fading slowly, it remained visible for over a year.  It is now understood that a spectacular supernova explosion - the detonation of a massive star whose remains are now visible as the Crab Nebula - was responsible for the apparition.  The core of the star collapsed to form a rotating neutron star or pulsar, one of the most exotic objects known to modern astronomers.  Like a cosmic lighthouse, the rotating Crab pulsar generates beams of radio, visible, x-ray and gamma-ray energy which, as the name suggests, produce pulses as they sweep across our view.  Using a stunning series of visible light images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, astronomers have discovered spectacular pulsar powered motions within the Crab nebula.  Highlights of this HST Crab "movie" show wisps of material moving away from the pulsar at half the speed of light, a scintillating halo, and an intense knot of emission dancing, sprite-like, above the pulsar's pole.  Only 10 kilometers wide but more massive than the sun, the pulsar's energy drives the dynamics and emission of the nebula itself which is more than 10 light-years across.

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