SS 433 is one of the most exotic star systems known. Its unremarkable name stems from its inclusion in a catalog of Milky Way stars which emit radiation characteristic of atomic hydrogen. Its remarkable behavior stems from a compact object, a black hole or neutron star, which has produced an accretion disk with jets. Because the disk and jets from SS 433 resemble those surrounding supermassive black holes in the centers of distant galaxies, SS 433 is considered a micro-quasar. As illustrated in the animated featured video based on observational data, a massive, hot, normal star is locked in orbit with the compact object. As the video starts, material is shown being gravitationally ripped from the normal star and falling onto an accretion disk. The central star also blasts out jets of ionized gas in opposite directions – each at about 1/4 the speed of light. The video then pans out to show a top view of the precessing jets producing an expanding spiral. From even greater distances, the dissipating jets are then visualized near the heart of supernova remnant W50. Two years ago, SS 433 was unexpectedly found by the HAWC detector array in Mexico to emit unusually high energy (TeV-range) gamma-rays. Surprises continue, as a recent analysis of archival data taken by NASA’s Fermi satellite find a gamma-ray source — separated from the central stars as shown — that pulses in gamma-rays with a period of 162 days – the same as SS 433’s jet precession period – for reasons yet unknown. [via NASA]

NGC 6357: Cathedral to Massive Stars

How massive can a normal star be? Estimates made from distance, brightness and standard solar models had given one star in the open cluster Pismis 24 over 200 times the mass of our Sun, making it one of the most massive stars known. This star is the brightest object located just above the gas front in the featured image. Close inspection of images taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, however, have shown that Pismis 24-1 derives its brilliant luminosity not from a single star but from three at least. Component stars would still remain near 100 solar masses, making them among the more massive stars currently on record. Toward the bottom of the image, stars are still forming in the associated emission nebula NGC 6357. Appearing perhaps like a Gothic cathedral, energetic stars near the center appear to be breaking out and illuminating a spectacular cocoon. [via NASA]

Martian Chiaroscuro

Deep shadows create dramatic contrasts between light and dark in this high-resolution close-up of the martian surface. Recorded on January 24, 2014 by the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the scene spans about 1.5 kilometers. From 250 kilometers above the Red Planet the camera is looking down at a sand dune field in a southern highlands crater. Captured when the Sun was about 5 degrees above the local horizon, only the dune crests were caught in full sunlight. A long, cold winter was coming to the southern hemisphere and bright ridges of seasonal frost line the martian dunes. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, one of the oldest operating spacecraft at the Red Planet, celebrated the 15th anniversary of its launch from planet Earth on August 12. [via NASA]

The Valley of Orion

This exciting and unfamiliar view of the Orion Nebula is a visualization based on astronomical data and movie rendering techniques. Up close and personal with a famous stellar nursery normally seen from 1,500 light-years away, the digitally modeled frame transitions from a visible light representation based on Hubble data on the left to infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope on the right. The perspective at the center looks along a valley over a light-year wide, in the wall of the region’s giant molecular cloud. Orion’s valley ends in a cavity carved by the energetic winds and radiation of the massive central stars of the Trapezium star cluster. The single frame is part of a multiwavelength, three-dimensional video that lets the viewer experience an immersive, three minute flight through the Great Nebula of Orion. [via NASA]

Shell Galaxies in Pisces

This intergalactic skyscape features a peculiar system of galaxies cataloged as Arp 227 some 100 million light-years distant. Swimming within the boundaries of the constellation Pisces, Arp 227 consists of the two galaxies prominent right of center, the curious shell galaxy NGC 474 and its blue, spiral-armed neighbor NGC 470. The faint, wide arcs or shells of NGC 474 could have been formed by a gravitational encounter with neighbor NGC 470. Alternately the shells could be caused by a merger with a smaller galaxy producing an effect analogous to ripples across the surface of a pond. The large galaxy on the top lefthand side of the deep image, NGC 467, appears to be surrounded by faint shells too, evidence of another interacting galaxy system. Intriguing background galaxies are scattered around the field that also includes spiky foreground stars. Of course, those stars lie well within our own Milky Way Galaxy. The field of view spans 25 arc minutes or about 1/2 degree on the sky. [via NASA]

What would it look like to circle a black hole? If the black hole was surrounded by a swirling disk of glowing and accreting gas, then the great gravity of the black hole would deflect light emitted by the disk to make it look very unusual. The featured animated video gives a visualization. The video starts with you, the observer, looking toward the black hole from just above the plane of the accretion disk. Surrounding the central black hole is a thin circular image of the orbiting disk that marks the position of the photon sphere — inside of which lies the black hole’s event horizon. Toward the left, parts of the large main image of the disk appear brighter as they move toward you. As the video continues, you loop over the black hole, soon looking down from the top, then passing through the disk plane on the far side, then returning to your original vantage point. The accretion disk does some interesting image inversions — but never appears flat. Visualizations such as this are particularly relevant today as black holes are being imaged in unprecedented detail by the Event Horizon Telescope. [via NASA]

How come the crescent Moon doesn’t look like this? For one reason, because your eyes can’t simultaneously discern bright and dark regions like this. Called earthshine or the da Vinci glow, the unlit part of a crescent Moon is visible but usually hard to see because it is much dimmer than the sunlit arc. In our digital age, however, the differences in brightness can be artificially reduced. The featured image is actually a digital composite of 15 short exposures of the bright crescent, and 14 longer exposures of the dim remainder. The origin of the da Vinci glow, as explained by Leonardo da Vinci about 510 years ago, is sunlight reflected first by the Earth to the Moon, and then back from the Moon to the Earth. [via NASA]

The Helix Nebula from Blanco and Hubble

How did a star create the Helix nebula? The shapes of planetary nebula like the Helix are important because they likely hold clues to how stars like the Sun end their lives. Observations by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope and the 4-meter Blanco Telescope in Chile, however, have shown the Helix is not really a simple helix. Rather, it incorporates two nearly perpendicular disks as well as arcs, shocks, and even features not well understood. Even so, many strikingly geometric symmetries remain. How a single Sun-like star created such beautiful yet geometric complexity is a topic of research. The Helix Nebula is the nearest planetary nebula to Earth, lies only about 700 light years away toward the constellation of Aquarius, and spans about 3 light-years. [via NASA]

Yogi And Friends in 3D

From July of 1997, a ramp from the Pathfinder lander, the Sojourner robot rover, airbags, a couch, Barnacle Bill and Yogi Rock appear together in this 3D stereo view of the surface of Mars. Barnacle Bill is the rock just left of the solar-paneled Sojourner. Yogi is the big friendly-looking boulder at top right. The “couch” is the angular rock shape visible near center on the horizon. Look at the image with red/blue glasses (or just hold a piece of clear red plastic over your left eye and blue or green over your right) to get the dramatic 3D perspective. The stereo view was recorded by the remarkable Imager for Mars Pathfinder (IMP) camera. The IMP had two optical paths for stereo imaging and ranging and was equipped with an array of color filters for spectral analysis. Operating as the first astronomical observatory on Mars, the IMP also recorded images of the Sun and Deimos, the smallest of Mars’ two tiny moons. This July saw the launch of NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover on a mission to the Red Planet. [via NASA]

Unwinding M51

The arms of a grand design spiral galaxy 60,000 light-years across are unwound in this digital transformation of the magnificent 2005 Hubble Space Telescope portrait of M51. In fact, M51 is one of the original spiral nebulae, its winding arms described by a mathematical curve known as a logarithmic spiral, a spiral whose separation grows in a geometric way with increasing distance from the center. Applying logarithms to shift the pixel coordinates in the Hubble image relative to the center of M51 maps the galaxy’s spiral arms into diagonal straight lines. The transformed image dramatically shows the arms themselves are traced by star formation, lined with pinkish starforming regions and young blue star clusters. Companion galaxy NGC 5195 (top) seems to alter the track of the arm in front of it though, and itself remains relatively unaffected by this unwinding of M51. Also known as the spira mirabilis, logarthimic spirals can be found in nature on all scales. For example, logarithmic spirals can also describe hurricanes, the tracks of subatomic particles in a bubble chamber and, of course, cauliflower. [via NASA]