Choosing these images every year is tough, but this year there was one shot so outstanding that as soon as I saw it, I knew it would be Number One!
This jaw-dropping picture - an insanely huge mosaic of 32 pictures taken by astrophotographer and amateur astronomer Rogelio Andreo - is Orion... the whole constellation!
[Here is a higher-res version
- 4000 x 2600 pixels! - hosted on Flickr, or you can get it from his site itself
.] If you look carefully you'll spot the familiar stars: orange Betelgeuse in the upper left, blue-white Rigel on the lower right, and his famous three belt stars in the middle.
If you have trouble seeing the pattern of stars, it's not surprising. Rogelio used filters that show stars, but which also accentuate the vast amount of hydrogen gas in this part of the galaxy. The glowing nebulosity almost outshines the stars themselves!
How about a short tour? There's a lot to see:
At the top of the picture is the Lambda Orionis nebula, the huge red cloud straddling Orion's shoulders. The blue star roughly centered in it is Lambda Orionis itself, a massive, hot, young star that is so brilliant it's ionizing the entire nebula... which is dozens of light years across.
Lower down, a vast red ring of gas starts just above Orion's belt and swings down to just above his knees. That's Barnard's Loop, a spherical bubble of gas formed as one massive star after another exploded deep in the heart of Orion, each sending out octillions of tons of gas at speeds of thousands of kilometers per second! This material screamed outwards, slamming into and sweeping up the ambient gas in the region. This eventually snowplowed all that material into the bubble, which is heated today and glowing due to the still-thriving massive stars inside it. The Loop is about 300 light years in diameter - 3 quadrillion
kilometers (2 quadrillion miles)!
In the center of the loop is perhaps the most famous gas cloud in the sky: the great Orion Nebula
. It's 1500 light years away, yet easily visible to the naked eye; the Sun would be an invisible dot at that distance! But the nebula is churning out young stars which light up the gas, making this one of the brightest examples of stellar nurseries in our galaxy. If there are aliens in other galaxies looking our way, the Orion Nebula would be easily visible as a Milky Way landmark.
Above the great nebula and to the left a bit, hanging down from the leftmost star (Alnitak) is a straight line of gas, excited by the star. Superposed on that is a dense, dark globule of dust and molecules in the uncanny shape of a horse's head
, as if the galaxy is playing a cosmic game of chess.
And finally, I must note the long, bluish nebulosity just to the right of Rigel at the bottom of the picture. When flipped upside-down, it becomes obvious why this is called the Witch Head Nebula
! The resemblance to a witch is pretty amazing. Funny, too: when seen sideways it looks like a running ghost, and you'll see it sometimes called that as well. The perfect nebula for Halloween.
Any one of these pieces of Orion are shot so beautifully by Rogelio that they would deserve to be in this list, but all together... WOW
. I mean, seriously
. I've seen Orion a bazillion times; it's up in the south after sunset all winter long, and has so many wonderful objects in it that every amateur astronomer makes it a familiar destination for the telescope. I can't tell you how many times I've observed various nebulae in it, scanned it with binoculars, or just gazed at it with my own two eyes, soaking in its pattern and colors.
But I have never, ever
, seen it like this. This picture has beauty, clarity, depth, sharpness, and most importantly sheer stunning breadth
that makes it truly one of the most amazing astrophotographs I have ever seen. It's also a first: this is the first time I've picked an image by an amateur astronomer (as opposed to one from a professional observatory or spacecraft) for the number one slot. This photograph earned it.
Congratulations to Rogelio for this incredible work of art, my Number One pick for the best Astronomy Picture of 2010. Get the stunning super-high-res version here.Image credit: Rogelio Andreo, used by permission