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Stunning Photo of Spiral Galaxy Messier 77 Shows Its Beauty and Power

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The latest imagery from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) is in, and it's stunning. But ESO experts say that, while it may look placid in its portrait, the spiral galaxy Messier 77 is anything but chill.

Messier 77 is one of 110 celestial objects named for the 18th-century French astronomer Charles Messier. Messier was a hilariously single-minded man who really only cared about finding comets with his telescope. But in order to do so, he had to look at, and past, a lot of other stuff in the sky.

To spare himself and other comet hunters the boring chore of examining every gorgeous, glittering object in the sky, Messier began compiling a list of dazzling nebulae and star clusters—or, as he liked to call them, "time-wasting objects to avoid."

The 77th item on the list was discovered in 1780 by Pierre Méchain, who frequently collaborated with Messier. Méchain thought the bright object was a nebula; Messier, in his list, called it a nebulous cluster. Later astronomers with better telescopes would eventually learn that both men were wrong: Messier 77 is a galaxy. A whirling, enormous galaxy measuring more than 120,000 light-years across.

The galaxy is located in the constellation Cetus (the sea monster), about 47 million light-years from Earth.

Illustration of the constellation Cetus, the sea monster.
ESO

Pretty though it may be, Messier 77 is a rough customer. It's so big and hefty that its gravity twists and warps other galaxies nearby. And the calm dark spot that looks like the eye of a storm is actually a supermassive black hole. Star stuff that ventures too close to the blackness gets squashed and superheated and begins radiating huge amounts of energy.

Like many space photos, the VLT image above is a composite of four different images, each from a different wavelength. Hot young stars in the galaxy's spiral arms show up here as pink, while the red lines are strand-like structures in the surrounding gas.

You can find more gorgeous images of celestial objects at the ESO's Cosmic Gems website.

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NASA/JPL, YouTube
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Space
Watch NASA Test Its New Supersonic Parachute at 1300 Miles Per Hour
NASA/JPL, YouTube
NASA/JPL, YouTube

NASA’s latest Mars rover is headed for the Red Planet in 2020, and the space agency is working hard to make sure its $2.1 billion project will land safely. When the Mars 2020 rover enters the Martian atmosphere, it’ll be assisted by a brand-new, advanced parachute system that’s a joy to watch in action, as a new video of its first test flight shows.

Spotted by Gizmodo, the video was taken in early October at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Narrated by the technical lead from the test flight, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Ian Clark, the two-and-a-half-minute video shows the 30-mile-high launch of a rocket carrying the new, supersonic parachute.

The 100-pound, Kevlar-based parachute unfurls at almost 100 miles an hour, and when it is entirely deployed, it’s moving at almost 1300 miles an hour—1.8 times the speed of sound. To be able to slow the spacecraft down as it enters the Martian atmosphere, the parachute generates almost 35,000 pounds of drag force.

For those of us watching at home, the video is just eye candy. But NASA researchers use it to monitor how the fabric moves, how the parachute unfurls and inflates, and how uniform the motion is, checking to see that everything is in order. The test flight ends with the payload crashing into the ocean, but it won’t be the last time the parachute takes flight in the coming months. More test flights are scheduled to ensure that everything is ready for liftoff in 2020.

[h/t Gizmodo]

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NASA/JPL-Caltech
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Space
Earth's First-Recorded Interstellar Visitor Gets Its Closeup—And a Name
 NASA/JPL-Caltech
NASA/JPL-Caltech

In October, scientists using the University of Hawaii's Pan-STARRS 1 telescope sighted something extraordinary: Earth's first confirmed interstellar visitor. Originally called A/2017 U1, the once-mysterious object has a new name—'Oumuamua, according to Scientific American—and researchers continue to learn more about its physical properties.

Fittingly, "'Oumuamua" is Hawaiian for "a messenger from afar arriving first." 'Oumuamua's astronomical designation is 1I/2017 U1. The "I" in 1I/2017 stands for "interstellar." Until now, objects similar to 'Oumuamua were always given "C" and "A" names, which stand for either comet or asteroid.

'Oumuamua moved too quickly through space to orbit the Sun, which led researchers to believe that it might be the remains of a former exoplanet. Long ago, it might have hurtled from an unknown star system into our solar system. Far-flung origins aside, new observations have led some researchers to conclude that 'Oumuamua is, well, pretty ordinary—at least in appearance.

'Oumuamua's size (591 feet by 98 feet) and oblong shape have drawn comparisons to a chunky cigar that's half a city block long. It's also reddish in color, and looks and acts like asteroids in our own solar system, the BBC reports. Its average looks aside, 'Oumuamua remains important because it may provide astronomers with new insights into how stars and planets form.

University of Wisconsin–Madison astronomer Ralf Kotulla and scientists from UCLA and the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) used the WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Arizona, to take some of the first pictures of 'Oumuamua. You can check them out below.

Images of an interloper from beyond the solar system — an asteroid or a comet — were captured on Oct. 27 by the 3.5-meter WIYN Telescope on Kitt Peak, Ariz.
Images of 'Oumuamua—an asteroid or a comet—were captured on October 27.
WIYN OBSERVATORY/RALF KOTULLA

U1 spotted whizzing through the Solar System in images taken with the WIYN telescope. The faint streaks are background stars. The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image. In these images U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faint
The green circles highlight the position of U1 in each image against faint streaks of background stars. In these images, U1 is about 10 million times fainter than the faintest visible stars.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

Color image of U1, compiled from observations taken through filters centered at 4750A, 6250A, and 7500A.
Color image of U1.
R. Kotulla (University of Wisconsin) & WIYN/NOAO/AURA/NSF

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