The Year’s Most Breathtaking Pictures of the Universe 2012

By Phil Plait|Posted Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2012, at 7:35 AM ET
The Universe is beautiful.
Which is interesting. It doesn’t have to be; it could be all colorless and weird and lumpy. Instead, it’s bursting with color, sculpted by vast forces, molded into fantastic shapes that please our eyes and delight our brains—especially once we understand what we’re seeing.
hst_sharpless2-106_jpg_CROP_article920-large
Every December I pick my favorite images from the previous year to display, a task that is extraordinarily difficult. I always wind up with a list of about 60 or 70, and I have to cull it down mercilessly. Such is the case this year again, and I could pare it only to 21, a score and more of gorgeousness for you to soak in. I choose the pictures not just for their beauty but also because they are interesting, and different—ones that stand out from the crowd somehow. I usually put them in order with my favorite one last, but this year I just can’t. I’ll let you know my favorite when you get to it—I expect you’ll agree—but other than that it’s just a dead tie.
Solar Flare
mars surface
When humans are babies, they tend throw lots of tantrums and, um, spew material out of both ends. Stars do that too: Meet Sharpless 2-106, a baby star just getting its start but still capable of throwing epic fits. At 30 octillion tons, it packs a bit more oomph than your standard human baby! You can see it in this Hubble Space Telescope picture just below center. Like many young stars, it has a disk of material swirling around it (too small to see here), and this can focus twin beams of matter and energy which blast away from it like the beams of a lighthouse. This expanding material slams into the surrounding cloud of gas and dust, pushing it aside and creating the hollowed-out region you can see in blue. The actual process is fairly complex and not perfectly understood, but what’s not hard to understand is the terrible and stunning beauty of this scene. Read Full Story

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