10 incredible infrared space images

NASA has just released the first batch of images taken by the WISE spacecraft showing several astronomical objects glowing at infrared wavelengths. The level of detail in those images is really quite impressive. They got me thinking about the best infrared images of celestial subjects that I’ve seen in recent years.

Infrared telescopes are vital tools for astronomers. Observing at infrared wavelengths allows them to see through dust and gas, revealing regions of astronomical objects that may be obscured from view at other wavelengths (like ‘visible light’ that you and I can see). Similarly, powerful infrared telescopes are able to reveal the farthest galaxies in the Universe, allowing astronomers to study how the earliest galaxies evolved.

I’ve put together ten of my favourite infrared space images below but what would your top ones be? Have I missed a real cracker? Let me know in the comments below, or drop me a tweet. Clicking on the images will take you to the big versions (and be warned I mean big!) whilst clicking the title of the picture takes you to a news story about the science behind it.

1. Clouds of dust and gas in the Eagle Nebula

One section of the Eagle Nebula was made famous by the Hubble Space Telescope image dubbed the ‘Pillars of Creation’. Can you spot the ‘pillars’ glowing in this image from the Spitzer Infrared Space Telescope?

NASA/JPL-Caltech/N. Flagey (IAS/SSC) & A. Noriega-Crespo (SSC/Caltech)

2. A stripy Saturn

Infrared radiation reflected off Saturn reveals the Ringed Planet in this view from the Hubble Space Telescope.

Erich Karkoschka (University of Arizona), and NASA

3. The magnificent arms of M81

M81, also known as Bode’s Nebula, is a galaxy in the northern hemisphere constellation of Ursa Major and is a fine sight in a small telescope. Dust clouds within its spiral arms are revealed in red in this picture.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Willner (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

4. Wisps of gas and dust at our galaxy’s centre

A 900 lightyear diameter region towards the heart of the Milky Way is shown in spectacular detail in this panoramic image from Spitzer.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/S. Stolovy (Spitzer Science Center/ Caltech)

5. An eerie eye looks out from the Helix Nebula

It might look like the eye of an angry monster staring back at us but this is in fact a planetary nebula – a huge ejected shell (or series of shells) of gas and dust created towards the end of a Sun-like star’s life.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/K. Su (Univ. of Ariz.)

6. The sparkling spiral of the Pinwheel Galaxy

The Pinwheel Galaxy lies 27 million lightyears away from the Earth in the constellation of Ursa Major. Its beautiful twisting spiral arms shine brightly in this detailed image.


7. The swirling Sword of Orion

The Orion Nebula (M42) at the centre of the Sword of Orion is one of the finest night sky sights through binoculars or a small telescope. This image from the European Southern Observatory’s VISTA telescope however reveals regions of the nebula that amateur astronomers cannot see.

ESO/J. Emerson/VISTA. Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

8. The Andromeda Galaxy

At a distance of roughly 2.5 million lightyears away the Andromeda Galaxy is one of the nearest galaxies to the Milky Way. Young stars in its spiral arms glow yellow in this image from the WISE telescope, whilst older stars are represented with a blue hue.


9. The Milky Way’s heart of stars

Myriad stars sparkle in this image taken using the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope. It’s thought that hidden within this region (the central region of the Milky Way) is a supermassive black hole.


10. Drifts of dust in the Pleiades star cluster

The Pleiades star cluster is a familiar sight to amateur astronomers observing the winter night skies. This image from the Spitzer Infrared Space Telescope shows the vast cirrus like dust clouds which currently surround the stars of the cluster.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/J. Stauffer (SSC/Caltech)

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