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Look Up! An Out-Of-This-World Holiday Spectacular

December 26, 2016
Get ready for a new kind of light show after NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope launches in late 2018. The supersensitive device will fly to a spot a million miles from Earth and then orbit the sun. It will come with infrared eyes and a special shade to protect it from the sun’s glare. They will allow the telescope to gather infrared light, which is invisible to human eyes, and probe the formation of the first galaxies, among many other things. Until then, though, the space agency has plenty of material to keep us marveling the twinkling canopy above us.


ISStree Last year, astronauts from Expedition 46 flying aboard the International Space Station erected this little holiday tree to celebrate the season away from home. The tree added a bright, if surreal, splash of color to an already one-of-a-kind view — Earth as seen from the station’s 360-degree-view cupola. Image credit: NASA.

ISSstockings The same expedition was really feeling the holiday spirit. They even hung stockings for Santa. Since the ISS lacks a fireplace — open flames are frowned upon 330 miles above Earth — they affixed the stockings to a hatch of the Unity Module. Unlike the typical living room, the 18-foot-long module holds more than 50,000 mechanical parts, 216 fluid and gas lines, and 6 miles of wire. Astronauts on the ISS are also using GE technology to conduct experiments. Courtesy NASA.

XmasCluster Not all Christmas trees need tinsel and LED lights to sparkle. This image, captured in 2005 by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, shows a section of the Christmas Tree Cluster — also known as NGC 2264 — located some 2,600 light-years from Earth. Hidden behind the gauzy haze of interstellar dust are newborn stars, many orders of magnitude bigger and brighter holiday decoration. For an extra dose of merriment, check out NGC 2264’s Snowflake Cluster near the middle of the picture. Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech/CfA.

p1613a1r While we are looking at a star cluster shaped like a tree, we might as well find some ornaments for it. This blue orb, taken  by the Hubble Space Telescope, looks like a spherical christmas tree ornament. It's being blown into space in the Bubble Nebula, or NGC 7635, by a super-hot, massive star. Image credits: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), F. Summers, G. Bacon, Z. Levay, and L. Frattare (Viz 3D Team, STScI)

StarOrnament Above: Now that we’ve got the tree, lights, an ornament and stockings, how about a wreath for the door. This one features the variable, Cepheid-type star RS Puppis. The light intensity from the Cepheids  varies so predictably that astronomers use them to measure distances across the universe. RS Puppis is wrapped in a wreath of cosmic dust reflecting light from the star. The diameter of RS Puppis is 200 times larger than the sun and the star is 17,000 times more luminous. It resides 6,500 light-years from Earth. Courtesy NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage (STScI/AURA)-Hubble/Europe Collaboration. Top image: An artist's impression of  the Cassiopeia A supernova explosion. The image look like a Christmas tree light burning out. The star, 15 to 20 times more massive than our Sun, was located 11,000 light years from Earth.  Image credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. Acknowledgement: Robert A. Fesen (Dartmouth College, USA) and James Long (ESA/Hubble)