Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2009 May 15
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M97: The Owl Nebula
Credit & Copyright: Keith Quattrocchi

Explanation: The Owl Nebula is perched in the sky about 2,600 light-years away toward the bottom of the Big Dipper's bowl. Also cataloged as M97, the 97th object in Messier's well-known list, its round shape along with the placement of two large, dark "eyes" do suggest the face of a staring owl. One of the fainter objects in Messier's catalog, the Owl Nebula is a planetary nebula, the glowing gaseous envelope shed by a dying sun-like star as it runs out of nuclear fuel. In fact, the Owl Nebula offers an example of the fate of our Sun as it runs out of fuel in another 5 billion years. As we see it, the nebula spans over 2 light-years making it roughly 2,000 times the diameter of Neptune's orbit. Beautiful to look at, this color image shows impressive details within the cosmic owl. The composite includes images made through narrow-band filters for a total of 24 hours of exposure time.

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