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Nine spooky Halloween sights from the boundless depths of the space!

Friday, October 22nd 2021, 5:03 pm - When you stare out into the cosmos, sometimes the cosmos stares back.

Space holds some of the most beautiful sights we have ever seen. However, there are also many creepy and spooky sights to behold in its boundless depths.

One of the brightest stars in the southern sky is called Alpha Piscis Austrini, or by its more common name, Fomalhaut. When astronomers focused the Hubble Space Telescope at the star in 2004, they discovered it bears an uncanny resemblance to an icon of fantasy literature — the lidless, flaming Eye of Sauron, from J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

1a-Fomalhaut-EyeofSauronThe Fomalhaut star system, roughly 25 light years away from Earth. Credit: NASA, ESA, P. Kalas And J. Graham (University of California, Berkeley) and M. Clampin (NASA/GSFC)

"You know of what I speak, Gandalf. A great eye, lidless and wreathed in flame." — Saruman the White to Gandalf the Grey. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

Eye of Sauron Dayna Vettese - Halloween 2016Dayna Vettese, Manager & Meteorologist at The Weather Network, dressed up as Sauron, Lord of Barad-dur, for Halloween in 2016.

What's making the Fomalhaut star system appear this way? Well, I suppose we're not quite sure now.

Once, astronomers thought it was due to the gravity of a giant planet, similar to Jupiter. As the planet orbited around the star, its gravity would 'shepherd' the debris, carving it into the ring shape. All signs even pointed to the discovery of this planet, in subsequent Hubble images. However, in 2020, a new study revealed that this 'planet' was actually a ghost!

"EYE OF GOD"

Far out in space, another 'eye' stares back at us.

Helix Nebula ESOThe Helix Nebula. Credit: NASA, ESA, and C.R. O'Dell (Vanderbilt University)

Perhaps some 10,000 years ago, an ancient Sun-like star in the constellation Aquarius reached the end of its lifespan. Having grown into a swollen unstable red giant star, it threw off its outer layers as it died. As those layers of gas expanded outwards at high speed, they produced an immense shell in the shape of a flattened sphere, over five light years across. Astronomers call this object the Helix Nebula.

From our perspective here on Earth, we are essentially looking at an immense bubble in space. Since the edge of the bubble is relatively thin, we can see through into the middle of the space within. Along the sides, we're seeing the 'skin' of the bubble edge-on, so it shows up much more clearly.

So, the nebula ends up looking like a great eye to us. Some have called this another Eye of Sauron, while others have nicknamed it the Eye of God.

"EYE OF JUPITER"

Speaking of eyes, back in April of 2014, the Hubble Space Telescope was aimed at the planet Jupiter and its Great Red Spot. This immense, Earth-swallowing superstorm has been churning away there for hundreds of years, and astronomers have been observing it since the late 1800s.

Right in the middle of Hubble's observations, the Great Red Spot looked back!!

Jupiter - Eye of the Cyclops - HubbleSiteJupiter in April 2014. Credits: NASA, ESA, Hubble Space Telescope

What's happening here?!

Jupiter has many moons (79 that we currently know of). When the four largest — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto — cross the day-lit side of the planet, they cast shadows onto the cloud tops that are large enough to be seen from Earth!

On April 21, 2014, as the Hubble Space Telescope was aimed directly at Jupiter, the shadow of its largest moon, Ganymede, was crossing the planet's face. In the process, it passed directly over the Great Red Spot. NASA called the resulting image The Eye of the Cyclops.

SOLAR JACK-O'-LANTERN

Later that year, on October 8, 2014, it appeared fairly quiet on the Sun. Only a few small sunspots marred the surface of its photosphere.

Sun-Oct8-2014-Jackolantern-1This image of the Sun's photosphere was captured by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) on October 8, 2014. Credit: NASA

However, shifting our view into different wavelengths of light revealed a hidden jack-o'-lantern grinning at us.

Sun-Oct8-2014-JackolanternThis image is a blend of two wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light, as captured by SDO at roughly the same moment as the photosphere image, above. Credit: NASA

According to NASA: "The active regions in this image appear brighter because those are areas that emit more light and energy. They are markers of an intense and complex set of magnetic fields hovering in the Sun's atmosphere, the corona. This image blends together two sets of extreme ultraviolet wavelengths at 171 and 193 Ångströms, typically colourized in gold and yellow, to create a particularly Halloween-like appearance."

A HAUNTING NEBULA

2-Ghost-Nebula-2The Haunts of Cepheus. Credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona

If this haunting view brings to mind a ghostly pursuit, with apparitions fleeing from a menacing spectral hunter at their heels, you can easily be forgiven for that bit of pareidolia.

This nebula is located roughly 1,500 light years away from us in the constellation Cepheus. Although it goes by the named vdB 141 in astronomical journals, it is more commonly known as the Ghost Nebula. The shapes we see here are due to the gas and dust of the nebula reflecting the light from the nearby bright stars (such as the one towards the top right of the image and the one near the 'spectral hunter').

This nebula would probably look very different if viewed from another angle, such as from the surface of an exoplanet in another star system. Whether it would be more or less spooky, though, is up for debate!

SKULL IN THE STARS

Far out in space is the Perseus Cluster, an enormous cloud of superheated gas that contains thousands of galaxies. It is among the most massive objects in our visible universe.

Perseus galaxy clusterThe Perseus Galaxy Cluster. Credit: A. Fabian (IoA Cambridge) et al., NASA

While the x-ray image of the Perseus Cluster, above, gave astronomers a tantalizing glimpse at what might be dark matter, a simple rotation of the image reveals something else...

A horrible screaming skull.

perseushalloween cxc bigThe Screaming Space Skull. Credit: A. Fabian (IoA Cambridge) et al., NASA

According to NASA: "This haunting image from the orbiting Chandra Observatory reveals the Perseus Cluster of Galaxies in x-rays, photons with a thousand or more times the energy of visible light. Three hundred twenty million light-years distant, the Perseus Cluster contains thousands of galaxies, but none of them are seen here. Instead of mere galaxies, a fifty million degree cloud of intracluster gas, itself more massive than all the cluster's galaxies combined, dominates the x-ray view. From this angle, voids and bright knots in the x-ray hot gas cloud lend it a very suggestive appearance. Like eyes in a skull, two dark bubbles flank a bright central source of x-ray emission. A third elongated bubble (at about 5 o'clock) forms a toothless mouth."

CREEPING SPACE TENDRILS

In November 1572, a bright star appeared in the night sky which had never been seen before. It was a supernova — the explosion of a dying star. Formally named SN 1572, it is also called Tycho's Supernova, since it was Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe who documented the event at the time.

Point a standard optical telescope at the location of this supernova now, and you will see nothing but a field of stars.

tycho w33Credit: Digitized Sky Survey

However, if you point NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory at it, instead, it reveals a mass of creepy tendrils reaching out into space!

tychoInvisible tendrils of creeping doom reach out towards us from a dead star in this X-Ray view of the Tycho Supernova Remnant. Credit: NASA/CXC/RIKEN & GSFC/T. Sato et al

These tendrils are streamers of gas expanding outward from the location of the supernova. While the tendrils are too thin to be seen in visible wavelengths of light, the gases in them are still hot enough that the light they emit includes high-energy x-rays. Chandra is designed to detect these x-rays.

The colours in the image represent x-rays of different energies, as well as x-rays specifically emitted by the element silicon (moving towards us, in blue, and away from us, in red). The strange appearance of these tendrils is apparently due to clumps of gas that were formed during the star's uneven explosion, possibly due to the supernova having more than one ignition point in the star's core.

HALLOWEEN ASTEROID

Closer to home, on Halloween in 2015, a large asteroid named 2015 TB145 slipped by Earth. As it passed us, the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico bounced radar waves off the asteroid and produced images of its surface.

Halloween-Asteroid-PIA20040-cropAsteroid 2015 TB145 as imaged by Arecibo radar. Credit: Arecibo/NSF

Part-way into the observations, astronomers watched as this 600 metre-wide space rock turned a skull-like visage towards us.

skull2015-TB145-cropCredit: Arecibo/NSF

Dubbed the Halloween Asteroid it was revealed to be fairly special, because it may be a dead comet.

Comets are immense chunks of ice, dust, gas, and rock, which are left over from the formation of the solar system. When a comet draws closer to the Sun, it sends streamers of gas and dust out into space which form a cloud around it (the coma), as well as two long tails. Repeated trips around the Sun cause it to lose more and more ice and gas and dust, and if it does this enough times, it can run out. What's left behind is a rocky remnant that was, perhaps, the original nucleus around which the comet formed, long ago.

Now, asteroid 2015 TB145 is not the leftover skull of some immense celestial being. Instead, the 'face' is simply a result of shadowed craters and pits in the asteroid's lumpy surface.

GALACTIC MENACE

In October 2019, the Hubble Space Telescope released a new image of a menacing looking 'face'.

Rather than a baby planetary system, a nebula, or a supernova remnant, this image shows two entire galaxies in the midst of a "titanic head-on collision" dubbed Arp-Madore 2026-424.

"Each 'eye' is the bright core of a galaxy, the result of one galaxy slamming into another," says Hubblesite.org. "The outline of the face is a ring of young blue stars. Other clumps of new stars form a nose and mouth."

Galaxy collisions are not a rare occurrence, based on the images returned by telescopes like Hubble. A 'head-on' collision like this one apparently is, though. Also, Hubble appears to have captured this particular collision at just the right time, too, since these ring-like galaxies only form with very specific types of collisions, and they only look like this for a relatively short amount of time.

NASA'S SPOOKY SIGHTS AND SOUNDS

Lastly, in 2020, NASA released a collection of spooky space posters featuring cosmic frights for the Halloween season.

Spooky space cosmic horrors halloween NASAThese posters put an artistic spin on real cosmic phenomena, done in the style of scary movie advertisements. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

According to NASA: "As fun and creative as all three posters are, they're based on real phenomena. In a dead galaxy, new star birth has ceased and most remaining stars are the long-lived variety, which are small and red, giving the galaxy a crimson glow. Likewise, when dead stars collide, they sometimes create a gamma ray burst, one of the most energetic explosions in the universe. And while dark matter may sound like it's right out of a Halloween tale, its gravity keeps stars inside galaxies and holds groups of galaxies together in clusters — yet scientists don't know what this invisible stuff is made of."

For more celestial spookiness, check out NASA's new Sinister Sounds of Space playlist on SoundCloud!

Happy Halloween!

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