Space is beautiful, but there are many creepy and spooky sights to behold in its boundless depths.
One of the brightest stars in our night sky is Alpha Piscis Austrini, also known as Fomalhaut, which can be seen in the southern hemisphere. When the Hubble Space Telescope zoomed in on this system, it discovered 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.
The 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, Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring.
What's really making the Fomalhaut star system appear this way? We once thought it was due to a planet forming in the ring of debris surrounding the central star. However, earlier this year, new Hubble images revealed that what we thought was a planet was actually a ghost!
Far out in space, another 'eye' stars back at us.
The Helix Nebula. Credit: NASA, ESA, and C.R. O'Dell (Vanderbilt University)
Roughly 650 light years away from us, in the constellation Aquarius, perhaps some 10,000 years ago, an ancient star very similar to our Sun reached the end of its lifespan. Having grown swollen and red and unstable, it blew 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 The Helix Nebula.
From our perspective here on Earth, looking straight through the relatively thin shell to the stellar remnant, we see more easily through the middle. At the same time, more stuff "piles up" along our view near the sides. So, the nebula ends up looking like a great eye to us, another Eye of Sauron, or perhaps the Eye of God.
Speaking of eyes, back in 2014, the Hubble Space Telescope was looking at the planet Jupiter's Great Red Spot — the immense, Earth-swallowing superstorm that has been churning away there for hundreds of years. Right in the middle of observations, the Great Red Spot looked back!!
Jupiter in April 2014. Credits: NASA, ESA, Hubble Space Telescope
What's happening here?!
Jupiter has many moons (79 that we currently know of). The four largest — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto — are big enough to cast shadows onto the cloud tops when they pass between the planet and the Sun. 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.
Later that year, in October of 2014, all appeared quiet on the Sun, but a shift in our view revealed a hidden jack-o'-lantern grinning at us.
This image is a blend of two wavelengths of extreme ultraviolet light, as captured by the Solar Dynamics Observatory on October 8, 2014. Credit: NASA SDO
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."
The 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, located roughly 1,500 light years away from us in the constellation Cepheus, is named vdB 141, 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 (like 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 a distant star system. Whether it would be more or less spooky, though, is up for debate!
The distant Perseus Cluster, one of the most massive objects in our visible universe, is an enormous cloud of superheated gas that contains thousands of galaxies.
The Perseus Cluster. Credit: A. Fabian (IoA Cambridge) et al., NASA
Capture only the invisible X-rays emitted from this object's gases, and it appears as horrible screaming skull.
The Screaming Space Skull. Credit: A. Fabian (IoA Cambridge) et al., NASA
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 — called SN 1572, or Tycho's Supernova, after the Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe, who documented the event.
Point a telescope at the location of this supernova now, and you will see nothing.
Credit: Digitized Sky Survey
Point NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory at it, however, and horrible invisible tendrils of creeping doom are revealed!
Credit: NASA/CXC/RIKEN & GSFC/T. Sato et al
Invisible tendrils of creeping doom reach out towards us from a dead star in this X-Ray view of the Tycho Supernova Remnant.
The high energy x-rays detected by Chandra originate from hot gas in space. The colours in the image denote different energies of x-rays, as well as x-rays 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.
Closer to home, in October of 2015, a large asteroid slipped by Earth.
Asteroid 2015 TB145 as imaged by radar. Credit: Arecibo/NSF
As it passed, the Arecibo Observatory bounced radar waves off the asteroid, and astronomers watched as it turned a skull-like gaze upon us.
Asteroid 2015 TB145, dubbed the Halloween Asteroid since it made its closest pass by Earth on October 31, was revealed as a fairly special one. It could be a dead comet — the rocky remnant left behind when all the ice and gas has evaporated from the surface of a comet.
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" that has been 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. The ring-like structure formed
And now, in 2020, NASA has given us a collection of spooky space posters featuring cosmic frights for the Halloween season.
These 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!