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NASA missions spy a ghostly hand and creepy face in the cosmos

Data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer contributed to this composite image of a nebula that resembles a glowing hand.
NASA/CXC/Stanford Univ./R. Romani et al.
Data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer contributed to this composite image of a nebula that resembles a glowing hand.

By Ashley Strickland, CNN

(CNN) — The cosmos is full of mysteries waiting to be solved, and some of them appear especially eerie with the arrival of Halloween.

A haunting “face” on Jupiter and a ghostly, skeletal hand-shaped nebula are just a couple of creepy celestial features recently spotted by NASA missions.

Jupiter’s eerie ‘face’

The Juno mission, orbiting Jupiter and some of its largest moons since 2016, made its 54th close flyby of the largest planet in our solar system on September 7. The JunoCam instrument captured swirling clouds and storms in Jupiter’s northern regions along the planet’s terminator, or the line dividing the day side from the night side.

A Picasso-like face appears to emerge from the turbulent atmosphere in a phenomenon called pareidolia, in which viewers spy faces and other recognizable objects within random patterns.

The raw data, available to the public on the JunoCam website, was processed by citizen scientist Vladimir Tarasov. During the close pass, Juno flew about 4,800 miles (7,700 kilometers) above the planet’s cloud tops, where the low angle of sunlight added to the dramatic nature of the image.

X-rays spot celestial bones

X-rays were first used by physicist Wilhelm Röntgen to image the bones of his wife’s hand in 1895 — and now, two X-ray telescopes have revealed the “bones” of a glowing hand-shaped cloud that formed in the aftermath of a star’s collapse.

The cloud of gas and dust, or nebula, was created 1,500 years ago when a massive star burned through its interior nuclear fuel and collapsed. The nebula, known as MSH 15-52, is located about 16,000 light-years from Earth.

As the star collapsed, it left behind a dense remnant known as a neutron star. Rapidly rotating neutron stars that have strong magnetic fields are called pulsars. Newly formed pulsars send out jets of energized material and have powerful winds, which created this particular nebula.

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory observed the pulsar, known as PSR B1509-58, for the first time in 2001. The bright pulsar was spotted within the base of the “palm” of the hand-shaped nebula. A jet from the pulsar can be traced down to the “wrist.”

Map of a nebula’s magnetic field

More than 20 years later, NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE, spent 17 days observing the nebula. This is the space observatory’s longest observing campaign since launching in December 2021. The results of the new telescope’s operations were published Monday in The Astrophysical Journal.

“The IXPE data gives us the first map of the magnetic field in the ‘hand,’” said lead study author Roger Romani, professor of physics at Stanford University in California, in a statement “The charged particles producing the X-rays travel along the magnetic field, determining the basic shape of the nebula, like the bones do in a person’s hand.”

The telescope’s unique observational capabilities are allowing scientists to determine where particles in the nebula are accelerated by turbulent regions within the magnetic field.

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