Explanation: In this stunning cosmic vista, galaxy M81 is on the left surrounded by blue spiral arms. On the right marked by massive gas and dust clouds, is M82. These two mammoth galaxies have been locked in gravitational combat for the past billion years. The gravity from each galaxy dramatically affects the other during each hundred million-year pass. Last go-round, M82's gravity likely raised density waves rippling around M81, resulting in the richness of M81's spiral arms. But M81 left M82 with violent star forming regions and colliding gas clouds so energetic the galaxy glows in X-rays. In a few billion years only one galaxy will remain.
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Explanation: Skylab was an orbiting laboratory launched by a Saturn V rocket in May 1973. Skylab, pictured above, was visited three times by NASA astronauts who sometimes stayed as long as two and a half months. Many scientific tests were performed on Skylab, including astronomical observations in ultraviolet and X-ray light. Some of these observations yielded valuable information about Comet Kohoutek, our Sun and about the mysterious X-ray background - radiation that comes from all over the sky. Skylab fell back to earth on 11 July 1979.
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Explanation: The clouds in the foreground are much different than the clouds in the background. In the foreground are a photogenic deck of Earth-based water clouds. The long exposure used to create the above photograph makes the light from the left, reflected from Phoenix, Arizona, USA, appear like a sunset. Far in the distance, however, are star clouds from the disk of our Milky Way Galaxy. Billions of stars like our Sun live there, circling our Galactic center every 200 million years. Contrast between the water clouds and the star clouds has been digitally enhanced. Between the two, visible on the upper right, is the planet Jupiter.
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Explanation: Shiny NGC 253, sometimes called the Silver Dollar Galaxy, is one of the brightest spiral galaxies visible - and also one of the dustiest. First swept up in 1783 by mathematician and astronomer Caroline Herschel, the dusty island universe lies a mere 10 million light-years away in the southern constellation Sculptor. About 70 thousand light-years across, NGC 253 is the largest member of the Sculptor Group of Galaxies, the nearest to our own Local Group of Galaxies. In addition to its spiral dust lanes, striking tendrils of dust seem to be rising from the galactic disk in this gorgeous view. The high dust content accompanies frantic star formation, giving NGC 253 the designation of a starburst galaxy. NGC 253 is also known to be a strong source of high-energy x-rays and gamma rays, likely due to massive black holes near the galaxy's center.
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Explanation: The most photogenic array of radio telescopes in the world has also been one of the most productive. Each of the 27 radio telescopes in the Very Large Array (VLA) is the size of a house and can be moved on train tracks. The above pictured VLA, inaugurated in 1980 is situated in New Mexico, USA. The VLA has been used to discover water on planet Mercury, radio-bright coronae around ordinary stars, micro-quasars in our Galaxy, gravitationally-induced Einstein rings around distant galaxies, and radio counterparts to cosmologically distant gamma-ray bursts. The vast size of the VLA has allowed astronomers to study the details of super-fast cosmic jets, and even map the center of our Galaxy. An upgrade of the VLA is being planned.
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Explanation: Why is Saturn partly blue? The above picture of Saturn approximates what a human would see if hovering close to the giant ringed world. The above picture was taken in mid-March by the robot Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn. Here Saturn's majestic rings appear directly only as a thin vertical line. The rings show their complex structure in the dark shadows they create on the image left. Saturn's fountain moon Enceladus, only about 500 kilometers across, is seen as the bump in the plane of the rings. The northern hemisphere of Saturn can appear partly blue for the same reason that Earth's skies can appear blue -- molecules in the cloudless portions of both planet's atmospheres are better at scattering blue light than red. When looking deep into Saturn's clouds, however, the natural gold hue of Saturn's clouds becomes dominant. It is not known why southern Saturn does not show the same blue hue -- one hypothesis holds that clouds are higher there. It is also not known why Saturn's clouds are colored gold.
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Explanation: Jupiter's Great Red Spot is a swirling storm seen for over 300 years, since the beginning of telescopic observations. But in February 2006, planetary imager Christopher Go noticed it had been joined by Red Spot Jr - formed as smaller whitish oval-shaped storms merged and then developed the remarkable reddish hue. This sharp Hubble Space Telescope image showing the two salmon-colored Jovian storms was recorded in April. About half the size of the original Red Spot, Red Spot Jr. is similar in diameter to planet Earth. Seen here below and left of the ancient storm system, it trails the Great Red Spot by about an hour as the planet rotates from left to right. While astronomers still don't exactly understand why Jupiter's red spots are red, they do think the appearance of Red Spot Jr. provides evidence for climate change on the Solar System's ruling gas giant.
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