See a Bubbly Nebula, an Artistic Earth and Other Spacey Treats

A celebratory star nest and a painterly view of home feature among our picks for this week’s best space pictures

A stellar nursery bursts with bubbles, plankton paint the North Atlantic, jets stream from a galactic merger and more in our selections for this week's best space-related images.

Champagne Dreams

Even in space, hot young stars can't seem to gather without a little bubbly. This dramatic image of the nebula known as RCW 34 captures massive blue stars glowing around a red cloud of dust and hydrogen gas that is experiencing a phenomenon called champagne flow. In the brightest region of the cloud, gas is being heated by radiation from stars inside, and the hot material rises through its colder surroundings. When it reaches the edges of the cloud, the hot gas bursts outward like bubbles from a champagne bottle.

The abundance of hydrogen in RCW 34 is a sign to astronomers that new stars are forming within the dusty cloud. This visible-light image, taken using ESO’s Very Large Telescope in northern Chile, shows off the cloud's vibrant colors. But infrared telescopes peering into the cloud are able to see past the red glow, revealing multiple generations of stars that have been born inside this cosmic nest. 

Impressionist Earth

Like a master painter, spring decorates the waters of the North Atlantic with dynamic colors and patterns, thanks to seasonal shifts in temperature, salinity and nutrient levels. This shot, taken May 14 by the Suomi NPP satellite, highlights these changes around the Gulf of Maine and Nova Scotia.

Swirls of tiny marine organisms called phytoplankton create green and teal outlines around the coast and the underwater plateau known as Georges Bank. The abundant plankton crop in turn feeds a plethora of fish, shellfish and marine mammals. This region has historically been one of the most productive fishing grounds on Earth, so scientists carefully monitor the springtime phytoplankton to see how they are affected by climate change and pollution. 

Jet Setters

While most large galaxies have supermassive black holes at their cores, only a select few produce relativistic jets. These high-speed outflows of plasma shoot from the galactic center in opposite directions, like the vision seen in this artist's rendering. Now astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope have found a strong link between these jets and galaxies that have experienced cosmic mergers.

When two galaxies collide, their central black holes should also smash together and become one. To find out whether this spawns jets, the Hubble team looked at a survey of galaxies with black holes in various stages of activity. The team found that a large percentage of the galaxies with jets showed signs of going through a merger process. But not all smashups produced the jets, hinting that some other factors must be in play. It's possible, for instance, that the outflows are born when two black holes of similar mass meet, creating the right amount of spin to hurl plasma outward at close to the speed of light.

Solar Signs

Seen through different filters, our sun can take on a variety of facades that highlight structures in its churning plasma. This image, captured on May 28 by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory, uses a combination of wavelengths in extreme ultraviolet to reveal long filaments forming a quirky "greater than" pattern.

Filaments are relatively cool clouds of solar material that sit suspended above the surface by powerful magnetic forces. The clouds can float unchanging for days, or they can erupt and send blobs of solar material careening out into space. SDO watches the sun 24 hours a day in multiple wavelengths to study how different solar events affect our star and try to predict when potentially dangerous eruptions are aimed at Earth.

Snuggling With Ceres

After a journey of about 3 billion miles, NASA's Dawn spacecraft is about to enter a new orbit around Ceres, the closest dwarf planet to Earth. The probe snapped this image of the tiny world's cratered surface for navigational purposes as it spiraled closer in preparation for the rendezvous on June 3. This upcoming phase of the mission, called the second mapping orbit, will allow Dawn to observe Ceres from just 2,700 miles above the surface, gathering data with unprecedented detail.

Dawn spent 14 months studying the large asteroid Vesta before heading for Ceres, becoming the first probe to orbit a dwarf planet in March. The information it gathers from the two bodies should help scientists understand how planets were built from the solar system's raw materials and how they started forming their distinct inner layers. Closer images of Ceres will also hopefully solve the mystery of unidentified bright spots seen inside one of its craters.