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Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos! Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2009 March 26
See Explanation.  Clicking on the picture will download
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Stars Young and Old
Credit & Copyright: Roth Ritter (Dark Atmospheres)

Explanation: Galactic or open star clusters are relatively young. These swarms of stars are born near the plane of the Milky Way, but their numbers steadily dwindle as cluster members are strewn through the Galaxy by gravitational interactions. This bright open cluster, known as M46, is around 300 million years young and still contains a few hundred stars within its span of 30 light-years or so. Located about 5,000 light-years away toward the constellation Puppis, M46 also seems to contain a contradiction to its youthful status. In the lovely starscape, the colorful, circular patch just below the center of M46 (also inset at upper left) is the planetary nebula NGC 2438. Planetary nebulae are a brief, final phase in the life of a solar-type star a few billion years old whose central reservoir of hydrogen fuel has been exhausted. In fact, old NGC 2438 is estimated to be only 3,000 light-years distant and moves at a different speed than M46 cluster members. It likely represents a foreground object, only by chance appearing along our line-of-sight to young M46.


Tomorrow's picture: pixels in space


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