Scary Cosmic Sights For Halloween Night

This new Hubble Space Telescope photo from June 19, 2019 captures two equal-sized galaxies in a collision that look like a face with two owl-like eyes. Residing 704 million light-years from Earth, this system is catalogued as Arp-Madore 2026-424 (AM 2026-424). NASA, ESA, J. Dalcanton, B.F. Williams and M. Durbin

Planning some Halloween fun? Let the cosmos help. The universe was made for Halloween with its numbing emptiness, subzero dark and curdled nebulae. In celebration of the day, this new image from the Hubble Space Telescope captures two galaxies of equal size in a collision that appears to resemble a ghostly face.

NGC 1999 in Orion is a bright, dusty star-forming region, but this sinister silhouette is a hole blown in the nebula by powerful winds from newborn suns. NASA

Although galaxy collisions are common — especially in the early universe when the distances between galaxies was much smaller — most are not head-on impacts like the one that likely created this Arp-Madore system 704 million light-years from Earth. Given all the empty space between stars, it’s highly unlikely any stars crashed into each other in the slam, but the violent encounter has created a striking wreath of stars around the duo. The galaxies’ mutual gravities have pulled and stretched their disk of gas, dust and stars outward to form a ring of intense star formation in the shape of a “nose” and “face.”

This is my favorite scary astronomical image. The Ghost Nebula, also known vdB 141, glows from light reflected by stars embedded within. T.A. Rector/University of Alaska Anchorage, H. Schweiker/WIYN and NOAO/AURA/NSF

Ring galaxies are rare, and only a few hundred of them reside in our cosmic neighborhood. The galaxies have to collide at just the right orientation so that they interact to create the ring. In time they will merge together completely into a single much larger galaxy, hiding the evidence of the cataclysmic catastrophe.

If you’re familiar with the Harry Potter books and movies you might recognize the face of a Deatheater in this frightful nebula that goes by the innocent name Sharpless 2-68. A star within the object sets it aglow. A. Rector and H. Schweiker, WIYN, UAA, NOAO, NSF

The side-by-side pairing of the two central bulges (eyes) of stars in the galaxies is a bit unusual. Astronomers believe that since the bulges appear to be the same size, the crashing galaxies were equally massive. This is different from the more common collisions in which small galaxies are gobbled up by their larger neighbors.

The Witch Head Nebula, also known as IC 2118, is a faint cloud of interstellar dust in Eridanus illuminated by nearby Rigel (right). Can you see the facial profile? SSRO

This galaxy system is catalogued as Arp-Madore 2026-424 (AM 2026-424) in the Arp-Madore “Catalogue of Southern Peculiar Galaxies and Associations”. Astronomer Halton Arp published his compendium of 338 unusual-looking interacting galaxies in 1966. He later partnered with astronomer Barry Madore to extend the search for unique galactic encounters in the southern sky. Several thousand galaxies are listed in this 1987 survey. Nearly all feature the how galaxies act on other galaxies during encounters or collisions to warp each other’s shapes. Gas and dust clouds in one galaxy slamming into those of another compress the material and fire up waves of new star formation that light up as rings and arcs of hot, blue newborn suns.

I’ll never forget the feeling of mingled terror and wonder I felt watching this enormous auroral curtain tower over my head in July 2012. Bob King

On Halloween night, trick-or-treaters can watch the returning crescent moon shine to the left of Jupiter during prime candy-harvesting hours. While the crescent is shiny bright, the remainder of the moon’s outline will glow spookily with earthshine — light reflected off our own planet to the moon and back. However you see it — scary, beautiful or both —  will be up to your imagination.

Trick or treat! Whether you’re out with the kids Halloween night or hanging out at home you can add this scene to your bag of goodies. Stellarium