NASA's Great Observatories have combined to produce images that are as uplifting as holiday cards - and in some cases can easily be sent as holiday e-cards.
From the Hubble Space Telescope comes a sparkling view of the LH 95 star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, one of our Milky Way's satellite galaxies. Hubble, the Spitzer Space Telescope and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory team up to produce a flattering flame from N49, one of the brightest supernova remnants in that same Large Magellanic Cloud. And just for good measure, Chandra also offers a multicolored Christmas-light display from the Milky Way's W3 star-forming complex.
The cheery colors in these pictures aren't exactly what the naked eye might see, but they're not totally made up, either. Rather, scientists use the color coding to distinguish between different wavelengths in the invisible part of the spectrum - say, infrared (for Spitzer and Hubble) or X-rays (for Chandra).
In the Hubble image of LH 95, astronomers are particularly interested in the low-mass infant stars, which generate strong winds and powerful blasts of ultraviolet radiation. All that heats up the surrounding interstellar gas, creating the bluish haze seen in the image.
The Hubble-Spitzer-Chandra composite image of N49 traces the delicate filaments left behind by the explosion of a star about 160,000 light-years from Earth. The Chandra view, which contributes blue shades to the image, maps out the regions of X-ray emissions, where gas has been heated to temperatures in excess of a million degrees. The red and pink shades come from Spitzer's infrared eye, and show cooler gas in the outer regions of the supernova remnant. Hubble contributed the white and yellow shades, in visible light.
Finally, the Chandra image of W3 - which also draws upon visible-light observations from the Palomar Observatory - maps out the temperatures across the stellar cradle, 6,000 light-years from Earth. Green represents low-energy X-rays, blue stands for higher-energy X-rays, and the visible-light emissions are shown in red. Hundreds of X-ray-emitting stars can be seen in this one image.
"Because its X-ray sources are all at the same distance, yet span a range of masses, ages, and other properties, W3 is an ideal laboratory for understanding recent and ongoing star formation in one of the Milky Way's spiral arms," the Chandra team says.
You can share the imagery from W3 and N49 - or from several other stellar stunners - through Chandra's e-card Web site. If you're into the paper variety of holiday greetings, the Space Telescope Science Institute's Hubblesite offers a selection of space telescope images formatted for the season's printings.
And if you want to send a gift that keeps on giving, check out the Planetary Society's holiday twist on the "Send Your Name to Mars" scheme. When you register someone's name to be added to a DVD for the Mars Phoenix mission, scheduled for launch next year, you can print out a certificate festooned with a fancy-schmancy holiday bow. I've already printed one out as a stocking-stuffer for my daughter - so don't tell her!