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Enjoy the outer-space circus

NASA / JPL-Caltech
Rivers of stars create a smooth swirl in this infrared view of the galaxy NGC 2841,
captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Click on the image for a larger view.

The month of May is bringing in so many outer-space wonders, it's as if a three-ring circus were rolling into town with four or five rings. Today is Space Day, which morphs into Astronomy Day and the Astronaut Hall of Fame on Saturday, followed by the peak of the Eta Aquarid meteor shower next week ... all leading up to one of the greatest shows off Earth, the final upgrade to the Hubble Space Telescope.

And if that still isn't enough rings for you, there's a sparkling new image of a ring galaxy from Hubble's younger sibling, the Spitzer Space Telescope.

Rivers of stars
The fresh infrared view of the spiral galaxy NGC 2841, which is 46 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major, figures in recently published research that looks at why stars become so smoothly distributed in such galaxies. After all, stars are created in bursts of clusters, and thus start out their lives in lumps.

"Our analysis now answers the great puzzle," David Block, an astronomer at the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa, said in a news release issued Thursday by Spitzer's science team. "By finding a myriad of streams of young stars all over the disks of galaxies we studied, we see that the mechanism for pulling the clusters of young stars apart is shearing motions of the parent galaxy. These streams are the 'missing link' we needed to understand how the disks of galaxies evolve to look the way they do."

Spitzer's infrared camera peered through the galaxy's dust to spot the young stars hidden within. The image data was then manipulated to highlight the subtle structures associated with star formation. "The structures cannot be seen on the original Spitzer image with the human eye," said Ivanio Puerari of the Institut Nacional de Astrofisica, Optica y Electronica in Puebla, Mexico.

The analysis highlighted the galaxy's hidden streams of stars - a feat of image processing that would have been impossible without Spitzer's infrared vision and the astronomers' computational firepower. The results were published in the March 20 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

Days of glory
That's just one example showing how the space frontier brings a scientific as well as an aesthetic payoff here on Earth. Three events this weekend throw a spotlight on that same blend of exploration, education and entertainment from outer space.

Today marks the 13th annual celebration of Space Day, an international educational initiative backed by a coalition involving government agencies, museums, educational institutions and aerospace companies. Almost 200 events have been planned under the Space Day aegis, stretching well into the summer. The main event actually takes place on Saturday at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington.

In addition to the events, teachers can work Space Day lesson plans into their curricula, students can have their signatures sent into space, and anyone with an Internet connection can play out-of-this-world online games.

More opportunities for playtime are available courtesy of Astronomy Day, which is timed for Saturday to coincide with May's first-quarter moon. That lunar phase is preferred because it gives skywatchers a chance to see the moon in profile while leaving time for wide-open observing after the moon has set.

Astronomy clubs generally schedule scads of events at this time of year: To find out what's going on in your area, check the listings offered by the Astronomical League, Astronomy magazine and Sky and Telescope. If you don't see your locality listed, click through this worldwide list of astronomy clubs and find out what's coming up.

Saturday is a big day at Kennedy Space Center's visitor complex in Florida: Three space shuttle veterans - George "Pinky" Nelson, Bill Shepherd and Jim Wetherbee - are due to be inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame. If you happen to be in the Cape Canaveral area and get into rubbing elbows with astronauts, this is the place to be.

More coming attractions
There's more to come next week, when the annual Eta Aquarid meteor shower reaches its peak. This sky show flares up annually when Earth passes through the stream of cosmic grit left behind by Halley's Comet. (Actually, Earth sweeps through that particular comet's trail twice a year. The other meteors associated with Halley's Comet are the Orionids of October.)

Roen Kelly / Astronomy
The Eta Aquarid meteor shower peaks before
dawn May 6. Click on the image for more
information from Astronomy magazine.


The peak night for observing is Tuesday night - or maybe you should make that very early Wednesday morning, as in 3 or 4 a.m. Meteor activity traditionally picks up after midnight, when the nighttime side of the planet is plowing right into the oncoming stream. Also, the moon is due to set around 4 a.m., eliminating an extra source of glare. To optimize your viewing conditions, find an open patch of ground with clear skies, far away from city lights.

The Aquarids seem to emanate from the constellation Aquarius, but they can appear anywhere in the night sky. For more viewing tips, check out this guide from Astronomy magazine. Our "Meteor Show" interactive explains the science behind the shooting stars.

While you're out, you can catch glimpses of several planets as well, especially if you follow the pointers in Sky and Telescope's weekly observing guide. The international space station may also be visible: NASA lays out a schedule for sighting opportunities that is customized for your viewing location.

NASA will be gearing up for its final Hubble servicing mission, scheduled for launch on May 11. Follow the countdown via msnbc.com's Space section, and try your hand at the Hubble-mania edition of our Sci-Q test.