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Sample a stellar smorgasbord

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA

NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer captured this picture of the Rho Ophiuchi star-forming cloud.

The latest picture from NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer serves up a grab bag of colorful goodies, including a ruby-red reflection nebula, a twinkling of hot pink baby stars and some real old-timers in deep blue.

All those objects are visible in this view of Rho Ophiuchi (also known as Rho Oph or "Row Off"), a star-forming cloud complex that straddles the constellations Scorpio and Ophiuchus 407 light-years from Earth. It's a popular target for astronomers; in fact, another NASA infrared observatory, the Spitzer Space Telescope, focused on the same region three years ago.

The different colors represent different wavelengths in the infrared part of the spectrum. The shades of blue and blue-green stand for light emitted directly from stars (3.4 and 4.6 microns), while green and red are used for wavelengths that are mostly emitted by heated dust (12 and 22 microns). 

With that in mind, this is what we're looking at:

  • Reflection nebula: The ruby-red splotch at lower right is a star known as Sigma Scorpii, whose light is being reflected by the surrounding dust.
  • Emission nebula: The bright area in the center of the picture is an emission nebula, which gloes due to heating from nearby stars.
  • Young stellar objects: The bright pink sparks just left of center are actually baby stars. Many of them are still enveloped in a "baby blanket" of dust. They can't be seen in visible light, but the dusty blanket heats up enough to render them detectable in the infrared.
  • Star clusters: This picture includes two notable globular clusters of blue stars. One of them, M80, is on the far right image, toward the top. The other, NGC 6144, is toward the center, close to the bottom edge. In today's image advisory, the WISE team says these clusters are much more distant than the cloud, and contain some of the Milky Way's oldest stars.
  • Way-out galaxy: The WISE team also says the photo includes a "galaxy far far away," known as PGC 090239. It's the reddish dot at the 3 o'clock position relative to bright emission nebula at the center, about two-thirds of the way from the center to the picture's right edge.
  • Optical effects: What's a space picture without some sort of weird optical effect? Two relatively bright lines emerge from the picture's edge at bottom left. These are diffraction spikes caused by the bright star Antares, which is just out of the field of view.

There's more to come from WISE in the weeks and months ahead, even though the spacecraft went into hibernation in February. The $320 million mission's first public data release is scheduled to take place around the middle of this month. Some have speculated that WISE's data could provide evidence for the existence of a large object on the outskirts of the solar system dubbed "Tyche." But NASA says the data from the first release probably won't be enough to confirm (or rule out) Tyche's existence. In any case, WISE's team members are on the watch for what's likely to be asteroid discoveries galore.

Speaking of asteroids, NASA's Dawn mission is closing in on the asteroid Vesta for an encounter in August. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is already planning for the "Vesta Fiesta," and delving into the question of whether it should be considered an asteroid or a protoplanet. (Why can't it be both? Vesta's big sister, Ceres, is a dwarf planet as well as an asteroid in my book. And when I say "my book," I mean that literally.)

NASA / JPL-Caltech / UCLA / PSI

This stereo view, released March 10, represents scientists' best guess for the shape of the protoplanet Vesta.

To whet the appetite for the Vesta Fiesta, NASA recently released a fresh video clip about the mission, plus this tasty 3-D picture of the protoplanet. Put on your red-blue glasses to see the stereoscopic effect. Don't have glasses? I'm sending more than two dozen sets of specs to folks who registered their request on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. (If you missed out this time, check back at the end of the month for the next giveaway.)

If you're looking for an even bigger smorgasbord, take a look at the cosmic buffet we've spread out in our latest installment of Month in Space Pictures. Click on these links for bigger versions of the pictures and further background:

Join the Cosmic Log community by clicking the "like" button on our Facebook page or by following msnbc.com science editor Alan Boyle as b0yle on Twitter. To learn more about my book on Pluto and the search for planets, check out the website for "The Case for Pluto."