Photos: All-time top 10 astronomy pictures

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  1. Picking the top ten of astronomy

    Every day since June 16, 1995, Professor Robert Nemiroff at Michigan Technological University and NASA scientist Jerry Bonnell have posted an image on the Web as their Astronomy Picture of the Day. Click through 10 of Nemiroff's favorites in this slideshow, which pays tribute to an event called 100 Hours of Astronomy. Astronomers around the world are encouraging people to peer at the skies just as Galileo did 400 years ago – and just as the stargazers in this image are doing. (Babak Tafreshi / TWAN) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. The earth also rises

    All over the world, people gaze out at the horizon as the moon rises – and perhaps ponder distant worlds. This famous shot, made as Apollo 8 astronauts rounded the far side of the moon in 1968, pulls a switcheroo. "I think maybe people put their existence in some kind of context," Nemiroff says of the image's impact. "We are all on the same big blue marble." (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Man on the moon

    Astronaut Harrison Schmitt walks alongside a moon buggy during the final lunar landing mission of the Apollo program in December 1972. While there are many historic images from the surface of the moon, Nemiroff says, "I like this one. It shows the moon surface, it shows some desolation, it shows the magnificence. And there's a human for scale, so people can identify." Schmitt and Apollo 17 commander Gene Cernan, who took this picture, were the last astronauts to walk on the moon. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Sun with a monstrous claw

    Ah, the sun ... or should that be "AHHH, the sun!!" Nemiroff says our star is the most well-known object in the sky, but this image casts it in a different – and slightly terrifying – light. The view from the orbiting Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, or SOHO, shows the sun as a complex, busy sphere. On the lower left is a large flare reaching out like a giant claw. "The earth could easily fit in that claw," Nemiroff says. (NASA/ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A solar eclipse, from space

    Some people travel thousands of miles to see a total eclipse of the sun – when the full moon passes between the sun and Earth, temporarily blotting the sun from the sky. Travelers on the Mir space station captured this rare image of the spectacle as seen from space on Aug. 11, 1999. For Nemiroff, it's a fantastic educational tool: "People suddenly understand that when the moon covers the sun, there's a shadow on the earth – and if you stand in the shadow, that's where you see the total eclipse of the sun," he says. (CNES) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Stars are born

    This iconic image of the pillars of creation in the Eagle Nebula was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995. The giant pillars are light-years-long columns of dense gas and dust that condense to form stars. "You can actually look into the pillars and see things," Nemiroff says. "The end of the topmost pillar is being boiled away by stars." The nebula is about 7,000 light-years from earth. (NASA, ESA, STScI, J. Hester and P. Scowen (ASU)) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Perspective on the pillars

    An entirely different take on the famed pillars of creation was gained with this wide-field image of the Eagle Nebula made with the 0.9-meter telescope on Arizona's Kitt Peak. "It puts the other image that is well-known – that is in the very center – puts it in a bigger perspective," Nemiroff says. "And you can see a star nebula as an open cluster of stars forming there – the pink." (A. Rector and B.A. Wolpa (NRAO / AUI / AURA / NSF)) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Our galactic neighbor

    The Andromeda Galaxy is our Milky Way's closest spiral galactic neighbor, located about 2 million light-years away. Though visible as a faint smudge with the naked eye, the galaxy comes to life when viewed with basic observing equipment. Amateur astronomer Robert Gendler combined 40 gray-scale frames of the galaxy to create this beautiful image. Color came from previous images. Access to these tools, Nemiroff notes, allows amateurs to contribute scientifically valuable images to astronomy. (Robert Gendler) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Earth (and our lights) at night

    Images gathered by a swarm of Defense Department satellites were stitched together to make this snapshot of the earth at night. "It is interesting to people because people like to find where they are [and] it shows where people are on planet Earth," Nemiroff says. Urban legend, he adds, erroneously attributes the creation of the popular image to a single picture taken from the space shuttle. The thoughtful observer will realize that night is everywhere in the image, which never happens. (NASA via Getty Images file) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The first shuttle

    On April 12, 1981, the space shuttle Columbia blasted off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, launching a new era of human spaceflight. This photo was taken on the night before the historic launch. Nemiroff says it's a "historically fascinating, visually interesting image." The two-day checkout flight ended with a safe, airplane-style landing at Edwards Air Force Base in California. The shuttle program continues, primarily helping NASA complete the international space station. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Robot attacks the space station

    Nemiroff and APOD colleague Jerry Bonnell like to have fun with their Web site every now and again, and usually post something a bit tongue-in-cheek on April Fools' Day. One of Nemiroff's recent favorites shows a robot, named Dextre, apparently attacking the international space station. "You see the common earth, you see the space station, you see complex things on the space station, but then there's this strange robot thing," he says. Though truly a robot, Dextre is friendly, helping astronauts with building and repairs. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
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updated 10/6/2009 7:22:49 PM ET 2009-10-06T23:22:49

President Barack Obama will welcome skywatchers to the White House Wednesday for an evening of stargazing with the first family.

A group of professional and amateur astronomers will set up more than 20 telescopes on the White House lawn during the presidential star party to mark the International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009), a celebration of the 400th anniversary of famed astronomer Galileo Galilee's first use of a telescope to observe the night sky. President Obama, his family and a group of local middle-school students are expected to attend.

Top targets on the celestial menu: The craters and mountains of Earth's moon, Jupiter and its own moons, and other stars and objects.

The White House star party will begin Wednesday night at around 8 p.m. EDT with a kickoff address by President Obama to be broadcast live on NASA TV. It corresponds with World Space Week, which began Sunday and ends Oct. 10.

According to a White House press office statement, the star party is aimed at highlighting "the President's commitment to science, engineering, and math education as the foundation of this nation's global technological and economic leadership and to express his support for astronomy in particular — for its capacity to promote a greater awareness of our place in the universe, expand human knowledge, and inspire the next generation by showing them the beauty and mysteries of the night sky."

Top 10 antics in outer spaceThe star party is organized by the White House, Office of Science, Technology and Policy, and NASA — but the idea behind it originated with Chicago-based amateur astronomer Audrey Fischer and a six-month campaign by the IYA2009 team.

"We're delighted that President Obama will take a break from his pressing terrestrial concerns to personally witness some of the same celestial spectacles that Galileo first studied 400 years ago and that revolutionized our understanding of the universe and our home planet," said Stephen Pompea, the U.S. program director for IYA2009 and an astronomer with the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO), in a statement.

The White House star party is just one of several space-themed events this week.

In addition to numerous World Space Week celebrations, NASA plans to crash a probe into the moon on Friday morning in a bid to search for hidden caches of water ice at the lunar south pole.

Professional and amateur astronomers around the world, as well as several space-based observatories and spacecraft, are eagerly awaiting the planned lunar impact.

Meanwhile, Cirque du Soleil founder Guy Laliberte will perform a poem from space Friday night at 8 p.m. EDT as part of his campaign to increase awareness for global water issues. Laliberte, a Canadian billionaire, paid a reported $35 million for a trip to the International Space Station and has organized a series of simultaneous concerts and performances through his ONE DROP Foundation to tie into his orbital poetic reading.

Laliberte launched to the space station on Sept. 30 alongside two professional astronauts. He is due to land Oct. 11 on the steppes of Kazakhstan in Central Asia.

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