Some of the past month's pictures from outer space look like your typical unidentified flying objects — but thanks to centuries of study, astronomers have gotten good at identifying not only the objects involved, but the mechanisms that produce those unworldly, fantastical effects.
Take NGC 2392, for example. This is what's known as a planetary nebula, in part because such objects were misidentified as planetary systems when they were first observed in the 1700s. They're actually the remains of dying sunlike stars that are throwing off their outer layers of gas as they come to the end of their lives.
NGC 2392 lies about 4,300 light-years away in the constellation Gemini. It's often called the Eskimo Nebula because the shells of gas look like an Eskimo's face, framed by a fur-fringed hood. However, newly released imagery from NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory shows that the nebula's center is nothing like an Eskimo's chilly clime: The pinkish glow traces X-ray emissions from a central core with a surface temperature in the range of 90,000 degrees Fahrenheit (50,000 degrees Celsius). For more about NGC 2392, check out the Chandra news release, video clip and research paper.
This blazing-hot Eskimo is just one of the pictures featured in July's Month in Space Pictures slideshow. Another picture reveals the swirl of a lenticular galaxy — a strange, transitional configuration that's halfway between a spiral and an elliptical galaxy. There's also a new view of our pale blue dot of a planet, as seen from the Cassini probe at Saturn. And to cap it all off, we present a fantastical shot of the space shuttle Atlantis, now on display at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Give 'em all a look, and stay tuned for more unworldly fantastical observations in the month ahead.
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the NBC News Science Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with NBCNews.com's stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.
First published July 31 2013, 2:42 PM