The Best of the Best: 15 Years of the Astronomy Picture of the Day

Pillars of Creation
Pillars of Creation

Physics professor Robert Nemiroff gave the crowd gathered in the Rozsa Center one big wow-inspiring moment after another last Thursday as he reeled off his top picks of NASA's Best Space Images as they appeared on the NASA website he helped create and edits, the Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD) .

Nemiroff and coeditor Jerry Bonnell started APOD on the NASA website in back 1995, partly to provide accurate information about the multitude of astronomical images that were circulating on the Internet, partly just for the fun of sharing the wonder of the cosmos. Back then, Nemiroff says, “NASA didn’t bother much with the web.” Now, APOD is well worth paying attention to: with its mirror sites, it receives about 1 million hits a day.

Nemiroff, a Michigan Technological University professor who primarily researches gamma-ray bursts and gravitational lensing, geared his outreach presentation to suit an audience ranging from fourth graders to college faculty, garnishing it liberally with anecdotes.

His first picture series included five favorite APOD images created by NASA, including a shot of the first shuttle mission. Also on his NASA’s-best list is the iconic Pillars of Creation image of stars forming in M16, the Eagle Nebula, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. As with all of the images, he provided a brief educational primer. The dense gas in the pillars is condensing to form stars, he explains, but adds, “They look like monsters. I think that’s why they’re so popular.”

Favorite APOD images that did not originate from NASA include “The Big Corona,” a dazzling image of the sun’s corona during a total eclipse, and “Andromeda,” the spiral galaxy that, at 2 million light years away, is the Milky Way’s closest galactic neighbor.

The dozens of other photos ran the gamut from modern engineering marvels to artistic fantasy. There were the Mars Rovers, “like coffee tables on wheels,” and the new International Space Station robot “Dextre,” which completes tasks outside the station by mimicking the movements of its human controller. “But Dextre is a lot stronger,” Nemiroff noted.

“Dangerous Sunrise on Gliese 876d,” featuring a blazing sun dawning over a molten landscape, is an artist’s rendition of the surface of a newly identified planet. “We are in a golden age of planet discovery,” Nemiroff explained. Gliese 876d is one of very few planets that are thought to be close to the habitable zone of its parent star, he said, but humans shouldn’t get their hopes up. “It might be very dangerous to live there, or even visit,” he said, by way of understatement.

After the lecture, Nemiroff offered free astronomy textbooks (he gets lots of them in the mail) to anyone asking questions. One audience member asked him to comment the Planet X rumor, which predicts doom and destruction in a couple years during an encounter with a heretofore-unheard-of planet Nibiru. During his lecture, Nemiroff described a number of outer Solar System dwarf planets, but none bearing that name. There’s no scientific evidence to backing up any of the rumors, he assured the group. “Nothing will happen in 2012.”

2023 Q&A with  Professor Robert Nemiroff

Read the December 2023 Q&A including information about in his latest book, which uses humor to make physics approachable for general audiences.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.