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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Faces in the Sky

By Phil Plait

What does an accomplished astrophotographer do when it’s cloudy for more than two months in a row, and getting new photos of the night sky is impossible?

Why, play with pictures he’s already taken, of course. But J-P Metsävainio did more than that: Looking through his amazing collection of gorgeous astronomical photos he’s taken over the years, he started seeing familiar objects in the nebulae, galaxies, and other cosmic objects. With time on his hands, he created a really, really funny gallery of cosmic pareidolia—things that look like other things.

As they say, a picture’s worth a thousand words. The photo at the top of this post is a great example of seeing faces in objects (that's part of the Veil Nebula, the expanding debris from a supernova, and it's several light-years across), but I have to admit, Metsävainio is on to something with this shot of the Red Ghost (aka IC 63):

Some of his examples are well-known, like the Pelican, the Heart, and (seriously) the Pac-Man nebula. But he has a lot of others that took a bit of imagination but are obvious once you see them. Several made me laugh ...

If I had to pick a favorite, I’d go with this one, because I don’t know why but it’s perfect and weird and I never would’ve thought of it myself:


This idea of seeing familiar objects in patterns is pretty common in astronomy; we’ve named tons of objects after their remarkable (or even seriously vague) resemblance to other things. Heck, that’s what constellations are! And it does help us remember and discuss them more easily. Of course, pareidolia can go wrong, and often does … but sometimes it also goes very, very right.

So take a look at Metsävainio’s gallery, and after that bit of fun, treat yourself and take a look at the collection of images he took in 2014. They may not all look like other things, but they all do look like is gorgeous.

… and one more thing. When you’re done there, prepare to have your brain melted with his 3-D rotating image of the nebula IC 1396. You’re welcome.

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