Finding Patterns


Image: Frank Kovalchek, Wikimedia Commons

One of our favorite games to play with our kids is trying to find recognizable objects in clouds as they pass by on a sunny day. One cloud might look like an elephant, the next, a pirate ship.

The phenomenon where our brains find seemingly significant patterns in images or sounds has an actual name: pareidolia. For example, we might think we see a human on the face of the Moon, a lizard on Mars (see below) or recognize words when we play a recording in reverse. Even Leonardo da Vinci – a man of many talents - suggested that artists could use pareidolia as a creative exercise for painting.

NASA's Curiosity Image of Mars

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

One of our favorite places to experiment with pareidolia is in images from space. Take a look at this image of the object known as B1509-58, which was released from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory back in 2009.


Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/P.Slane, et al.

Not surprisingly, this object was nicknamed the “Hand of God,” which quickly became a much more popular name than its slightly dull astronomical handle.
At the center of B1509 is a tiny dense spinning dead star known as a pulsar. This little dynamo is responsible for spewing energized particles that, in turn, are responsible for the “fingers” and other structures seen in this X-ray image. Even though scientists can explain this object’s shape without any references to extremities or deities, pareidolia is alive and well.

There have been many posts about pareidolia in astronomy images and you can read some great examples here and here.

Here we present our version of cosmic cloud watching, but with Chandra, Spitzer or Hubble images. Starting at the top, we’ve placed the strongest visual objects (to us). Towards the end of the list, you might have to get more creative to find some shapes.

Horsehead Nebula

This object is probably the most obviously named. The image of a horse's head and neck is iconic and has been published in many forms over the past 100 years since its discovery. Hubble's latest image of the Horsehead Nebula shows it in infrared light where we get to see pillars of gas and dust formed by stellar winds and radiation.

What we see: a horse's head and neck.

Horsehead Nebula

Image: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Circinus X-1

A system where a neutron star is in orbit around a star several times the mass of the Sun, about 20,000 light years from Earth, within our Milky Way Galaxy.

Circinus X-1

Image: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison/S.Heinz et al; Optical: DSS; Radio: CSIRO/ATNF/ATCA

What we see: A skull!

Colliding Galaxy Pair

What looks like a celestial hummingbird is really the result of a collision between a spiral and an elliptical galaxy at a whopping 326 million light- years away. The flat disk of the spiral NGC 2936 is warped into the profile of a bird by the gravitational tug of the companion NGC 2937. The object was first cataloged as a "peculiar galaxy" by Halton Arp in the 1960s. This interacting galaxy duo is collectively called Arp 142.

Arp 142

Image: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

What we see. Definitely a penguin’s head coming out of the water.

NGC 602

The Small Magellanic Cloud - also known as the SMC - is one of the closest galaxies to the Milky Way. Because the SMC is so close and bright, it offers a chance to study phenomena that are difficult to examine in more distant galaxies. This image, a composite of X-ray, infrared and optical data, shows a cluster of bright young stars with masses similar to that of our Sun.

NGC 602

Image: X-ray: NASA/CXC/Univ.Potsdam/L.Oskinova et al; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What we see: Many people see a face, but we see a Pac man eating its dots.

Eta Carinae

Eta Carinae is a mysterious, extremely bright and unstable star located a mere stone's throw - astronomically speaking - from Earth at a distance of only about 7,500 light years. Eta Carinae is about 100 times bigger than our sun and is burning about one million times brighter than our own star. Radiation and stellar winds from Eta Carinae are sculpting and destroying the surrounding nebula, shown here in this infrared image of its gas and dust.

Eta Carinae

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

What we see. A person, in the carved out green areas inside the nebula.


Supernova remnants—that is, the debris field left behind after the explosion—are like snowflakes: No two are ever exactly the same. W49b has evolved into an unusual shape. Its expanding shell of gas contains important elements such as sulfur and silicon, oxygen and iron. These elements, which are critical to our existence here are Earth, were created both when the star was still living and in the explosion itself.


Image: X-ray: NASA/CXC/MIT/L.Lopez et al.; Infrared: Palomar; Radio: NSF/NRAO/VLA

What we see: Could be a flying bat.

On Pinterest? Pin horseheads and faces from

-Kim Arcand & Megan Watzke, CXC
Adapted from an earlier blog post at

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