Located some 230 million light-years away in the constellation Aquila the Eagle is the majestic galaxy UGC 11537. Because this distant, tightly wound spiral appears so near the plane of our own Milky Way, two foreground stars are prominently photobombing UGC 11537 in this Hubble Space Telescope image. Each of these foreground stars displays a strong starburst effect, which is an optical artifact that results from starlight hitting Hubble’s secondary mirror, producing so-called diffraction spikes.
But starbursts aren’t the only example of imaging artifacts caused by the sometimes strange acrobatics of light in astrophotographs. Light is often bent (left), both by the gravity of massive objects it passes and by instruments it passes through. If an object is too bright for the sensitive detectors on an instrument, that object can also appear to bleed, or streak, out to either side (middle). And sometimes energetic particles leave traces of their paths themselves in photographs (right), producing thin bands of light.
Thankfully, these image artifacts aren’t as pesky as they seem, and instead are seen by most astronomers as a small price to pay for such great images.