To mark the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, NASA today released images of a seemingly heavenly tribute to the television series that first aired on September 8, 1966. The infrared images of a pair of nebulae returned by the space agency's Spitzer Space Telescope bear a resemblance to two versions of the starship USS Enterprise, which featured prominently in the show.

Like many optical illusions, the resemblance isn't entirely clear until it's pointed out, but the two nebulae lying in the disk of the Milky Way, officially called IRAS 19340+2016 and IRAS19343+2026, bear a passing resemblance to the saucer and hull of Captain Kirk's USS Enterprise NCC-1701 and Jean Luc Picard's later USS Enterprise NCC-1701-D.

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According to NASA, the nebulae are normally hidden by fields of dust, but are visible in infrared light, with the colors false ones that are used to designate different wavelengths. In this case, 3.5 microns is blue, 8.0 microns is green, and 24 microns is red. Green colors highlight organic molecules and red shows off hot areas in the nebulae.

The space agency says that the coincidental resemblance is an example of pareidolia. This is the tendency of people to see patterns, especially faces, in unrelated objects and is the origin of phenomena such as the Man in the Moon, the Face on Mars, the Crab Nebula, and the various constellations.

Source: NASA View gallery - 2 images