October 31, 1938 was the day after Martians encountered planet Earth, and everything was calm. Reports of the invasion were revealed to be part of a Halloween radio drama, the now famous broadcast based on H.G. Wells' scifi novel War of the Worlds. On Mars October 20, 2014 was calm too, the day after its close encounter with Comet Siding Spring. Not a hoax, this comet really did come within 86,700 miles or so of Mars, about 1/3 the Earth-Moon distance. Earth's spacecraft and rovers in Mars orbit and on the surface reported no ill effects though, and had a ringside seat as a visitor from the outer solar system passed by. Spanning over 2 degrees against stars of the constellation Ophiuchus, this colorful telescopic snapshot captures our view of Mars on the day after. Bluish star 51 Ophiuchi is at the upper right and the comet is just emerging from the Red Planet's bright glare.
NGC 7841 is probably known as the Smoke Nebula, found in the modern constellation of Frustriaus, the frustrated astrophotographer. Only a few light-nanoseconds from planet Earth, The Smoke Nebula is not an expanding supernova remnant along the plane of our Milky Way galaxy, though it does look a lot like one. Instead it was created by flash photography of rising smoke. The apparently rich starfield is actually composed of water droplets sprayed from a plant mister by an astrophotographer grown restless during a recent stretch of cloudy weather in Sweden. A single exposure and three external flashes were triggered to capture the not-quite-cosmic snapshot.
Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble -- maybe Macbeth should have consulted the Witch Head Nebula. The suggestively shaped reflection nebula is associated with the bright star Rigel in the constellation Orion. More formally known as IC 2118, the Witch Head Nebula spans about 50 light-years and is composed of interstellar dust grains reflecting Rigel's starlight. In this cosmic portrait, the blue color of the Witch Head Nebula and of the dust surrounding Rigel is caused not only by Rigel's intense blue starlight but because the dust grains scatter blue light more efficiently than red. The same physical process causes Earth's daytime sky to appear blue, although the scatterers in Earth's atmosphere are molecules of nitrogen and oxygen. Rigel, the Witch Head Nebula, and gas and dust that surrounds them lie about 800 light-years away.
If you drop a hammer and a feather together, which reaches the ground first? On the Earth, it's the hammer, but is the reason only because of air resistance? Scientists even before Galileo have pondered and tested this simple experiment and felt that without air resistance, all objects would fall the same way. Galileo tested this principle himself and noted that two heavy balls of different masses reached the ground simultaneously, although many historians are skeptical that he did this experiment from Italy's Leaning Tower of Pisa as folklore suggests. A good place free of air resistance to test this equivalence principle is Earth's Moon, and so in 1971, Apollo 15 astronaut David Scott dropped both a hammer and a feather together toward the surface of the Moon. Sure enough, just as scientists including Galileo and Einstein would have predicted, they reached the lunar surface at the same time. The demonstrated equivalence principle states that the acceleration an object feels due to gravity does not depend on its mass, density, composition, color, shape, or anything else. The equivalence principle is so important to modern physics that its depth and reach are still being debated and tested even today.
On Reunion Island, it is known simply as "The Volcano." To others, it is known as the Piton de la Fournaise, which is French for the Peak of the Furnace. It is one of the most active volcanoes in the world. The Volcano started a new eruption last month by spewing hot lava bombs as high as 10 meters into the air from several vents. Pictured above, the recent eruption was caught before a star filled southern sky, appearing somehow contained beneath the arching band of our Milky Way Galaxy. Also visible in the background sky is the Pleiades open star cluster, the constellation of Orion, the brightest star Sirius, and the neighboring Large and Small Magellanic Cloud galaxies. (Can you find them?) The Piton de la Fournaise erupted for months in 2006, and for days in 2007, 2008, and in January of 2010. Nobody knows how long the current eruption will last, or when The Volcano will erupt next.
What color is the universe? More precisely, if the entire sky were smeared out, what color would the final mix be? This whimsical question came up when trying to determine what stars are commonplace in nearby galaxies. The answer, depicted above, is a conditionally perceived shade of beige. To determine this, astronomers computationally averaged the light emitted by one of the largest sample of galaxies yet analyzed: the 200,000 galaxies of the 2dF survey. The resulting cosmic spectrum has some emission in all parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, but a single perceived composite color. This color has become much less blue over the past 10 billion years, indicating that redder stars are becoming more prevalent. In a contest to better name the color, notable entries included skyvory, univeige, and the winner: cosmic latte.
Menacing flying forms and garish colors are a mark of the Halloween season. They also stand out in this cosmic close-up of the eastern Veil Nebula. The Veil Nebula itself is a large supernova remnant, the expanding debris cloud from the death explosion of a massive star. While the Veil is roughly circular in shape covering nearly 3 degrees on the sky in the constellation Cygnus, this portion of the eastern Veil spans only 1/2 degree, about the apparent size of the Moon. That translates to 12 light-years at the Veil's estimated distance of 1,400 light-years from planet Earth. In this composite of image data recorded through narrow band filters, emission from hydrogen atoms in the remnant is shown in red with strong emission from oxygen atoms in greenish hues. In the western part of the Veil lies another seasonal apparition, the Witch's Broom.
A cosmic bridge of stars, gas, and dust stretches for over 75,000 light-years and joins this peculiar pair of galaxies cataloged as Arp 87. The bridge is strong evidence that these two immense star systems have passed close to each other and experienced violent tides induced by mutual gravity. As further evidence, the face-on spiral galaxy on the right, also known as NGC 3808A, exhibits many young blue star clusters produced in a burst of star formation. The twisted edge-on spiral on the left (NGC 3808B) seems to be wrapped in the material bridging the galaxies and surrounded by a curious polar ring. While such interactions are drawn out over billions of years, repeated close passages should ultimately result in the merger of this pair of galaxies into a larger single galaxy of stars. Although this scenario does look peculiar, galactic mergers are thought to be common, with Arp 87 representing a stage in this inevitable process. The Arp 87 pair are about 300 million light-years distant toward the constellation Leo. The prominent edge-on spiral at the far left appears to be a more distant background galaxy and not involved in the on-going merger.
This was Spirit's view on Martian-day 1,000 of its 90-Martian-day mission. The robotic Spirit rover has stayed alive so long on Mars that it needed a place to wait out the cold and dim Martian winter. Earth scientists selected Low Ridge hill, a place with sufficient slant to give Spirit's solar panels enough sunlight to keep powered up and making scientific observations. From its Winter Haven, Spirit has been able to build up the above 360-degree panorama, which has been digitally altered to exaggerate colors and compressed horizontally to fit your screen. The long winter is finally ending in the south of Mars, and with the increasing sunlight plans are now being made for Spirit to further explore the rocky Columbia Hills inside intriguing Gusev crater.
Last month, a Soyuz TMA-7 spacecraft docked with the International Space Station. The spacecraft was launched a few days earlier from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. Pictured above, the approaching Soyuz spacecraft carried the new Expedition 12 crew to the Earth-orbiting International Space Station (ISS), as well as fee-paying spaceflight participant. The Expedition 12 crew is expected to stay on the ISS for about six months, while replacing the Expedition 11 crew who had been on the station for about six months themselves. About a week after this image was taken, the Expedition 11 crew returned to Earth in the Soyuz capsule, along with the spaceflight participant. The Expedition 12 crew will carry out repairs on the ISS, explore new methods of living in space, and conduct research in space including a kidney stone experiment.
How could stars form such a spooky and familiar shape as a human skull? First, the complex process of star formation creates nebulas of many shapes and sizes -- it is human perception that identifies the skull shape. Next, the physical reasons for the large nearly empty cavities that resemble the skull's eyes and mouth in nebula DR 6 are the strong stellar winds and energetic light emanating from about ten bright young stars in the nebula's central "nose". The length of the central nasal bridge is about 3.5 light years. Star forming nebula DR 6 is located about 4000 light years away toward the constellation of Cygnus. The Spitzer Space Telescope took the above image last year in four infrared colors. The perhaps-perceived eeriness of nebula DR 6 commemorates today being historically spooky All Hallow's Day, which follows All Hallow's Eve or "Halloween".
The Cat's Eye Nebula (NGC 6543) is one of the best known planetary nebulae in the sky. Its haunting symmetries are seen in the very central region of this stunning false-color picture, processed to reveal the enormous but extremely faint halo of gaseous material, over three light-years across, which surrounds the brighter, familiar planetary nebula. Made with data from the Nordic Optical Telescope in the Canary Islands, the composite picture shows emission from nitrogen atoms as red and oxygen atoms as green and blue shades. Planetary nebulae have long been appreciated as a final phase in the life of a sun-like star. Only much more recently however, have some planetaries been found to have halos like this one, likely formed of material shrugged off during earlier active episodes in the star's evolution. While the planetary nebula phase is thought to last for around 10,000 years, astronomers estimate the age of the outer filamentary portions of this halo to be 50,000 to 90,000 years.
Europa, one of Jupiter's large Galilean moons, may well possess an ocean of liquid water hidden beneath its icy surface -- and so holds the tantalizing possibility of life. In this image, constructed with data recorded in 1996 and 1997 by the Galileo spacecraft, Europa's characteristic surface ridges and cracks are seen along with domes and dark reddish spots called lenticulae from the Latin word for freckles. The freckles are about 10 kilometers across and are believed to be blobs of warmer ice from below that have gradually risen through the colder surface layers, analogous to the motions in a lava lamp. If the freckles do represent material from deeper ice layers closer to the hidden ocean, future space missions to investigate Europa's interior could sample the relatively accessible freckles rather than drill through Europa's potentially thick ice shell.
An energetic jet from the core of giant elliptical galaxy M87 stretches outward for 5,000 light-years. This monstrous jet appears in the panels above to be a knotted and irregular structure, dectected across the spectrum, from x-ray to optical to radio wavelengths. In all these bands, the observed emission is likely created as high energy electrons spiral along magnetic field lines, so called synchrotron radiation. But what powers this cosmic blowtorch? Ultimately, the jet is thought to be produced as matter near the center of M87 swirls toward a spinning, supermassive black hole. Strong electromagnetic forces are generated and eject material away from the black hole along the axis of rotation in a narrow jet. Galaxy M87 is about 50 million light-years away and reigns as the large central elliptical galaxy in the Virgo cluster.
This eight-frame animation is based on the first ever images of a double asteroid! Formerly thought to be a single enormous chunk of rock, asteroid 90 Antiope resides in the solar system's main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Now, these premier images reveal Antiope to actually consist of two 50 mile wide asteroids separated by about 100 miles. Like weights on each end of an elastic string, the pair mutually orbit their center of mass, or balance point in the space between them, once every 16.5 hours. Binary asteroids and asteroids with moons are believed to be rare, but observations of their orbits allow a direct determination of asteroid masses and densities. Surprisingly, Antiope and known asteroid-moon systems are found to have densities closer to ice than rock, despite their relatively dark and unreflective surfaces. These sharp images were made at the Keck Observatory atop the Hawaiian volcano Mauna Kea using newly developed adaptive optics technology to overcome the blurring effect of Earth's atmosphere.
Not all evolving stars eject gas clouds that look like people. OH231.8+4.2 was a star much like our Sun that ran out of nuclear fuel to fuse in its core. It has therefore entered the planetary nebula phase, where it throws off its outer atmosphere into space leaving a core that will become a white dwarf star. Every Sun-like star creates a different planetary nebula though, and OH231.8+4.2's looks eerily like a person! Spectacular jets of streaming gas can be seen in this recently released photograph by the Hubble Space Telescope. The gas cloud has been dubbed the Rotten Egg Planetary Nebula because it contains unusually high amounts of sulfur, an element that, when combined with other elements, can smell like a rotten egg. This young planetary nebula will likely change its appearance over the next few thousand years and eventually disperse.
Three thousand light years away, a dying star throws off shells of glowing gas. This image from the Hubble Space Telescope reveals The Cat's Eye Nebula to be one of the most complex planetary nebulae known. In fact, the features seen in this image are so complex that astronomers suspect the bright central object may actually be a binary star system. The term planetary nebula, used to describe this general class of objects, is misleading. Although these objects may appear round and planet-like in small telescopes, high resolution images reveal them to be stars surrounded by cocoons of gas blown off in the late stages of stellar evolution.
Andromeda is the nearest major galaxy to our own Milky Way Galaxy. Our Galaxy is thought to look much like Andromeda. Together these two galaxies dominate the Local Group of galaxies. The diffuse light from Andromeda is caused by the hundreds of billions of stars that compose it. The several distinct stars that surround Andromeda's image are actually stars in our Galaxy that are well in front of the background object. Andromeda is frequently referred to as M31 since it is the 31st object on Messier's list of diffuse sky objects. M31 is so distant it takes about 2 million years for light to reach us from there. Much about M31 remains unknown, including why the center contains two nuclei.
This is what a spiral galaxy looks like sideways. This view of NGC 3628 nearly resembles our own Milky Way Galaxy, which is also known to be a spiral. The dark band across the center is absorbed starlight caused by the galaxy's own interstellar dust. NGC 3628 is the faintest member of the Leo Triplet, a group of galaxies dominated by M65 and M66. The Leo Triplet lies about 35 million light years distant. The center of NGC 3628 emits variable X-ray radiation perhaps indicating the presence of a massive black hole.
The photogenic M16 shown above is composed of a young star cluster and a spectacular emission nebulae lined with distinct regions of interstellar dust. Most of the stars in the cluster can be seen offset just above and to the right of the photograph's center. This type of star cluster is called an "open" or "galactic" cluster and typically has a few hundred young bright members. The redness of the surrounding emission nebula gas is caused by electrons recombining with hydrogen nuclei, while the dark regions are dust lanes that absorb much of the radiation that enters it. The dust absorbs so much light it allows astronomers to determine which stars are inside the nebula and which are in the foreground.