Headed for two orbits of planet Earth and a splashdown in the Pacific, Orion blazed into the early morning sky on Friday at 7:05am ET. The spacecraft was launched atop a United Launch Aliance Delta IV Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. Its first voyage into space on an uncrewed flight test, the Orion traveled some 3,600 miles from Earth, about 15 times higher than the orbital altitude of the International Space Station. In fact, Orion traveled farther into space than any spacecraft designed for astronauts since the Apollo missions to the Moon. The Orion crew module reached speeds of 20,000 miles per hour and temperatures approaching 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it re-entered Earth's atmosphere about 4.5 hours after launch.
For an Earth-orbiting gamma-ray telescope, Earth is actually the brightest source of gamma-rays, the most energetic form of light. Gamma-rays from Earth are produced when high energy particles, cosmic rays from space, crash into the atmosphere. While that interaction blocks harmful radiation from reaching the surface, those gamma-rays dominate in this remarkable Earth and sky view from the orbiting Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope's Large Area Telescope. The image was constructed using only observations made when the center of our Milky Way galaxy was near the zenith, directly above the Fermi satellite. The zenith is mapped to the center of the field. The Earth and points near the nadir, directly below the satellite, are mapped to the edges of the field resulting in an Earth and all-sky projection from Fermi's orbital perspective. The color scheme shows low intensities of gamma-rays as blue and high intensities as yellowish hues on a logarithmic scale. Our fair planet's brighter gamma-ray glow floods the edges of field, the high intensity yellow ring tracing Earth's limb. Gamma-ray sources in the sky along the relatively faint Milky Way stretch diagonally across the middle. Launched June 11, 2008 to explore the high-energy Universe, this week Fermi celebrated its 2,000th day in low Earth orbit.
Globular star cluster 47 Tucanae is a jewel of the southern sky. Also known as NGC 104, it roams the halo of our Milky Way Galaxy along with around 200 other globular star clusters. The second brightest globular cluster (after Omega Centauri) as seen from planet Earth, it lies about 13,000 light-years away and can be spotted naked-eye near the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) in the constellation of the Toucan. Of course, the SMC is some 210,000 light-years distant, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way and not physically close to 47 Tuc. Stars on the outskirts of the SMC are seen at the upper left of this broad southern skyscape. Toward the lower right with about the same apparent diameter as a Full Moon, dense cluster 47 Tuc is made up of several million stars in a volume only about 120 light-years across. Away from the bright cluster core, the red giants of 47 Tuc are easy to pick out as yellowish tinted stars. Globular cluster 47 Tuc is also home to exotic x-ray binary star systems.
Image Credit & Copyright: S2P / IMCCE / OPM / JL Dauvergne et al.
Observe the graceful twirl of the Solar System's largest planet. Many interesting features of Jupiter's enigmatic atmosphere, including dark bands and light zones, can be followed in detail. A careful inspection will reveal that central clouds rotate slightly faster than clouds toward the poles. The famous Great Red Spot is visible at first but soon rotates out of view, only to return near the movie's end. Other smaller storm systems ocassionally appear. As large as Jupiter is, it rotates in only 10 hours. Our small Earth, by comparison, takes 24 hours to complete a spin cycle. The above high-resolution time-lapse movie was captured over the past year by the one-meter Telescope at the Pic du Midi Observatory in the French Pyrenees. Since hydrogen and helium gas are colorless, and those elements compose most of Jupiter's expansive atmosphere, what trace elements create the observed colors of Jupiter's clouds remains unknown.
How strange could alien life be? An indication that the fundamental elements that compose most terrestrial life forms might differ out in the universe was found in unusual Mono Lake in California, USA. Bacteria in Mono's lakebed gives indications that it not only can tolerate a large abundance of normally toxic arsenic, but possibly use arsenic as a replacement for phosphorus, an element needed by every other known Earth-based life form. The result is surprising -- and perhaps controversial -- partly because arsenic-incorporating organic molecules were thought to be much more fragile than phosphorus-incorporating organic molecules. Pictured above is 7.5-km wide Mono Lake as seen from nearby Mount Dana. The inset picture shows GFAJ-1, the unusual bacteria that might be able to survive on another world.
Comet McNaught, the Great Comet of 2007, was the brightest comet of the last 40 years. Its spectacular tail spread across the sky and was breathtaking to behold from dark locations for many Southern Hemisphere observers. The head of the comet remained quite bright and was easily visible to even city observers without any optical aide. Part of the spectacular tail was visible just above the horizon after sunset for many northern observers as well. Comet C/2006 P1 (McNaught), which reached an estimated peak brightness of magnitude -6 (minus six), was caught by the comet's discoverer in the above image soon after sunset in 2007 January from Siding Spring Observatory in Australia. The robotic Ulysses spacecraft fortuitously flew through Comet McNaught's tail and found, unexpectedly, that the speed of the solar wind dropped significantly.
Cameras around the globe pointed skyward this week to capture the spectacular conjunction of a crescent Moon and bright planets Venus and Jupiter. But astronomer-artist Deirdre Kelleghan recorded her observations in sketches of the celestial event. From Greystones, County Wicklow, Ireland, her small telescope allowed her to follow the accompanying lunar occultation as a brilliant Venus disappeared behind the Moon's dark edge, then reappeared along the bright lunar limb. Her lovely drawing of the reemergence of Venus was made with pastels and conte crayons on A3 size paper under very cold conditions. She remarks, "The view as Venus once again sparkled like a diamond stuck on the moon was stunning."
Very good telescopic views of Mars can be expected in the coming weeks as the Red Planet nears opposition on December 24th. Of course, opposition means opposite the Sun in planet Earth's sky - an arrangement that occurs every 26 months for Mars. Because of Mars' more elliptical orbit, the actual date of closest approach to Earth will be December 18, when Mars will be within about 88 million kilometers of our fair planet. Situated in the constellation Gemini and rising after evening twilight, the bright, ruddy disk of Mars will reach nearly 16 arcseconds in diameter (about 1/100th the diameter of the Full Moon). In this already exceptional image taken on November 18, north is down and surface markings around the sprawling, dark, albedo feature Syrtis Major are remarkably clear. The image was recorded with a video camera and filters on a 1 meter telescope at Pic Du Midi, a mountain top observatory in the French Pyrenees. NASA launched the Phoenix lander to Mars in August, scheduled to arrive in May 2008.
If you have the right equipment, you can see the Spirit rover currently rolling across Mars. The right equipment, however, is currently limited to the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). MRO arrived at Mars in March and just started science observations of the red planet last month. Visible in the above spectacularly high resolution image is the Spirit rover in the Columbia Hills of Mars. Objects as small as one meter are resolved. Also visible are the tracks made by the robot explorer and a large plateau of layered rock dubbed Home Plate. MRO will continue to image the red planet in unprecedented detail, creating images that will likely be important in better understanding the geology and weather on Mars, as well as indicating good candidate landing sites for future missions to Mars.
These wisps of gas are all that remain visible of a Milky Way star. Many thousands of years ago that star exploded in a supernova leaving the Veil Nebula, pictured above. At the time, the expanding cloud was likely as bright as a crescent Moon toward the constellation of Cygnus, visible for weeks to people living at the dawn of recorded history. The supernova remnant lies about 1400 light-years away and covers over five times the size of the full Moon. The above image of the Veil was made clearer by digitally dimming stars in the frame. The bright wisp at the top is known as the Witch's Broom Nebula and can be seen with a small telescope. The Veil Nebula is also known as the Cygnus Loop.
Two unusually long filaments crossed part of the Sun last week. The filaments are actually relatively cool and dark prominences of solar plasma held up by the Sun's magnetic field but seen against the face of the Sun. Filaments typically last a few weeks before falling back. Pictured above, the two filaments are visible on the Sun's right side. It would take twenty Earths, set end-to-end, to match the length of one of the filaments. Also visible are bright hot regions called plages and a carpet of hundreds of granules that provide the Sun's texture. The above image was taken early last week through a small telescope in a very specific color of light emitted primarily by hydrogen.
Walk through these doors and up the stairs to begin your journey along a line from Jaipur, India toward the North Celestial Pole. Such cosmic alignments abound in marvelous Indian observatories where the architecture itself allows astronomical measurements. The structures were built in Jaipur and other cities in the eighteenth century by the Maharaja Jai Singh II (1686-1743). Rising about 90 feet high, this stairway actually forms a shadow caster or gnomon, part of what is still perhaps the largest sundial on planet Earth. Testaments to Jai Singh II's passion for astronomy, the design and large scale of his observatories' structures still provide impressively accurate measurements of shadows and sightings of celestial angles.
Normally hiding from view in the glare of the Sun, the shy solar corona came out to play Wednesday as a total solar eclipse graced morning skies over southern Africa. This telescopic image of the Sun's corona or outer atmosphere shimmering around the silhouetted Moon was recorded near the centreline of the total eclipse path, 10 kilometers north of Beitbridge, Zimbabwe. At that location, near the Zimbabwe - South Africa border, the total phase pictured here lasted a leisurely one minute and 23 seconds. Zimbabwean photographer Murray Alexander reported that fortunately no clouds interfered but few people were present, while many watching from the South Africa side were clouded out. Still, if you missed this geocentric celestial event, just wait until next year. Two solar eclipses and two lunar eclipses are on planet Earth's schedule for 2003, along with a transit of Mercury.
A comet bright enough to be seen with binoculars is swooping into southern skies. Comet C/2000 WM1 (LINEAR) continues to brighten and develop tails as it nears its closest approach of the Sun in late January 2002. Comet LINEAR WM1 was discovered over a year ago when it was out past Jupiter and still very faint. In the above picture from the Curtis Schmidt 0.6-meter Telescope in Chile, a 30-second exposure in red on December 4 captured detail in Comet LINEAR WM1's emerging dust tail. Optimistic sky watchers hope that Comet LINEAR WM1 will undergo an even greater (and unexpected) brightening to the point where its coma and tails are easily discernable to the unaided eye. Comet LINEAR WM1 is being watched with particular interest by astronomers because its ion tail might yield clues to understanding the solar wind expelled from near the Sun's poles.
In the famous Pleiades star cluster, a star's light is slowly destroying a passing cloud of gas and dust. The star, Merope, lies just off the upper right edge of this recently released picture by the Hubble Space Telescope. The cloud, known as IC 349, and the star have been in existence for millions of years. In the past 100,000 years, however, part of the cloud has by chance moved so close to the star - only 3500 times the Earth-Sun distance - that the star's light affects the cloud's dust in an unusual manner. Pressure of the star's light significantly repels the dust in the reflection nebula with smaller dust particles being repelled more strongly. Eventually parts of the dust cloud have become stratified and point toward Merope, with the closest particles being the most massive and so the least affected by the radiation pressure. A longer-term result is the general destruction of the dust by the energetic starlight. It is not known whether the cloud will survive this encounter.
M83 is one of the closest and brightest spiral galaxies on the sky. Visible with binoculars in the constellation of Hydra, majestic spiral arms have prompted its nickname as the Southern Pinwheel. Although discovered 250 years ago, only in this century was it appreciated that M83 was not a gas cloud but a barred spiral galaxy much like our own Milky Way Galaxy. M83, pictured above in a recently released photograph from a Very Large Telescope, is a prominent member of a group of galaxies that includes Centaurus A and NGC 5253, all of which lie about 15 million light years distant. To date, six supernova explosions have been recorded in M83. An unusual double circumnuclear ring has recently been discovered at the center of M83 and is still being investigated.
The odd looking "creature" to the right of center in the above photo is a gas cloud known as a cometary globule. This globule, however, has ruptured. Cometary globules are typically characterized by dusty heads and elongated tails. These features cause cometary globules to have visual similarities to comets, but in reality they are very much different. Cometary globules are frequently the birthplaces of stars, and many show very young stars in their heads. The reason for the rupture in the head of this object is not completely known. The galaxy to the left of center is very far in the distance and is only placed near CG4 by chance superposition.
QUASARs (QUASi-stellAR objects) lie near the edge of the observable Universe. Discovered in 1963, astronomers were astounded that such objects could be visible across billions of light-years, as this implies they must emit prodigious amounts of energy. Where does the energy come from? Many believe the quasar's central engine is a giant black hole fueled by tremendous amounts of infalling gas, dust, and stars. This gallery of quasar portraits from the Hubble Space Telescope offers a look at their local neighborhoods: the quasars themselves appear as the bright star-like objects with diffraction spikes. The images in the center and right hand columns reveal quasars associated with disrupted colliding and merging galaxies which should provide plenty of debris to feed a hungry black hole.
This huge ball of stars predates our Sun. Long before mankind evolved, before dinosaurs roamed, and even before our Earth existed, ancient globs of stars condensed and orbited a young Milky Way Galaxy. Of the 250 or so globular clusters that survive today, M3 is one of the largest and brightest, easily visible in the Northern hemisphere with binoculars. M3 contains about half a million stars, most of which are old and red. The existence of young blue stars in M3 once posed a mystery, but these blue stragglers are now thought to form via stellar interactions.
NASA's robot spacecraft Galileo began its long voyage to Jupiter more than six years and 2.3 billion miles ago. About 24 hours from now it will reach its destination. On arrival (December 7th, 1995), Galileo should become the first spacecraft to orbit around a gas giant planet and the first to drop a probe into a giant planet's dense atmosphere. In the above Hubble Space Telescope image, the predicted probe entry location is indicated by the arrow. If all goes well, the atmospheric probe will relay information about temperature, pressure, and composition for about an hour as it descends through Jupiter's clouds, while the orbiter will spend at least two years exploring the Jovian system. Along with advancing our knowledge of Jupiter and its environs, Galileo data is expected to reveal some of the secrets of the formation and evolution of the Solar System.