What are those red streaks in the sky? While photographing unexpected auroras over a distant thunderstorm, something extraordinary happened: red sprites
. This brief instance
of rarely imaged high-altitude lightning flashed so bright that it was witnessed by several people independently. Pictured over Minnesota
, USA in May 2013, these red sprites likely followed an extremely powerful low-altitude conventional lightning
bolt. Captured in the featured frame
are a house and electrical pole in the foreground, thick clouds in the lower atmosphere
, a lightning storm
on the horizon, distant red sprites
and green aurora
in the upper atmosphere, and distant stars from our local neighborhood of the Milky Way Galaxy
. The spectacular image
is thought to be only the second known case
of sprites and auroras photographed together, and possibly the first in true color.
If you visit HH 24, don't go near the particle beam jet. This potential future travel advisory might be issued because the powerful jet likely contains electrons and protons moving hundreds of kilometers per second. The above image was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in infrared light in order to better understand turbulent star forming regions known as Young Stellar Objects (YSOs). Frequently when a star forms, a disk of dust and gas circles the YSO causing a powerful central jets to appear. In this case, the energetic jets are creating, at each end, Herbig-Haro object 24 (HH 24), as they slam into the surrounding interstellar gas. The entire star forming region lies about 1,500 light years distant in the Orion B molecular cloud complex. Due to their rarity, jets like that forming HH 24 are estimated to last only a few thousand years.
Video Credit & Copyright: Marsel van Oosten; Music: Simon Wilkinson
Namibia has some of the darkest nights visible from any continent. It is therefore home to some of the more spectacular skyscapes, a few of which have been captured in the above time-lapse video. Visible at the movie start are unusual quiver trees perched before a deep starfield highlighted by the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy. This bright band of stars and gas appears to pivot around the celestial south pole as our Earth rotates. The remains of camel thorn trees are then seen against a sky that includes a fuzzy patch on the far right that is the Large Magellanic Cloud, a small satellite galaxy to the Milky Way. A bright sunlight-reflecting satellite passes quickly overhead. Quiver trees appear again, now showing their unusual trunks, while the Small Magellanic Cloud becomes clearly visible in the background. Artificial lights illuminate a mist that surround camel thorn trees in Deadvlei. In the final sequence, natural Namibian stone arches are captured against the advancing shadows of the setting moon. This video incorporates over 16,000 images shot over two years, and won top honors among the 2012 Travel Photographer of the Year awards.
Sweeping slowly through the constellation Hercules, Comet Garradd (C2009/P1) passed with about 0.5 degrees of globular star cluster M92 on February 3. Captured here in its latest Messier moment, the steady performer remains just below naked-eye visibility with a central coma comparable in brightness to the dense, well-known star cluster. The rich telescopic view from New Mexico's, early morning skies, also features Garradd's broad fan shaped dust tail and a much narrower ion tail that extends up and beyond the right edge of the frame. Pushed out by the pressure of sunlight, the dust tail tends to trail the comet along its orbit while the ion tail, blown by the solar wind, streams away from the comet in the direction opposite the Sun. Of course, M92 is over 25,000 light-years away. Comet Garradd is 12.5 light-minutes from planet Earth, arcing above the ecliptic plane.
Like a ship plowing through cosmic seas, runaway star Zeta Ophiuchi produces the arcing interstellar bow wave or bow shock seen in this stunning infrared portrait from the WISE spacecraft. In the false-color view, bluish Zeta Oph, a star about 20 times more massive than the Sun, lies near the center of the frame, moving toward the top at 24 kilometers per second. Its strong stellar wind precedes it, compressing and heating the dusty interstellar material and shaping the curved shock front. Around it are clouds of relatively undisturbed material. What set this star in motion? Zeta Oph was likely once a member of a binary star system, its companion star was more massive and hence shorter lived. When the companion exploded as a supernova catastrophically losing mass, Zeta Oph was flung out of the system. About 460 light-years away, Zeta Oph is 65,000 times more luminous than the Sun and would be one of the brighter stars in the sky if it weren't surrounded by obscuring dust. The WISE image spans about 1.5 degrees or 12 light-years at the estimated distance of Zeta Ophiuchi.
This cosmic expanse of dust, gas, and stars covers close to 3 degrees on the sky in the heroic constellation Perseus. Right of center in the gorgeous skyscape is the dusty blue reflection nebula NGC 1333, about 1,000 light-years away. At that estimated distance, the field of view is about 50 light-years across. Next to NGC 1333 is the reddish glow of shocked hydrogen gas created by energetic jets and winds from stars in the process of formation. Other reflection nebulae are scattered around, along with remarkable dark dust nebulae. Near the edge of a large molecular cloud, they tend to hide the newly formed stars and young stellar objects or protostars from prying optical telescopes. Collapsing due to self-gravity, the protostars form around dense cores embedded in the molecular cloud.
On the distant planet HD 80606b, summers might be dangerous. Hypothetic life forms floating in HD 080606b's atmosphere or lurking on one of its (presently hypothetical) moons might fear the 1,500 Kelvin summer heat, which is hot enough not only to melt lead but also nickel. Although summers are defined for Earth by the daily amount of sunlight, summers on HD 80606b are more greatly influenced by how close the planet gets to its parent star. HD 80606b, about 200 light years distant, has the most elliptical orbit of any planet yet discovered. In comparison to the Solar System, the distance to its parent star would range from outside the orbit of Venus to well inside the orbit of Mercury. In this sequence, the night side of HD 80606b is computer simulated as it might glow in infrared light in nearly daily intervals as it passed the closest point in its 111-day orbit around its parent star. The simulation is based on infrared data taken in late 2007 by the Spitzer Space Telescope.
Why does this crater on Mercury look like a spider? When the robotic MESSENGER spacecraft glided by the planet Mercury last month, it was able to image portions of the Sun's closest planet that had never been seen before. When imaging the center of Mercury's extremely large Caloris Basin, MESSENGER found a crater, pictured above, with a set of unusual rays emanating out from its center. A crater with such troughs has never been seen before anywhere in our Solar System. What isn't clear is the relation of the crater to the radial troughs. Perhaps the crater created the radial rays, or perhaps the two features appear only by a chance superposition -- the topic is sure to be one of future research. MESSENGER is scheduled to fly past Mercury twice more before firing its thrusters to enter orbit in 2011.
What if you saw your shadow on Mars and it wasn't human? Then you might be the Opportunity rover currently exploring Mars. Opportunity and sister robot Spirit have been probing the red planet since early 2004, finding evidence of ancient water, and sending breathtaking images across the inner Solar System. Pictured above, Opportunity looks opposite the Sun into Endurance Crater and sees its own shadow. Two wheels are visible on the lower left and right, while the floor and walls of the unusual crater are visible in the background. Opportunity and Spirit have now spent over three years exploring the red world, find new clues into the wet ancient past of our Solar System's second most habitable planet.
A nearly full Moon and planet Earth's shadow set together in this scene captured on January 13th from snowy Mt. Jelm, home of the Wyoming Infrared Observatory. For early morning risers (and late to bed astronomers), shadow set in the western sky is a daily apparition whose subtle beauty is often overlooked in favor of the more colorful eastern horizon. Extending through the dense atmosphere, Earth's setting shadow is seen in this picture as a dark blue band along the distant horizon, bounded above by a pinkish glow or antitwilight arch. Known as the Belt of Venus, the arch's lovely color is due to backscattering of reddened light from the rising Sun. The setting Moon's light is also reddened by the long sight-line through the atmosphere.
Expanding light echoes continue to illuminate the dusty environs of V838 Monocerotis, mysterious variable star near the edge of our Galaxy. This stunning image, produced from Hubble data recorded in October of 2004, adds to a unique series of space-based, high-resolution views. After detecting a sudden outburst from the star in 2002, astronomers have followed the flash expanding at the speed of light through pre-existing dust clouds surrounding the reddened variable star. While the expanding light echoes are dramatic, astronomers have struggled to understand where V838 Mon itself fits into the stellar life cycle. Studies indicate the V838 Mon is a young binary system with a massive star responsible for the outburst. The Hubble image spans about 14 light-years at the estimated 20,000 light-year distance to V838 Mon.
Remarkably, the Opportunity Mars rover lies in a small martian impact crater about 3 meters deep and 22 meters wide. For 360 degrees, Opportunity's horizon stretches to the right in this new color mosaic image from the rover's panoramic camera. Notable in this view of the generally dark, smooth terrain are surface imprints left by the lander's airbags and an outcropping of light-colored, layered rock about 8 meters away toward the northwest. Though they look imposing, the rocks in the tantalizing outcrop are only a few centimeters high and will be dwarfed by the cart-sized rover itself during future close-up investigations. Opportunity has now rolled off its lander and, along with the restored Spirit rover, is directly exploring the martian surface.
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 remaining supernova remnant lies about 1400 light-years away and covers over five times the size of the full Moon. The bright wisp on the right 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.
A new comet has brightened unexpectedly and is currently visible to unaided observers of southern skies. Comet C/2000 WM1 (LINEAR) is now reported by some observers to be at third magnitude, making it brighter -- although more diffuse -- than most visible stars. A dust tail as long as 3 degrees has also been reported. Pictured above is the center of Comet LINEAR (WM1) taken the morning of February 1 from 300 km north of Sydney, Australia. A bright coma and the start of the dust tail are visible despite a bright, nearly full Moon. The comet has now passed its closest approach to the Sun (January) and the Earth (December) and will move toward northern skies as it fades.
Welcome to Planet Earth, the third planet from a star named the Sun. The Earth is shaped like a sphere and composed mostly of rock. Over 70 percent of the Earth's surface is water. The planet has a relatively thin atmosphere composed mostly of nitrogen and oxygen. Earth has a single large Moon that is about 1/4 of its diameter and, from the planet's surface, is seen to have almost exactly the same angular size as the Sun. With its abundance of liquid water, Earth supports a large variety of life forms, including potentially intelligent species such as dolphins and humans. Please enjoy your stay on Planet Earth.
The stars of Orion shine brightly in northern winter skies where the constellation harbors the closest large stellar nursery, the Great Nebula of Orion, a mere 1500 light-years away. In fact, the apparently bright clump of stars near the center of this Chandra X-ray telescope picture of a portion of the nebula are the massive stars of the Trapezium - the young star cluster which powers much of the nebula's visible-light glow. But the sheer number of other stars seen in this X-ray image, which spans about 10 light-years, has surprised and delighted astronomers and this picture was recently touted as the richest field of X-ray sources ever recorded in a single observation. The picture does dramatically illustrate that young stars are prodigious sources of X-rays, thought to be produced in hot stellar coronas and surface flares in a young star's strong magnetic field. Our middle-aged Sun itself was probably thousands of times brighter in X-rays when, like the Trapezium stars, it was only a few million years old. The dark lines through the image are instrumental artifacts.
Spiral galaxies abound in the universe, but spiral sunspots are definitely an unusual twist. This distinctive spiral-shaped sunspot caught the attention of National Solar Observatory astronomers and was photographed on February 19, 1982 with the Vacuum Solar Telescope on Kitt Peak. Sunspots appear dark only because they are relatively cool - about 4,000 degrees compared to the 6,000 degrees Celsius of the surrounding solar surface. Associated with surface magnetic fields, their numbers increase and decrease in a regular pattern tracing the Solar Activity cycle. A maximum in sunspot numbers occurs every 11 years with the next maximum expected around the year 2001. This sunspot was actually about 50,000 miles across (Earth's diameter is about 8,000 miles) and held its shape for two days.
This is how Earth appeared to the passing spacecraft NEAR. The Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft was launched from Florida, USA, planet Earth in 1996. After a quick flyby of asteroid Mathilde in June last year, NEAR passed the Earth two weeks ago on its way to asteroid 433 Eros. Visible on the above representative-color picture is the western part of Earth's Southern Hemisphere. Prominent features include the white snow-covered Antarctica and swirling and extended cloud systems. Oceans appear blue and part of South America is visible on the right.
Astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto, died on January 17th. Inspiring many during his long and exceptional career, he had been living in Las Cruces, New Mexico with his wife of 60 years, Patsy. Today would have been his 91st birthday. He is pictured above in 1995 in his backyard with a telescope he knew well - a 9 inch Newtonian reflector he built in 1927 with discarded farm machinery and car parts. Using this telescope under the dark night skies of Western Kansas, he made drawings of Mars and Jupiter and submitted them to Lowell Observatory in 1928. Hired to work at Lowell in 1929, Tombaugh embarked on a systematic photographic search for the long sought Planet X with a newly constructed 13 inch astrograph. In 1930 Tombaugh triumphed in his struggle to find the 9th planet, discovering faint and distant Pluto orbiting at the edge of our Solar System. Founding father of New Mexico State University's Astronomy Department, he retired as professor emeritus in 1973 but continued to tour as a lecturer and promoter until failing health prevented it. Always an active stargazer, he was asked by the Smithsonian if they could have the telescope he used to make his 1928 drawings. His response: "I told them I was still using it."
What's the closest galaxy to our Milky Way? For many years astronomers thought it was the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). But the seemingly insignificant fuzzy patch shown above turned out to be part of a galaxy that is even closer. Deemed the "Sagittarius Dwarf", this small galaxy went unnoticed until its discovery in 1994 by R. Ibata, G. Gilmore and M. Irwin (RGO). The reason the Sagittarius Dwarf hadn't been discovered earlier is because it is so dim, it is so spread out over the sky, and there are so many Milky Way stars in front of it. The distance to the Sagittarius Dwarf was recently measured to be about one third of the distance to the LMC. Astronomers now believe that this galaxy is slowly being torn apart by the vast gravitational forces of our Galaxy.