Have you ever seen the planet Mercury? Because Mercury orbits so close to the Sun, it never wanders far from the Sun in Earth's sky. If trailing the Sun, Mercury will be visible low on the horizon for only a short while after sunset. If leading the Sun, Mercury will be visible only shortly before sunrise. So at certain times of the year an informed skygazer with a little determination can usually pick Mercury out from a site with an unobscured horizon. Above, a lot of determination has been combined with a little digital manipulation to show Mercury's successive positions during March of 2000. Each picture was taken from the same location in Spain when the Sun itself was 10 degrees below the horizon and superposed on the single most photogenic sunset. Currently, Mercury is visible in the western sky after sunset, but will disappear in the Sun's glare after a few days.
What are these Earthlings trying to tell us? The above message was broadcast from Earth towards the globular star cluster M13 in 1974. During the dedication of the Arecibo Observatory - still the largest single radio telescope in the world - a string of 1's and 0's representing the above diagram was sent. This attempt at extraterrestrial communication was mostly ceremonial - humanity regularly broadcasts radio and television signals out into space accidentally. Even were this message received, M13 is so far away we would have to wait almost 50,000 years to hear an answer. The above message gives a few simple facts about humanity and its knowledge: from left to right are numbers from one to ten, atoms including hydrogen and carbon, some interesting molecules, DNA, a human with description, basics of our Solar System, and basics of the sending telescope. Several searches for extraterrestrial intelligence are currently underway, including one where you can use your own home computer.
A mere 46 million light-years distant, spiral galaxy NGC 2841 can be found in the northern constellation of Ursa Major. This sharp view of the gorgeous island universe shows off a striking yellow nucleus and galactic disk. Dust lanes, small, pink star-forming regions, and young blue star clusters are embedded in the patchy, tightly wound spiral arms. In contrast, many other spirals exhibit grand, sweeping arms with large star-forming regions. NGC 2841 has a diameter of over 150,000 light-years, even larger than our own Milky Way, but this close-up Hubble image spans about 34,000 light-years along the galaxy's inner region. X-ray images suggest that resulting winds and stellar explosions create plumes of hot gas extending into a halo around NGC 2841.
This sharp, wide-field view features infrared light from the spiral Andromeda Galaxy (M31). Dust heated by Andromeda's young stars is shown in yellow and red, while its older population of stars appears as a bluish haze. The false-color skyscape is a mosaic of images from NASA's new Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite. With over twice the diameter of our Milky Way, Andromeda is the largest galaxy in the local group. Andromeda's own satellite galaxies M110 (below) and M32 (above) are also included in the combined fields. Launched in December 2009, WISE began a six month long infrared survey of the entire sky on January 14. Expected to discover near-Earth asteroids as well as explore the distant universe, its sensitive infrared detectors are cooled by frozen hydrogen.
Aloha and welcome to a breathtaking skyscape. The dreamlike panoramic view looks out from the 4,200 meter volcanic summit of Mauna Kea, Hawai'i, across a layer of clouds toward a starry night sky and the rising Milky Way. Anchoring the scene on the far left is the dome of the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT), with north star Polaris shining beyond the dome to the right. Farther right, headed by bright star Deneb, the Northern Cross asterism is embedded along the plane of the Milky Way as it peeks above the horizon. Both Northern Cross and brilliant white Vega hang over a foreground grouping of cinder cones. Near the center are the reddish nebulae, stars and dust clouds of the central Milky Way. Below, illumination from the city lights of Hilo creates an eerie, greenish glow in the clouds. Red supergiant star Antares shines above the Milky Way's central bulge while bright Alpha Centauri lies still farther right, along the dusty galactic plane. Finally, at the far right is the large Gemini North Observatory. The compact group of stars known as the Southern Cross is just left of the telescope dome. Need some help identifying the stars? Just slide your cursor over the picture, or download this smaller, labeled panorama.
The International Space Station (ISS) has been equipped with a powerful new scientific laboratory. The Space Shuttle Atlantis delivered the Columbus Laboratory to the ISS and installed the seven meter long module over the past week. Columbus has ten racks for experiments that can be controlled from the station or the Columbus Control Center in Germany. The first set of experiments includes the Fluid Science Laboratory that will explore fluid properties in the microgravity of low Earth orbit, and Biolab which supports experiments on microorganisms. Future Columbus experiments include an atomic clock that will test minuscule timing effects including those expected by Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. Pictured above, mission specialist Hans Schlegel works on the outside of Columbus. Scientists from all over the world may propose and carry out experiments to be done on the laboratory during its ten year mission.
A bright new nova is being studied by astronomers. The officially dubbed Nova Scorpii 2007 has become so bright in recent days that it is now visible to the unaided eye. Adventurous early morning sky enthusiasts should look in dark skies toward the constellation of the Scorpion, just below Jupiter and Antares. The above image may help as a sky chart. A nova this bright occurs only every few years. Novas are caused by thermonuclear explosions casting off the outer layers of a white dwarf star. Pictured above on Friday, the nova was being studied through a small telescope as it appeared over the Varzaneh Desert in Isfahan, Iran. The nova will likely fade but remain visible with binoculars for at least a few more days.
The Whirlpool Galaxy is a classic spiral galaxy. At only 30 million light years distant and fully 60 thousand light years across, M51, also known as NGC 5194, is one of the brightest and most picturesque galaxies on the sky. The above image is a digital combination of a ground-based image from the 0.9-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory and a space-based image from the Hubble Space Telescope highlighting sharp features normally too red to be seen. Anyone with a good pair of binoculars, however, can see this Whirlpool toward the constellation of Canes Venatici. M51 is a spiral galaxy of type Sc and is the dominant member of a whole group of galaxies. Astronomers speculate that M51's spiral structure is primarily due to its gravitational interaction with a smaller galaxy just off the top of this digitally sharpened image.
Saturn's Rings are one of the most spectacular sights in the solar system. Still, this image from the Hubble Space Telescope offers a striking view of another kind of ring around Saturn - pole encircling rings of ultraviolet aurora. Towering more than 1,000 miles above the cloud tops, these Saturnian auroral displays were thought to be analogous to Earth's. But following the ebb and flow of Saturn's aurora, with the Hubble's cameras and instruments onboard the Cassini spacecraft, researchers are now reporting some surprising results. In this false-color image made in ultraviolet light, the dramatic red aurora identify emission from atomic hydrogen, while the more concentrated white areas are due to hydrogen molecules.
It was a clear, cold western Kentucky night on January 23rd as seasoned amateur astronomer Jay McNeil tried out his recently acquired 3-inch refracting telescope by imaging the area around a familiar object, the M78 reflection nebula in Orion. Days later while processing the images, he noted a substantial but totally unfamiliar nebulosity in the region! With a little help from his friends, his amazing discovery is now recognized as a newly visible reflection nebula surrounding a newborn star -- McNeil's Nebula. Pictured here at the center of this close-up, McNeil's Nebula with its illuminating young star at the tip, do not appear in images of the area before September 2003. The emergence of McNeil's Nebula is a rare event to witness and astronomers are eagerly following its development, but Orion will soon lie too close to the Sun in the sky, interrupting further observations for several months. The Orion nebula complex itself is around 1,500 light-years away. At that distance, the above image spans less than 10 light-years.
Update (Feb. 19): While McNeil's Nebula was not seen on previous images, some dating back to 1951, it is reportedly apparent in an image of the region recorded in the mid-1960s and available on the SEDs web site. This would indicate that the intriguing reflection nebula and illuminating star are variable, rather than "newly" emerging.
Why doesn't matter just bunch up? The same principle that keeps neutron stars and white dwarf stars from imploding also keeps people from imploding and makes normal matter mostly empty space. The observed reason is known as the Pauli Exclusion Principle. The principle states that identical fermions -- one type of fundamental matter -- cannot be in the same place at the same time and with the same orientation. The other type of matter, bosons, do not have this property, as demonstrated clearly by recently created Bose-Einstein condensates. Recently, the Pauli Exclusion Principle was demonstrated graphically in the above picture of clouds of two isotopes of lithium -- the left cloud composed of bosons while the right cloud is composed of fermions. As temperature drops, the bosons bunch together, while the fermions better keep their distance. The reason why the Pauli Exclusion Principle is true and the physical limits of the principle are still unknown.
Does water exist today on Mars? Yes, although the only place on Mars known to have water is the North Polar Cap, and that water is frozen. Views of this potentially life-enabling water-ice are usually obscured -- in the winter by darkness and in the summer by clouds. Last April, however, the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft was able to get a good glimpse of the water-bearing cap just before Martian spring. Low, dark layers in the above image are thought to contain a large amount of sand, while high, light layers likely contain higher amounts of water-ice. The image spans an area about 5 kilometers across.
Why would the shadow of a space shuttle launch plume point toward the Moon? Two weeks ago during the launch of Atlantis, the Sun, Earth, Moon, and rocket were all properly aligned for this photogenic coincidence. First, for the space shuttle's plume to cast a long shadow, the time of day must be either near sunrise or sunset. Next, just at sunset, the shadow is the longest and extends all the way to the horizon. Finally, during a Full Moon, the Sun and Moon are on opposite sides of the sky. Just after sunset, for example, the Sun is slightly below the horizon, and, in the other direction, the Moon is slightly above the horizon. Therefore, as Atlantis blasted off, just after sunset, its shadow projected away from the Sun toward the opposite horizon, where the Full Moon just happened to be.
The star cataloged as NGC2264 IRS is normally hidden from the inquiring gaze of optical telescopes. It resides in the midst of the obscuring gas and dust of a nearby star forming region popularly known as the Cone Nebula. Imaged in penetrating infrared light by the Hubble Space Telescope's NICMOS instrument, this young and massive star was found to be surrounded by six "baby" sun-like stars - all within less than a tenth of a light-year of their "big brother". The diffraction spikes and rings surrounding big brother are image artifacts. Astronomers believe that the high speed winds generated by the massive star compressed nearby material causing the formation of the smaller stars in a text book example of triggered star formation. The young suns appear to lie along an otherwise invisible boundary where the high speed gas has collided with the wall of a denser molecular cloud. NGC2264 IRS also seems to be the source of the outflow which created the striking cone shape of the optical nebula.
This exceptionally bright fireball meteor trail was photographed with a fish-eye camera at a Czech Republic station of the European Fireball Network on January 21, 1999. Of the star trails visible in this night-long exposure, the bright short arc in the upper left is due to Polaris, the north star. The breaks seen near the beginning of the fireball trail itself were produced by a shutter rotating 15 times a second. In all, three stations recorded the dazzling streak and their combined tracking information has revealed details of the meteor's brief atmospheric flight and previous interplanetary voyage. For example, the luminous trail is measured to begin at an altitude of 81.9 kilometers and covered 71.1 kilometers in 6.7 seconds. The projected prior orbit for the meteoroid corresponds to one typical for Apollo class asteroids which can cross Earth's orbit. In forty years of operations the European Network has multistation recordings of less than 10 or so fireballs as bright as this one. It is thought likely that a small (a few hundred grams) meteorite survived this fiery fall to Earth and landed near the Czech-Poland border.
Miranda is a bizarre world which surely had a tempestuous past. The innermost of the larger Uranian moons, Miranda is almost 300 miles in diameter and was discovered only 50 years ago (February 16, 1948) by the renown American planetary astronomer Gerard Kuiper. Examined very closely by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1986, this dark and distant world turned out to be quite a surprise. Miranda was found to display a unique, bewildering variety of terrain leading some to suggest that it has been fractured up to 5 times during its evolution. Along with the famous "chevron" feature, the bright V-shaped area just above center, this composite of the highest resolution images of Miranda shows wild juxtapositions of ridges and valleys, older cratered and younger smooth surfaces, and shadowy canyons perhaps 12 miles deep. The large crater (below center) is the 15 mile wide crater Alonso.
Mizar (sounds like "My Czar") is a binary star. In fact, most stars are binary stars. In a binary star system, each star of the pair follows an elliptical orbital path. Mutual gravity causes the stellar companions to glide around their orbits as if tied to the ends of an elastic string passing through a balance point between them. The balance point is the system's "center of mass". Also known as zeta Ursae Majoris, Mizar is the middle star in the handle of the Big Dipper and at a distance of 88 light years, was the first binary star system to be imaged telescopically. Spectroscopic observations of the Mizar system show periodic doppler shifts, revealing that both stars, Mizar A and Mizar B, are themselves binary stars! But, the companions are too close to be directly observed as separate stars, even by the largest telescopes. In developing a new optical interferometer capable of extremely high resolution while peering through the Earth's blurry atmosphere, U.S. Naval Observatory and Naval Research Lab astronomers have been able to detect the companion star to Mizar A. This composite image of their observations shows the daily and monthly relative orbital motion in the binary system. Binary stars are a boon to astronomers because these stars can be weighed -- their orbits providing a direct measurement of star masses.
Comet Swift-Tuttle, shown above in false color, is the largest object known to make repeated passes near the Earth. It is also one of the oldest known periodic comets with sightings spanning two millennia. Last seen in 1862, its reappearance in 1992 was not spectacular, but the comet did become bright enough to see from many locations with binoculars. To create this composite telescopic image, four separate exposures have been combined, compensating for the motion of the comet. As a result, the stars appear slightly trailed. The inset shows details of the central coma. The unseen nucleus itself is essentially a chunk of dirty ice about ten kilometers in diameter. Comets usually originate in the Oort cloud in the distant Solar System - well past Pluto, most never venturing into the inner Solar System. When perturbed - perhaps by the gravity of a nearby star - a comet may fall toward the Sun. As a comet approaches the Sun, rocks, ice-chunks, gas, and dust boil away, sometimes creating impressive looking tails. In fact, debris from Comet Swift-Tuttle is responsible for the Perseids meteor shower visible every July and August. Comet Swift-Tuttle is expected to make an impressive pass near the earth in the year 2126, possibly similar to Comet Hyakutake this year or Comet Hale-Bopp next year.