On the night of March 17/18 this umbrella of northern lights unfolded over backyards in Vallentuna, Sweden about 30 kilometers north of Stockholm. A result of the strongest geomagnetic storm of this solar cycle, auroral displays were captured on that night from back and front yards at even lower latitudes, including sightings in the midwestern United States. A boon for aurora hunting skywatchers, the space storm began building when a coronal mass ejection, launched by solar activity some two days earlier, struck planet Earth's magnetosphere. So what's the name of the backyard observatory on the right of the wide field view? That's Carpe Noctem Observatory, of course.
When does the line between day and night become vertical? Tomorrow. Tomorrow is an equinox on planet Earth, a time of year when day and night are most nearly equal. At an equinox, the Earth's terminator -- the dividing line between day and night -- becomes vertical and connects the north and south poles. The above time-lapse video demonstrates this by displaying an entire year on planet Earth in twelve seconds. From geosynchronous orbit, the Meteosat satellite recorded these infrared images of the Earth every day at the same local time. The video started at the September 2010 equinox with the terminator line being vertical. As the Earth revolved around the Sun, the terminator was seen to tilt in a way that provides less daily sunlight to the northern hemisphere, causing winter in the north. As the year progressed, the March 2011 equinox arrived halfway through the video, followed by the terminator tilting the other way, causing winter in the southern hemisphere -- and summer in the north. The captured year ends again with the September equinox, concluding another of billions of trips the Earth has taken -- and will take -- around the Sun.
How did the Moon form? To help find out, NASA launched the twin Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) satellites in 2011 to orbit and map the Moon's surface gravity in unprecedented detail. Pictured above is a resulting GRAIL gravity map, with regions of slightly lighter gravity shown in blue and regions of slightly stronger gravity shown in red. Analysis of GRAIL data indicates that the moon has an unexpectedly shallow crust than runs about 40 kilometers deep, and an overall composition similar to the Earth. Although other surprising structures have been discovered that will continue to be investigated, the results generally bolster the hypothesis that the Moon formed mostly from Earth material following a tremendous collision in the early years of our Solar System, about 4.5 billion years ago. After completing their mission and running low on fuel, the two GRAIL satellites, Ebb and Flow, were crashed into a lunar mountain at about 6,000 kilometer per hour.
What's that on the Sun? Over the past two weeks, one of the most energetic sunspot regions of recent years crossed the face of the Sun. Active Region 1429, visible above as the group of dark spots on the Sun's upper right, blasted out several solar flares and coronal mass ejections since coming around the edge of the Sun almost a month ago. Fast moving particles from these solar explosions have impacted the Earth and been responsible for many colorful auroras seen over the past two weeks. The picturesque foreground features trees and birds near Merida, Spain, where the above image was taken about a week ago. Although AR 1429 has continued to rotate to the right and gone around the limb of the Sun -- as seen from the Earth -- monitoring of the region will be continued by one of the STEREO satellites, however, which is orbiting the Sun well ahead of the Earth.
Close to the Great Bear (Ursa Major) and surrounded by the stars of the Hunting Dogs (Canes Venatici), this celestial wonder was discovered in 1781 by the metric French astronomer Pierre Mechain. Later, it was added to the catalog of his friend and colleague Charles Messier as M106. Modern deep telescopic views reveal it to be an island universe -- a spiral galaxy around 30 thousand light-years across located only about 21 million light-years beyond the stars of the Milky Way. Along with a bright central core, this colorful composite image highlights youthful blue star clusters and reddish stellar nurseries tracing the galaxy's spiral arms. It also shows off remarkable reddish jets of glowing hydrogen gas. In addition to small companion galaxy NGC 4248 (bottom right) background galaxies can be found scattered throughout the frame. M106 (aka NGC 4258) is a nearby example of the Seyfert class of active galaxies, seen across the spectrum from radio to x-rays. Active galaxies are believed to be powered by matter falling into a massive central black hole.
Seen as a seagull and a duck, these nebulae are not the only cosmic clouds to evoke images of flight. But both are winging their way across this broad celestial landscape, spanning almost 7 degrees across planet Earth's night sky toward the constellation Canis Major. The expansive Seagull (upper left) is itself composed of two major cataloged emission nebulae. Brighter NGC 2327 forms the head with the more diffuse IC 2177 as the wings and body. Impressively, the Seagull's wingspan would correspond to about 250 light-years at an estimated distance of 3,800 light-years. At the lower right, the Duck appears much more compact and would span only about 50 light-years given its 15,000 light-year distance estimate. Blown by energetic winds from an extremely massive, hot star near its center, the Duck nebula is cataloged as NGC 2359. Of course, the Duck's thick body and winged appendages also lend it a more dramatic popular moniker -- Thor's Helmet.
Every 14 to 15 years, Saturn's rings are tilted edge-on to our line of sight. As the bright, beautiful rings seem to grow narrower it becomes increasingly difficult to see them, even with large telescopes. But it does provide the opportunity to watch multiple transits of Saturn's moons. During a transit, a sunlit moon and its shadow glide across the cloudy face of the gas giant. Recorded on February 24, this Hubble image is part of a sequence showing the transit of four of Saturn's moons. From left to right are Enceladus and shadow, Dione and shadow, and Saturn's largest moon Titan. Small moon Mimas is just touching Saturn's disk near the ring plane at the far right. The shadows of Titan and Mimas have both moved off the right side of the disk. Saturn itself has an equatorial diameter of about 120,000 kilometers.
The colors of Mercury are subtle but beautiful. At first glance, our Solar System's innermost planet appears simply black and white, but images that include infrared colors normally beyond human vision accentuate a world of detail. One such image, shown above, was acquired by the robotic MESSENGER spacecraft that swung by Mercury in mid-January. Here, most generally, the hot world itself acquires a slightly more brown hue. Many craters that appear on top of other craters -- and so surely have formed more recently -- appear here as bright with bright rays that include a slightly blue tint, indicating that soil upended during the impact was light in color. A few craters, such as some in the huge Caloris Basin impact feature visible on the upper right, appear unexpectedly to be ringed with a dark material, the nature of which is being researched. MESSENGER continues to glide through the inner Solar System and will pass Mercury again this October and next September, before entering orbit around the desolate world in 2011.
Galaxies, like stars, frequently form groups. A group of galaxies is a system containing more than two galaxies but less than the tens or hundreds typically found in a cluster of galaxies. A most notable example is the Local Group of Galaxies, which houses over 30 galaxies including our Milky Way, Andromeda, and the Magellanic Clouds. Pictured above is nearby compact group Hickson 44. This group is located about 60 million light-years away toward the constellation of Leo. Also known as the NGC 3190 Group, Hickson 44 contains several bright spiral galaxies and one bright elliptical galaxy on the upper left. The bright source on the upper right is a foreground star. Many galaxies in Hickson 44 and other compact groups are either slowly merging or gravitationally pulling each other apart.
Our Solar System is a busy place. Although the major planets get the most press, a swarm of rocks, comets, and asteroids also exist. The above plot shows the placement of known inner Solar System objects on 2002 July 20. The light blue lines indicate the orbits of planets. The green dots indicate asteroids, officially known as minor planets. The red dots indicate asteroids that come within 1.3 Earth-Sun distances (AU) of the Sun and so pose an increased (although small) collision risk with the Earth. Comets appear as dark blue squares, while dark blue points are Jupiter Trojans, asteroids that orbit just ahead of, or just behind Jupiter. Note that most asteroids of the inner Solar System orbit between Mars and Jupiter in the main asteroid belt. Every day this plot shifts with objects nearer the Sun typically shifting the most. The current locations of these objects can be found here.
The New General Catalog of star clusters and nebulae really isn't so new. In fact, it was published in 1888 - an attempt by J. L. E. Dreyer to consolidate the work of astronomers William, Caroline, and John Herschel along with others into a useful single, complete catalog of astronomical discoveries and measurements. Dreyer's work was successful and is still important today as this famous catalog continues to lend its "NGC" to bright clusters, galaxies, and nebulae. Take for example this star cluster known as NGC 2266 (item number 2,266 in the NGC compilation). It lies about 10,000 light-years distant in the constellation Gemini and represents an open or galactic cluster. With an age of about 1 billion years, NGC 2266 is old for a galactic cluster. Its evolved red giant stars are readily apparent in this gorgeous three-color image.
Dynamic jets of gas and dust surround one of the most active planetary surfaces in the solar system in this wild-looking picture of a comet nucleus. The comet's designation is 81P/Wild 2 of course (sounds like "vilt 2"), and the picture is a composite of two images recorded by the Stardust spacecraft's navigation camera during its January 2nd flyby. The composited images consist of a short exposure recording startling surface details of Wild 2's nucleus and a longer exposure, taken 10 seconds later, revealing material streaming from the surface. The left edge of the nucleus appears extremely jagged due to a strong shadow. Pitted and eroded after billions of years of outgassing and meteorite impacts, the nucleus pictured is only about 5 kilometers in diameter, while the jets of dust and gas ultimately leave trails millions of kilometers long. Stardust is scheduled to return samples of Wild 2's cometary dust, picked up during the flyby, to Earth in January 2006.
Seventeenth century astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini was an astute observer of Jupiter's Great Red Spot. So it seems only fitting that his namesake, the Cassini spacecraft, has enabled detailed observations of another planet-sized blemish -- Jupiter's Great Dark Spot. Unlike the Red Spot, the Great Dark Spot lies near Jupiter's north pole and seems to appear and disappear over periods of months rather than persisting for hundreds of years. Seen at ultraviolet wavelengths, the dark feature resides in the Jovian stratosphere confined by pole-encircling winds, analogous to planet Earth's antarctic ozone hole. This image of the Dark Spot is a single frame from a movie created with data recorded during the spacecraft's year 2000 flyby of Jupiter. Projected to show Jupiter's north polar region, no data are available for the blank central area, while the Great Dark Spot lies above and just left of center. The white circle marks 60 degrees latitude and the blue contour outlines a persistent Jovian auroral zone which may be related to the formation of the Great Dark Spot.
In the distant universe, time appears to run slow. Since time-dilated light appears shifted toward the red end of the spectrum (redshifted), astronomers are able to use cosmological time-slowing to help measure vast distances in the universe. Above, the light from distant galaxies has been broken up into its constituent colors (spectra), allowing astronomers to measure the redshift of known spectral lines. The novelty of the above image is that the distance to hundreds of galaxies can now be measured on a single frame using the Visible MultiObject Spectrograph that has begun operating at the Very Large Telescope array in Chile. Analyzing the space distribution of distant objects will allow insight into when and how stars, galaxies, and quasars formed, clustered, and evolved in the early universe.
Pluto is mostly brown. The above picture captures the true colors of Pluto as well as the highest surface resolution so far recovered. No spacecraft has yet visited this most distant planet in our Solar System. The above map was created by tracking brightness changes from Earth of Pluto during times when it was being partially eclipsed by its moon Charon. The map therefore shows the hemisphere of Pluto that faces Charon. Pluto's brown color is thought dominated by frozen methane deposits metamorphosed by faint but energetic sunlight. The dark band below Pluto's equator is seen to have rather complex coloring, however, indicating that some unknown mechanisms may have affected Pluto's surface.
Apollo 16 spent three days on Earth's Moon in April 1972. The fifth lunar landing mission out of six, Apollo 16 was famous for deploying and using an ultraviolet telescope as the first lunar observatory, and for collecting rocks and data on the mysterious lunar highlands. In the above picture, astronaut John W. Young photographs Charles M. Duke, Jr. collecting rock samples at the Descartes landing site. Duke stands by Plum Crater while the Lunar Roving Vehicle waits parked in the background. The Lunar Roving Vehicle allowed the astronauts to travel great distances to investigate surface features and collect rocks. High above, Thomas K. Mattingly orbits in the Command Module.
This month, the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft began its primary mission to the red planet. Orbiting about once every two hours at an altitude of over 200 miles, instruments onboard MGS now regularly explore the Martian surface and atmosphere. This MGS polar mapping orbit was set up to achieve a favorable "afternoon" sun-angle for imaging as the spacecraft crosses over the day side of the planet. Mars' rotation will allow complete coverage of the surface roughly once every week with mapping operations planned for one Martian year (687 Earth days). These two opposite hemisphere views of Mars were pieced together from MGS wide-angle camera scans made in early March (blue and red lines mark the scan edges). Water-ice clouds can be seen hovering over the surface while the north polar cap is visible at the top of each image.
High resolution Mars Global Surveyor images were combined with Viking Orbiter color data to produce this stunning, detailed view of a Martian canyon's edge. The area pictured is about 6 miles wide and represents a tiny part of the northern edge of the canyon Valles Marineris, whose total length is about 2,500 miles. Details 20 to 30 feet across can be seen in the high resolution data. The composition of the thin, well-defined layers in the steep canyon walls is unknown, but their presence points to a complex and active Martian geologic history. In the later half of the 1970s, NASA's Viking Orbiters photographed Mars extensively, yet Surveyor's sharp new images have produced some striking and unanticipated results.
What and where are the Gamma-Ray Bursters? Since their discovery in the early 1970s, nobody has been able to explain the cause of mysterious flashes of gamma rays that come from seemingly random directions on the sky. Worse yet, it is even unclear whether these high energy explosions originate in our own Galaxy or in distant galaxies across the Universe. Until late last month, these bursters were known only by their gamma-ray flashes - no counterpart had been seen at any other wavelength. But on February 28, an Italian/Dutch satellite known as BeppoSAX detected what may well be X-rays from a burster, eight hours after the gamma-ray flash. The discovery image is shown above. Still hours later, using the position provided by this X-ray image, ground-based telescopes recovered an even better located variable optical source which also seems to be related to the burster. Dramatically, this optical transient has faded now. In its place lies a steady source that appears to be a dim, distant galaxy. Did this Gamma-Ray Burst originate in the distant galaxy? If so, it answers one facet of one of modern astronomy's greatest controversies. If not, this would not be the first fortuitous coincidence to mislead astronomers. Future satellite and ground-based observations will tell.
This picture of Comet Hyakutake was taken on March 14, 1996. Structure in the ion tale of Comet Hyakutake is now clearly visible. An ion tale forms as a comet nears the Sun. Sunlight causes gas and dust to boil off the comet's solid nucleus. Charged gas - called ions - are then accelerated away from the Sun by the solar wind - fast moving particles streaming out from the Sun's corona. The ion tale will appear blue and glows by fluorescence. As Comet Hyakutake gets closer to the Sun during the next month, a dust tail is expected to be visible as well. Dust tails shine by light reflected from the Sun. Comet tails point away from the Sun, even as a comet moves away from the Sun. For observers in the Northern Hemisphere, Comet Hyakutake should appear tonight in the eastern part of the constellation of Virgo and should be about magnitude 2.5. The comet will look the most impressive in the darkest skies - in a city you are likely to see only a fuzzy blob!