APOD Retrospective: April 6

A nostalgic look back at Astronomy Picture of the Day
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APOD Retrospective: April 6

Postby bystander » Fri Apr 06, 2012 5:12 am

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Hot blue stars shine brightly in this beautiful, recently formed galactic or "open" star cluster. Open cluster NGC 3293 is located in the constellation Carina, lies at a distance of about 8000 light years, and has a particularly high abundance of these young bright stars. A study of NGC 3293 implies that the blue stars are only about 6 million years old, whereas the cluster's dimmer, redder stars appear to be about 20 million years old. If true, star formation in this open cluster took at least 15 million years. Even this amount of time is short, however, when compared with the billions of years stars like our Sun live, and the over-ten billion year lifetimes of many galaxies and our universe. Pictured, NGC 3293 appears just in front of a dense dust lane and red glowing hydrogen gas emanating from the Carina Nebula.

Do underground oceans vent through the tiger stripes on Saturn's moon Enceladus? Long features dubbed tiger stripes are known to be spewing ice from the moon's icy interior into space, creating a cloud of fine ice particles over the moon's South Pole and creating Saturn's mysterious E-ring. Evidence for this has come from the robot Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn. Pictured above, a high resolution image of Enceladus is shown from a close flyby. The unusual surface features dubbed tiger stripes are visible in false-color blue. Why Enceladus is active remains a mystery, as the neighboring moon Mimas, approximately the same size, appears quite dead. Most recently, an analysis of slight gravity deviations has given an independent indication of underground oceans. Such research is particularly interesting since such oceans would be candidates to contain life.

No sudden, sharp boundary marks the passage of day into night in this gorgeous view of ocean and clouds over our fair planet Earth. Instead, the shadow line or terminator is diffuse and shows the gradual transition to darkness we experience as twilight. With the Sun illuminating the scene from the right, the cloud tops reflect gently reddened sunlight filtered through the dusty troposphere, the lowest layer of the planet's nurturing atmosphere. A clear high altitude layer, visible along the dayside's upper edge, scatters blue sunlight and fades into the blackness of space. This picture actually is a single digital photograph taken in June of 2001 from the International Space Station orbiting at an altitude of 211 nautical miles.

After wandering about as far from the Sun on the sky as Venus can get, the brilliant evening star crossed paths with the Pleiades star cluster earlier this week. The beautiful conjunction was enjoyed by skygazers around the world. Taken on April 2, this celestial group photo captures the view from Portal, Arizona, USA. Also known as the Seven Sisters, even the brighter naked-eye Pleiades stars are seen to be much fainter than Venus. And while Venus and the sisters do look star-crossed, their spiky appearance is the diffraction pattern caused by multiple leaves in the aperture of the telephoto lens. The last similar conjunction of Venus and Pleiades occurred nearly 8 years ago. As it did then, Venus will again move on to cross paths with the disk of the Sun in June.

If not perfect, then this spiral galaxy is at least one of the most photogenic. An island universe of about 100 billion stars, 32 million light-years away toward the constellation Pisces, M74 presents a gorgeous face-on view. Classified as an Sc galaxy, the grand design of M74's graceful spiral arms are traced by bright blue star clusters and dark cosmic dust lanes. The above image covers half the width of the full Moon and was obtained using 19 hours of exposure on the 1.23-meter telescope at Calar Alto Observatory in the Sierra de Los Filabres mountain range in Spain. Spanning about 30,000 light-years across the face of M74, it includes exposures recording emission from hydrogen atoms, highlighting the reddish glow of the galaxy's large star-forming regions.

What do the following things have in common: a cone, the fur of a fox, and a Christmas tree? Answer: they all occur in the constellation of the unicorn (Monoceros). Pictured above as a star forming region cataloged as NGC 2264, the complex jumble of cosmic gas and dust is about 2,700 light-years distant and mixes reddish emission nebulae excited by energetic light from newborn stars with dark interstellar dust clouds. Where the otherwise obscuring dust clouds lie close to the hot, young stars they also reflect starlight, forming blue reflection nebulae. The wide mosaic spans about 3/4 degree or nearly 1.5 full moons, covering 40 light-years at the distance of NGC 2264. Its cast of cosmic characters includes the Fox Fur Nebula, whose convoluted pelt lies at the upper left, bright variable star S Mon immersed in the blue-tinted haze just below the Fox Fur, and the Cone Nebula at the far right. Of course, the stars of NGC 2264 are also known as the Christmas Tree star cluster. The triangular tree shape traced by the stars appears sideways here, with its apex at the Cone Nebula and its broader base centered near S Mon.

The developing International Space Station (ISS) has changed its appearance again. In a recently completed mission, the Space Shuttle orbiter Discovery visited the ISS and added components that included a new truss and new solar panels. The entire array of expansive solar panels is visible in the above picture taken by the Discovery Crew after leaving the ISS to return to Earth. The world's foremost space outpost can be seen developing over the past several years by comparing the above image to past images. Also visible above are many different types of modules, a robotic arm, and a supply ship. Construction began on the ISS in 1998.

The famous Horsehead Nebula in Orion is not alone. A deep exposure shows that the dark familiar shaped indentation, visible just below center, is part of a vast complex of absorbing dust and glowing gas. To bring out details of the Horsehead's pasture, amateur astronomers at the Star Shadow Remote Observatory in New Mexico, USA fixed a small telescope on the region for over seven hours filtering out all but a very specific color of red light emitted by hydrogen. They then added the image to a full color frame taken over three hours. The resulting spectacular picture details an intricate tapestry of gaseous wisps and dust-laden filaments that were created and sculpted over eons by stellar winds and ancient supernovas. The Horsehead Nebula lies 1,500 light years distant towards the constellation of Orion. Two stars from the Orion's Belt can be found in the above image.

Saturn and its magnificent ring system can offer even casual astronomers the most memorable of telescopic sights. Wandering between Leo and Cancer this month, a bright Saturn is well placed for viewing in evening skies. But from our earthbound perspective, the tilt of Saturn's rings does change with time. In 1995 and 1996 the broad rings were edge-on and nearly invisible, gradually opening to a spectacular maximum tilt of about 27 degrees by 2003. This frame from a series of Saturn images beginning a year later, in 2004, and ending just last month shows the steady decrease in apparent tilt as the rings head toward another edge-on presentation in 2009. Saturn's south pole is toward the bottom.

What is this bright soil on Mars? Several times while rolling across Mars, the treads of the robotic rover Spirit have serendipitously uncovered unusually bright soil. Spirit uncovered another batch unexpectedly last month while rolling toward its winter hibernation location on McCool Hill. The physics and chemistry instruments on Spirit have determined the soil, shown above, contains a high content of salts including iron-bearing sulfates. A leading hypothesis holds that these salts record the presence of past water, with the salts becoming concentrated as the water evaporated.

M7 is one of the most prominent open clusters of stars on the sky. The cluster, dominated by bright blue stars, can be seen with the naked eye in a dark sky in the tail of the constellation of Scorpius. M7 contains about 100 stars in total, is about 200 million years old, spans 25 light-years across, and lies about 1000 light-years away. This color picture was taken recently at the Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, USA as part of the Advanced Observers Program. The M7 star cluster has been known since ancient times, being noted by Ptolemy in the year 130 AD. Also visible is a dark dust cloud near the bottom of the frame, and literally millions of unrelated stars towards the Galactic center.

How did this huge cyclone form? An unusually strong storm -- perhaps the strongest storm in the recorded history of the South Atlantic Ocean -- crossed the coast of Brazil last week. Cyclones this powerful, classified by some as the first ever Category 1 Hurricane, are very rare in the South Atlantic. Tropical cyclones are large regions of low pressure with little vertical wind shear that typically form over regions of warm water, which power the cyclone through evaporation. Reports of relatively cold air in the center indicate, however, that this storm was extratropical. The storm was dubbed Caterina by local meteorologists, although no formal naming precedents exist in this part of the world.

This moon is doomed. Mars, the red planet named for the Roman god of war, has two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, whose names are derived from the Greek for Fear and Panic. These Martian moons may well be captured asteroids originating in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter or perhaps from even more distant reaches of the Solar System. In this 1978 Viking 1 orbiter image, the largest moon, Phobos, is indeed seen to be a heavily cratered asteroid-like object. About 17 miles across, Phobos really zips through the Martian sky. Actually rising above Mars' western horizon and setting in the east, it completes an orbit in less than 8 hours. But Phobos orbits so close to Mars, (about 5,800 kilometers above the surface compared to 400,000 kilometers for our Moon) that gravitational tidal forces are dragging it down. In 100 million years or so it will likely crash into the surface or be shattered by stress caused by the relentless tidal forces, the debris forming a ring around Mars.

Gamma-rays are the most energetic form of electromagnetic radiation. But these high energy photons penetrate and interact in normal materials and cannot be focused by lenses and mirrors like those in optical telescopes. So how do you make an image in gamma-ray light? One way is to use a patterned mask of material which can cast gamma-ray shadows on a digital detector array. The mask is called a coded aperture and the resulting shadow patterns can be used to construct a gamma-ray image of the source. For example, consider the picture above. In place of a coded mask, familiar objects were positioned in front of a detector array and illuminated with gamma-rays in a laboratory test. Do you recognize the shadow image? (Click on the picture for the focused visible light image.) Destined to fly on the International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory (INTEGRAL) satellite scheduled for launch in October of this year, the detector array is part of the imaging gamma-ray telescope, IBIS.

Last weekend skygazers at middle and high latitudes around the globe were treated to expansive auroral displays as a magnetic storm raged around planet Earth. The storm was triggered by a solar coronal mass ejection associated with the giant sunspot group cataloged as active region number 9393. For example, pictured here in the early morning hours of April 1, the skies over New Zealand are alive with "southern lights". In the wide-angle time exposure, a towering red aurora is visible suspended above the foreground of a well lit lumber yard, train station, church steeple and buildings of the city of Dunedin. On April 2, the largest solar flare of the last 25 years also erupted near active region 9393, but because of its position near the Sun's edge the effects were largely directed away from our fair planet. However, all the recent solar activity underscores the fact that the solar maximum is still with us.

Rising before the Sun on February 2nd, astrophotographer Joe Orman anticipated this apparition of the bright morning star Venus near a lovely crescent Moon above a neighbor's house in suburban Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Fortunately, the alignment of bright planets and the Moon is one of the most inspiring sights in the night sky and one that is often easy to enjoy and share without any special equipment. Take tonight, for example. Those blessed with clear skies can simply step outside near sunset and view a young crescent Moon very near three bright planets in the west Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. Jupiter will be the unmistakable brightest star near the Moon with a reddish Mars just to Jupiter's north and pale yellow Saturn directly above. Of course, these sky shows create an evocative picture but the planets and Moon just appear to be near each other -- they are actually only approximately lined up and lie in widely separated orbits. Unfortunately, next month's highly publicized alignment of planets on May 5th will be lost from view in the Sun's glare but such planetary alignments occur repeatedly and pose no danger to planet Earth.

NGC 6334 is a cloud of gas and dust that appears to be forming massive stars. At 5500 light-years away, the Bear Claw Nebula, as it has also been dubbed, is more than three times as distant as the Orion Nebula, but still close enough for detailed study. The Bear Claw Nebula can be found towards the constellation of Scorpius. In visible light, ionized gas makes NGC 6334 look quite red. The above false-color photograph, however, was taken in infrared light. There, the glow of starlight absorbing dust is more apparent (depicted in blue). Current research indicates that the bright sources are very young and massive stars. These stars emit light so energetic and intense that it destroys fine grains of dust in their immediate vicinity, creating an abundance of ionized gas (depicted in red).

This image, showing what looks to be a human face (above center) and other features of the Cydonia region on the Martian surface, was produced using data from NASA's Viking 1 orbiter in 1976. Described in a NASA press release as a "rock formation which resembles a human head", some have since offered the extraordinary explanation that the face is an artificial construct built by a civilization on Mars! However, most scientists have a more conventional view - that this feature is indeed a natural Martian hill whose illusory face-like appearance depends on illumination and viewing angle. This month, the Mars Global Surveyor satellite will be in position to take new pictures of this region of controversial Martian features along with areas around the Mars Pathfinder and Viking landing sites.

Space suited project Mercury astronauts John H. Glenn, Virgil I. Grissom, and Alan B. Shepard Jr. (left to right) are pictured here posing in front of a Redstone rocket in this vintage 1961 NASA publicity photo. Project Mercury was the first U.S. program designed to put humans in space. It resulted in 6 flights using one-man capsules and Redstone and Atlas rockets. Shortly after the first U.S. manned flight on May 5, 1961, a suborbital flight piloted by Alan Shepard, President Kennedy announced the goal of a manned lunar landing by 1970. This goal was achieved by NASA's Apollo program and Shepard himself walked on the moon as commander of the Apollo 14 mission.

In the 1920s, using photographic plates made with the Mt. Wilson Observatory's 100 inch telescope, Edwin Hubble determined the distance to the Andromeda Nebula - decisively demonstrating the existence of other galaxies far beyond the Milky Way. His notations are evident on the plate shown above (the image is a negative with stars appearing as black dots against the white background of space). By intercomparing plates, Hubble searched for "novae", stars which underwent a sudden increase in brightness. He found several on this plate and marked them with an "N". Later he discovered that one was actually a type of variable star known as a cepheid - crossing out the "N" he wrote "Var!" (upper right). Thanks to the work of Harvard astronomer Henrietta Leavitt, cepheids, regularly varying, pulsating stars, could be used as "standard candle" distance indicators. Identifying such a star allowed Hubble to show that Andromeda was not a small cluster of stars and gas within our own galaxy, but a large galaxy in its own right at a substantial distance from the Milky Way. Hubble's discovery is responsible for our modern concept of a Universe filled with galaxies.

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