A long solar filament stretches across the relatively calm surface of the Sun in this telescopic snap shot from April 27. The negative or inverted
narrowband image was made in the light of ionized hydrogen atoms. Seen at the upper left, the magnificent curtain of magnetized plasma towers above surface and actually reaches beyond the Sun's edge. How long is the solar filament? About as long as the distance from Earth to Moon, illustrated by the scale insert at the left. Tracking toward the right across the solar disk a day later
the long filament erupted, lifting away from the Sun's surface. Monitored by Sun staring satellites
, a coronal mass ejection was also blasted from the site but is expected to swing wide of our fair planet
If you look closely, you will see something quite unusual about this setting Sun. There are birds flying to the Sun's left, but that's not so unusual. A dark sea covers the Sun's bottom, and dark clouds cover parts of the middle, but they are also not very unusual. More unusual is the occulted piece at the top right. And that's no occulting cloud -- that's the Moon. Yesterday the Moon moved in front of part of the Sun as visible from Australia, and although many locations reported annoying clouds, a partially eclipsed Sun would occasionally peek through as it set. The above image was captured yesterday on the western horizon of Adelaide, South Australia. The maximum eclipse was visible only from a small part of Antarctica where the entire Moon could be seen covering the entire center of the Sun in what is known as an annular eclipse, leaving only a ring of fire from the Sun peeking out around the edges. The next solar eclipse will be another partial eclipse, will occur on 2014 October 23, and will be visible from most of North America near sunset.
What spacecraft is humanity currently using to explore our Solar System? Presently, every inner planet has at least one robotic explorer, while several others are monitoring our Sun, some are mapping Earth's Moon, a few are chasing asteroids and comets, one is orbiting Saturn, and several are even heading out into deep space. The above illustration gives more details, with the inner Solar System depicted on the upper right and the outer Solar System on the lower left. Given the present armada, our current epoch might become known as the time when humanity first probed its own star system. Sometimes widely separated spacecraft act together as an InterPlanetary Network to determine the direction of distant explosions by noting when each probe detects high energy photons. Future spacecraft milestones, as indicated along the bottom of the graphic, include Dawn reaching Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, and New Horizons reaching Pluto, both in 2015.
It was all lined up even without the colorful aurora exploding overhead. If you follow the apex line of the recently deployed monuments of Arctic Henge in Raufarhöfn in northern Iceland from this vantage point, you will see that they point due north. A good way to tell is to follow their apex line to the line connecting the end stars of the Big Dipper, Merak and Dubhe, toward Polaris, the bright star near the north spin axis of the Earth projected onto the sky. By design, from this vantage point, this same apex line will also point directly at the midnight sun at its highest point in the sky just during the summer solstice of Earth's northern hemisphere. In other words, the Sun will not set at Arctic Henge during the summer solstice in late June, and at its highest point in the sky it will appear just above the aligned vertices of this modern monument. The above image was taken in late March during a beautiful auroral storm.
Tycho! Tycho! burning bright
In the darkness of the night,
What exploding white dwarf star
Did frame thy remnant from afar,
In the distant deep dark skies
Under gaze of human eyes?
Seen by mortals and their ma
Named for one called Tycho Brahe.
At opposition in late January, Mars shone very brightly in planet Earth's night sky, among the stars of the constellation Cancer the Crab. Since then the Red Planet has been fading, but still lingers in Cancer during April and May. In mid-April, Mars wandered remarkably close to Cancer's famous star cluster M44, the Beehive Cluster. M44 is also known by an older name, Praesepe, Latin for cradle or manger. Captured in this 60 second time exposure made on April 14, a yellow-tinged Mars and M44 are near the center of the field, seemingly just beyond the reach of a pine tree. Of course, M44's stars are about 600 light-years away, while Mars was more like 600 light-seconds from Earth. The digital photograph was made with a camera mounted on a telescope tracking the stars through dark skies above a camp ground in Virginia, USA. During the exposure, passing car lights briefly illuminated the tree branches.
Last Sunday's fading evening twilight featured a young crescent Moon along the western horizon. The young Moon also shared the sky with the lovely Pleiades star cluster and wandering planet Mercury. Framed by clouds in this serene skyscape from Selsey, UK, a similar twilight scene was visible around the globe. Emerging from the cloud bank below the Pleiades, the narrow sunlit lunar crescent is overexposed. Still, the Moon's dim night side is impressively clear, illuminated by earthshine. Bright, innermost planet Mercury lies near the bottom of the field. Mercury will remain near the Pleiades, low in the west after sunset over the coming days, an ongoing conjunction of planet and star cluster that will offer skygazers some excellent binocular views.
Linking spiral arms, two large colliding galaxies are featured in this Hubble Space Telescope view, part of a series of cosmic snapshots released to celebrate the Hubble's 18th anniversary. Recorded in astronomer Halton Arp's Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies as Arp 272, the pair is otherwise known as NGC 6050 and IC 1179. They lie some 450 million light-years away in the Hercules Galaxy Cluster. At that estimated distance, the picture spans over 150 thousand light-years. Although this scenario does look peculiar, galaxy collisions and their eventual mergers are now understood to be common, with Arp 272 representing a stage in this inevitable process. In fact, the nearby large spiral Andromeda Galaxy is known to be approaching our own galaxy and Arp 272 may offer a glimpse of the far future collision between Andromeda and the Milky Way.
Inside the head of this interstellar monster is a star that is slowly destroying it. The monster, actually an inanimate pillar of gas and dust, measures over a light year in length. The star, not itself visible through the opaque dust, is bursting out partly by ejecting energetic beams of particles. Similar epic battles are being waged all over the star-forming Carina Nebula. The stars will win in the end, destroying their pillars of creation over the next 100,000 years, and resulting in a new open cluster of stars. The pink dots are newly formed stars that have already been freed from their birth monster. The above image is only a small part of a highly detailed panoramic mosaic of the Carina Nebula taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and released last week. The technical name for the stellar jets are Herbig-Haro objects. How a star creates Herbig-Haro jets is an ongoing topic of research, but it likely involves an accretion disk swirling around a central star. A second impressive Herbig-Haro jet is visible across the bottom of a larger image.
A new star, likely the brightest supernova in recorded human history, appeared in planet Earth's sky about 1,000 years ago today, in 1006 AD. The expanding debris cloud from the stellar explosion is still visible to modern astronomers, but what did the supernova look like in 1006? In celebration of the millennial anniversary of SN1006, astronomer Tunc Tezel offers this intriguing suggestion, based on a photograph he took on February 22, 1998 from a site overlooking the Mediterranean south of Antalya, Turkey. On that date, bright Venus and a waning crescent Moon shone in the early morning sky. Adopting calculations which put the supernova's apparent brightness between Venus and the crescent Moon, he digitally superposed an appropriate new star in the picture. He placed the star at the supernova's position in the southerly constellation of Lupus and used the water's reflection of moonlight in the final image.
While orbiting the planet during their June 1998 mission, the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery photographed this view of two moons of Earth. Thick storm clouds are visible in the lovely blue planet's nurturing atmosphere and, what was then Earth's largest artificial moon, the spindly Russian Mir Space Station can be seen above the planet's limb. The bright spot to the right of Mir is Earth's very large natural satellite, The Moon. The Mir orbited planet Earth once every 90 minutes about 200 miles above the planet's surface or about 4,000 miles from Earth's center. The Moon orbits once every 28 days at a distance of about 250,000 miles from the center of the Earth.
Now a bright speck of light wandering through Earth's night sky, magnificent planet Saturn lies nearly 1.5 billion kilometers from the Sun. But after an interplanetary voyage of seven years the planet's stunning rings nearly fill the field of the Cassini spacecraft's narrow angle camera in this image recorded on March 27. Tip to tip, the ring system spans about 270,000 kilometers. Named for discoverers, the large, easily visible gap in the rings is known as the Cassini division, while the narrower outer gap is the Encke division. Illuminated from below and to the right, the rings cast a shadow on Saturn's upper hemisphere, interrupted where sunlight streams through the Cassini division and creates a light blue streak. At the left, Saturn also casts a stark shadow across the planet girdling rings. On July 1, the Cassini spacecraft is scheduled to fire its main engine and enter Saturn orbit.
Why does this cloud look so strange? Actually, pictured above are several clouds all stacked up into one striking lenticular cloud. Normally, air moves much more horizontally than it does vertically. Sometimes, however, such as when wind comes off of a mountain or a hill, relatively strong vertical oscillations take place as the air stabilizes. The dry air at the top of an oscillation may be quite stratified in moisture content, and hence forms clouds at each layer where the air saturates with moisture. The result can be a lenticular cloud with a strongly layered appearance. The above picture was taken in 1999 over Plymouth, New Hampshire, USA. The same lenticular cloud also looks strange when photographed from 30 kilometers away.
Is this image worth a thousand words? According to the Holographic Principle, the most information you can get from this image is about 3 x 1065
bits for a normal sized computer monitor. The Holographic Principle, yet unproven, states that there is a maximum amount of information content held by regions adjacent to any surface. Therefore, counter-intuitively, the information content inside a room depends not on the volume of the room but on the area of the bounding walls. The principle derives from the idea that the Planck length, the length scale where quantum mechanics begins to dominate classical gravity, is one side of an area that can hold only about one bit of information. The limit was first postulated by physicist Gerard 't Hooft in 1993. It can arise from generalizations from seemingly distant speculation that the information held by a black hole is determined not by its enclosed volume but by the surface area of its event horizon. The term "holographic" arises from a hologram analogy where three-dimension images are created by projecting light though a flat screen. Beware, other people looking at the above image may not claim to see 3 x 1065
bits -- they might claim to see a teapot.
Earlier this month the crew of the US Space Shuttle Endeavor took in this view as they approached the developing International Space Station (ISS). The Endeavor and ISS crew installed Italy's Raffaello, a Multi-Purpose Logistics Module and successfully deployed Canada's Canadarm2, a robot remote-controlled arm that can move about the outside of the station. The shuttle undocked from the ISS yesterday and is scheduled to return to Earth today. A manned Russian Soyuz spacecraft is scheduled to dock with Earth's busiest orbiting outpost early today.
Almost unknown to casual observers in the northern hemisphere, the southern sky contains two diffuse wonders known as the Magellanic Clouds. The Magellanic Clouds are small irregular galaxies orbiting our own larger Milky Way spiral galaxy. The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), pictured here, is about 250,000 light years away and contains a preponderance of young, hot, blue stars indicating it has undergone a recent period of star formation. There is evidence that the SMC is not gravitationally bound to the LMC.
On September 24, 1997 a shock wave blasted across the surface of the sun at speeds of 250 to 600 kilometers per second. On planet Earth, observer Barry Reynolds photographed the expanding shock front (left) in the light emitted by hydrogen atoms at the solar surface. His discovery image was nicely confirmed by a space-based extreme ultraviolet image (right) of the shock ramming through the sun's upper atmosphere as recorded by the SOHO satellite observatory. In both pictures a bright solar flare is seen near the center of a circular arc-like feature representing a shock front. The shock front is dark in the ground based photo and bright in the ultraviolet image. These shock fronts are believed to be tracers of a 3-dimensional disturbance caused by the flare but researchers are uncertain as to the exact physical mechanisms which produced it. Along with other violent events called coronal mass ejections, solar flares are known to generate streams of energetic particles which can affect the Earth's magnetosphere and Earth orbiting satellites.
Get out your red/blue glasses and check out this stereo picture of "Big Crater" on Mars! (Pieces of red and blue or green clear plastic will do. Your right eye should look through the red piece.) The stereo perspective was created by combining images from the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft taken on two different orbits, each with a slightly different viewing angle. At just under a mile in diameter, Big Crater is not all that big but it is an important landmark in the vicinity of the Mars Pathfinder landing site on an ancient flood plain in Ares Vallis. Identifying corresponding smaller scale features in Pathfinder and Surveyor images will help to precisely locate the lander. Meanwhile, the line of sight between the Earth and Mars is approaching the Sun. During this period, known as solar conjunction, communicating with Mars Global Surveyor will be difficult.
Where are the Milky Way's gas clouds and where are they going? Stars form in gas clouds, and the motion of gas clouds tell us about the size and rotation speed of our own Milky Way Galaxy. But gas clouds are hard to detect - they are composed mostly of nearly invisible molecular hydrogen and helium. Fortunately, at least small amounts of heavier gases co-exist, one of them being carbon monoxide (CO), which is relatively easy to detect at radio wavelengths. Therefore, over the past decade, a team of astronomers have carefully mapped out the molecular sky to unprecedented clarity - to about four times previous resolution and about eight times previous sensitivity. The resulting map is shown above, rescaled and in false color, with dark blue being relatively low emission. The band of our Milky Way Galaxy spans the middle. The data have not only helped our understanding of the Galaxy, but highlight a few mysteries too. For example: what causes the rapid speed of the gas near the Galactic Center?
The rings of Uranus are thin, narrow, and dark compared to other planetary ring systems. Brightened artificially by computer, the ring particles reflect as little light as charcoal, although they are really made of ice chucks darkened by rock. This false-color, infrared picture from the Hubble Space Telescope taken in July 1995 shows the rings in conjunction to the planet. The infrared light allows one to see detail in different layers of Uranus' atmosphere, which has been digitally enhanced with false color. Three other planets in our Solar System are known to have rings: Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune. Four of Uranus' moons are visible outside the ring plane. The rings of Uranus were discovered from ground-based observations in 1977.