What created this large mountain on asteroid Ceres? No one is yet sure. As if in anticipation of today being Asteroid Day
on Earth, the robotic spacecraft Dawn
in orbit around Ceres took the best yet image of an unusually tall mountain on the Asteroid Belt's largest asteroid. Visible at the top of the featured image
, the exceptional mountain rises about five kilometers up from an area that otherwise appears pretty level. The image
was taken about two weeks ago from about 4,400 kilometers away. Although origin hypotheses for the mountain
include volcanism, impacts, and plate tectonics, clear evidence backing any of these is currently lacking. Also visible across Ceres'
surface are some enigmatic light areas: bright spots
whose origin and composition that also remain an active topic of investigation
. Even though Dawn is expected to continue to orbit Ceres, officially dubbed a dwarf planet
, for millions of years, the hydrazine fuel
used to point Dawn's communications
antenna toward Earth is expected to run out sometime next year.
What's happened to the center of this galaxy? Unusual and dramatic dust lanes run across the center of elliptical galaxy Centaurus A. These dust lanes are so thick they almost completely obscure the galaxy's center in visible light. This is particularly unusual as Cen A's red stars and round shape are characteristic of a giant elliptical galaxy, a galaxy type usually low in dark dust. Cen A, also known as NGC 5128, is also unusual compared to an average elliptical galaxy because it contains a higher proportion of young blue stars and is a very strong source of radio emission. Evidence indicates that Cen A is likely the result of the collision of two normal galaxies. During the collision, many young stars were formed, but details of the creation of Cen A's unusual dust belts are still being researched. Cen A lies only 13 million light years away, making it the closest active galaxy. Cen A, pictured above, spans 60,000 light years and can be seen with binoculars toward the constellation of Centaurus.
What lies at the bottom of Hyperion's strange craters? Nobody's sure. To help find out, the robot Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn swooped past the sponge-textured moon in 2005 and 2010 and took images of unprecedented detail. An image from the 2005 pass, shown above in false color, shows a remarkable world strewn with strange craters and a generally odd surface. The slight differences in color likely show differences in surface composition. At the bottom of most craters lies some type of unknown dark material. Inspection of the image shows bright features indicating that the dark material might be only tens of meters thick in some places. Hyperion is about 250 kilometers across, rotates chaotically, and has a density so low that it might house a vast system of caverns inside.
Now shining in eastern skies at dawn, bright planets Venus and Jupiter join the Pleiades star cluster in this sea and sky scape, recorded earlier this week near Buenos Aires, Argentina. Venus dominates the scene that includes bright star Aldebaran just below and to the right. The planets are easy to spot for early morning risers, but this sky also holds two of our solar system's small worlds, Vesta and Ceres, not quite bright enough to be seen with the unaided eye. The digital camera's time exposure just captures them, though. Their positions are indicated when you put your cursor over the image. In orbit around Vesta, NASA's Dawn spacecraft arrived there last July, but is nearing the end of its visit to the main belt asteroid. In August, it will set off on its planned journey to Ceres, arriving at the dwarf planet in 2015.
Sculpted by stellar winds and radiation, the star factory known as Messier 17 lies some 5,500 light-years away in the nebula-rich constellation Sagittarius. At that distance, this degree wide field of view spans almost 100 light-years, courtesy of the European Southern Observatory's new VLT Survey Telescope and OmegaCAM. The sharp, false color image includes both optical and infrared data, following faint details of the region's gas and dust clouds against a backdrop of central Milky Way stars. Stellar winds and energetic light from hot, massive stars formed from M17's stock of cosmic gas and dust have slowly carved away at the remaining interstellar material producing the cavernous appearance and undulating shapes. M17 is also known as the Omega Nebula or the Swan Nebula.
What is that strange blue blob on the far right? No one is sure, but it might be a speeding remnant of a powerful supernova that was unexpectedly lopsided. Scattered debris from supernova explosion N49 lights up the sky in this gorgeous composited image based on data from the Chandra and Hubble Space Telescopes. Glowing visible filaments, shown in yellow, and X-ray hot gas, shown in blue, span about 30 light-years in our neighboring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud. Light from the original exploding star reached Earth thousands of years ago, but N49 also marks the location of another energetic outburst -- an extremely intense blast of gamma-rays detected by satellites about 30 years ago on 1979 March 5. The source of the March 5th Event is now attributed to a magnetar - a highly magnetized, spinning neutron star also born in the ancient stellar explosion which created supernova remnant N49. The magnetar, visible near the top of the image, hurtles through the supernova debris cloud at over 70 thousand kilometers per hour. The blue blob on the far right, however, might have been expelled asymmetrically just as a massive star was exploding. If so, it now appears to be moving over 7 million kilometers per hour.
Here are some familiar shapes in unfamiliar locations. This emission nebula on the left is famous partly because it resembles Earth's continent of North America. To the right of the North America Nebula, cataloged as NGC 7000, is a less luminous nebula that resembles a pelican dubbed the Pelican Nebula. The two emission nebula measure about 50 light-years across, are located about 1,500 light-years away, and are separated by a dark absorption cloud. This spectacular image captures the nebulas, bright ionization fronts, and fine details of the dark dust. The nebulae can be seen with binoculars from a dark location. Look for a small nebular patch north-east of bright star Deneb in the constellation of Cygnus. It is still unknown which star or stars ionize the red-glowing hydrogen gas.
Clouds of glowing gas mingle with dust lanes in the Trifid Nebula, a star forming region toward the constellation of Sagittarius. In the center, the three prominent dust lanes that give the Trifid its name all come together. Mountains of opaque dust appear on the right, while other dark filaments of dust are visible threaded throughout the nebula. A single massive star visible near the center causes much of the Trifid's glow. The Trifid, also known as M20, is only about 300,000 years old, making it among the youngest emission nebulae known. The nebula lies about 9,000 light years away and the part pictured here spans about 10 light years. This image was created with the 0.8-meter IAC80 telescope on the Canary Islands of Spain.
At the center of this sharp skyscape, Centaurus A seems to be a fantastic jumble of old yellow stars, young blue star clusters, and imposing dark dust lanes. Spanning over 60,000 light-years, the peculiar elliptical galaxy is apparently the result of a collision of two otherwise normal galaxies. The left over cosmic debris is steadily being consumed by a black hole with a billion times the mass of the Sun which lies at the center of Centaurus A. It's likely that such black hole central engines generate the radio, X-ray, and gamma-ray energy radiated by Centaurus A and other active galaxies. For an active galaxy Centaurus A is close, a mere 10 million light-years away, and is well-studied by earthbound astronomers.
Some 60 million light-years away in the southerly constellation Corvus, two large galaxies have collided. But stars in the two galaxies - NGC 4038 and NGC 4039 - don't collide in the course of the ponderous, billion year or so long event. Instead, their large clouds of molecular gas and dust do, triggering furious episodes of star formation. Spanning about 500 thousand light-years, this stunning view reveals new star clusters and matter flung far from the scene of the accident by gravitational tidal forces. Of course, the visual appearance of the far-flung arcing structures gives the galaxy pair its popular name - The Antennae. Recorded in this deep image of the region at the tip of the upper arc is a tidal dwarf galaxy NGC 4038S, formed in the cosmic debris.
Venus, Mercury, and Saturn wandered close together in western evening skies last week. On Saturnday, June 25, astronomer R. Jay GaBany recorded this snapshot of their eye-catching planetary conjunction, from historic Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton, California, USA. The view looks toward the Pacific shortly after sunset with the lights of San Jose and the southern San Francisco Bay area in the foreground. Of course, Venus is the brightest of the trio. Mercury is nearby on the right and Saturn is below and left, closest to the horizon. Farther to the right of the planetary triangle are Pollux and Castor, twin stars of Gemini, with Regulus, bright star of the constellation Leo, at the very upper left corner of the picture. In the coming days, Venus and Mercury remain close, while Saturn continues to drop below them, toward the horizon.
Was Saturn's moon Phoebe once a comet? Images from the robotic Cassini spacecraft taken two weeks ago when entering the neighborhood of Saturn indicate that Phoebe may have originated in the outer Solar System. Phoebe's irregular surface, retrograde orbit, unusually dark surface, assortment of large and small craters, and low average density appear consistent with the hypothesis that Phoebe was once part of the Kuiper belt of icy comets beyond Neptune before being captured by Saturn. Visible in the above image of Phoebe are craters, streaks, and layered deposits of light and dark material. The image was taken from around 30,000 kilometers out from this 200-kilometer diameter moon. Late today, Cassini will begin to fire its engines to decelerate into orbit around Saturn.
This dense cloud of gas and dust is being deleted. Likely, within a few million years, the intense light from bright stars will have boiled it away completely. Stars not yet formed in the molecular cloud's interior will then stop growing. The cloud has broken off of part of the greater Carina Nebula, a star forming region about 8000 light years away. Newly formed stars are visible nearby, their images reddened by blue light being preferentially scattered by the pervasive dust. This unusually-colored image spans about two light years and was taken by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope in 1999. This Carina sub-cloud is particularly striking partly because its clear definition stimulates the human imagination (e.g. it could be perceived as a superhero flying through a cloud, arm up, with a saved person in tow below).
This asteroid has a moon! The robot spacecraft Galileo currently exploring the Jovian system, encountered and photographed two asteroids during its long journey to Jupiter. The second asteroid it photographed, Ida, was discovered to have a moon which appears as a small dot to the right of Ida in this picture. The tiny moon, named Dactyl, is about one mile across, while the potato shaped Ida measures about 36 miles long and 14 miles wide. Dactyl is the first moon of an asteroid ever discovered. The names Ida and Dactyl are based on characters in Greek mythology. Other asteroids are now known to have moons.
Stars like the Sun use hydrogen for fuel, "burning" hydrogen into helium at their cores through nuclear fusion. But what happens when that hydrogen runs out? For a while, hydrogen burns in a shell surrounding the stellar core and the star expands to become a red giant. The bright reddish-orange stars in this beautiful two-color composite picture of the old globular star cluster M10 are examples of this phase of stellar evolution. Yet the bright blue stars apparent in M10 have evolved beyond the simple, hydrogen shell burning stage. These stars have become "horizontal branch" giants with core temperatures hot enough to burn helium into carbon. In this image, only the barely visible, faint, gray-looking stars are likely to still be burning hydrogen at their cores.
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 2002, the detector array will be part of the imaging gamma-ray telescope, IBIS.
What's going on near the center of globular cluster NGC 6934? The blur caused by the Earth's atmosphere has prevented astronomers from discerning individual stars in this unusual environment. Telescopes in space can help, but the new Gemini North telescope took the above picture from the ground. In infrared light, Gemini was able to use its adaptive optic mirrors to resolve stars even near the globular cluster's center. NGC 6934 is a 15 billion-year-old ball of hundreds of thousands of stars. Dating stars in ancient globular clusters like NGC 6934 provide valuable constraints on the minimum age of the universe.
Scroll right and watch the universe evolve. Above is a computer simulation depicting the evolution of our entire universe. On the far left is a slice of the universe soon after the Big Bang - over 10 billion years ago. As time progresses toward the right, the initially smooth universe can be seen becoming more and more clumpy. The vertex near the far right marks the present day. The largest slice of the universe actually surveyed is simulated to the vertex's right. This artificial universe, called a Hubble Volume, was designed to mimic what humanity might see were we to have powerful enough telescopes. By comparing different computer simulations to reality, we might be able to better tell what kind of universe we live in.
Hey Earth, look what I found! On the way to visiting the asteroid 433 Eros in February 1999, the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft flew right by another asteroid: 253 Mathilde last Friday. Shown above is one picture from the encounter. Mathilde is a large chunk of rock roughly 60 kilometers across that orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter in the main asteroid belt. Mathilde's surface is very dark and heavily cratered. The NEAR pictures of Mathilde received so far indicate that the asteroid has undergone spectacular collisions, one of which created the huge impact basin in the center, which is estimated to be about 10 kilometers deep.
Launched in the early 1970s Pioneer 10 and 11 were appropriately named - becoming the first spacecraft to travel through the asteroid belt, first to fly by Jupiter and Saturn, and the first human artifacts to venture beyond the solar system. Now coasting through interstellar space, they carry with them greetings in the form of a gold anodized plaque with symbolic drawings as illustrated above. The male and female figures are drawn to the same scale as the Pioneer spacecraft shown behind them. Immediately to the left is a map of the position of the sun with respect to nearby pulsars and the center of the galaxy while below is a drawing of the solar system indicating the planet of origin. In the upper left is a schematic of two fundamental states of the hydrogen atom. These diagrams along with other details of the plaque were designed by Carl Sagan of Cornell University and are intended to be decipherable by spacefaring extraterrestrial civilizations.
An asteroid with a moon! The robot spacecraft Galileo whose primary mission is to explore the Jupiter system, has encountered and photographed two asteroids during its long journey to Jupiter. The second asteroid it photographed, called Ida, was discovered to have a moon which appears as a small dot to the right of Ida in this picture. The tiny moon, named Dactyl, is about one mile across, while the potato shaped Ida measures about 36 miles long and 14 miles wide. Dactyl is the first moon of an asteroid ever discovered. The names Ida and Dactyl are based on characters in Greek mythology.