During the past week, nightfall on planet Earth has featured Mars, Saturn, and Spica in a lovely conjunction near the western horizon. Still forming the corners of a distinctive celestial triangle after sunset and recently joined by a crescent Moon, they are all about the same brightness but can exhibit different colors to the discerning eye. This ingenious star trail image was recorded as the trio set on August 12 with a telephoto lens from the shores of Lake Eppalock, in central Victoria, Australia. Focused on foreground eucalyptus trees, the image slightly blurs the trails to show more saturated colors. Can you guess which trail is which? Of course the reddest trail is Mars, with Saturn on the right a paler echo of the Red Planet's hue. Left is hot and luminous Spica, bluish alpha star of the constellation Virgo.
This aurora arched from horizon to horizon. During the current Shelios expedition to observe and learn about the northern lights, the sky last weekend did not disappoint. After sunset and some careful photographic planning, the above image was taken from the expedition's Qaleraliq campsite in southern Greenland. Visible straight through the center of the aurora, found with a careful eye, is the Big Dipper and the surrounding constellation of the Big Bear (Ursa Major). The brightest orb on the far right is the Moon, while Jupiter can be seen even further to the right. The Shelios expedition is scheduled to last until the end of August and include live broadcasts of ongoing auroras.
Have you ever seen the Milky Way's glow create shadows? To do so, conditions need to be just right. First and foremost, the sky must be relatively clear of clouds so that the long band of the Milky Way's central disk can be seen. The surroundings must be very near to completely dark, with no bright artificial lights visible anywhere. Next, the Moon cannot be anywhere above the horizon, or its glow will dominate the landscape. Last, the shadows can best be caught on long camera exposures. In the above image taken in Port Campbell National Park, Victoria, Australia, seven 15-second images of the ground and de-rotated sky were digitally added to bring up the needed light and detail. In the foreground lies Loch Ard Gorge, named after a ship that tragically ran aground in 1878. The two rocks pictured are the remnants of a collapsed arch and are named Tom and Eva after the only two people who survived that Loch Ard ship wreck. A close inspection of the water just before the rocks will show reflections and shadows in light thrown by our Milky Way galaxy. Low clouds are visible moving through the serene scene in this movie.
What are those strange blue objects? Many of the brightest blue images are of a single, unusual, beaded, blue, ring-like galaxy which just happens to line-up behind a giant cluster of galaxies. Cluster galaxies here typically appear yellow and -- together with the cluster's dark matter -- act as a gravitational lens. A gravitational lens can create several images of background galaxies, analogous to the many points of light one would see while looking through a wine glass at a distant street light. The distinctive shape of this background galaxy -- which is probably just forming -- has allowed astronomers to deduce that it has separate images at 4, 10, 11, and 12 o'clock, from the center of the cluster. A blue smudge near the cluster center is likely another image of the same background galaxy. In all, a recent analysis postulated that at least 33 images of 11 separate background galaxies are discernable. This spectacular photo of galaxy cluster CL0024+1654 from the Hubble Space Telescope was taken in November 2004.
The matter in galaxy cluster 1E 0657-56, fondly known as the "bullet cluster", is shown in this composite image. A mere 3.4 billion light-years away, the bullet cluster's individual galaxies are seen in the optical image data, but their total mass adds up to far less than the mass of the cluster's two clouds of hot x-ray emitting gas shown in red. Representing even more mass than the optical galaxies and x-ray gas combined, the blue hues show the distribution of dark matter in the cluster. Otherwise invisible to telescopic views, the dark matter was mapped by observations of gravitational lensing of background galaxies. In a text book example of a shock front, the bullet-shaped cloud of gas at the right was distorted during the titanic collision between two galaxy clusters that created the larger bullet cluster itself. But the dark matter present has not interacted with the cluster gas except by gravity. The clear separation of dark matter and gas clouds is considered direct evidence that dark matter exists.
The Moon's south pole is near the top of this sharp telescopic view looking across the southern lunar highlands. Recorded on August 3rd from Tecumseh, Oklahoma, planet Earth, the foreshortened perspective heightens the impression of a dense field of craters and makes the craters themselves appear more oval shaped. The prominent crater in the foreground, Moretus, has a diameter of 114 kilometers and lies just west (left) of the Moon's central meridian. For large lunar craters, Moretus is young and features terraced inner walls and a 2.1 kilometer high, bright central peak, similar in appearance to the more northerly crater Tycho. Just to the right of Moretus is the 95 kilometer diameter crater Curtius. Curtius has older, rounded walls marked by smaller, more recent impact craters.
What's causing seasonal dark spots on Mars? Every spring, strange dark spots appear near the Martian poles, and then vanish a few months later. These spots typically span 50 meters across and appear fan shaped. Recent observations made with THEMIS instrument onboard NASA's Mars Odyssey, currently orbiting Mars, found the spots to be as cold as the carbon dioxide (CO2) ice beneath them. Based on this evidence, a new hypothesis has been suggested where the spots are caused by explosive jets of sand-laden CO2. As a pole warms up in the spring, frozen CO2 on the surface thins, perforates, and begins to vent gaseous CO2 held underneath. Within this hypothesis, interspersed dark sand would explain the color of the spots, while the underlying frozen CO2 would explain the coolness of the spots. Pictured above, an artist depicts what it might be like to stand on Mars and witness the venting of these tremendous gas and dust jets.
NGC 281 is a busy workshop of star formation. Prominent features include a small open cluster of stars, a diffuse red-glowing emission nebula, large lanes of obscuring gas and dust, and dense knots of dust and gas in which stars may still be forming. The open cluster of stars IC 1590 visible around the center has formed only in the last few million years. The brightest member of this cluster is actually a multiple-star system shining light that helps ionize the nebula's gas, causing the red glow visible throughout. The lanes of dust visible left of center are likely homes of future star formation. Particularly striking in the above photograph are the dark Bok globules visible against the bright nebula. The NGC 281 system, dubbed the Pacman nebula for its overall shape, lies about 10 thousand light years distant.
What would it be like to climb a hill and look out over Mars? That opportunity was afforded the Spirit rover earlier this month as it rolled to a high perch in the Columbia Hills. Peering out, the rolling robot spied the interior plains and distant rim of Gusev Crater, beyond an outcrop of rocks called Longhorn. Spirit continues to find evidence that many rock shapes have been altered by ancient water. Both Spirit and her sister robot Opportunity have completed their primary three-month mission but remain in good enough condition to continue to explore Mars.
The Tarantula Nebula is more than 1,000 light-years across - a giant emission nebula within our neighboring galaxy the Large Magellanic Cloud. Inside this cosmic arachnid lies a central young cluster of massive stars, cataloged as R136, whose intense radiation and strong winds have helped energize the nebular glow and shape the spidery filaments. In this impressive color mosaic of images from the Wide-Field Imager camera on ESO's 2.2 meter telescope at La Silla Observatory, other young star clusters can be seen still within the nebula's grasp. Also notable among the denizens of the Tarantula zone are several dark clouds invading the nebula's outer limits as well as the dense cluster of stars NGC 2100 at the extreme left edge of the picture. The small but expanding remnant of supernova 1987a, the closest supernova in modern history, lies just off the lower right corner of the field. The rich mosaic's field of view covers an area on the sky about the size of the full moon in the southern constellation Dorado.
On August 13, while counting Perseid meteors under dark, early morning Arizona skies, Rick Scott set out to photograph their fleeting but fiery trails. The equipment he used included a telephoto lens and fast color film. After 21 pictures he'd caught only two meteors, but luckily this was one of them. Tracking the sky, his ten minute long exposure shows a field of many stars in our own Milky Way galaxy, most too faint to be seen by the unaided eye. Flashing from lower left to upper right, the bright meteor would have been an easy eyeful though, as friction with Earth's atmosphere vaporized the hurtling grain of cosmic sand, a piece of dust from Comet Swift-Tuttle. Just above and left of center, well beyond the stars of the Milky Way, lies the island universe known as M31 or the Andromeda galaxy. The visible meteor trail begins about 100 kilometers above Earth's surface, one of the closest celestial objects seen in the sky. In contrast, Andromeda, about 2 million light-years away, is the most distant object easily visible to the naked-eye.
This stunning color deep sky view toward the constellation Pisces was made with data from a fast, sensitive, digital detector known as the Big Throughput Camera operating at Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. Hardly noticeable in the original picture is the small cluster of about 15 galaxies nearly 3 billion light-years distant, circled at the lower right. In fact, this distant cluster was not discovered by noticing its appearance in the image at all, but instead by mapping the subtle distortions created by its gravity. As predicted by Einstein's General Relativity theory, the cluster's gravitational mass acts like a lens, bending light and distorting the shape of background galaxies. The effect is known as gravitational lensing. Computer mapping of weak distortions of background galaxy shapes across the Big Throughput image revealed that the large scale distribution of mass in that part of the sky was concentrated in a small region. That region turned out to correspond to the galaxy cluster -- the first time such an object has been discovered on the basis of its mass properties rather than its light.
Ten thousand years ago, before the dawn of recorded human history, a new light must suddenly have appeared in the night sky and faded after a few weeks. Today we know this light was an exploding star and record the colorful expanding cloud as the Veil Nebula. Pictured above is the west end of the Veil Nebula known technically as NGC 6960 but less formally as the Witch's Broom Nebula. The rampaging gas gains its colors by impacting and exciting existing nearby gas. The supernova remnant lies about 1400 light-years away towards the constellation of Cygnus. This Witch's Broom actually spans over three times the angular size of the full Moon. The bright blue star 52 Cygnus is visible with the unaided eye from a dark location but unrelated to the ancient supernova.
What if you woke up one morning and saw more than one Sun in the sky? Most probably, you would be seeing sundogs, extra-images of the Sun created by falling ice-crystals in the Earth's atmosphere. As water freezes in the atmosphere, small, flat, six-sided, ice crystals might be formed. As these crystals flutter to the ground, much time is spent with their faces flat, parallel to the ground. An observer may pass through the same plane as many of the falling ice crystals near sunrise or sunset. During this alignment, each crystal can act like a miniature lens, refracting sunlight into our view and creating parhelia, the technical term for sundogs. Sundogs were photographed here in a cloudy sky above the Very Large Array of radio telescopes. The real Sun is near the center above the train tracks. A bright sundog is visible on the far right, and a dim one on the far left. Ice-crystals can create other strange illusions of the Sun and Moon including halos and pillars
Vega is a bright blue star 25 light years away. Vega is the brightest star in the Summer Triangle, a group of stars easily visible summer evenings in the northern hemisphere. The name Vega derives from Arabic origins, and means "stone eagle." 4,000 years ago, however, Vega was known by some as "Ma'at" - one example of ancient human astronomical knowledge and language. 14,000 years ago, Vega, not Polaris, was the north star. Vega is the fifth brightest star in the night sky, and has a diameter almost three times that of our Sun. Life bearing planets, rich in liquid water, could possibly exist around Vega. The above picture, taken in January 1997, finds Vega, the Summer Triangle, and Comet Hale-Bopp high above Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.
Stars sometimes form in colorful ways. Pictured above is a small region in the nearby LMC galaxy where stars are forming. After a star is born, it may do several things to energize its immediate neighborhood. It may develop a strong wind which pushes away nearby gas; it may be so hot and intense that emitted light boils away nearby dust and gas, and it may be so massive that it soon goes supernova and catapults its elements back to the interstellar medium. Astronomers study regions like this - named DEM192 - to better understand how these and other processes proceed. This picture is a composite of three separate photographs, each sensitive to only one specific color of light - a color that distinguishes a specific chemical element.
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. NGC 3293 appears just in front dense dust lane emanating from the Carina Nebula.
Data from the Magellan spacecraft has shown the Face of Venus to contain a host of volcanic features. This image shows an example of a fairly common type of venusian volcanic feature. Known as a "tick" it represents a volcano about 20 miles wide at the summit with ridges and valleys radiating down its sides lending it an insect like appearance. Scientists are particularly interested in exploring the geology of Venus. Because of its similarity with the Earth in size, density, and overall location in the solar system, Venus may offer key insights into the workings of our own planet. Do the familiar processes of volcanism and plate tectonics occur on our sister planet as well as our own? The detailed radar mapping of the planet performed by the Magellan probe has gone a long way toward answering this question.