Video Credit: H. H. C. Stenbaek-Nielsen (U. Alaska, Fairbanks), DARPA, NSF
What causes sprite lightning? Mysterious bursts of light in the sky that momentarily resemble gigantic jellyfish have been recorded for over 25 years, but their root cause remains unknown. Some thunderstorms have them -- most don't. Recently, however, high speed videos are better detailing how sprites actually develop. The featured video is fast enough -- at about 10,000 frames per second -- to time-resolve several sprite "bombs" dropping and developing into the multi-pronged streamers that appear on still images. Unfortunately, the visual clues provided by these videos do not fully resolve the sprite origins mystery. They do indicate to some researchers, though, that sprites are more likely to occur when plasma irregularities exist in the upper atmosphere.
Sixteen years ago, Comet Hale-Bopp rounded the Sun and offered a dazzling spectacle in planet Earth's night. This stunning view, recorded shortly after the comet's 1997 perihelion passage, features the memorable tails of Hale-Bopp -- a whitish dust tail and blue ion tail. Here, the ion tail extends well over ten degrees across the northern sky, fading near the double star clusters in Perseus, while the head of the comet lies near Almach, a bright star in the constellation Andromeda. Do you remember Hale-Bopp? The photographer's sons do, pictured in the foreground at ages 12 and 15. In all, Hale-Bopp was reported as visible to the naked eye from roughly late May 1996 through September 1997. Currently, sky enthusiasts await Comet ISON's continued brightening in the coming weeks, unsure how interesting its first journey to the inner Solar System will be.
Spiky stars and spooky shapes abound in this deep cosmic skyscape. Its well-composed field of view covers about 2 Full Moons on the sky toward the constellation Pegasus. Of course the brighter stars show diffraction spikes, the commonly seen effect of internal supports in reflecting telescopes, and lie well within our own Milky Way galaxy. The faint but pervasive clouds of interstellar dust ride above the galactic plane and dimly reflect the Milky Way's combined starlight. Known as high latitude cirrus or integrated flux nebulae they are associated with molecular clouds. In this case, the diffuse cloud cataloged as MBM 54, less than a thousand light-years distant, fills the scene. Other galaxies far beyond the Milky Way are visible through the ghostly apparitions, including the striking spiral galaxy NGC 7497 some 60 million light-years away. Seen almost edge-on near the center of the field, NGC 7497's own spiral arms and dust lanes echo the colors of the Milky Way's stars and dust.
This sharp cosmic portrait features glowing gas and obscuring dust clouds in IC 1795, a star forming region in the northern constellation Cassiopeia. Also cataloged as NGC 896, the nebula's remarkable details, shown in its dominant red color, were captured using a sensitive camera, and long exposures that include image data from a narrowband filter. The narrow filter transmits only H-alpha light, the red light of hydrogen atoms. Ionized by ultraviolet light from energetic young stars, a hydrogen atom emits the characteristic H-alpha light as its single electron is recaptured and transitions to lower energy states. Not far on the sky from the famous Double Star Cluster in Perseus, IC 1795 is itself located next to IC 1805, the Heart Nebula, as part of a complex of star forming regions that lie at the edge of a large molecular cloud. Located just over 6,000 light-years away, the larger star forming complex sprawls along the Perseus spiral arm of our Milky Way Galaxy. At that distance, this picture would span about 70 light-years across IC 1795.
Will the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) end up in a museum? Probably not, as when it finally goes bust, current plans call for it to be de-orbited into an ocean. But this won't stop likenesses of the famous floating observatory from appearing in science museums around the globe, sometimes paired with amazing pictures it has taken. Pictured above, in a celebration of the 20th anniversary of the launching of Hubble, a replica of the telescope was given a picturesque setting in the Italian Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti in their beautiful and historic Palazzo Loredan. The scene there appears perhaps a bit surreal as the deep space imager appears over a terrestrial tile floor, surrounded by the busts of famous thinkers, and under arches reminiscent of Escher. If you're lucky, it may even be possible to find an exhibition of Hubble images near you. And if no HST model appears there, you could always build your own.
What has created a large dust ring around Saturn? At over 200 times the radius of Saturn and over 50 times the radius of Saturn's expansive E ring, the newly discovered dust ring is the largest planetary ring yet imaged. The ring was found in infrared light by the Earth-trailing Spitzer Space Telescope. A leading hypothesis for its origin is impact material ejected from Saturn's moon Phoebe, which orbits right through the dust ring's middle. An additional possibility is that the dust ring supplies the mysterious material that coats part of Saturn's moon Iapetus, which orbits near the dust ring's inner edge. Pictured above in the inset, part of the dust ring appears as false-color orange in front of numerous background stars.
What telling impurities taint the ice plumes of Enceladus? To help answer this question, the robotic Cassini spacecraft dove last week to within 30 kilometers of Saturn's ice-plume emitting moon. At this closest-ever approach, Cassini attempted to sniff and obtain chemical data on particles ejected from Enceladus' regular surface, while at other times Cassini flew right through -- and sampled -- ice geysers directly. Searches in the data for impurity clues in the water-ice dominated plumes and surface ejecta are progressing. Although the main purpose of this flyby was particle analysis, several interesting images are emerging. Visible in the above image, for example, is an unusual gray sheen running vertically up the image center that might be water vapor escaping from surface canyons. Other notable features visible above include vast plains of craterless icy grooves, the day-night terminator across the image left, and an area near the top comparatively rich in craters. Cassini is scheduled to buzz by Enceladus in an imaging run near the end of this month.
Ice geysers erupt on Enceladus, bright and shiny inner moon of Saturn. Shown in this false-color image, a backlit view of the moon's southern limb, the majestic, icy plumes were discovered by instruments on the Cassini Spacecraft during close encounters with Enceladus in November of 2005. Eight source locations for these geysers have now been identified along substantial surface fractures in the moon's south polar region. Researchers suspect the geysers arise from near-surface pockets of liquid water with temperatures near 273 kelvins (0 degrees C). That's hot when compared to the distant moon's surface temperature of 73 kelvins (-200 degrees C). The cryovolcanism is a dramatic sign that tiny, 500km-diameter Enceladus is surprisingly active. Enceladus ice geysers also likely produce Saturn's faint but extended E ring.
This crowded star field towards the center of our Milky Way Galaxy turns out to be a great place to search for planets beyond our solar system. In fact, repeatedly imaging about 180,000 stars in the field over a one week period, the Hubble Space Telescope enabled astronomers to conduct the Sagittarius Window Eclipsing Extrasolar Planet Search (SWEEPS). Their search looked for brief, periodic dips in brightness caused as a large planet eclipses or transits its parent star. Since chances of seeing such an eclipse are slim, it was a definite advantage to examine as many stars as possible. In the end, SWEEPS astronomers found 16 candidate stars (green circles identify 11 in this cropped picture) that are likely closely orbited by large Jupiter-sized planets with periods of a few days or less. Large planets orbiting so close to their stars are termed hot Jupiters. Kepler, a future NASA mission, is intended to extend the transit technique to search for Earth-sized planets.
Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka, are the bright bluish stars from east to west (left to right) along the diagonal in this gorgeous cosmic vista. Otherwise known as the Belt of Orion, these three blue supergiant stars are hotter and much more massive than the Sun. They lie about 1,500 light-years away, born of Orion's well-studied interstellar clouds. In fact, clouds of gas and dust adrift in this region have intriguing and some surprisingly familiar shapes, including the dark Horsehead Nebula and Flame Nebula near Alnitak at the lower left. The famous Orion Nebula itself lies off the bottom of this star field that covers an impressive 4.4x3.5 degrees on the sky. The color picture was composited from digitized black and white photographic plates recorded through red and blue astronomical filters, with a computer synthesized green channel. The plates were taken using the Samuel Oschin Telescope, a wide-field survey instrument at Palomar Observatory, between 1987 and 1991.
Artificial clouds made by humans may become so common they change the Earth's climate. The long thin cloud streaks that dominate the above satellite photograph of Georgia are contrails, cirrus clouds created by airplanes. The exhaust of an airplane engine can create a contrail by saturating the surrounding air with extra moisture. The wings of a plane can similarly create contrails by dropping the temperature and causing small ice-crystals to form. Contrails have become more than an oddity - they may be significantly increasing the cloudiness of Earth, reflecting sunlight back into space by day, and heat radiation back to Earth even at night. The effect on climate is a topic of much research. You can help NASA measure the actual abundance of contrails by participating in a contrail counting exercise that runs over the next two days.
What's happening to the Pelican Nebula? The light from young energetic stars is slowly transforming the Pelican's cold gas to hot gas, with the advancing boundary between the two known as an ionization front. Most of these bright stars lie off the top of the image, but part of the bright ionization front crosses on the upper right. Particularly dense and intricate filaments of cold gas are visible along the front. Millions of years from now this nebula might no longer be known as the Pelican, as the balance and placement of stars and gas will leave something that appears completely different. The above image was taken with the Mayall 4-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, USA. The large circular artifact below the image center is not real. The nebula, also known as IC 5070, spans about 30 light years and lies about 1800 light years away toward the constellation of Cygnus.
The odd looking "creature" to the right of center in the above photo is a gas cloud known as a cometary globule. This globule, however, has ruptured. Cometary globules are typically characterized by dusty heads and elongated tails. These features cause cometary globules to have visual similarities to comets, but in reality they are very much different. Globules are frequently the birthplaces of stars, and many show very young stars in their heads. The reason for the rupture in the head of this object is not completely known. The galaxy to the left of center is very far in the distance and is only placed near CG4 by chance superposition.
This artistic portrait of Saturn depicts how it might look from Titan, Saturn's largest moon. In the foreground sits ESA's Huygens probe, which will be released by NASA's Cassini spacecraft and parachute to Titan's surface. Cassini will reach Saturn in 2004 and release the Huygens probe later that year. Titan is one of only two moons in the Solar System to have an atmosphere. It has been suggested Titan might have gasoline-like lakes and an atmospheric chemistry like that found on early Earth. The Cassini spacecraft was launched in October 1997 and has now traveled beyond Jupiter.
Tonight, Friday the 13th, October's big, bright, beautiful full Moon will be in the sky, rising as the sun sets. A time exposure of this evening's full Moon would show a brilliant circular arc or Moon trail tracing its celestial path. In fact, this single, four hour long exposure from the evening of January 20 shows a full Moon trailing through hazy skies above Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Of course, the picture also shows something you won't see tonight -- a total lunar eclipse. A lunar eclipse is caused when the full moon enters Earth's shadow and as the eclipsed Moon's light grows steadily fainter, the Moon trail becomes narrow and dim. The total eclipse phase, when the Moon passes completely within Earth's shadow, occurs near the middle of this Moon trail arc. But even during totality, the Moon trail is visible and noticeably red. Normally illuminated by sunlight which falls directly on its surface, during a total lunar eclipse the Moon is still illuminated by sunlight filtered and refracted through Earth's atmosphere. The refracted light lends the eclipsed Moon a dim and reddish appearance.
Although a new ozone hole has formed again this year over the South Pole, this time it is a little bit smaller than the year before. Ozone is important because it shields us from damaging ultraviolet sunlight. Ozone is vulnerable, though, to CFCs and halons being released into the atmosphere. International efforts to reduce the use of these damaging chemicals really are having a positive effect on their atmospheric abundance. This year, however, the slightly reduced size of the ozone hole is mostly due to relatively mild weather, which reduces the efficiency of ozone depletion. In the above false-color picture taken earlier this month, low ozone levels are shown in blue.
Here's part of the Dumbbell Nebula that you can't see through binoculars. To see this, we suggest a sophisticated spectrograph attached to a telescope with an 8-meter aperture. Pictured above is the central part of the Dumbbell Nebula, also known as M27 and NGC 6853. The Dumbbell is a planetary nebula created by the aging bright star visible just right of center. The nebula, located in the constellation Vulpecula, is thousands of years old. Visible in this false-color photograph is glowing hydrogen gas (green) and enigmatical globules of dense molecular gas and dust (red).
Mars has clouds too. The above true color image taken in August by Mars Pathfinder shows clouds of ice high in the Martian atmosphere. Unlike Earth's atmosphere which is composed predominantly of nitrogen and oxygen, Mars' atmosphere is composed mostly of carbon dioxide. Nevertheless, a trace amount of water does freeze into visible clouds at night, which become particularly apparent during the day by reflection of sunlight. Contact was lost with Mars Pathfinder last Sunday but re-established later in the week.
The Lunar Orbiter 1 spacecraft was launched in 1966 to map the lunar surface in preparation for the Apollo moon landings. NASA's plucky robotic explorer performed its job well and pioneered this classic view of the Earth poised above the lunar horizon. The first humans to directly witness a similar scene were the Apollo 8 astronauts. As they orbited the Moon in December of 1968 they also recorded Earth rise in a photograph that was to become one of the most famous images in history - a moving portrait of our world from deep space.
Jupiter, the solar system's largest planet, is seen here next to Io, its closest Galilean moon. On the cloud tops of Jupiter near the left edge of the picture can be seen a dark circular spot which is caused by the shadow of Jupiter's largest moon Ganymede. Jupiter's cloud tops show light bands and dark belts. The clouds are primarily composed of hydrogen and helium, but their intense colors are probably caused by very small amounts of heavier elements such as sulfur or organic (carbon-containing) compounds.