Comet McNaught was perhaps the most photogenic comet of modern times -- from Earth. After making quite a show in the northern hemisphere in early January of 2007, the comet moved south and developed a long and unusual dust tail that dazzled southern hemisphere observers. In late January 2007, Comet McNaught was captured between Mount Remarkable and Cecil Peak in this spectacular image taken from Queenstown, South Island, New Zealand. The bright comet dominates the right part of the above image, while the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy dominates the left. Careful inspection of the image will reveal a meteor streak just to the left of the comet. Today, Comet Siding Spring may become the most photogenic comet of modern times -- from Mars.
This colorful skyscape features the dusty, reddish glow of Sharpless catalog emission region Sh2-155, the Cave Nebula. About 2,400 light-years away, the scene lies along the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy toward the royal northern constellation of Cepheus. Astronomical explorations of the region reveal that it has formed at the boundary of the massive Cepheus B molecular cloud and the hot, young, blue stars of the Cepheus OB 3 association. The bright rim of ionized hydrogen gas is energized by the radiation from the hot stars, dominated by the bright blue O-type star above picture center. Radiation driven ionization fronts are likely triggering collapsing cores and new star formation within. Appropriately sized for a stellar nursery, the cosmic cave is over 10 light-years across.
NGC 2623 is really two galaxies that are becoming one. Seen to be in the final stages of a titanic galaxy merger, the pair lies some 300 million light-years distant toward the constellation Cancer. The violent encounter between two galaxies that may have been similar to the Milky Way has produced widespread star formation near a luminous core and along eye-catching tidal tails. Filled with dust, gas, and young blue star clusters, the opposing tidal tails extend well over 50,000 light-years from the merged nucleus. Likely triggered by the merger, accretion by a supermassive black hole drives activity within the nuclear region. The star formation and its active galactic nucleus make NGC 2623 bright across the spectrum. This sharp cosmic snapshot of NGC 2623 (aka Arp 243) is based on Hubble Legacy Archive image data that also reveals even more distant background galaxies scattered through the field of view.
What are those streaks in the sky? They're meteors from the Draconids meteor shower that peaked earlier this month. The above composite image captured numerous meteor streaks over 90 minutes above the Celtic ruins of Capote in Badajoz province, Spain. The particles that caused these meteors were typically the size of a pebble and were expelled long ago from the nucleus of comet 21P/Giacobini-Zinner. Most of the above meteors can be traced back to a single radiant emanating from the constellation of the Dragon (Draco). Reports from this year's meteor shower indicate that the Draconids were unusually good this year with activity was concentrated around 8 pm UT on October 8. The most intense Draconid meteor showers in recent history occurred in 1933 and 1946 when thousands of meteors per hour were recorded as the Earth plowed through particularly dense streams of comet debris. Although the Draconids occur every October, it is usually difficult to know just how active each year's meteor shower will be.
What is that dark streak below Prometheus? Although it may look like a shadow or a trail blazed by sweeping up material, computer simulations indicate that the dark streak is better understood as an empty path pulled away by the gravity of Saturn's small moon. The particles don't follow Prometheus so much as glide sideways past where Prometheus used to be. One dark streamer is created during each pass of Prometheus through the F-ring that it shepherds. The streamers were unpredicted and first discovered in 2004 on high resolution images taken by the robotic Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. Close inspection of the surface of Prometheus itself in the above image shows interesting structure and craters. The Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004 and, as it continues to function well, is now expected to continue to send back data and images from the distant ringed world until 2017.
It was along the way. The robotic rover Opportunity currently rolling across the Meridiani Plain on Mars has a destination of Endeavour Crater, a large crater over 20 kilometers across which may yield additional clues about the cryptic past of ancient Mars. Besides passing open fields of dark soil and light rock, Opportunity has chanced upon several interesting features. One such feature, pictured above in a digitally stitched and horizontally compressed panorama, is Nereus Crater, a small crater about 10 meters across that is surrounded by jagged rock. Besides Nereus, Opportunity recently also happened upon another unusual rock -- one that appears to be the third large meteorite found on Mars and the second for Opportunity during only this trip. Opportunity has been traveling toward Endeavour Crater for over a year now, and if it can avoid ridged rocks and soft sand along the way, it may reach Endeavour sometime next year.
The center of the Lagoon Nebula is a whirlwind of spectacular star formation. Visible on the upper left, at least two long funnel-shaped clouds, each roughly half a light-year long, have been formed by extreme stellar winds and intense energetic starlight. The tremendously bright nearby star, Hershel 36, lights the area. Vast walls of dust hide and redden other hot young stars. As energy from these stars pours into the cool dust and gas, large temperature differences in adjoining regions can be created generating shearing winds which may cause the funnels. This picture, spanning about 5 light years, was taken in 1995 by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. The Lagoon Nebula, also known as M8, lies about 5000 light years distant toward the constellation of Sagittarius.
The prominent ridge of emission featured in this dramatic skyscape is cataloged as IC 5067. Part of a larger emission nebula with a distinctive shape, popularly called The Pelican Nebula, the ridge spans about 10 light-years following the curve of the cosmic pelican's head and neck. This false color view also translates the pervasive glow of narrow emission lines from atoms in the nebula to a color palette made popular in Hubble Space Telescope images of star forming regions. Fantastic, dark shapes inhabiting the 1/2 degree wide field are clouds of cool gas and dust sculpted by the winds and radiation from hot, massive stars. Close-ups of some of the sculpted clouds show clear signs of newly forming stars. The Pelican Nebula, itself cataloged as IC 5070, is about 2,000 light-years away. To find it, look northeast of bright star Deneb in the high flying constellation Cygnus.
This cosmic portrait recorded October 9th features the lovely blue-green coma of Comet SWAN posing with spiral galaxy NGC 5005 in the northern constellation Canes Venatici. At the time the comet (center) was in the close foreground, a mere 9 light-minutes from planet Earth, with the galaxy a more substantial 60 million light-years distant. Not actually related to a bird, Comet SWAN (C/2006 M4) was so named as it was first spotted in image data from the SWAN (Solar Wind ANisotropies) camera aboard the sun-staring SOHO spacecraft. Having rounded the Sun, this comet is headed for interstellar space, but first it will make its closest approach to Earth on October 24. With binoculars, northern hemisphere observers can now spot the comet above the northwestern horizon, near the handle of the Big Dipper in the early evening sky.
On another October 19, in 1899, a 17 year-old Robert Goddard climbed a cherry tree on a beautiful autumn afternoon in Worcester, Massachusetts. Inspired by H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds and gazing out across a meadow, young Goddard imagined it would be wonderful to make a device that had the possibility of ascending to Mars. Forever more he felt his life had a purpose and in the following years his diary entries record October 19th as "Anniversary Day", the anniversary of his ascent into the cherry tree. By 1926 he had designed, built, and flown the world's first liquid fuel rocket. Mars is just visible through the trees at the lower right in this dramatic sky view that also features the Moon and Venus -- all visited by liquid fuel rockets constructed on principles developed by Goddard.
Why are some older stars surrounded by dust? Observations from the Spitzer Space Telescope by a team led by George Rieke (U. Arizona) were expected to show that young stars, on the order of one million years old, have large dust disks, while relatively older stars, between 10 and 100 million years old, have none. The conventional wisdom was that the dust disks surrounding young stars were still forming planets, while in older systems these disks had dissipated after planets had already formed. Unexpectedly, they found some older stars with the infrared glow of impressive rings or disks of dust. A possible explanation is that the old disks are remnant debris from violent collisions between many forming planets of rock. Resultant dust rings from such a scenario are depicted by an artist's illustration above.
Is there a monster in IC 1396? Known to some as the Elephant's Trunk Nebula, parts of gas and dust clouds of this star formation region may appear to take on foreboding forms, some nearly human. The only real monster here, however, is a bright young star too far from Earth to hurt us. Energetic light from this star is eating away the dust of the dark cometary globule near the top of the above image. Jets and winds of particles emitted from this star are also pushing away ambient gas and dust. Nearly 3,000 light-years distant, the relatively faint IC 1396 complex covers a much larger region on the sky than shown here, with an apparent width of more than 10 full moons.
Like the downtown area of your favorite city, the roads you drive to work on, and any self-respecting web site ... Io's surface is constantly under construction. This moon of Jupiter holds the distinction of being the Solar System's most volcanically active body -- its bizarre looking surface continuously formed and reformed by lava flows. Generated using 1996 data from NASA's Galileo spacecraft, this high resolution composite image of Io is centered on the side of Io that always faces away from Jupiter. It has been enhanced to emphasize Io's surface brightness and color variations, revealing features as small as 1.5 miles across. The notable absence of impact craters suggests that the entire surface is covered with new volcanic deposits much more rapidly than craters are created. What drives this volcanic powerhouse? A likely energy source is the changing gravitational tides caused by Jupiter and the other Galilean moons as Io orbits the massive gas giant planet. Heating Io's interior, the pumping tides would generate the sulfurous volcanic activity.
This mosaic of x-ray images cuts a swath across the photogenic Rosette Nebula, a stellar nursery 5,000 light-years from Earth in the constellation Monoceros, the Unicorn. Constructed from data recorded by the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory, the mosaic spans less than 100 light-years and is color coded to show low energies in red and high energy x-rays in blue. At the upper right is the young star cluster NGC 2244, central to the Rosette Nebula itself. The hot outer layers of the massive stars are seen to be copious sources of x-rays, but a diffuse x-ray glow also pervades this cluster of newborn stars. Since these stars are so young (less than few million years old!) the diffuse x-ray emission is thought to be powered by energetic, colliding stellar winds rather than remnants of supernovae explosions, a final act in the life cycle of a massive star. Moving away from the center, south and east across the nebula (upper right to lower left), the hot, blustery environment gives way to dense molecular gas, absorbing low energy x-rays while revealing the penetrating high energy x-rays from embedded stars.
It happened so far away that common human distance measures are inadequate to describe it. Furthermore, astronomers do not even claim to know exactly what happened. What is known is that satellites across our Solar System reported on 2000 January 31 a tremendous explosion of gamma rays had occurred towards some previously uninteresting direction. Soon one of the largest optical telescopes on Earth, a VLT in Chile, began to peer in the direction of the gamma ray burst. The VLT not only recorded an optical counterpart, shown above, but also was able to estimate that the cosmologically-induced redshift was an astonishing 4.5 -- placing GRB000131 farther across the universe than any explosion so measured. This vast distance indicates that GRB000131 occurred just as galaxies like our Milky Way were forming, and so qualifies gamma ray bursts as unique probes of this ancient epoch. This result bodes well for the recently launched HETE-2 satellite, which may record and help place more explosions in this distant and mysterious time-period of our universe.
A magnetic compass does not point toward the true North Pole of the Earth. Rather, it more closely points toward the North Magnetic Pole of the Earth. The North Magnetic Pole is currently located in northern Canada. It wanders in an elliptical path each day, and moves, on the average, more than forty meters northward each day. Evidence indicates that the North Magnetic Pole has wandered over much of the Earth's surface in the 4.5 billion years since the Earth formed. The Earth's magnetic field is created by Earth's partially ionized outer core, which rotates more rapidly than the Earth's surface. Indicated in the above picture is Ellef Ringnes Island, the current location of Earth's North Magnetic Pole.
Olympus Mons on Mars is the largest volcano in the Solar System. Although three times higher than Earth's Mount Everest, Olympus Mons would not be difficult to climb because of the volcano's great breadth. Covering an area greater than the entire Hawaiian volcano chain, the slopes of Olympus Mons typically rise only a few degrees at a time. The low gravity of Mars combined with a relatively static surface crust allow volcanoes this large to build up over time. This representative-color image was taken last April by the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft currently orbiting Mars.
What evil lurks in the hearts of galaxies? This Hubble Space Telescope picture of the center of the nearby elliptical galaxy NGC 4261 tells one dramatic tale. The gas and dust in this disk are swirling into what is almost certainly a massive black hole. The disk is probably what remains of a smaller galaxy that fell in hundreds of millions of years ago. Collisions like this may be a common way of creating such active galactic nuclei as quasars. Strangely, the center of this fiery whirlpool is offset from the exact center of the galaxy - for a reason that for now remains an astronomical mystery.
What's the closest extrasolar planetary system? It may well be planets of the dim red dwarf star cataloged as Lalande 21185 -- a mere 8 light years distant. This star is too faint to be seen by the naked eye and its planets have not been imaged directly. Instead, their presence is inferred by a long series of telescopic observations, tracking the star as it wiggles and wobbles in mutual gravitational response to the masses of its orbiting planets. Our own planetary system would be detectable by such a technique ... Using data obtained from frequent observations of this star over the last 50 years, University of Pitsburgh astronomer George Gatewood recently announced that much of Lalande 21185's wobble is most likely due to an unseen planet with approximately 90% of the mass of Jupiter and an orbital period of 5.8 years. His work also indicates that a second and possibly third planet of similar mass could well be present in the system. Massive planets orbiting a red dwarf star would be very different from the Earth -- as illustrated in this artist's vision of a Jupiter-sized planet with rings and moons lit by a cool, dim sun. Nevertheless, the existence of a planetary system so near our own suggests the intriguing possibility that planets are common in our galaxy.
The globular cluster M5, pictured above, contains roughly 100,000 stars. These stars formed together and are gravitationally bound. Stars orbit the center of the cluster, and the cluster orbits the center of our Galaxy. So far, about 160 globular clusters are known to exist in a roughly spherical halo around the Galactic center. Globular clusters do not appear spherically distributed as viewed from the Earth, and this fact was a key point in the determination that our Sun is not at the center of our Galaxy. Globular clusters are very old. There is a straightforward method of determining their age, and this provides a very interesting lower limit on the age of our universe of about 14 billion years.