One of the brightest galaxies in planet Earth's sky is similar in size to our Milky Way
Galaxy: big, beautiful M81
. This grand spiral galaxy can be found toward the northern constellation of the Great Bear
). This superbly detailed view
reveals M81's bright yellow nucleus, blue spiral arms, and sweeping cosmic dust lanes with a scale comparable to the Milky Way
. Hinting at a disorderly past, a remarkable dust lane actually runs straight through the disk, to the left of the galactic center, contrary to M81
's other prominent spiral
features. The errant dust lane
may be the lingering result of a close encounter
between M81 and its smaller companion galaxy, M82
. Scrutiny of variable stars in M81
has yielded one of the best determined distances
for an external galaxy -- 11.8 million light-years.
Stars, like bees, swarm around the center of bright globular cluster M15. This ball of over 100,000 stars is a relic from the early years of our Galaxy, and continues to orbit the Milky Way's center. M15, one of about 170 globular clusters remaining, is noted for being easily visible with only binoculars, having at its center one of the densest concentrations of stars known, and containing a high abundance of variable stars and pulsars. Released only recently, this sharp image taken by the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope spans about 120 light years. It shows the dramatic increase in density of stars toward the cluster's center. M15 lies about 35,000 light years away toward the constellation of the Winged Horse (Pegasus).
What's happening in the sky over Monument Valley? A meteor shower. Over the past weekend the Leonid meteor shower has been peaking. The image -- actually a composite of six exposures of about 30 seconds each -- was taken in 2001, a year when there was a much more active Leonids shower. At that time, Earth was moving through a particularly dense swarm of sand-sized debris from Comet Tempel-Tuttle, so that meteor rates approached one visible streak per second. The meteors appear parallel because they all fall to Earth from the meteor shower radiant -- a point on the sky towards the constellation of the Lion (Leo). Although the predicted peak of this year's Leonid meteor shower is over, another peak may be visible early tomorrow morning. By the way -- how many meteors can you identify in the above image?
The mysterious blue reflection nebula found in catalogs as VdB 152 or Ced 201 really is very faint. It lies at the tip of the long dark nebula Barnard 175 in a dusty complex that has also been called Wolf's Cave. The cosmic apparitions are nearly 1,400 light-years away along the northern Milky Way in the royal constellation Cepheus. Near the edge of a large molecular cloud, pockets of interstellar dust in the region block light from background stars or scatter light from the embedded bright star giving the the nebula its characteristic blue color. Ultraviolet light from the star is also thought to cause a dim reddish luminescence in the nebular dust. Though stars do form in molecular clouds, this star seems to have only accidentally wandered into the area, as its measured velocity through space is very different from the cloud's velocity. This deep telescopic image of the region spans about 7 light-years.
Explore a beautiful and complex region of nebulae strewn along the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy in this widefield skyscape. The image emphasizes cosmic gas clouds in a 25 by 25 degree view centered on the Northern Cross, the famous asterism in the constellation Cygnus. Bright, hot, supergiant star Deneb at the top of the cross, Sadr near the center, and beautiful Albireo run diagonally through the scene. Popular telescopic tour destinations such as the North America and Pelican emission regions, the Butterfly Nebula (IC 1318), and the Crescent and Veil nebulae can be identified by placing your cursor over the image. Silhouetted by the glowing interstellar clouds and crowded star fields, the dark Northern Coal Sack also stands out, part of a series of obscuring dust clouds forming the Great Rift in the Milky Way. These Northern Cross nebulosities are all located about 2,000 light-years away. Along with the Sun, they lie within the Orion spiral arm of our galaxy.
Eerie spires of rock rise from shore of Mono Lake in the foreground of this early morning skyscape. The salty, mineral-laden lake is located in California's eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range and the spindly rock formations are naturally formed limestone towers called tufa. In the scene, recorded near the peak of the annual Leonid meteor shower (now subsiding) on November 17th, a meteor trails through the frigid predawn sky. Arcturus is the brightest star to the right of the meteor streak, while the constellation Leo and the shower's radiant point lie well above the field of view. Reports for this year's Leonids suggest the peak activity briefly exceeded 120 meteors per hour, but rates were typically much lower for many locations.
What's causing this unusual aurora over Saturn? No one is sure. Infrared images by the robotic Cassini spacecraft of the north pole of Saturn have uncovered aurora unlike any other seen previously in our Solar System. The strange aurora are shown in blue in the above image, while the underlying clouds are shown in red. The previously recorded, also-strange hexagon cloud patterns are visible in red below the aurora. These Saturnian aurora can cover the entire pole, while auroras around Earth and Jupiter are typically confined by magnetic fields to rings surrounding the magnetic poles. More normal auroral rings had been previously imaged around Saturn. The recently imaged strange auroras above Saturn's north pole can change their global patterns significantly in only a few minutes. The large and variable nature of these auroras indicate that charged particles streaming in from the Sun are experiencing some type of magnetism above Saturn that was previously unexpected.
Some auroras can only be seen with a camera. They are called sub-visual and are too faint to be seen with the unaided eye. The reason is that the human eye only accumulates light for a fraction of a second at a time, while a camera shutter can be left open indefinitely. When photographing an already picturesque scene above Juneau, Alaska, USA, a camera caught green sub-visual aurora near the horizon. Auroras are sparked by energetic particles from the Sun impacting the magnetic environment around the Earth. Resultant energetic particles such as electrons and protons rain down near the Earth's poles and impact the air. The impacted air molecules temporarily lose electrons, and when oxygen molecules among them reacquire these electrons, they emit green light. Auroras are known to have many shapes and colors.
The Peekskill meteor of 1992 was captured on 16 independent videos and then struck a car. Documented as brighter than the full Moon, the spectacular fireball crossed parts of several US states during its 40 seconds of glory before landing in Peekskill, New York. The resulting meteorite, pictured here, is composed of dense rock and has the size and mass of an extremely heavy bowling ball. If you are lucky enough to find a meteorite just after impact, do not pick it up -- parts of it are likely to be either very hot or very cold. In this weekend's Leonid meteor shower, few meteors, if any, are expected to hit the ground.
NGC 2359 is a striking emission nebula with an impressive popular name - Thor's Helmet. Sure, its suggestive winged appearance might lead some to refer to it as the "duck nebula", but if you were a nebula which name would you choose? By any name NGC 2359 is a bubble-like nebula some 30 light-years across, blown by energetic winds from an extremely hot star seen near the center and classified as a Wolf-Rayet star. Wolf-Rayet stars are rare massive blue giants which develop stellar winds with speeds of millions of kilometers per hour. Interactions with a nearby large molecular cloud are thought to have contributed to this nebula's more complex shape and curved bow-shock structures. NGC 2359 is about 15,000 light-years distant toward the constellation Canis Major.
This moon is doomed. Mars, the red planet named for the Roman god of war, has two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, whose names are derived from the Greek for Fear and Panic. These martian moons may well be captured asteroids originating in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter or perhaps from even more distant reaches of the Solar System. The largest moon, Phobos, is indeed seen to be a cratered, asteroid-like object in this stunning new color image from the Mars Express spacecraft, recorded at a resolution of about seven meters per pixel. But Phobos orbits so close to Mars - about 5,800 kilometers above the surface compared to 400,000 kilometers for our Moon - that gravitational tidal forces are dragging it down. In 100 million years or so it will likely crash into the surface or be shattered by stress caused by the relentless tidal forces, the debris forming a ring around Mars.
Light is more complicated than we thought. When astronomers measure light, they are usually concerned with its direction, energy, and spin polarization (sometimes). Recently, however, it has been more broadly realized that photons can also have orbital angular momentum (OAM), an attribute classically analogous to the Earth orbiting the Sun as well as spinning on its axis. Pictured above, the wave-front of a photon with OAM is shown to be twisted, in contrast to the flat plane of zero OAM light. Light with OAM might be used to increase the information content of communication or to discern specific types of astronomical sources. Passing through a common lens, light without OAM focuses to a point, whereas light with OAM focuses to a ring. Most light bouncing around the cosmos, however, is expected to have so little (or zero) OAM that the created ring is too small to measure. Even given other promising methods for measurement, exploiting OAM for astronomical discovery might be as much an issue of observational practicality as theoretical possibility.
Reports of the 2002 Leonid Meteor Shower are coming in from across the world. Preliminary indications have the shower as less active than last year but with an impressive peak seen through 1030 and 1100 Universal Time visible from much of North America. Observers reported many meteors at the peak arriving in groups. Pictured above is one such meteor from the peak caught earlier today by the Night Sky Live continuous camera at Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona, USA. A memorable event of the 2002 Leonids was when the town of Mitzpe Ramon in Israel dimmed its lights to allow better imaging of Leonid meteors from Wise Observatory.
The 2001 Leonids Meteor Shower gave quite a show to many parts of the world yesterday during the early morning hours. Many sleepy observers venturing into their own backyards were treated to several bright meteors per minute streaking across the sky. This rate made the 2001 Leonids the most active meteor shower in over three decades. Pictured above is a bright Leonid fireball that briefly lit up Hawaii yesterday morning. A CONCAM nighttime all-sky monitor on Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano, caught the bright meteor, seen as the very bright streak across the lower part of the fisheye image. The meteor track crossed the Galactic plane (the faint glow that runs from the lower left to upper right), passed below the planet Jupiter, and through the constellation Orion. CONCAMs in Hawaii, Arizona, and California all recorded numerous bright meteors during this year's Leonids.
What's black & white and red all over? Add our universe to this list. Adrift in a vast sea of darkness are not only familiar bright stars but dust that glows predominantly in far-infrared light. This cosmological dust was recently discovered in data taken previously by the COBE satellite, and visible as a diffuse glow visible in the above image. The amount of dust in the universe is important because it is a measure of the number of stars that created it, of the number of stars that are cloaked by it, and of the amount of distortion created in measurements of the distant universe.
Just days before the peak of the Leonid meteor shower, skywatchers were offered another astronomical treat as planet Mercury crossed the face of the Sun on November 15. Viewed from planet Earth, a transit of Mercury is not all that rare. The last occurred in 1993 and the next will happen in 2003. Enjoying a mercurial transit does require an appropriately filtered telescope, still the event can be dramatic as the diminutive well-done world drifts past the dominating solar disk. This slow loading gif animation is based on images recorded by the earth-orbiting TRACE satellite. The false-color TRACE images were made in ultraviolet light and tend to show the hot gas just above the Sun's visible surface. Mercury's disk is silhouetted against the seething plasma as it follows a trajectory near the edge of the Sun.
Rich in bright and awesome fireballs, the Leonid Meteor Shower came early this year. In fact, judging from meteor watcher reports the peak came nearly 15 hours earlier than the best predictions. Observers on the Canary Islands were probably close to an ideal viewing location and recorded a maximum of effectively about 200 to 250 meteors per hour near dawn on November 17 - way below the peak rate during the 1966 Leonid meteor storm display. Still, those blessed with clear skies in dark, early morning hours all over planet Earth were treated to a first rate cosmic light show. Roving astrophotographer Olivier Staiger took this stunning image of two bright Leonids in the skies over Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Unusual appendages around bright stars are commonplace, but never seem to be mentioned. What are they? First, a telescope brings starlight falling over a large area to a small area. To get at this small area, however, one must go inside a reflecting telescope, and this can only be done with support rods, which are right in the view of the telescope. The wave nature of light causes it to deflect when passing near these rods. Light scatters away from the original destination point ending up elsewhere and appearing as "diffraction spikes." These annoying spikes steal precious light from the central image and hide light from fainter, more interesting stars. Above, astronomers are more interested in the half-circled point near the image center, than the cool-looking diffraction spikes from the bright star at the bottom. Apparently, that half-circle is a new stellar system forming in the Lagoon Nebula.
Our universe is a very dusty place. Dust usually shows its presence by blocking out light emitted from stars or nebula behind it, sometimes creating the illusion of a horse's head or a sombrero hat. But nobody really knows what a typical interstellar dust grain looks like. By studying how dust absorbs, emits, and reflects light, astronomers do know that interstellar dust is much different than the cell and lint based dust found around a typical house. Interstellar dust grains are composed mostly of carbon, silicon, and oxygen and are usually less than about 1/1000 of a millimeter across. Recent work indicates that most dust grains are not spherical. The above picture shows the result of a fractal adhesion model for dust grains involving random conglomerates of spherical compounds of different properties, here artificially highlighted by different colors.
This tantalizingly clear photo of New York City at night was taken by the astronauts during the Space Radar Laboratory mission of the Space Shuttle Endeavor in March of 1990. In this view, oriented with East up and North to the left, a dense constellation of lights defines the major metropolitan areas. Manhattan, outlined by the dark fingers of the Hudson river below and the East river above, is clearly visible along with the well lit southwestern tip of Long Island. Central Park is visible as a dark streak in the center of Manhattan's orange glow.