Four NASA suborbital sounding rockets leapt
into the night on January 26, from the University of Alaska's Poker Flat Research Range
. This time lapse composite image follows all four launches of the small, multi-stage rockets to explore winter's mesmerizing, aurora-filled skies
. During the exposures, stars trailed around the North Celestial Pole, high above the horizon at the site 30 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska. Lidar
, beams of pulsed green lasers, also left traces through the scene. Operating successfully, the payloads lofted were two Mesosphere-Lower Thermosphere Turbulence Experiments (M-TeX
) and two Mesospheric Inversion-layer Stratified Turbulence (MIST
) experiments, creating vapor trails
at high altitudes to be tracked by ground-based observations.
Fixed to a tripod and looking east across the Kennedy Space Center's Turn Basin, a camera captured these star trails as a series of short exposures over a three hour period on the evening of January 23rd. Positioned just a few miles from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, it also captured a spectacular night launch of an Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite TDRS-L. Creating the trails, the apparent motion of the stars through the sky is just a reflection of the daily rotation of planet Earth on its axis. But that rotation is also the reason the rocket streak follows a path arcing east across the Atlantic. Launching toward the east, in the direction of Earth's rotation, adds the rotation velocity to the rocket and reduces the fuel needed to reach orbit. A little ironically, TDRS-L is destined for a geostationary orbit. From there, 36,000 kilometers or so above the equator, its orbital period will match Earth's rotation and the satellite will hang motionless in planet Earth's sky.
Video Credit & Copyright: Mark Gee; Music: Tenderness (Dan Phillipson)
Have you ever watched the Moon rise? The slow rise of a nearly full moon over a clear horizon can be an impressive sight. One impressive moonrise was imaged two nights ago over Mount Victoria Lookout in Wellington, New Zealand. With detailed planning, an industrious astrophotographer placed a camera about two kilometers away and pointed it across the lookout to where the Moon would surely soon be making its nightly debut. The above single shot sequence is unedited and shown in real time -- it is not a time lapse. People on Mount Victoria Lookout can be seen in silhouette themselves admiring the dawn of Earth's largest satellite. Seeing a moonrise yourself is not difficult: it happens every day, although only half the time at night. Each day the Moon rises about fifty minutes later than the previous day, with a full moon always rising at sunset.
Behold one of the more detailed images of the Earth yet created. This Blue Marble Earth montage shown above -- created from photographs taken by the Visible/Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) instrument on board the new Suomi NPP satellite -- shows many stunning details of our home planet. The Suomi NPP satellite was launched last October and renamed last week after Verner Suomi, commonly deemed the father of satellite meteorology. The composite was created from the data collected during four orbits of the robotic satellite taken earlier this month and digitally projected onto the globe. Many features of North America and the Western Hemisphere are particularly visible on a high resolution version of the image. Previously, several other Blue Marble Earth images have been created, some at even higher resolution.
Although the phase of this moon might appear familiar, the moon itself might not. In fact, this gibbous phase shows part of Jupiter's moon Europa. The robot spacecraft Galileo captured this image mosaic during its mission orbiting Jupiter from 1995 - 2003. Visible are plains of bright ice, cracks that run to the horizon, and dark patches that likely contain both ice and dirt. Raised terrain is particularly apparent near the terminator, where it casts shadows. Europa is nearly the same size as Earth's Moon, but much smoother, showing few highlands or large impact craters. Evidence and images from the Galileo spacecraft, indicated that liquid oceans might exist below the icy surface. To test speculation that these seas hold life, NASA and ESA have started preliminary development of the Europa Jupiter System Mission, a spacecraft proposed for launch around 2020 that would further explore Jupiter and in particular Europa. If the surface ice is thin enough, a future mission might drop hydrobots to burrow into the oceans and search for life.
Charles Messier described the 88th entry in his 18th century catalog of Nebulae and Star Clusters as a spiral nebula without stars. Of course the gorgeous M88 is now understood to be a galaxy full of stars, gas, and dust, not unlike our own Milky Way. In fact, M88 is one of the brightest galaxies in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster some 50 million light-years away. M88's beautiful spiral arms are easy to trace in this colorful cosmic portait. The arms are lined with young blue star clusters, pink star-forming regions, and obscuring dust lanes extending from a yellowish core dominated by an older population of stars. Spiral galaxy M88 spans over 100,000 light-years.
Colorful NGC 1579 resembles the better known Trifid Nebula, but lies much farther north in planet Earth's sky, in the heroic constellation Perseus. About 2,100 light-years away and 3 light-years across, NGC 1579 is, like the Trifid, a study in contrasting blue and red colors, with dark dust lanes prominent in the nebula's central regions. In both, dust reflects starlight to produce beautiful blue reflection nebulae. But unlike the Trifid, in NGC 1579 the reddish glow is not emission from clouds of glowing hydrogen gas excited by ultraviolet light from a nearby hot star. Instead, the dust in NGC 1579 drastically diminishes, reddens, and scatters the light from an embedded, extremely young, massive star, itself a strong emitter of the characteristic red hydrogen alpha light.
Asteroid 2007 TU24 passed by the Earth yesterday, posing no danger. The space rock, estimated to be about 250 meters across, coasted by just outside the orbit of Earth's Moon. The passing was not very unusual -- small rocks strike Earth daily, and in 2003 a rock the size of a bus passed inside the orbit of the Moon, being detected only after passing. TU24 was notable partly because it was so large. Were TU24 to have struck land, it might have caused a magnitude seven earthquake and left a city-sized crater. A perhaps larger danger would have occurred were TU24 to have struck the ocean and raised a large tsunami. This radar image was taken two days ago. The Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico broadcast radar that was reflected by the asteroid and then recorded by the Byrd Radio Telescope in Green Bank, West Virginia. The resulting image shows TU24 to have an oblong and irregular shape. TU24 was discovered only three months ago, indicating that other potentially hazardous asteroids might lurk in our Solar System currently undetected. Objects like TU24 are hard to detect because they are so faint and move so fast. Humanity's ability to scan the sky to detect, catalog, and analyze such objects has increased notably in recent years.
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.
South of the large star-forming region known as the Orion Nebula, lies bright blue reflection nebula NGC 1999. The nebula is marked with a dark inverted T-shape at the lower left in a broad cosmic vista that spans over 10 light-years. The dark shape is a dense gas and dust cloud, or Bok globule, seen in silhouette against the bright nebula, and likely a site of future star formation. At the edge of the Orion molecular cloud complex some 1,500 light-years distant, NGC 1999's illumination is provided by the embedded variable star V380 Orionis. The region abounds with energetic young stars producing jets and outflows that create luminous shock waves, including HH (Herbig-Haro) 1 and 2 just below and left of NGC 1999, and the apparent cascade of reddish arcs and bow shocks beginning at the upper right. The stellar jets and outflows push through the surrounding material at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per second.
Is this image worth a thousand words? According to the Holographic Principle, the most information you can get from this image is about 3 x 1065
bits for a normal sized computer monitor. The Holographic Principle, yet unproven, states that there is a maximum amount of information content held by regions adjacent to any surface. Therefore, counter-intuitively, the information content inside a room depends not on the volume of the room but on the area of the bounding walls. The principle derives from the idea that the Planck length, the length scale where quantum mechanics begins to dominate classical gravity, is one side of an area that can hold only about one bit of information. The limit was first postulated by physicist Gerard 't Hooft in 1993. It can arise from generalizations from seemingly distant speculation that the information held by a black hole is determined not by its enclosed volume but by the surface area of its event horizon. The term "holographic" arises from a hologram analogy where three-dimension images are created by projecting light through a flat screen. Beware, other people looking at the above image may not claim to see 3 x 1065
bits -- they might claim to see a teapot.
Why do x-ray rings appear to emanate from a gamma-ray burst? The surprising answer has little to do with the explosion itself but rather with light reflected off sheets of dust-laden gas in our own Milky Way Galaxy. GRB 031203 was a tremendous explosion -- a gamma-ray burst that occurred far across the universe with radiation just arriving in our Solar System last December 3. Since GRBs can also emit copious amounts of x-rays, a bright flash of x-rays likely arrived simultaneously with the gamma-radiation. In this case, the x-rays also bounced off two slabs of cosmic dust nearly 3500 light-years distant and created the unusual reflections. The longer path from the GRB, to the dust slab, to the XMM-Newton telescope caused the x-ray light echoes to arrive well after the GRB.
Cruising through the inner Solar System, new Comet Kudo-Fujikawa reached perihelion, its closest approach to the Sun, yesterday, January 29. Passing within 28.4 million kilometers of the Sun, this comet came much closer than innermost planet Mercury basking only 57.9 million kilometers from our parent star. So close to the Sun, comet Kudo-Fujikawa was extremely bright but impossible for earthbound observers to see against the solar glare. Still, the space-based SOHO observatory captured these views of the comet as it neared perihelion by using a coronograph's occulting disk to block the overwhelming sunlight. In the series of images, the size and location of the blocked-out Sun is indicated by white circles, while arrows point to the traveling comet's bright coma and developing tail. Though fading on its outbound journey, Kudo-Fujikawa should soon be visible to southern hemisphere comet-watchers in February's evening skies.
Is the Moon larger when near the horizon? No -- as shown above, the Moon appears to be very nearly the same size no matter its location on the sky. Oddly, the cause or causes for the common Moon Illusion are still being debated. Two leading explanations both hinge on the illusion that foreground objects make a horizon Moon seem farther in the distance. The historically most popular explanation then holds that the mind interprets more distant objects as wider, while a more recent explanation adds that the distance illusion may actually make the eye focus differently. Either way, the angular diameter of the Moon is always about 0.5 degrees. In the above time-lapse sequence taken near the end of last year, the Moon was briefly re-imaged every 2.5 minutes, with the last exposure of longer duration to bring up a magnificent panorama of the city of Seattle.
The Great Nebula in Orion is a colorful place. Visible to the unaided eye, it appears as a small fuzzy patch in the constellation of Orion. But this image, a representative-color composite of 81 near-infrared light images taken with VLT's ISAAC, shows the Orion Nebula to be a busy neighborhood of young stars, hot gas, and dark dust. The power behind much of the Orion Nebula (M42) is the Trapezium - four of the brightest stars in the nebula. The eerie blue glow surrounding the bright stars pictured here is their own starlight reflected by nearby dust. Dark brown dust filaments cover much of the region. The whole Orion Nebula cloud complex, which includes the Horsehead Nebula, will slowly disperse over the next 100,000 years.
At night, from a dark location, part of the clear sky looks milky. This unusual swath of dim light is generally visible during any month and from any location. Until the invention of the telescope, nobody really knew what the "Milky Way" was. About 300 years ago telescopes caused a startling revelation: the Milky Way was made of stars. Only 70 years ago, more powerful telescopes brought the further revelation that the Milky Way is only one galaxy among many. Now telescopes in space allow yet deeper understanding. The above picture was taken by the COBE satellite and shows the plane of our Galaxy in infrared light. The thin disk of our home spiral galaxy is clearly apparent, with stars appearing white and interstellar dust appearing red.
Get out your red/blue glasses and launch yourself into this stereo picture of Saturn! The picture is actually composed from two images recorded weeks apart by the Voyager 2 spacecraft during its visit to the Saturnian System in August of 1981. Traveling at about 35,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft's changing viewpoint from one image to the next produced this exaggerated but pleasing stereo effect. Saturn is the second largest planet in the Solar System, after Jupiter. Its spectacular ring system is so wide that it would span the space between the Earth and Moon. Although they look solid here, Saturn's Rings consist of individually orbiting bits of ice and rock ranging in size from grains of sand to barn-sized boulders.
Star trails streak this composite time exposure of Comet Tempel-Tuttle recorded by T. Puckett on January 26. Presently passing through the inner solar system on its 33 year orbit around the Sun, Tempel-Tuttle has brightened unexpectedly, but binoculars or small telescopes are still required to visually observe it. Tempel-Tuttle is also called "the Leonid Comet" as the yearly Leonid meteor shower results when the Earth crosses this comet's orbital plane and encounters cometary dust. So, while not currently rivaling the spectacle of a Hyakutake or Hale-Bopp, Tempel-Tuttle may still put on a show. When the Earth plunges through Tempel-Tuttle's debris tail in November of this year, many sky-watchers are anticipating an extremely active meteor shower to result, perhaps even a meteor storm!
What's the temperature outside? No matter where you are on Earth, the above map can tell you. This global montage was created using the temperature data from numerous satellites orbiting the Earth. This map indicates temperatures recorded early on January 26th, 1997, but an even more recent map -- updated every 6 hours -- is usually available. For ocean colors on the map, lighter shades of blue indicate warmer temperatures, while for the land, red hues indicate relative warmth. Just looking at the map one can see that summer warms Earth's southern hemisphere, while winter chills Earth's northern hemisphere. The key at the bottom lists temperatures in degrees Centigrade that can be easily converted to degrees Fahrenheit.
The star 70 Virginis has a planet. This recent discovery is the second known case of a planet orbiting a normal star other than our Sun itself. The first case involved 51 Pegasi and was announced last year. The star 70 Vir, shown in the center of the above false-color picture, is very much like the Sun. The planet is not visible above - the unusual structure surrounding the star is caused by the telescope. The planet, designated 70 Vir b for short, was discovered by very slight periodic shifts in its colors. Defining characteristics of this planet include that it is at least eight times the mass of Jupiter, it's orbit is much smaller than Jupiter's, and it's temperature allows water to exist in liquid form - like on the Earth. Life on Earth is based on liquid water - could life exist here too?