APOD Retrospective: February 5

A nostalgic look back at Astronomy Picture of the Day
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APOD Retrospective: February 5

Post by bystander » Sun Feb 05, 2012 4:59 am


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2015 The striking spiral galaxy M104 is famous for its nearly edge-on profile featuring a broad ring of obscuring dust lanes. Seen in silhouette against an extensive bulge of stars, the swath of cosmic dust lends a broad brimmed hat-like appearance to the galaxy suggesting the more popular moniker, The Sombrero Galaxy. Hubble Space Telescope and ground-based Subaru data have been reprocessed with amateur color image data to create this sharp view of the well-known galaxy. The processing results in a natural color appearance and preserves details often lost in overwhelming glare of M104's bright central bulge when viewed with smaller ground-based instruments. Also known as NGC 4594, the Sombrero galaxy can be seen across the spectrum and is thought to host a central supermassive black hole. About 50,000 light-years across and 28 million light-years away, M104 is one of the largest galaxies at the southern edge of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster.

2014 Does spiral galaxy NGC 2683 have a bar across its center? Being so nearly like our own barred Milky Way Galaxy, one might guess it has. Being so nearly edge-on, however, it is hard to tell. Either way, this gorgeous island universe, cataloged as NGC 2683, lies a mere 20 million light-years distant in the northern constellation of the Cat (Lynx). NGC 2683 is seen nearly edge-on in this cosmic vista combining data and images from the ground-based Subaru telescope and the space-based Hubble Space Telescope. More distant galaxies are seen scattered in the background. Blended light from a large population of old yellowish stars forms the remarkably bright galactic core. Starlight silhouettes the dust lanes along winding spiral arms, dotted with the telltale blue glow of young star clusters in this galaxy's star forming regions.

2013 What if you saw your shadow on Mars and it wasn't human? Then you might be the robotic Curiosity rover currently exploring Mars. Curiosity landed in Gale Crater last August and has been busy looking for signs of ancient running water and clues that Mars could once have harbored life. Pictured above, Curiosity has taken a wide panorama that includes its own shadow in the direction opposite the Sun. The image was taken in November from a location dubbed Point Lake, although no water presently exists there. Curiosity has already discovered several indications of dried streambeds on Mars, and is scheduled to continue its exploration by climbing nearby Mt. Sharp over the next few years.

2012 Our Moon's appearance changes nightly. This time-lapse sequence shows what our Moon looks like during a lunation, a complete lunar cycle. As the Moon orbits the Earth, the half illuminated by the Sun first becomes increasingly visible, then decreasingly visible. The Moon always keeps the same face toward the Earth. The Moon's apparent size changes slightly, though, and a slight wobble called a libration is discernible as it progresses along its elliptical orbit. During the cycle, sunlight reflects from the Moon at different angles, and so illuminates different features differently. A full lunation takes about 29.5 days, just under a month (moon-th).

2011 Forty years ago, while looking out the window of Apollo 14's Lunar Module Antares, astronaut Ed Mitchell snapped a series of photos of the lunar surface, assembled into this detailed mosaic by Apollo Lunar Surface Journal editor Eric Jones. The view looks across the Fra Mauro highlands to the northwest of the landing site after the Apollo 14 astronauts had completed their second and final walk on the Moon. Prominent in the foreground is their Modular Equipment Transporter (MET), a two-wheeled, rickshaw-like device used to carry tools and samples. Near the horizon at top center is a 1.5 meter wide boulder dubbed Turtle rock. In the shallow crater below Turtle rock is the long white handle of a sampling instrument, thrown there javelin-style by Mitchell. Mitchell's fellow moonwalker and first American in space, Alan Shepard, also used a makeshift six iron to hit two golf balls. One of Shepard's golf balls is just visible as a white spot below Mitchell's javelin.

2010 It's spring for the northern hemisphere of Mars and spring on Mars usually means dust storms. So the dramatic brown swath of dust (top) marking the otherwise white north polar cap in this picture of the Red Planet is not really surprising. Taking advantage of the good views of Mars currently possible near opposition and its closest approach to planet Earth in 2010, this sharp image shows the evolving dust storm extending from the large dark region known as Mare Acidalium below the polar cap. It was recorded on February 2nd with the 1 meter telescope at Pic Du Midi, a mountain top observatory in the French Pyrenees.

2009 Some 3 million light-years distant in nearby spiral galaxy M33, giant stellar nursery NGC 604 is about 1,300 light-years across, or nearly 100 times the size of the Orion Nebula. In fact, among the star forming regions within the Local Group of galaxies, NGC 604 is second in size only to 30 Doradus, also known as the Tarantula Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud. This space-age color composite of X-ray data (in blue hues) from the Chandra Observatory, and Hubble optical data shows that NGC 604's cavernous bubbles and cavities are filled with a hot, tenuous, X-ray emitting gas. Intriguingly, NGC 604 itself is divided by a wall of relatively cool gas. On the western (right) side of the nebula, measurements indicate that material is likely heated to X-ray temperatures by the energetic winds from a cluster of about 200 young, massive stars. On the eastern side the X-ray filled cavities seem to be older, suggesting supernova explosions from the end of massive star evolution contribute to their formation.

2008 How has Comet Holmes changed? Since brightening unexpectedly by nearly one million fold in late October, the last three months have found the coma of Comet 17P/Holmes both expanding and fading. This spectacular composite image shows how the coma and tail of Comet Holmes have changed. Due to Earth's changing vantage point, Comet Holmes, out beyond the orbit of Mars, was seen in November nearly head-on, but in recent months is seen more from the side. Additionally, the comet's motion, when combined with Earth's changing perspective, has caused the comet to have shifted relative to the background stars. The curved path of Comet Holmes shows it to be undergoing apparent retrograde motion as the Earth orbits quickly in front of it. The extent of the coma currently makes Comet Holmes over five times the physical size of our Sun. Anecdotal evidence holds that the comet is hard to see without long photographic exposures, but on such exposures the comet may still be an impressive sight.

2007 Sometimes the sky itself is the best show in town. On January 26, people from Perth, Australia gathered on a local beach to watch a sky light up with delights near and far. Nearby, fireworks exploded as part of Australia Day celebrations. On the far right, lightning from a thunderstorm flashed in the distance. Near the image center, though, seen through clouds, was the most unusual sight of all: Comet McNaught. The photogenic comet was so bright that it even remained visible though the din of Earthly flashes. Comet McNaught continues to move out from the Sun and dim, but should remain visible in southern skies with binoculars through the end of this month. The above image is actually a three photograph panorama digitally processed to reduce red reflections from the exploding firework.

2006 Sometimes the unknown is beautiful. In 2000 February near Lake Tahoe, Nevada, two amateur photographers noticed an unusual red column of light rise mysteriously from a setting sun. During the next few minutes, they were able to capture the pillar and a photogenic sunset on film. Pictured above, the red column is seen above a serene Lake Tahoe and snow-capped mountains across from Lake Tahoe-Nevada State Park. The mysterious column, they learned later, is a Sun Pillar, a phenomenon where sunlight reflects off of distant falling ice crystals.

2005 Tune your radio telescope to 408MHz (408 million cycles per second) and check out the Radio Sky! In the 1970s large dish antennas at three radio observatories, Jodrell Bank, MPIfR, and Parkes Observatory, were used to do just that - the data were combined to map the entire sky. Near this frequency, cosmic radio waves are generated by high energy electrons spiraling along magnetic fields. In the resulting false color image, the galactic plane runs horizontally through the center, but no stars are visible. Instead, many of the bright sources near the plane are distant pulsars, star forming regions, and supernova remnants, while the grand looping structures are pieces of bubbles blown by local stellar activity. External galaxies like Centaurus A, located above the plane to the right of center, and the LMC (below and right) also shine in the Radio Sky.

2004 Grand spiral galaxies often seem to get all the glory, flaunting their young, bright, blue star clusters in beautiful, symmetric spiral arms. But small, irregular galaxies form stars too. In fact, as pictured here, dwarf galaxy NGC 1569 is apparently undergoing a burst of star forming activity, thought to have begun over 25 million years ago. The resulting turbulent environment is fed by supernova explosions as the cosmic detonations spew out material and trigger further star formation. Two massive star clusters - youthful counterparts to globular star clusters in our own spiral Milky Way galaxy - are seen left of center in the gorgeous Hubble Space Telescope image. The picture spans about 1,500 light-years across NGC 1569. A mere 7 million light-years distant, this relatively close starburst galaxy offers astronomers an excellent opportunity to study stellar populations in rapidly evolving galaxies. NGC 1569 lies in the long-necked constellation Camelopardalis.

2003 What could have formed these unusual channels? Inside Newton Basin on Mars, numerous narrow channels run from the top down to the floor. The above picture covers a region spanning about 1500 meters across. These and other gullies have been found on Mars in recent high-resolution pictures taken by the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor robot spacecraft. Similar channels on Earth are formed by flowing water, but on Mars the temperature is normally too cold and the atmosphere too thin to sustain liquid water. Nevertheless, many scientists hypothesize that liquid groundwater can sometimes surface on Mars, erode gullies and channels, and pool at the bottom before freezing and evaporating. If so, life-sustaining ice and water might exist even today below the Martian surface -- water that could potentially support a human mission to Mars. Research into this exciting possibility is sure to continue!

2002 Two of the largest storm systems on Jupiter are colliding, and nobody is sure what will result. The larger storm is the famous Great Red Spot, while the smaller is a large white oval. Both are swirling cloud systems that circulate on Jupiter. The white oval is part of a belt of clouds that circles Jupiter faster than the Great Red Spot. The oval started being slowed by the Great Red Spot two weeks ago and the collision could last another month. The oval will likely survive but could possibly be disrupted or absorbed. The two storm systems went at it at least once before in 1975 causing the Spot's red color to fade for several years. The passing Voyager 2 robot spacecraft took the above picture of Jupiter's Great Red Spot in 1979. A different white oval was then visible below the Spot.

2001 Why isn't this ant a big sphere? Planetary nebula Mz3 is being cast off by a star similar to our Sun that is, surely, round. Why then would the gas that is streaming away create an ant-shaped nebula that is distinctly not round? Clues might include the high 1000-kilometer per second speed of the expelled gas, the light-year long length of the structure, and the magnetism of the star visible above at the nebula's center. One possible answer is that Mz3 is hiding a second, dimmer star that orbits close in to the bright star. A competing hypothesis holds that the central star's own spin and magnetic field are channeling the gas. Since the central star appears to be so similar to our own Sun, astronomers hope that increased understanding of the history of this giant space ant can provide useful insight into the likely future of our own Sun and Earth.

2000 On December 23, 1998 the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) spacecraft flew by asteroid 433 Eros. The robotic spacecraft was intended to brake and orbit Eros, but an unexpected shutdown of its main engine caused this plan to be aborted. Now closing with the asteroid again, NEAR will make another attempt to enter Eros' orbit on February 14th ... Valentine's Day, of course! A successful encounter would make NEAR the first spacecraft ever to orbit an asteroid. This image sequence was taken as NEAR approached Eros in 1998. The rotation of the asteroid is visible in the successive frames. While cruising through the solar system, NEAR has also been hunting for gamma-ray bursts as part of the operational Interplanetary Network.

1999 These are not false-color renderings of the latest observations of Saturn's magnificent rings. Instead, the panels show a strikingly similar system on a much larger scale - a ring around the young, Vega-like star, HR 4796A, located about 200 light-years from Earth. Probably composed of dusty debris ground from colliding planetesimals, this ring is confined to a zone less than 17 AU wide (1 AU equals the Earth-Sun distance) and girdles the star at a radius of about 70 AU, roughly twice the orbital radius of Neptune. In analogy with the relationship of Saturn's rings and moons, this circumstellar ring could be held in place by forces due to planets - shepherding planetary bodies or the gravitational influence of larger planets orbiting closer to the parent star. In any event, because the ring would not survive long without something to keep it there, astronomers consider its presence strong evidence for unseen planetary bodies around HR 4796A. The top panels show the false-color images at two infrared wavelengths from the Hubble Space Telescope's NICMOS instrument, and the bottom panels trace the corresponding image contours. At the center of each, the overwhelming light of HR 4796A has been masked to reveal the fainter circumstellar ring.

1998 This canyon on the surface of Mars appears to have been carved by flowing water. Known as Nanedi Vallis, the terraces and channels visible within the canyon strongly suggest that a river of water once ran here. But the lack of smaller surface channels and other features argue that the valley was formed by a surface collapse. Further images of Martian valley systems will help distinguish the degree to which these processes affected the Martian surface. This image was recorded on January 8th by the Mars Global Surveyor's camera during its 87th orbit of the red planet. The area pictured is about 6 miles wide. High resolution versions of the image show features that are as small as 40 feet across.

1997 Jupiter has rings, too. Unlike Saturn's bright rings which are composed of chunks of ice, Jupiter's rings are darker and appear to consist of fine particles of rock. The six pictures above were taken in infrared light from the Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii in 1994, and cover a time span of two hours. Quite visible are Jupiter's rings, bands and spots in the outer atmosphere. Also visible in the photos, however, are two small Jovian moons. Metis, only 40 kilometers across, appears in the second picture as a dim spot on the rings to the right of Jupiter. Amalthea, much larger and brighter, appears in the third frame on the far left, and can be seen to pass across the face of Jupiter in frames four and five. The origin of Jupiter's rings remains unknown, although hypothesized to be created by material scattered from meteorite impacts onto Jupiter's moons.

1996 Our Earth is not at rest. The Earth moves around the Sun. The Sun orbits the center of the Milky Way Galaxy. The Milky Way Galaxy orbits in the Local Group. The Local Group falls toward the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies. But these speeds are less than the speed that all of these objects together move relative to the microwave background. In the above all-sky map, radiation in the Earth's direction of motion appears blueshifted and hence hotter, while radiation on the opposite side of the sky is redshifted and colder. The map indicates that the Local Group moves at about 600 kilometers per second relative to this primordial radiation. This high speed was initially unexpected and its magnitude is still unexplained. Why are we moving so fast? What is out there?

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