Not from a snowglobe, this expansive fisheye view of ice and sky was captured on February 1, from Jökulsárlón Beach
, southeast Iceland, planet Earth. Chunks of glacial ice on the black sand beach glisten in the light of a nearly full moon surrounded by a shining halo
. The 22 degree lunar halo itself is created by ice crystals in high, thin clouds refracting the moonlight. Despite the bright moonlight, curtains of aurora still dance through the surreal scene. In early February
, their activity was triggered by Earth's restless magnetosphere and the energetic wind from a coronal hole
near the Sun's south pole. Bright Jupiter, also near opposition, is visible at the left, beyond the icy lunar halo.
Rich in star clusters and nebulae, the ancient constellation of Auriga, the Charioteer, rides high in northern winter night skies. Spanning nearly 24 full moons (12 degrees) on the sky, this deep telescopic mosaic view recorded in January shows off some of Auriga's most popular sights for cosmic tourists. The crowded field sweeps along the plane of our Milky Way galaxy in the direction opposite the galactic center. Need directions? Near the bottom of the frame, at the Charioteer's boundary with Taurus the Bull, the bright bluish star Elnath is known as both Beta Tauri and Gamma Aurigae. On the far left and almost 300 light-years away, the busy, looping filaments of supernova remnant Simeis 147 cover about 150 light-years. Look toward the right to find emission nebula IC 410, significantly more distant, some 12,000 light-years away. Star forming IC 410 is famous for its embedded young star cluster, NGC 1893, and tadpole-shaped clouds of dust and gas. The Flaming Star Nebula, IC 405, is just a little farther along. Its red, convoluted clouds of glowing hydrogen gas are energized by hot O-type star AE Aurigae. Two of our galaxy's open star clusters, Charles Messier's M36 and M38 line up in the starfield above, familiar to many binocular-equipped skygazers.
The Great Nebula in Orion is a intriguing place. Visible to the unaided eye, it appears as a small fuzzy patch in the constellation of Orion. But this image, an illusory-color composite of four colors of infrared light taken with the Earth orbiting WISE observatory, shows the Orion Nebula to be a bustling neighborhood or recently formed stars, hot gas, and dark dust. The power behind much of the Orion Nebula (M42) is the stars of the Trapezium star cluster, seen near the center of the above wide field image. The eerie green glow surrounding the bright stars pictured here is their own starlight reflected by intricate dust filaments that cover much of the region. The current Orion Nebula cloud complex, which includes the Horsehead Nebula, will slowly disperse over the next 100,000 years.
Why would Venus appear oval? Venus has been seen countless times from the surface of the Earth, and every time the Earth's atmosphere has dispersed its light to some degree. When the air has just the right amount of dust or water droplets, small but distant objects like Venus appear spread out into an angularly large aureole. Aureoles are not unusual to see and are frequently noted as circular coronas around the Sun or Moon. Recently, however, aureoles have been imaged that are not circular but distinctly oval. The above oval Venusian aureole was imaged by the astrophotographer who first noted the unusual phenomenon three years ago. Initially disputed, the unusual distortion has now been confirmed multiple times by several different astrophotographers. What causes the ellipticity is currently unknown, and although several hypotheses hold that horizontally oriented ice crystals are responsible, significant discussions about it are still taking place.
Scientists are melting holes in the bottom of the world. In fact, almost 100 holes melted near the South Pole are now being used as astronomical observatories. Astronomers with the IceCube Neutrino Observatory lowered into each vertical lake a long string knotted with basketball-sized light detectors. The water in each hole soon refreezes. The detectors attached to the strings are sensitive to blue light emitted in the surrounding clear ice. Such light is expected from ice collisions with high-energy neutrinos emitted by objects or explosions out in the universe. Late last year, the last of IceCube's 86 strings was lowered into the freezing abyss, pictured above, making IceCube the largest neutrino detector yet created. Data from a preliminary experiment, AMANDA, has already been used to create the first detailed map of the high-energy neutrino sky. Experimental goals of the newer IceCube include a search for cosmic sources of neutrinos, a search for neutrinos coincident with nearby supernova and distant gamma-ray bursts, and, if lucky, a probe of exotic physical concepts such as unseen spatial dimensions and faster-than-light travel.
The 32nd shuttle mission to the International Space Station, STS-130, left planet Earth on February 8. Its early morning launch to orbit from Kennedy Space Center's pad 39A followed the long, graceful, eastward arc seen in this 2 minute time exposure. Well composed, the dramatic picture also shows the arc's watery reflection from the Intracoastal Waterway Bridge, in Ponte Vedra, Florida, about 115 miles north of the launch site. In the celestial background a waning crescent Moon and stars left their own short trails against the still dark sky. The brightest star trail near the moon was made by red supergiant Antares, alpha star of the constellation Scorpius.
If your sister-in-law phoned you at 1am to tell you there was a circle around the Moon, how would you react? When it happened to him early last Sunday morning, photographer Laurent Laveder, grabbed his equipment and ran outside! He was rewarded with the sight of a bright lunar halo shining in his neighborhood skies above Quimper, France. With a radius of 22 degrees, the beautiful halo is produced by the refraction of moonlight in hexagonal-shaped ice crystals formed in thin, high clouds. Laveder captured a series of digital images that he used to create this composite fisheye view as well as a remarkable 360 degree VR panorama.
NGC 1132 is one smooth galaxy -- but how did it form? As an elliptical galaxy, NGC 1132 has little dust and gas, and few stars have formed in it recently. Although many elliptical galaxies are in clusters of galaxies, NGC 1132 appears as a large, isolated galaxy toward the constellation of the River (Eridanus). To probe the history of this intriguing trillion-star ball, astronomers imaged NGC 1132 in both visible light with the Hubble Space Telescope and X-ray light with the Chandra X-ray Observatory. In this composite false-color image, visible light is white, while the X-ray light is blue and indicates the unusual presence of very hot gas. The X-ray light also likely traces out the location of dark matter. One progenitor hypothesis is that NGC 1132 is the result of a series of galaxy mergers in what once was a small group of galaxies. NGC 1132 is over 300 million light years away, so the light we see from it today left before dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Many fascinating background galaxies can be seen far in the distance.
The explosion is over but the consequences continue. About eleven thousand years ago a star in the constellation of Vela could be seen to explode, creating a strange point of light briefly visible to humans living near the beginning of recorded history. The outer layers of the star crashed into the interstellar medium, driving a shock wave that is still visible today. A roughly spherical, expanding shock wave is visible in X-rays. The above image captures much of that filamentary and gigantic shock in visible light, spanning almost 100 light years and appearing twenty times the diameter of the full moon. As gas flies away from the detonated star, it decays and reacts with the interstellar medium, producing light in many different colors and energy bands. Remaining at the center of the Vela Supernova Remnant is a pulsar, a star as dense as nuclear matter that completely rotates more than ten times in a single second.
N44 is one of the largest and most intricate nebulas in this part of the universe. Located in our galactic neighbor the Large Magellanic Cloud, N44 houses numerous massive bright stars, lengthy lanes of dark dust, and vast clouds of hydrogen gas that glows red. The red color of the N44 emission nebula comes from pervasive hydrogen atoms re-acquiring electrons that were knocked away by energetic light from massive stars. The central stars also appear to have somehow created the huge superbubble visible in the lower left. N44, pictured above, spans about 1,000 light years and lies about 170,000 light years distant.
The Virgo Cluster of Galaxies is the closest cluster of galaxies to our Milky Way Galaxy. The Virgo Cluster is so close that it spans more than 5 degrees on the sky - about 10 times the angle made by a full Moon. It contains over 100 galaxies of many types - including spiral, elliptical, and irregular galaxies. The Virgo Cluster is so massive that it is noticeably pulling our Galaxy toward it. The cluster contains not only galaxies filled with stars but also gas so hot it glows in X-rays. Motions of galaxies in and around clusters indicate that they contain more dark matter than any visible matter we can see. Pictured above, the center of the Virgo cluster might appear to some as a human face, and includes bright Messier galaxies M86 at the top, M84 on the far right, NGC 4388 at the bottom, and NGC 4387 in the middle.
When morning twilight came to the Paranal Observatory in Chile, astronomers Mark Neeser and Peter Barthel interrupted their search for faint quasars, billions of light-years away. And just for a moment, they used Very Large Telescopes at the European Southern Observatory to appreciate the beauty of the nearby Universe. One result was this stunning view of beautiful barred spiral galaxy NGC 613, a mere 65 million light-years away in the southern constellation Sculptor. Over 100 thousand light-years across, NGC 613 seems to have more than its fair share of spiral arms laced with cosmic dust clouds and bright star forming regions near the ends of a dominant central bar. Radio emission indicates the presence of a massive black hole at the center of NGC 613.
Bright blue stars are still forming in the dark pillars of the Eagle Nebula. Made famous by a picture from the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, the Eagle Nebula shows the dramatic process of star formation. To the upper right of the nebula in the above picture lies the heart of the open cluster M16. The bright blue stars of M16 have been continually forming over the past 5 million years, most recently in the famous central gas and dust pillars known as elephant trunks. Light takes about 7000 years to reach us from M16, which spans about 20 light years and can be seen with binoculars toward the constellation of Serpens.
Few astronomical sights excite the imagination like the nearby stellar nursery known as the Orion Nebula. The Nebula's glowing gas surrounds hot young stars at the edge of an immense interstellar molecular cloud only 1500 light-years away. The Great Nebula in Orion can be found with the unaided eye just below and to the left of the easily identifiable belt of three stars in the popular constellation Orion. The above image has been contrast balanced to bring out Orion's detail in spectacular fashion. Visible simultaneously are the bright stars of the Trapezium in Orion's heart, the sweeping lanes of dark dust that cross the center, the pervasive red glowing hydrogen gas, and the blue tinted dust that reflects the light of newborn stars. The whole Orion Nebula cloud complex, which includes the Horsehead Nebula, will slowly disperse over the next 100,000 years.
Yesterday NEAR-Shoemaker became the first spacecraft to land on an asteroid and send signals back from its surface. Since the robot spacecraft was not designed for such a contingency, the success of the landing on asteroid 433 Eros was not assured. Shown above is the last picture taken by NEAR-Shoemaker before its touchdown. The streaking on the lower part of the image was caused by the loss of telemetry as the satellite impacted the surface. The image was taken 130 meters above the surface and spans 6 meters across. Rocks as small as a human hand are visible. As engineers continue to try to communicate with the beached car-sized spacecraft, scientists will work to understand features visible in the highest resolution photographs ever taken of an asteroid.
The planet Mercury resembles a moon. Mercury's old surface is heavily cratered like many moons. Mercury is larger than most moons but smaller than Jupiter's moon Ganymede and Saturn's moon Titan. Mercury is much denser and more massive than any moon, though, because it is made mostly of iron. In fact, the Earth is the only planet more dense. A visitor to Mercury's surface would see some strange sights. Because Mercury rotates exactly three times every two orbits around the Sun, and because Mercury's orbit is so elliptical, a visitor to Mercury might see the Sun rise, stop in the sky, go back toward the rising horizon, stop again, and then set quickly over the other horizon. From Earth, Mercury's proximity to the Sun cause it to be visible only for a short time just after sunset or just before sunrise.
This portrait of Pluto and its companion Charon was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994. Pluto is usually the most distant planet from the Sun but because of its eccentric orbit Pluto crossed inside of Neptune's orbit in 1979. On Thursday, February 11th, it crossed back out, recovering its status as the most distant of nine planets. Pluto is still considered to be a planet, although very little is known about it compared to other planets. Pluto is smaller than any other planet and even smaller than several other planet's moons. Pluto is probably composed of frozen rock and ice, much like Neptune's moon Triton. Pluto has not yet been visited by a spacecraft, but a mission is being planned for the next decade.
Inaugurating the era of space exploration for the US, the First Explorer was launched into Earth orbit forty years ago (February 1, 1958) by the Army Ballistic Missle Agency. The Explorer I satellite weighed about 30 pounds, was 6 feet long, 6 inches in diameter and consisted of batteries, transmitters, and scientific instrumentation built into the fourth stage of a Jupiter-C rocket. Foreshadowing NASA and the adventurous and successful Explorer Program, Explorer I bolstered national prestige in the wake of Sputnik. The satellite also contributed to a spectacular scientific bonanza - the discovery of Earth-girdling belts of magnetically trapped charged particles now known as the Van Allen Radiation Belts.
Comets become fountains of gas and dust as they get near the Sun. Solar heat vaporizes the outer layers of these spectacular orbiting icebergs, exposing caverns of pressurized gas that erupt into jets. The above digitally enhanced image of Comet Hale-Bopp was taken on January 29th and highlights several of these dust jets. Here, background stars appear as faint raised streaks. Comet Hale-Bopp is currently brighter than most stars, and is visible in the morning sky. Comet Hale-Bopp will continue to brighten and develop an extended tail until April.
This panorama view of the sky is really a drawing. It was made in the 1940s under the supervision of astronomer Knut Lundmark at the Lund Observatory in Sweden. To create the picture, draftsmen used a mathematical distortion to map the entire sky onto an oval shaped image with the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy along the center and the north galactic pole at the top. 7,000 individual stars are shown as white dots, size indicating brightness. The "Milky Way" clouds, actually the combined light of dim, unresolved stars in the densely populated galactic plane, are accurately painted on, interrupted by dramatic dark dust lanes. The overall effect is photographic in quality and represents the visible sky. Can you identify any familiar landmarks or constellations? For starters, Orion is at the right edge of the picture, just below the galactic plane and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds are visible as fuzzy patches in the lower right quadrant.