What are those bright spots on asteroid Ceres? As the robotic spacecraft Dawn approaches the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt, the puzzle only deepens. Sharper new images taken last week and released yesterday indicate, as expected, that most of the surface of dwarf planet Ceres is dark and heavily cratered like our Moon and the planet Mercury. The new images do not clearly indicate, however, the nature of comparatively bright spots -- although more of them are seen to exist. The enigmatic spots were first noticed on Texas-sized Ceres a few weeks ago during Dawn's approach. The intriguingmystery might well be solved quickly as Dawn continues to advance toward Ceres, being on schedule to enter orbit on March 6.
An important threshold on Mars has now been crossed. Landing in mid-2012, the Curiosity rover is searching for clues of whether life could ever have existed on the red planet. Recent findings of Curiosity include evidence for an ancient (but now dried) freshwater lake, and the non-detection of the biomarker methane in the Martian atmosphere. To continue its investigation, the car-sized rover is on an expedition to roll up Mt. Sharp, the central peak of the large crater in which it landed. Life might have shown preference for water that once ran down the Martian mountain. Two weeks ago, to avoid more dangerous and rocky terrain, Curiosity was directed to roll across a one-meter high sand dune that blocked a useful entrance to Mt. Sharp. Just after the short trip over Dingo Gap was successful, the robotic rover took the above image showing the now-traversed sand mound covered with its wheel tracks.
What in heaven's blazes is that? Thousands of people living near the Ural Mountains in Russia saw last Friday morning one of the more spectacular meteors of modern times streak across the sky. Forceful sound waves arrived at the ground minutes later, knocking people over and breaking windows for hundreds of kilometers. The above video is a compilation of several car dashcams and includes real time footage of the meteor rampaging, smoke trails drifting, shadows quickly shifting, and even the meteor's light reflecting off the back of a bus. The fireball is thought to have been caused by a car-sized chunk of ice and rock crashing into the Earth's atmosphere. Since the event was captured from so many angles, the meteor's trajectory has become determined well enough to indicate from where it came and to where any resultant pieces might have landed. It is already certain that this meteor had nothing to do with the several-times larger asteroid 2012 DA14 which passed the Earth from a different direction later the same day. If pieces of the meteor are found, they might tell humanity more about the early Solar System, when the meteor was likely formed.
This rugged road through the dark Atacama Desert seems to lead skyward toward the bright stars and glowing nebulae of the southern Milky Way. If you follow the road you will get to Cerro Armazones peak in Chile, future construction site for the 40-meter class European Extremely Large Telescope. For now though, sliding your cursor across the image will identify wonders of the southern skies in view. The scene is dominated by the reddish glow of the Great Carina Nebula, one of our galaxy's largest star forming regions. In fact, the remarkable skyscape is not a composite of varying exposures or a photomontage. Far from sources of light pollution, the landscape illuminated by starlight and the Milky Way above were recorded by a modified digital camera and fast lens. The sensitive system captured both planet Earth and deep sky in a relatively short exposure.
Cast off by dying sunlike stars, planetary nebulae are a brief but glorious final phase of stellar evolution. The gaseous shrouds are ionized by an extremely hot central source, the shrinking core of a star running out of fuel for nuclear fusion. Shining in the cosmic night, their simple symmetries are fascinating and have inspired this planetary nebula poster project. In it, nine planetaries are displayed for comparison in a 3x3 grid. Of course, planetary nebula fans should be able to pick out the bright Messier objects M27 - the Dumbbell Nebula, M76 - the Little Dumbbell, and M57 - the Ring Nebula, as well as NGC 6543, aka the Cat's Eye Nebula. Lesser known nebulae include the Medusa and the Bug. All the images were made with detailed narrow band data and are shown at the same angular scale, spanning 20 arc minutes (1/3 degree). At that scale, the grey circle represents the apparent size of the Full Moon. These planetary nebulae hint at the fate of our own Sun as its core runs out of nuclear fuel in another 5 billion years.
Main belt asteroid 4 Vesta is at its brightest now. The small world is near opposition (opposite the Sun in the sky) and closest to Earth. But even at its brightest, Vesta is just too faint to spot with the naked-eye. Still, over the next few days it will be relatively easy to find in the constellation Leo, sharing a typical binocular field of view with bright star Gamma Leonis (aka Algieba). In fact on February 16 Vesta passed between Gamma Leonis and close neighbor on the sky 40 Leonis. Gamma Leonis is the brightest star in these two panels, while the second brightest star, 40 Leonis, is directy to its right. As marked, Vesta is the third brightest "star" in the field. Vesta shifts position between the two panels from well below 40 Leonis on Feb. 14 to near the top of the frame from Feb. 16, shooting the gap between the close Gamma/40 Leonis pair. Of course, premier close-up views of the asteroid will be possible after the ion-powered Dawn spacecraft arrives at Vesta in August of 2011.
How often do satellites collide? Although minuscule space debris may strike any satellite on occasion, the first known collision between time two full satellites occurred only last week. Even though thousands of satellites have been launched, the low collision rate is caused by the great vastness of space. Last week, however, a defunct Russian communications satellite named Cosmos 2251 smashed right into an operational US communications satellite named Iridium 33 over Siberia, Russia. Both satellites were destroyed. The sheer number of massive particles in a dispersing debris cloud, depicted in an inset image above, increases the risk that other operating satellites might be struck by a harmful fast-moving projectile. The collision occurred in low Earth orbit only 750 kilometers up, a height shared by many satellites but significantly higher than the 350-km high human-occupied International Space Station. Since satellites may disintegrate when struck by fast-moving space junk, the crash focuses concern that a future dramatic satellite collision may one day start an ablation cascade of increasingly more collisions. The result could then render future human space flights increasingly risky and expensive satellite lifetimes increasingly short.
How common are planetary systems like our own? Perhaps quite common, as the first system of planets like our own Solar System has been discovered using a newly adapted technique that, so far, has probed only six planetary systems. The technique, called gravitational microlensing, looks for telling brightness changes in measured starlight when a foreground star with planets chances almost directly in front of a more distant star. The distant star's light is slightly deflected in predictable ways by the gravity of the closer system. Recently a detailed analysis of microlensing system OGLE-2006-BLG-109 has related brightness variations to two planets that are similar to Jupiter and Saturn of our own Solar System. This discovery carries the tantalizing implication that interior planets, possibly including Earth-like planets, might also be common. Pictured above is an artistic conception of how the BLG-109 planetary system might look.
It has become one of the most famous images of modern times. This image, taken with the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995, shows evaporating gaseous globules (EGGs) emerging from pillars of molecular hydrogen gas and dust. The giant pillars are light years in length and are so dense that interior gas contracts gravitationally to form stars. At each pillars' end, the intense radiation of bright young stars causes low density material to boil away, leaving stellar nurseries of dense EGGs exposed. The Eagle Nebula, associated with the open star cluster M16, lies about 7000 light years away. The pillars of creation were imaged recently by the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory, and it was found that most EGGS are not strong emitters of X-rays.
This dream-like image of Mir was recorded by astronauts as the space shuttle orbiter Atlantis approached the Russian space station prior to docking during the STS-76 mission in 1996. Sporting spindly appendages and solar panels, Mir resembles a whimsical flying insect hovering about 350 kilometers above New Zealand's South Island and the city of Nelson near Cook Strait. Mir was launched 20 years ago this week, and served as a continuously occupied orbital outpost until August 1999. Mir was visited by over 100 spacefarers from the nations of planet Earth including, Russia, the United States, Great Britain, Germany, France, Japan, Austria, Kazakhstan and Slovakia. The Mir was deorbited in March 2001.
The stars of the big dipper, a well known asterism in the constellation Ursa Major, are easy to recognize in this dramatic skyscape. In fact, northern hemisphere skygazers often follow along the line indicated by the two stars at the far right. Extending off the top of this image, that line leads to Polaris, the North Star, conveniently located near the north celestial pole. Following the arc of the dipper's handle also leads to another well known celestial beacon of the northern sky - yet this dreamlike scene takes you instead to a shining mountaintop castle. Big Dipper Castle might be an appropriate name in this stunning view, but its traditional name is Castle Hohenzollern. Poised above a sea of clouds that mute the city lights below, the castle lies in the Swabian Alb range of southern Germany, an area that was once a reef in an ancient sea.
The cloud poses no danger to the building. Appearing to float above a remote monastery in Sicily, Italy, the anvil cloud's shape shows several classic cloud features. The cloud itself is composed of millions of very small droplets of water and ice. The dramatically flat cloud bottom is caused by temperature falling in the lower atmosphere -- above a specific height water-saturated air is forced to condense out water droplets. The shape of the cloud middle is caused by the water-droplet-laden column of air being blown both upward and to one side. The anvil shape at the cloud top is likely caused by the upward air column reaching a stable atmospheric layer, likely the stratosphere, where horizontally moving air fans out the top of the cloud. The cumulonimbus cloud was captured out the front door of a house last year.
First imaged by the Mariner 9 spacecraft, Valles Marineris, the grand canyon of Mars, is a system of enormous depressions called chasmata that stretch some 4,000 kilometers along the Martian equator. Looking north over the canyon's central regions, Candor chasma lies in the foreground of this spectacular view with the steep walls of Ophir chasma near the top. Surface collapse and landslides are seen to be part of the complex geologic history of these dramatic features but recent high resolution images have also revealed layered deposits within the canyon system. This picture represents a mosaic of images recorded in 1978 from Martian orbit by the Viking 1 and 2 spacecraft. The full width of the picture covers about 800 kilometers.
Shells of ancient supernovas, cocoons surrounding newborn stars, and specks from distant quasars highlight this tremendous vista toward the constellation of Cygnus. The representative color image covers about 10 degrees across on the sky but is only a small part of the Canadian Galactic Plane Survey in radio light. Diffuse bands of ionized gas flow though a dominating region of star formation, located about 6000 light-years away. Two prominent supernova shells visible include the brown globule on the lower left and the white bumpy sphere on the upper right. To the left of the brown globule is the entire North America Nebula. Prominent stellar cocoons are visible throughout the image as bright white knots. Some of these stars will likely generate future supernova shells. Far in the distance, visible here as only red dots, quasars glow.
Our Moon's appearance changes nightly. This slow-loading 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 discernable 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).
From the Earth's surface, Neptune usually appears as a fuzzy blotch. The blurring effects of the Earth's atmosphere deny clearer images. By distorting mirrors in the telescope itself in time with the changing atmosphere, however, these effects can be greatly reduced. Many of the world's largest telescopes are now implementing these "rubber mirror" adaptive optics (AO) systems to bring out the finest details that these telescopes can resolve. Recently the 10-meter Keck II telescope in Hawaii came on-line with AO capability. The above image of Neptune in three infrared colors demonstrates the clarity of the new technique - as compared to an image of Neptune from Keck II without AO.
On February 7th, this honey comb of aluminum cells filled with aerogel was launched on the STARDUST mission to interplanetary space. STARDUST's goal is to capture dust from a comet's tail and return to planet Earth - the first sample return mission to a comet! This structure represents about 1,000 square centimeters of area for collecting dust trailing within 150 kilometers of the nucleus of P/Wild-2. Comet P/Wild-2 is new to the inner Solar System. Having spent its life in orbit between Jupiter and Uranus, this comet was deflected in 1974 by a close encounter with Jupiter and now orbits between Jupiter and Earth. Dust from P/Wild-2 should impact the aerogel at high speeds and come to rest leaving carrot-shaped tracks in this amazingly tough, transparent, ultra-low density material. Returning to Earth by parachute in 2006, the cometary dust sample will be analyzed for clues to the formation and primordial composition of our Solar System.
The first hint of what will become of our Sun was discovered inadvertently in 1764. At that time, Charles Messier was compiling a list of "annoying" diffuse objects not to be confused with "interesting" comets. The 27th object on Messier's list, now known as M27 or the Dumbbell Nebula, is a planetary nebula, the type of nebula our Sun will produce when nuclear fusion stops in its core. M27 is one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky, and can be seen in the constellation Vulpecula with binoculars. It takes light about 1000 years to reach us from M27. Understanding the physics and significance of M27 was well beyond 18th century science. Even today, many things remain mysterious about bipolar planetary nebula like M27, including the physical mechanism that expels a low-mass star's gaseous outer-envelope, leaving an X-ray hot white dwarf.
Callisto's surface is not without fault. In fact, an explorer crossing the surface of this large moon of Jupiter would need climbing equipment to pass this large, recently discovered fault. The above picture was released last week and was taken in November 1996 by the robot spacecraft Galileo currently orbiting Jupiter. As the Sun illuminates Callisto's surface from the left, the unusual cliff or scarp stands out by the shadow it casts to the right. This cliff and others were probably formed when a large object collided with Callisto early in its history. Of the many visible craters in the above photograph, the smallest visible is about a football field across, while the largest is more than a kilometer.
Are these galaxies near the center of the largest gravitationally bound concentration of mass yet known? Previously, the cluster of galaxies known as Abell 3627 was largely unstudied because dust in the disk of our own Galaxy obscured much of its light. Several galaxies from Abell 3627 appear above as fuzzy blue patches behind many stars in our Galaxy. Recent observations by Renee Kraan-Korteweg (Paris Observatory) and collaborators, however, indicate that this cluster of galaxies is near the center of the huge nearby conglomeration of mass known as the Great Attractor. Evidence for this was uncovered in new accurate measurements of the large extent and nearby distance of Abell 3627.