From January 11 to February 25 2013, a pinhole camera sat in a field near Budapest, Hungary, planet Earth to create this intriguing solargraph
. And for 45 days, an old Antonov An-2 biplane stood still while the Sun rose and set. The camera's continuous exposure began about 20 days after the northern hemispere's winter solstice
, so each day the Sun's trail arcs steadily higher through the sky. These days in the Sun were recorded on a piece of black and white photosensitive paper tucked in to the simple plastic film container. The long exposure produced a visible color image
on the paper that was then digitally scanned. Of course, cloudy days left gaps in the solargraph's Sun trails
The Lighthouse nebula was formed by the wind of a pulsar, a rapidly rotating, magnetized neutron star, as it speeds through the interstellar medium at over 1,000 kilometers per second. Some 23,000 light-years distant toward the southern constellation Carina, pulsar and wind nebula (cataloged as IGR J1104-6103) are indicated at the lower right in this remarkable image from the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Energetic particles generated by the pulsar are swept back into the wind's comet-like tail trailing up and to the left, along the direction of the pulsar's motion away from its parent supernova remnant. Both runaway pulsar and expanding remnant debris field are the aftermath of the core-collapse-explosion of a massive star, with the pulsar kicked out by the supernova explosion. Adding to the scene of exotic cosmic extremes is a long, spiraling jet extending for almost 37 light-years, but nearly at a right angle to the pulsar's motion. The high-energy particle jet is the longest known for any object in our Milky Way galaxy.
How would you change the course of an Earth-threatening asteroid? One possibility - a massive spacecraft that uses gravity as a towline - is illustrated in this artist's vision of a gravitational tractor in action. In the hypothetical scenario worked out in 2005 by Edward Lu and Stanley Love at NASA's Johnson Space Center, a 20 ton nuclear-electric spacecraft tows a 200 meter diameter asteroid by simply hovering near the asteroid. The spacecraft's ion drive thrusters are canted away from the surface. Their slight but steady thrust would gradually and predictably alter the course of the tug and asteroid, coupled by their mutual gravitational attraction. While it sounds like the stuff of science fiction, ion drives do power existing spacecraft. One advantage of using a gravitational tractor is that it would work regardless of the asteroid's structure. Given sufficient warning and time, a gravitational tractor could deflect the path of an asteroid known to be on a collision course enough to miss planet Earth.
What's happening over the horizon? Although the scene may appear somehow supernatural, nothing more unusual is occurring than a setting Sun and some well placed clouds. Pictured above are anticrepuscular rays. To understand them, start by picturing common crepuscular rays that are seen any time that sunlight pours though scattered clouds. Now although sunlight indeed travels along straight lines, the projections of these lines onto the spherical sky are great circles. Therefore, the crepuscular rays from a setting (or rising) sun will appear to re-converge on the other side of the sky. At the anti-solar point 180 degrees around from the Sun, they are referred to as anticrepuscular rays. Pictured above is a particularly striking set of anticrepuscular rays photographed last month near Cheyenne, Wyoming, USA.
What's visible in the night sky during this time of year? To help illustrate the answer, a beautiful land, cloud, and skyscape was captured earlier this month over Neuchâtel, Switzerland. Visible in the foreground were the snow covered cliffs of the amphitheater shaped Creux du Van, as well as distant trees, and town-lit clouds. Visible in the night sky (at midnight) were galaxies including the long arch of the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy, the Andromeda galaxy (M31), and the Triangulum galaxy (M33). Star clusters visible included NGC 752, M34, M35, M41, the double cluster, and the Beehive (M44). Nebulas visible included the Orion Nebula (M42), NGC 7822, IC 1396, the Rosette Nebula, the Flaming Star Nebula, the California Nebula, the Heart and Soul Nebulas, and the Pacman Nebula. Rolling your cursor over the above image will bring up labels for all of these. But the above wide angle sky image captured even more sky wonders. What other nebulas can you find in the above image?
Like a butterfly, a white dwarf star begins its life by casting off a cocoon that enclosed its former self. In this analogy, however, the Sun would be a caterpillar and the ejected shell of gas would become the prettiest of all! In the above cocoon, the planetary nebula designated NGC 2440, contains one of the hottest white dwarf stars known. The white dwarf can be seen as the bright dot near the photo's center. Our Sun will eventually become a white dwarf butterfly but not for another 5 billion years. The above false color image was post-processed by Forrest Hamilton.
Now growing brighter, Comet Lulin is headed for its closest approach to planet Earth early next week. But the comet's greenish glow, familiar to earthbound skygazers, is replaced by false colors in this premier view from the orbiting Swift satellite. Image data from the Swift detectors, normally intended to follow cosmic gamma-ray bursts, were recorded on January 28. The data are combined here, along with a sky survey image of background stars, to show optical and ultraviolet light in green-blue hues and x-rays from the comet in red. The result maps remarkable x-ray emission on the comet's sunward side as incoming solar wind ions interact with gases in the swollen coma. It also shows substantial ultraviolet emission opposite the Sun, in the direction of motion and the comet's tail. The ultraviolet emission is from the OH molecule derived from the breakup of water, an indicator of the copius amounts of water produced by this extremely active comet. In fact, astronomers estimate Lulin was releasing about 800 gallons of water each second, enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in less than 15 minutes.
The Horsehead Nebula is one of the most famous nebulae on the sky. It is visible as the dark indentation to the red emission nebula seen just below and left of center in the this photograph. The brightest star on the left is located in the belt of the familiar constellation Orion. The horse-head feature is dark because it is really an opaque dust cloud that lies in front of the bright red emission nebula. Like clouds in Earth's atmosphere, this cosmic cloud has assumed a recognizable shape by chance. After many thousands of years, the internal motions of the cloud will alter its appearance. The emission nebula's red color is caused by electrons recombining with protons to form hydrogen atoms. Also visible in the picture are blue reflection nebulae that preferentially reflect the blue light from nearby stars.
What's that new star in the sky? The star might appear new, but it's actually just the variable star Mira near its brightest. Rolling your cursor over the above vertically compressed image will identify the unusual star Mira, a star that can change from practical invisibility to one of the brighter stars on the sky over the course of a year. Pictured above a castle in Stuttgart, Germany, last week, red giant star Mira appeared near its maximum brightness of magnitude 2. Although similar in mass to our Sun, Mira tenuous and cool atmosphere could extend out past the orbit of Mars, and achieve a luminosity over 10,000 times greater than our Sun. Mira is near the end of its life and its variability is somewhat erratic. Details of Mira's variability are still being researched, but the reason for Mira's pulsations are thought related to periodic changes in the thickness of parts of Mira's atmosphere. Recent high resolution images show that Mira is not even round. Mira lies 420 light years distant toward the constellation of the Monster Whale (Cetus). Mira will fade over the next 200 days, but climb back to naked-eye visibility early next year.
The famous Horsehead Nebula in Orion is not alone. A deep exposure shows that the dark familiar shaped indentation, visible just below center, is part of a vast complex of absorbing dust and glowing gas. To bring out details of the Horsehead's pasture, amateur astronomers at the Star Shadow Remote Observatory in New Mexico, USA fixed a small telescope on the region for over seven hours filtering out all but a very specific color of red light emitted by hydrogen. They then added the image to a full color frame taken over three hours. The resulting spectacular picture details an intricate tapestry of gaseous wisps and dust-laden filaments that were created and sculpted over eons by stellar winds and ancient supernovas. The Horsehead Nebula lies 1,500 light years distant towards the constellation of Orion. Two stars from the Orion's Belt can be found in the above image.
Was the brightest Galactic blast yet recorded a key to connecting two types of celestial explosions? Last December, a dense sheet of gamma rays only a few times wider than the Earth plowed through our Solar System, saturating satellites and noticeably reflecting off the Moon. A magnetar near our Galactic Center, the source of Soft Gamma Repeater (SGR) 1806-20, had unleashed its largest flare on record. The brightness and briefness of the tremendous explosion's initial peak made it look quite similar to another type of tremendous explosion if viewed from further away -- a short duration gamma-ray burst (GRB). Short duration GRBs are thought by many to be fundamentally different than their long duration GRB cousins that are likely related to distant supernovas. Illustrated above is a series of drawings depicting an outgoing explosion during the initial SGR spike. A fast moving wave of radiation is pictured shooting away from a central magnetar. The possible link between SGRs and GRBs should become better understood as more and similar events are detected by the Earth-orbiting Swift satellite.
While stirring a morning cup of coffee and thinking cosmic thoughts many astronomers would glance at this Hubble Space Telescope image of spiral galaxy NGC 4622 and assume that the galaxy was rotating counterclockwise in the picture. One hundred million light-years away in the constellation Centaurus, NGC 4622's gorgeous outer spiral arms, traced by bright bluish star clusters and dark dust lanes, should be winding up like ... well, like swirls in a cup of coffee. But a closer look at this galaxy reveals that a pronounced inner spiral arm winds in the opposite direction. So which way is this galaxy rotating? Evidence combining ground-based spectroscopy and the sharp Hubble image data surprisingly indicates that the galaxy is likely rotating clockwise in the picture, its outer spiral arms opening outward in the direction of rotation. There are further indications that a past collision with a smaller companion galaxy has contributed to NGC 4622's bizarre rotational arrangement of spiral arms, essentially unique among known large spiral galaxies.
Tantalizing images of gullies on Mars have offered striking evidence for recent flows of liquid water. But Mars is too cold and its atmosphere too thin for liquid water to exist on the surface. Still a new and compelling explanation for gullies carved by liquid water was inspired by this recently released image from the Mars Odyssey spacecraft. Pictured is a section of what is likely a snow covered crater in the Martian southern hemisphere. North is at the top and the scene, illuminated from the left, is about 16 kilometers wide. Patches of smooth snow pack remain along the northern crater wall, while structures resembling the famous Martian gullies appear to be emerging as the snow cover gradually disappears, and are exposed along the crater's western (left) wall. Melting snow, running underneath the snow pack and down the crater walls would be protected from the extreme surface conditions, remaining liquid and eroding the gullies over time. Could life exist in a liquid water environment beneath the Martian snow?
Comet Ikeya-Zhang is presently heading north in planet Earth's sky, framed by stars of the constellation Cetus. The comet was discovered as a faint, telescopic object near the western horizon on the evening of February 1st independently by Kaoru Ikeya of Shizuoka prefecture, Japan, Daqing Zhang in Henan province, China, and later by observer Paulo Raymundo of Salvador, Brazil. But Ikeya-Zhang is expected to brighten significantly and in March and April could become visible to the unaided eye. This picture, taken near Tucson, Arizona, USA on the evening of February 9th, covers a field a bit less than the width of the full moon showing the comet's condensed coma and narrow, developing tail. Ikeya-Zhang should pass closest to the Sun (perihelion) on March 18 at a point roughly midway between the orbits of Mercury and Venus. Based on preliminary calculations of this comet's orbit, Ikeya-Zhang is suspected of being a periodic comet, returning to the inner Solar System every 500 years or so. In fact, it is speculated that Ikeya-Zhang may be directly connected with a historic bright comet seen in 1532.
Many people have heard a sonic boom, but few have seen one. When an airplane travels at a speed faster than sound, density waves of sound emitted by the plane cannot precede the plane, and so accumulate in a cone behind the plane. When this shock wave passes, a listener hears all at once the sound emitted over a longer period: a sonic boom. As a plane accelerates to just break the sound barrier, however, an unusual cloud might form. The origin of this cloud is still debated. A leading theory is that a drop in air pressure at the plane described by the Prandtl-Glauert Singularity occurs so that moist air condenses there to form water droplets. Above, an F/A-18 Hornet was photographed just as it broke the sound barrier. Large meteors and the space shuttle frequently produce audible sonic booms before they are slowed below sound speed by the Earth's atmosphere.
Asteroid 433 Eros is posing several riddles. NASA's robot spacecraft NEAR began orbiting the 30-kilometer space rock last week, and new pictures are now being beamed back to Earth regularly. As usual in science, when you arrive at a place you've never been before, you see things you don't immediately understand. Scientists are contemplating, for example, the cause of the above-pictured giant gouge in the middle of Eros. Intriguing internal features include groves oriented parallel to the asteroid's length and the relative paucity of craters. These indicate that the gouge formed well after the asteroid itself. One question answered by the shape and density is that, unlike asteroid 253 Mathilde, Eros is not a pile of rocks but one big rock. Astronomers are hopeful that data taken over the coming year might indicate the nature and origin of the baffling bright patches.
In the center of 30 Doradus lies a huge cluster of the largest, hottest, most massive stars known. The center of this cluster, known as R136, is boxed in the upper right portion of the above picture. The gas and dust filling the rest of the picture is predominantly ionized hydrogen from the emission nebula 30 Doradus. R136 is composed of thousands of hot blue stars, some about 50 times more massive than our Sun. 30 Doradus and R136 lie in the LMC - a satellite galaxy to our own Milky Way Galaxy. Although the ages of stars in R136 cause it to be best described as an open cluster, R136's density will likely make it a low mass globular cluster in a few billion years.
This picture was taken by the Voyager 2 spacecraft in 1989 - the only spacecraft ever to visit Neptune. Neptune will be the farthest planet from the Sun until 1999, when the elliptical orbit of Pluto will cause it to once again resume this status. Neptune, like Uranus, is composed mostly of liquid water, methane and ammonia, is surrounded by a thick gas atmosphere of mostly hydrogen and helium, and has many moons and rings. Neptune's moon Triton is unlike any other and has active volcanoes. The nature of Triton's unusual orbit around Neptune is the focus of much discussion and speculation.
The Hubble Space Telescope's second servicing mission has been completed. Every few years, the telescope is visited by a Space Shuttle to allow astronauts to switch old instruments for new. This time, the Goddard High Resolution Spectrograph and Faint Object Spectrograph were replaced by the Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer and the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph. These new instruments will act like eyes sharing the 2.4-meter telescope mirror with the remaining instruments: the Wide Field Planetary Camera 2 and the Faint Object Camera. The Hubble Space Telescope can take clearer pictures than ground based telescopes because its images are not blurred by the Earth's atmosphere. Pictured in the final phases of a space walk from the second servicing mission, astronauts Mark Lee (right) and Steven Smith work on HST while perched on the Shuttle's remote manipulator arm.
Pictured above is the largest ball of stars in our Galaxy. About 10 million stars orbit the center of this globular cluster - named Omega Centauri - as this giant globular cluster orbits the center of our Galaxy. Recent evidence indicates that Omega Centauri is by far the most massive of the about 160 globular clusters in the Milky Way. The stars in globular clusters are generally older, redder and less massive than our Sun. Studying globular clusters tells us about the history of our Galaxy and the age of the universe.