APOD Retrospective: May 4

A nostalgic look back at Astronomy Picture of the Day

APOD Retrospective: May 4

Postby bystander » Fri May 04, 2012 3:42 am

Last week, as the Sun set a Full Moon rose over the springtime landscape of Tihany, Hungary on the northern shores of Lake Balaton. As it climbed into the clear sky, the Moon just grazed the dark, umbral shadow of planet Earth in the year's first partial lunar eclipse. The partial phase, seen near the top of this frame where the lunar disk is darkened along the upper limb, lasted for less than 27 minutes. Composited from consecutive exposures, the picture presents the scene's range of natural colors and subtle shading apparent to the eye. At next week's New Moon, the season's celestial shadow play will continue with an annular solar eclipse, the path of annularity tracking through northern Australia and the central Pacific.

Exploring the cosmos at extreme energies, the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope orbits planet Earth every 95 minutes. By design, it rocks to the north and then to the south on alternate orbits in order to survey the sky with its Large Area Telescope (LAT). The spacecraft also rolls so that solar panels are kept pointed at the Sun for power, and the axis of its orbit precesses like a top, making a complete rotation once every 54 days. As a result of these multiple cycles the paths of gamma-ray sources trace out complex patterns from the spacecraft's perspective, like this mesmerising plot of the path of the Vela Pulsar. Centered on the LAT instrument's field of view, the plot spans 180 degrees and follows Vela's position from August 2008 through August 2010. The concentration near the center shows that Vela was in the sensitive region of the LAT field during much of that period. Born in the death explosion of a massive star within our Milky Way galaxy, the Vela Pulsar is a neutron star spinning 11 times a second, seen as the brightest persistent source in the gamma-ray sky.

Credit & Copyright: Chris Kotsiopoulos (GreekSky); Music: Undisclosed Desires (Muse), WMG

If you watch the horizon at just the right place and at just the right time, you can witness some spectacular juxtapositions between Earth and sky. In the above video, stars, the Moon, and even a partially eclipsed Sun were recorded rising and setting over photogenic landmarks in Greece. The inspiring video features effects on star trails that are pretty but somewhat deceiving, as stars will typically remain at nearly the same brightness as the Earth turns beneath them. Also, the time lapse nature of part of the video causes clouds to appear to jump about and fade in an unfamiliar fashion. Several stills of these scenes have appeared on APOD previously, including the partial solar eclipse over the Temple of Poseidon, cloud and star trails over a deserted church, and star trails over an old ship. Other foreground venues include an old church in Peloponnese, a stone bridge in Ioannina, a Frankish Castle in Euboea, and a picturesque sunset above Lycabettus Hill, Athens.

If you tried to enter this hall of fog, you would find it dissipates around you. The hall is actually an optical illusion created by sunlight backscattering off of a cloud passing below the peak of the mountain from which this picture was taken. Known as a fogbow and similar in some ways to "the glory", the phenomenon is sometimes seen from airplanes. The ring's center appears near the image bottom where the shadow of the photographer is visible. This shadow would likely change as clouds passed, creating a faux moving giant known as the Brocken Spectre. In the picture, several concentric rings of the fogbow appear to create a hall for this mountain king. The cause of fogbow supernumeraries arcs and glories have only been understood recently and are relatively complex. Briefly, small droplets of water reflect, refract, and diffract sunlight backwards towards the Sun. Atmospheric backscattering phenomena have a counterpart in astronomy, where looking out from planet Earth in the direction opposite the Sun yields a bright spot called the gegenschein.

Why do portions of this huge crater on Mercury have so much iron? The unusual Rembrandt impact basin was discovered recently in images taken during the robotic MESSENGER spacecraft's 2008 October flyby of the Solar System's innermost planet. The unusual Rembrandt spans over 700 kilometers and at 4 billion years old is possibly the youngest large impact basin on the planet. Multicolored images of the crater floor, however, indicate reflections from areas containing unusually high amounts of iron and titanium. These elements indicate that some exposed materials have not been covered by more recent lava floes, and so might originate from an epoch of Mercury's formation. Data from Rembrandt and across Mercury are now being interpreted as indicating a relatively active and volcanic past for Mercury that includes surface tectonics. Close inspection of the above image will reveal rings of Mercury's Rembrandt impact basin circling around the image center. Mercury's limb is visible on the upper left, high cliffs and small craters are visible inside Rembrandt, and the terminator between night and day runs diagonally through the image. MESSENGER is on track to fly past Mercury again this September and enter orbit around Mercury in 2011.

The Sun, the Moon, Antarctica, and two photographers all lined up in 2003 Antarctica during an unusual total eclipse of the Sun. Even given the extreme location, a group of enthusiastic eclipse chasers ventured near the bottom of the world to experience the surreal momentary disappearance of the Sun behind the Moon. One of the treasures collected was the above picture -- a composite of four separate images digitally combined to realistically simulate how the adaptive human eye saw the eclipse. As the image was taken, both the Moon and the Sun peaked together over an Antarctic ridge. In the sudden darkness, the magnificent corona of the Sun became visible around the Moon. Quite by accident, another photographer was caught in one of the images checking his video camera. Visible to his left are an equipment bag and a collapsible chair.

Outstanding in planet Earth's sky early this year, Comet McNaught is captured in this view from the STEREO A spacecraft. McNaught's coma is so bright, it blooms into the long horizontal stripe at the bottom of the field. Brilliant Venus, near the top left corner, also produces a severe horizontal blemish in the digital image. But the sensitive camera does accurately record the striations in McNaught's famous dust tail along a region stretching over 30 million kilometers toward the top right of the field of view. A separate, fainter, arching tail just to the left of the dust tail was initially thought to be an example of a common ion tail, formed by electrically charged atoms carried away from the comet by the solar wind. However, detailed modeling indicates that tail is actually due to neutral iron atoms pushed out by the pressure of sunlight -- the first ever detected neutral iron tail from a comet. The iron atoms are thought to originate in dust grains from the comet nucleus that contain the iron-sulfur mineral troilite (FeS).

Periodic comet 73P/Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 has fallen apart before. A cosmic souffle of ice and dust left over from the early solar system, this comet was seen to split into several large pieces during the close-in part of its orbit in 1995. However, this time the comet seems to be rapidly disintegrating with over three dozen fragments, named alphabetically, now stretching several degrees across the sky. Since comets are relatively fragile, stresses from heat and gravity and outgassing, for example, could be responsible for their tendency to breakup in such a spectacular fashion. On April 18th, the Hubble Space Telescope recorded this sharp view of prolific Fragment B, itself trailing dozens of smaller pieces, each with its own cometary coma and tail. The picture spans over 3,000 kilometers at the comet's April 18 distance of 32 million kilometers from planet Earth. With its brightest fragment presently too faint to be seen with the naked eye, comet Schwassmann-Wachmann 3 will pass closest to Earth on May 13 at a distance of about 11 million kilometers.

If this is Saturn, where are the rings? When Saturn's "appendages" disappeared in 1612, Galileo did not understand why. Later that century, it became understood that Saturn's unusual protrusions were rings and that when the Earth crosses the ring plane, the edge-on rings will appear to disappear. This is because Saturn's rings are confined to a plane many times thinner, in proportion, than a razor blade. In modern times, the robot Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn now also crosses Saturn's ring plane. A series of plane crossing images from late February was dug out of the vast online Cassini raw image archive by interested Spanish amateur Fernando Garcia Navarro. Pictured above, digitally cropped and set in representative colors, is the striking result. Saturn's thin ring plane appears in blue, bands and clouds in Saturn's upper atmosphere appear in gold, and dark shadows of the rings curve across the top of the gas giant planet. Moons appear as bumps in the rings.

Scroll right to see the rocks, craters, and hills that were in view for the Spirit rover last week as it continued its trek across Mars. Missoula crater, taking up much of the above frame, appeared from orbit to have ejecta from Bonneville crater inside it. Upon closer inspection, however, Spirit finds only evidence for wind-blown drifts. The rocks show numerous blisters and small cavities that may have occurred as ancient water vapor evaporated from hot cooling lava. Columbia Hills in the distance is now planned as the ultimate destination for the Spirit rover. Both of the Mars rovers have now successfully completed their original mission and are now exploring topical opportunities.

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.

While orbiting the planet during their June 1998 mission, the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery photographed this view of two moons of Earth. Thick storm clouds are visible in the lovely blue planet's nurturing atmosphere and, what was then Earth's largest artificial moon, the spindly Russian Mir Space Station can be seen above the planet's limb. The bright spot to the right of Mir is Earth's very large natural satellite, The Moon. The Mir orbited planet Earth once every 90 minutes about 200 miles above the planet's surface or about 4,000 miles from Earth's center. The Moon orbits once every 28 days at a distance of about 250,000 miles from the center of the Earth.

The Orion Nebula is a nuturing stellar nursery filled with hot young stars and their natal clouds of gas and dust. But for planetary systems, the active star-forming region can present a hazardous and inhospitable birthplace. While the formation of dusty protoplanetary disks seems common in Orion, these Hubble Space Telescope close-up images dramatically reveal the torturous conditions they must face while trying to grow into full-fledged planetary systems. In each case, a central young star is surrounded by a disk substantially wider than our solar system. The disks likely contain material in the process of planet formation. However, withering ultraviolet radiation from one of Orion's nearby hot stars is rapidly destroying the disks -- ultimately creating the comet-shaped clouds of glowing gas seen engulfing the protoplanetary systems. Planet formation must occur quickly here, if at all. Researchers estimate that about 90 percent of Orion's youngest protoplanetary disks will not survive the next 100,000 years.

Clouds scatter the faint orange rays of the setting sun in the foreground of this breathtaking photograph from the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Taken on April 7th, this skyscape features a dramatic lunar and planetary alignment. An overexposed crescent moon dominates the celestial scene, but the bright "star" just below and to its right is Saturn while further below Saturn is a close pairing of brilliant Jupiter and a fainter, yellowish Mars. Red giant star Aldebaran is almost directly above the moon near the top of the image and the bright blue stars of the Pleiades cluster are visible about midway up and to the right of the moon-Aldebaran line. The good news is that planetary alignments like this one do not portend disasters, are relatively common, and can clearly make inspirational viewing for casual stargazers and astronomers alike. The bad news is that the world is not going to end because of the highly publicized planetary alignment occurring tomorrow, May 5th -- so you probably will have to go to work!

Mapping Mars from orbit, instruments on the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft have recently revealed banded magnetic field patterns - a startling and unanticipated suggestion that the Red Planet was more Earth-like in its distant past. The red and blue regions within the MGS orbital tracks across this portion of southern Mars indicate adjacent areas of crust where magnetic fields point in opposite directions. The bands seem to run east-west and are about 100 miles wide and 600 miles long. Such patterns are known to be produced on Earth by plate tectonics. As the crustal plates spread apart along the mid-ocean ridges, they carry a progressive banded record of Earth's changing magnetic field. The similar patterns on Mars are seen as evidence that it too once had moving crustal plates and a changing magnetic field, although both processes - still active on the larger planet Earth - are thought to have long since died away. These high resolution measurements of martian magnetism were made possible by the revised, close aerobraking orbits of the MGS spacecraft and not originally planned.

It looked like a ring on the sky. Hundreds of years ago astronomers noticed a nebula with a most unusual shape. Now known as M57 or NGC 6720, the gas cloud became popularly known as the Ring Nebula. It is now know to be a planetary nebula, a gas cloud emitted at the end of a Sun-like star's existence. As one of the brightest planetary nebula on the sky, the Ring Nebula can be seen with a small telescope in the constellation of Lyra. The Ring Nebula lies about 4000 light years away, and is roughly 500 times the diameter of our Solar System. In this recent picture by the Hubble Space Telescope, dust filaments and globules are visible far from the central star. This helps indicate that the Ring Nebula is not spherical, but cylindrical. Perhaps the Ring Nebula would appear differently if viewed sideways.

In 1865 Jules Verne predicted the invention of a space capsule that could carry people. In his science fiction story "From the Earth to the Moon", he outlined his vision of a cannon in Florida so powerful that it could shoot a "Projectile-Vehicle" carrying three adventurers to the Moon. Over 100 years later, NASA, guided by Wernher Von Braun's vision, produced the Saturn V rocket. From a spaceport in Florida, this rocket turned Verne's fiction into fact, launching 9 Apollo Lunar missions and allowing 12 astronauts to walk on the Moon. Pictured is the last moon shot, Apollo 17, awaiting a night launch in December of 1972. Spotlights play on the rocket and launch pad while the full Moon looms in the background. Humans have not walked on the lunar surface since. Should we return to the Moon?

In December of 1990, the Space Shuttle Columbia carried an array of astronomical telescopes high above the Earth's obscuring atmosphere to observe the Universe at ultraviolet and x-ray wavelengths. The telescopes, known by the acronyms UIT, HUT, WUPPE, and BBXRT, are seen here in Columbia's payload bay against a spectacular view of the constellation Orion. The ultraviolet telescopes were mounted on a common structure - HUT is visible in this view along with a star tracker (the silver cone at the left). The mission studied solar system, galactic, and extra-galactic sources.

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