In only about 12,000 years Vega
will be the North Star, the closest bright star to our fair planet's North Celestial Pole
. By then, when you fix your camera to a tripod long exposures of the night sky will show the concentric arcs of star trails centered on a point near Vega as Earth rotates on its axis
. Of course, presently the bright star conveniently near the North Celestial Pole is Polaris
, but that will change as the Earth's axis of rotation precesses
, like the wobble of a spinning top with a precession period of about 26,000 years
. If your camera is ready now and you don't want to wait 12,000 years for Vega to be the North Star, consider this ingenious demonstration
of contemporary star trails (left) versus star trails reminiscent of the year
14000 CE. Both were recorded this April at the Alqueva Dark Sky Reserve in Alentejo, Portugal. To produce the more Vega-centric star trails of the distant future, astronomer Miguel Claro combined the rotation of two startracking camera mounts to create the apparent shift in planet Earth's North Celestial Pole. (Addendum: Thanks to APOD readers who note that when Vega is the North Star it will also appear near the same position that Polaris is now relative to the landscape.
Sharp telescopic views of NGC 3628 show a puffy galactic disk divided by dark dust lanes. Of course, this deep portrait of the magnificent, edge-on spiral galaxy puts some astronomers in mind of its popular moniker, the Hamburger Galaxy. It also reveals a small galaxy nearby, likely a satellite of NGC 3628, and a faint but extensive tidal tail. The tantalizing island universe itself is about 100,000 light-years across and 35 million light-years away in the northern springtime constellation Leo. Its drawn out tail stretches for about 300,000 light-years, even beyond the left edge of the wide frame. NGC 3628 shares its neighborhood in the local Universe with two other large spirals M65 and M66 in a grouping otherwise known as the Leo Triplet. Gravitational interactions with its cosmic neighbors are likely responsible for creating the tidal tail, as well as the extended flare and warp of this spiral's disk.
A tremendous explosion has occurred in the nearby universe and major telescopes across Earth and space are investigating. Dubbed GRB 130427A, the gamma-ray burst was first detected by the Earth-orbiting Fermi and Swift satellites observing at high energies and quickly reported down to Earth. Within three minutes, the half-meter ISON telescope in New Mexico found the blast in visible light, noted its extreme brightness, and relayed more exact coordinates. Within the next few minutes, the bright optical counterpart was being tracked by several quickly re-pointable telescopes including the 2.0-meter P60 telescope in California, the 1.3-meter PAIRITEL telescope in Arizona, and the 2.0-meter Faulkes Telescope North in Hawaii. Within two hours, the 8.2-meter Gemini North telescope in Hawaii noted a redshift of 0.34, placing the explosion about 5 billion light years away -- considered nearby in cosmological terms. Previously recorded images from the RAPTOR full-sky monitors were scanned and a very bright optical counterpart -- magnitude 7.4 -- was found 50 seconds before the Swift trigger. The brightest burst in recent years, a signal from GRB 130427A has also been found in low energy radio waves by the Very Large Array (VLA) and at the highest energies ever recorded by the Fermi satellite. Neutrino, gravitational wave, and telescopes designed to detect only extremely high energy photons are checking their data for a GRB 130427A signal. Pictured in the above animation, the entire gamma-ray sky is shown becoming momentarily dominated by the intense glow of GRB 130427A. Continued tracking the optical counterpart will surely be ongoing as there is a possibility that the glow of a classic supernova will soon emerge.
Video Credit & Copyright: Daniel López (El Cielo de Canarias); Music: La Busqueda de Ianna (Epic Soul Factory)
What's moving? Time lapse videos of the sky can be quite spectacular when they last long enough for stars, planets, aurora, and clouds to appear to move in just a few seconds. Pictured above, however, astrovideographer Daniel López not only treats us to several inspiring time lapse videos of the night sky, but shows us how he used sliders and motorized cranes to move the imaging cameras themselves, creating a thrilling three-dimensional sense of depth. The video sequences were taken from Tenerife on the Canary Islands of Spain over the past two months, and show scenes including sunset shadows approaching Observatorio del Teide, the Milky Way shifting as the sky rotates, bright planets Venus and trailing Jupiter setting, a reddened Moon rising through differing layers of atmospheric refraction, the MAGIC gamma-ray telescopes slewing to observe a new source, and unusual foreground objects including conic Echium wildpretii plants, unusual rock formations, and a spider moving about its web. The video concludes by showing the Belt of Venus descending on Mt. Teide as the morning sun rises.
What if you saw your shadow on Mars and it wasn't human? Then you might be the Opportunity rover currently exploring Mars. Opportunity and sister robot Spirit have been probing the red planet since early 2004, finding evidence of ancient water, and sending breathtaking images across the inner Solar System. Pictured above, Opportunity looks opposite the Sun into Endurance Crater and sees its own shadow. Two wheels are visible on the lower left and right, while the floor and walls of the unusual crater are visible in the background. Although the Spirit rover is now stuck, Opportunity is continuing on its long trek to expansive Endeavor crater.
Atlantis has lifted off, but not from launch pad 39A. Instead, this sharp, wide-angle photo taken on April 13, shows the space shuttle orbiter lifted off the floor of Kennedy Space Center's Vehicle Assembly Building. Shortly afterwards, Atlantis was attached to an external fuel tank and solid rocket boosters prior to roll out. Now resting on pad 39A, Atlantis is scheduled for its actual liftoff on May 14. Embarking on the STS-132 mission to the International Space Station , that launch will represent the final scheduled launch for Atlantis. Atlantis was named for a sailing ship operated for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute from 1930 to 1966. The maiden voyage of the Atlantis, Orbiter Vehicle-104, began on October 3, 1985. In 1991, Atlantis deployed the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.
This colorful telescopic skyscape is filled with galaxies that lie nearly 250 million light-years away, the galaxies of the Perseus cluster. Their extended and sometimes surprising shapes are seen beyond a veil of foreground stars in our own Milky Way. Ultimately consisting of over a thousand galaxies, the cluster is filled with yellowish elliptical and lenticular galaxies, like those scattered throughout this view of the cluster's central region. Notably, the large galaxy at the left is the massive and bizarre-looking NGC 1275. A prodigious source of high-energy emission, active galaxy NGC 1275 dominates the Perseus cluster, accreting matter as entire galaxies fall into it and feed the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's core. Of course, spiral galaxies also inhabit the Perseus cluster, including the small, face-on spiral NGC 1268, right of picture center. The bluish spot on the outskirts of NGC 1268 is supernova SN 2008fg. At the estimated distance of the Perseus galaxy cluster, this field spans about 1.5 million light-years.
In silhouette against a crowded star field toward the constellation Scorpius, this dusty cosmic cloud evokes for some the image of an ominous dark tower. In fact, clumps of dust and molecular gas collapsing to form stars may well lurk within the dark nebula, a structure that spans almost 40 light-years across the gorgeous telescopic view. Known as a cometary globule, the swept-back cloud, extending from the upper right to the head (top of the tower) left and below center, is shaped by intense ultraviolet radiation from the OB association of very hot stars in NGC 6231, off the left edge of the scene. That energetic ultraviolet light also powers the globule's bordering reddish glow of hydrogen gas. Hot stars embedded in the dust can be seen as small bluish reflection nebulae. This dark tower, NGC 6231, and associated nebulae are about 5,000 light-years away.
This eerie glow over Death Valley is in danger. Scrolling right will show a spectacular view from one of the darkest places left in the continental USA: Death Valley, California. The above 360-degree full-sky panorama is a composite of 30 images taken two years ago in Racetrack Playa. The image has been digitally processed and increasingly stretched at high altitudes to make it rectangular. In the foreground on the image right is an unusually placed rock that was pushed by high winds onto Racetrack Playa after a slick rain. In the background is a majestic night sky, featuring thousands of stars and many constellations. The arch across the middle is the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy. Light pollution is threatening dark skies like this all across the US, and therefore the International Dark-Sky Association and the US National Parks Service are suggesting methods that can protect them.
You're the first spacecraft ever to descend to Titan -- what do you see? Immediately after the Huygen's probe pierced the cloud deck of Saturn's moon Titan last January, it took a unique series of pictures of one of the Solar System's most mysterious moon's. Those pictures have recently been digitally stitched together to create spectacular panoramas and a dramatic descent movie. Pictured above is a panoramic fisheye view Huygen's obtained from about five kilometers above Titan's surface. The digital projection makes the local surface, mostly flat, appear as a ball, but allows one to see in all directions. Huygen's eventual landing site was in the large dark area below, just right of the center. This relatively featureless, dark, sandy basin appears to be surrounded by light colored hills to the right and a landscape fractured by streambeds and canyons above. Recent evidence indicates that Titan's lakebeds and streambeds are usually dry but sometimes filled with a flashflood of liquid methane from rare torrents of methane rain.
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 of Galaxies. 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 cosmic microwave background radiation (CMBR). 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?
Rising before dawn on May 5th, Stephen Thorley looked out across the skyline of Sydney, Australia. And while a leisurely lunar eclipse was clearly in progress, from his vantage point on planet Earth the Moon set as the total phase of the eclipse began. Still, before the setting Moon was hidden by the cityscape he captured this striking image of a nearly eclipsed lunar disk sliding past the beacon and lights of Centerpoint Tower, one of Sydney's familiar landmarks. So what's that star just visible above and to the right of the reddened Moon? That's Zubenelgenubi, of course.
Can you spot the planet? The diminutive disk of Mercury, the solar system's innermost planet, spent about five hours crossing in front of the enormous solar disk yesterday (Wednesday, May 7th), as viewed from the general vicinity of planet Earth. The Sun was above the horizon during the entire transit for observers in Europe, Africa, Asia, or Australia, and the horizon was certainly no problem for the sun-staring SOHO spacecraft. Seen as a dark spot, Mercury progresses from left to right (top panel to bottom) in these four images from SOHO's extreme ultraviolet camera. The panels' false-colors correspond to different wavelengths in the extreme ultraviolet which highlight regions above the Sun's visible surface. This is the first of 14 transits of Mercury which will occur during the 21st century, but the next similar event will be a transit of Venus in June of 2004. Need help spotting Mercury? Just click on the picture.
It was a quiet day on the Sun. The above image shows, however, that even during off days the Sun's surface is a busy place. Shown in ultraviolet light, the relatively cool dark regions have temperatures of thousands of degrees Celsius. Large sunspot group AR 9169 is visible as the bright area near the horizon. The bright glowing gas flowing around the sunspots has a temperature of over one million degrees Celsius. The reason for the high temperatures is unknown but thought to be related to the rapidly changing magnetic field loops that channel solar plasma. Sunspot group AR 9169 moved across the Sun during 2000 September and decayed in a few weeks.
In the center of a swirling whirlpool of hot gas is likely a beast that has never been seen directly: a black hole. Studies of the bright light emitted by the swirling gas frequently indicate not only that a black hole is present, but also likely attributes. The gas surrounding GRO J1655-40, for example, has recently been found to display an unusual flickering at a rate of 450 times a second. Given a previous mass estimate for the central object of seven times the mass of our Sun, the rate of the fast flickering can be explained by a black hole that is rotating very rapidly. What physical mechanisms actually cause the flickering -- and a slower quasi-periodic oscillation (QPO) -- in accretion disks surrounding black holes and neutron stars remains a topic of much research.
The robot spacecraft Galileo in orbit around Jupiter has recently photographed the inner moons of Jupiter in greater detail than ever before. These pictures of Thebe, Amalthea, and Metis are shown to scale, and reveal details as small as three kilometers across. Amalthea, by contrast, has a total length of about 200 kilometers. The moons are composed mostly of ice, are much smaller than Jupiter's more famous Galilean satellites (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto), and orbit between Io and Jupiter's rings. Thebe appears dominated by a huge impact crater 40 kilometers across. Astronomers are uncertain of the origin of the unusual white gash at the bottom of Amalthea.
On September 18, 1997, many stargazers in the U. S. were able to watch a lovely early morning lunar occultation as a bright Moon passed in front of Saturn. Using a 1.2 meter reflector, astronomer Kris Stanek had an excellent view of this dream-like event from the Whipple Observatory atop Arizona's Mount Hopkins. This animated gif image was constructed by Wes Colley from 4 frames taken by Stanek at 35 second intervals as the ringed planet emerged from behind the Moon's dark limb. While lunar occultations of fairly bright stars and planets are not extremely rare events, their exact timing depends critically on the observer's location.
Did a gamma-ray burst precede this supernova? This intriguing suggestion came to light yesterday with the discovery of an evolving supernova that is potentially coincident with the position of gamma-ray burst GRB 980425, which occurred just two weeks ago. If true, this would tie together the two most violent phenomena known in the universe. The supernova, indicated by the arrow, appears to be somewhat unusual, for one reason because of its extremely bright radio emission. The host galaxy has a redshift of 0.0085, placing it at the relatively close distance of about 125 million light years away. Today it remains undetermined whether the two events are related - perhaps the evolution of the supernova over the next few weeks will provide some clues.
This enhanced composite image detailing structure in the coma and dust tail of Hale-Bopp was recorded May 5 - one day before the comet's passage from north to south across the plane of Earth's orbit. As the comet descends into murky twilight for northern hemisphere observers it will become increasingly easy to view from the south. Along with Southern Hemisphere observers, astronomers and a fleet of spacecraft of the International Solar-Terrestrial Physics program have been anxiously awaiting this north/south crossing. The comet's interaction with the changing equatorial solar wind and magnetic field during this crossing is expected to produce distortions and disconnections of Hale-Bopp's ion tail. Whisker-like structures, probably part of the ion tail, are visible above extending from the lower left of the bright coma.
When NASA's Voyager 2 spacecraft flew by distant Neptune in August of 1989, astronomers were shocked. Since Neptune receives only 3 percent the sunlight Jupiter does, they expected to find a dormant, dark, frigid planet. Instead, the Voyager images revealed evidence of a dynamic and turbulent world. One of the most spectacular discoveries was of the Great Dark Spot, shown here in close-up. Surprisingly, it was comparable in size and at the same relative southern latitude as Jupiter's Great Red Spot, appearing to be a similar rotating storm system. Winds near the spot were measured up to 1500 miles per hour, the strongest recorded on any planet. The Voyager data also revealed that the Great Dark Spot varied significantly in size during the brief flyby. When the Hubble Space Telescope viewed the planet in 1994, the spot had vanished -- only to be replaced by another dark spot in the planet's northern hemisphere!