Well over a thousand galaxies are known members of the Virgo Cluster
, the closest large cluster of galaxies to our own local group
. In fact, the galaxy cluster is difficult to appreciate
all at once because it covers such a large area on the sky. This careful wide-field mosaic of telescopic images
clearly records the central region of the Virgo Cluster through faint foreground dust
clouds lingering above the plane of our own Milky Way galaxy. The cluster's dominant giant elliptical galaxy M87
, is just below and to the left of the frame center. To the right of M87
is a string of galaxies known as Markarian's Chain
. A closer examination of the image will reveal many Virgo cluster member galaxies
as small fuzzy patches. Sliding your cursor
over the image will label the larger galaxies using NGC catalog
designations. Galaxies are also shown with Messier catalog
numbers, including M84, M86
, and prominent colorful spirals M88
, and M91
. On average, Virgo Cluster galaxies are measured to be about 48 million light-years away. The Virgo Cluster distance
has been used to give an important determination of the Hubble Constant and the scale of the Universe
Why does Enceladus have ice plumes? The discovery of jets spewing water vapor and ice was detected by the Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft in 2005. The origin of the water feeding the jets, however, remained a topic of research. A leading hypothesis held that the source might originate from a deep underground sea, but another hypothesis indicated that it might just be ice melted off walls of deep rifts by the moon's tidal flexing and heating. Pictured above, the textured surface of Enceladus is visible in the foreground, while rows of plumes rise from ice fractures in the distance. These jets are made more visible by the Sun angle and the encroaching shadow of night. Recent study of over a hundred images like this -- of geysers crossing Enceladus' South Pole, together with regional heat maps, indicate that these plumes likely originate from a hidden sea, incresaing the chance that this frosty globe might be harboring life.
Like the downtown area of your favorite city and any self-respecting web site ... Io's surface is constantly under construction. This moon of Jupiter holds the distinction of being the Solar System's most volcanically active body -- its bizarre looking surface continuously formed and reformed by lava flows. Generated using 1996 data from NASA's Galileo spacecraft, this high resolution composite image is centered on the side of Io that always faces away from Jupiter. It has been enhanced to emphasize Io's surface brightness and color variations, revealing features as small as 1.5 miles across. The notable absence of impact craters suggests that the entire surface is covered with new volcanic deposits much more rapidly than craters are created. What drives this volcanic powerhouse? A likely energy source is the changing gravitational tides caused by Jupiter and the other Galilean moons as Io orbits the massive gas giant planet. Heating Io's interior, the pumping tides would generate the sulfurous volcanic activity.
Blown by the wind from a massive star, this interstellar apparition has a surprisingly familiar shape. Cataloged as NGC 7635, it is also known simply as The Bubble Nebula. Although it looks delicate, the 10 light-year diameter bubble offers evidence of violent processes at work. Above and right of the Bubble's center is a hot, O star, several hundred thousand times more luminous and around 45 times more massive than the Sun. A fierce stellar wind and intense radiation from that star has blasted out the structure of glowing gas against denser material in a surrounding molecular cloud. The intriguing Bubble Nebula lies a mere 11,000 light-years away toward the boastful constellation Cassiopeia. This view of the cosmic bubble is composed of narrowband and broadband image data, capturing details in the emission region while recording a natural looking field of stars.
These clouds of interstellar dust and gas have blossomed 1,300 light-years away in the fertile star fields of the constellation Cepheus. Sometimes called the Iris Nebula and dutifully cataloged as NGC 7023, this is not the only nebula in the sky to evoke the imagery of flowers. Surrounding it, obscuring clouds of dust and cold molecular gas are also present and can suggest other convoluted and fantastic shapes. Within the Iris, the dusty nebular material surrounds a hot, young star. The dominant color of the brighter reflection nebula is blue, characteristic of dust grains reflecting starlight. Central filaments of the cosmic dust glow with a faint reddish photoluminesence as some dust grains effectively convert the star's invisible ultraviolet radiation to visible red light. Infrared observations indicate that this nebula may contain complex carbon molecules known as PAHs. At the estimated distance of the Iris Nebula this remarkable wide field view is over 30 light-years across.
Sometimes, during a total eclipse of the Sun, a strange shadow of darkness can be seen stretching off into the distance. Called shadow cones, they are visible because the Earth's atmosphere is not completely transparent, scattering sunlight and hence appearing blue during the day. Shadow cones are particularly dramatic for eclipses near the horizon, as geometry creates a long corridor of sun-blocked air. Visible above is a shadow cone caught during a sunset total solar eclipse visible last month from Patagonia, Argentina. The eclipsed Sun itself still appears bright around the edges of the Moon because of light from the surrounding corona. A few minutes later, the Moon began to move away from the Sun as both set behind distant Andes mountains.
How can the same Sun rise three times? Last month on Friday, 2009 July 10, a spectacular triple sunrise was photographed at about 4:30 am over Gdansk Bay in Gdansk, Poland. Clearly, our Sun rises only once. Some optical effect is creating at least two mirages of the Sun -- but which effect? In the vast majority of similarly reported cases, mirages of the brightest object in the frame can be traced to reflections internal to the camera taking the images. Still, the above image is intriguing because a sincere photographer claims the effect was visible to the unaided eye, and because the photographer took several other frames that show variants of the same effect. Therefore, polite readers are invited to debate whether the above image captures a particularly spectacular example of common reflections inside a standard digital camera, shows one of the most spectacular examples of atmospheric lensing yet recorded, or was caused by something completely different. If the discussion converges, the consensus will be posted here at a later date.
Haunting patterns within planetary nebula NGC 6543 readily suggest its popular moniker -- the Cat's Eye nebula. Starting in 1995, stunning false-color optical images from the Hubble Space Telescope detailed the swirls of this glowing nebula, known to be the gaseous shroud expelled from a dying sun-like star about 3,000 light-years from Earth. This composite picture combines the latest Hubble optical image of the Cat's Eye with new x-ray data from the orbiting Chandra Observatory and reveals surprisingly intense x-ray emission indicating the presence of extremely hot gas. X-ray emission is shown as blue-purple hues superimposed on the nebula's center. The nebula's central star itself is clearly immersed in the multimillion degree, x-ray emitting gas. Other pockets of x-ray hot gas seem to be bordered by cooler gas emitting strongly at optical wavelengths, a clear indication that expanding hot gas is sculpting the visible Cat's Eye filaments and structures. Gazing into the Cat's Eye, astronomers see the fate of our sun, destined to enter its own planetary nebula phase of evolution ... in about 5 billion years.
These three bright nebulae are often featured in telescopic tours of the constellation Sagittarius and the crowded starfields of the central Milky Way. In fact, 18th century cosmic tourist Charles Messier cataloged two of them; M8, the nebula below and right of center, and colorful M20 at the upper right. The third, NGC 6559, is left of M8, separated from the the larger nebula by a dark dust lane. All three are stellar nurseries about five thousand light-years or so distant. The expansive M8, over a hundred light-years across, is also known as the Lagoon Nebula while M20's popular moniker is the Trifid. This stunning digital view is actually a collaborative composite recorded by 2 cameras and 2 telescopes about 2 thousand miles apart. The deep, wide image field was captured under dark Arizona skies. Both M8 and M20 were recorded in more detail from an observatory in Pennsylvania. Glowing hydrogen gas creates the dominant red color of the emission nebulae, with contrasting blue hues, most striking in the Trifid, due to dust reflected starlight.
Get out your red/blue glasses and gaze across Burns Cliff along the inner wall of Endurance crater on Mars! The view from the perspective of Mars rover Opportunity is a color anaglyph - two different images are presented to the left and right eyes by color filters to produce the 3D effect. Scroll the picture to the right to see the full 180 degree panorama. Still returning science data and images, both Spirit and Opportunity rovers completed 2 years of Mars exploration in January. Opportunity spent the month of July on the road to Victoria crater. The stereo pair of images used to create this view are based on image data recorded in November 2004.
Galactic or open star clusters are relatively young swarms of bright stars born together near the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy. Separated by about a degree on the sky, two nice examples are M46 (upper left) 5,400 light-years in the distance and M47 (lower right) only 1,600 light-years away toward the nautical constellation Puppis. Around 300 million years young M46 contains a few hundred stars in a region about 30 light-years across. Aged 80 million years, M47 is a smaller but looser cluster of about 50 stars spanning 10 light-years. But this portrait of stellar youth also contains an ancient interloper. The small, colorful patch of glowing gas in M46 is actually the planetary nebula NGC 2438 - the final phase in the life of a sun-like star billions of years old. NGC 2438 is estimated to be only 3,000 light-years distant and likely represents a foreground object, only by chance appearing along our line of sight to youthful M46.
Have you ever seen a bright halo around the Sun? Unusual halos and arcs were so bright one recent afternoon in Trier, Germany that even casual people on the street noticed them. The fantastic sky display is pictured above and included a 22 degree halo arc, a complete parhelic circle, a circumhorizon arc and even an infralateral arc. A computer simulation has been run that mimics the above rare display. A cloud partially blocked the usually more intense direct glare of the Sun. Sunlight refracting through falling and fluttering hexagonal ice crystals creates such displays. Such atmospheric ice crystals also cause sundogs and Moon halos.
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.
NGC 2997 is a grand design spiral galaxy. Its small nucleus and sprawling spiral arms give it a type Sc designation. NGC 2997, pictured above, is speeding away from us at about 1100 kilometers per second, which would place it at about 55 million light years distant, given current estimates of the expansion rate of our universe. NGC 2997 is thought to have a mass of about 100 billion times that of our Sun, but is probably less massive than our own Milky Way galaxy. NGC 2997 is not seen face-on - it is thought tilted by about 45 degrees. NGC 2997 is particularly notable for a nucleus surrounded by a chain of hot giant clouds of ionized hydrogen.
The brightest galaxy visible from our own Milky Way Galaxy is the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). Visible predominantly from Earth's Southern Hemisphere, the LMC is the second closest galaxy, neighbor to the Small Magellanic Cloud, and one of eleven known dwarf galaxies that orbit our Milky Way Galaxy. The LMC is an irregular galaxy composed of a bar of older red stars, clouds of younger blue stars, and a bright red star forming region visible near the top of the above image called the Tarantula Nebula. The brightest supernova of modern times, SN1987A, occurred in the LMC.
Life might get dull at the core of M15 but the sky would always be bright with stars! In fact, only 40,000 light-years away in the constellation Pegasus, M15 is one of the most densely packed globular star clusters in our Milky Way Galaxy. This stunning Hubble Space Telescope image of M15 shows thousands of individual stars across the central 10 or so light-years of the cluster, also cataloged as NGC 7078. Yet even the Hubble's sharp vision can't clearly separate the stars at this cluster's core. Globular star clusters harbor from a hundred thousand up to a million stars and roam the Milky Way halo. Like most globulars, M15 is filled with ancient stars, about 12 billion years old compared to the Sun's estimated 4.5 billion years. Its cool red giant stars appear yellowish in this color composite image. Unlike most globulars, M15 displays a planetary nebula, the briefly visible gaseous shroud of a dying star. Can you pick it out? Cataloged as Kuestner 648, M15's planetary nebula is the round pinkish cloud at the upper left.
If sailing the hydrocarbon seas of Titan, beware of gasoline rain. Such might be a travel advisory issued next millennium for adventurers visiting Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. Images of Titan's surface were released last week from the Keck 10-meter telescope featuring the finest details yet resolved. Peering into Titan's thick smog atmosphere with infrared light, complex features interpreted as oceans, glaciers, and rock became visible. The high-resolution infrared image pictured above was made possible using an unblurring technique called speckle interferometry. The interplanetary probe Cassini will reach Saturn and Titan in 2004 to better explore this unusual world.
What happens when a comet encounters a planet? If the planet has a rocky surface, a huge impact feature will form. A giant planet like Jupiter, however, is mostly gas. When Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 struck Jupiter in 1994, each piece was swallowed into the vast Jovian atmosphere. Pictured above is a time-lapse sequence of the result of two fragments striking Jupiter. As the comet plunged in, it created large dark marks that gradually faded. The high temperature of gas under Jupiter's cloud tops surely caused the comet fragment to melt before it plunged very far. Because Jupiter is much more massive than any comet, the orbit of Jupiter around the Sun did not change noticeably.
On Mars, sunsets can appear salmon pink. The unusual color is partly due to rust: oxidized iron from Martian dust circulating in the Martian atmosphere. Clouds appear in the morning and evening, but usually evaporate in the midday Sun. A day on Mars lasts 24.6 hours - very similar to Earth's, but a Martian year lasts almost twice as long as an Earth year. The above panorama by Mars Pathfinder, shown mirror-inverted, was released last Friday by the Imager team. Mars Pathfinder has now successfully completed all the goals of its planned mission. Nevertheless, the Sagan Memorial Station spent the weekend recharging its batteries, anticipating the possibility of still more productive weeks of exploration ahead.
A bird? A plane? No, but pictured here is something physically much larger, flying much higher, and moving much faster than either of these. It is, in fact, a Seyfert type 2 spiral galaxy. The "S" is actually a lane of stars, gas and dust circling the core. Designated NGC 3393, the bright core makes this galaxy a Seyfert and the infrared glow of central dust help distinguish it as "type 2." Seyfert galaxies have extremely energetic nuclei similar to more powerful quasars. Seyferts are thought to have black holes in their centers. Most of the lines and small spots in this image are due to cosmic rays striking the imager and are unrelated to structure in the galaxy.
"In 1979, one of NASA's Voyager spacecraft made a spectacular and unexpected discovery. Io, the innermost Galilean moon of Jupiter, was covered with volcanoes and some of them were erupting! In all, Voyager 1 observed nine volcanic eruptions during its encounter with the moon. When Voyager 2 flew past four months later it was able to confirm that at least six of them were still erupting. This Voyager image of Ra Patera, a large shield volcano, shows colorful flows up to about 200 miles long emanating from the dark central volcanic vent. For more information about volcanism on Io, see Calvin J. Hamilton's Io page.