Icy world Charon is 1,200 kilometers across. That makes Pluto's largest moon only about 1/10th the size of planet Earth but a whopping 1/2 the diameter of Pluto itself. Charon is seen in unprecedented detail in this image from New Horizons. The image was captured late July 13 during the spacecraft's flight through the Plutonian system from a range of less than 500,000 kilometers. For reference, the distance separating Earth and Moon is less than 400,000 kilometers. Charonian terrain, described as surprising, youthful, and varied, includes a 1,000 kilometer swath of cliffs and troughs stretching below center, a 7 to 9 kilometer deep canyon cutting the curve of the upper right edge, and an enigmatic dark north polar region unofficially dubbed Mordor.
If you're looking for something to print with that new 3D printer, try out a copy of the Homunculus Nebula. The dusty, bipolar cosmic cloud is around 1 light-year across but is slightly scaled down for printing to about 1/4 light-nanosecond or 80 millimeters. The full scale Homunculus surrounds Eta Carinae, famously unstable massive stars in a binary system embedded in the extensive Carina Nebula about 7,500 light-years distant. Between 1838 and 1845, Eta Carinae underwent the Great Eruption becoming the second brightest star in planet Earth's night sky and ejecting the Homunculus Nebula. The new 3D model of the still expanding Homunculus was created by exploring the nebula with the European Southern Observatory's VLT/X-Shooter. That instrument is capable of mapping the velocity of molecular hydrogen gas through the nebula's dust at a fine resolution. It reveals trenches, divots and protrusions, even in the dust obscured regions that face away from Earth. Eta Carinae itself still undergoes violent outbursts, a candidate to explode in a spectacular supernova in the next few million years.
What's happening over the water? Pictured above is one of the better images yet recorded of a waterspout, a type of tornado that occurs over water. Waterspouts are spinning columns of rising moist air that typically form over warm water. Waterspouts can be as dangerous as tornadoes and can feature wind speeds over 200 kilometers per hour. Some waterspouts form away from thunderstorms and even during relatively fair weather. Waterspouts may be relatively transparent and initially visible only by an unusual pattern they create on the water. The above image was taken earlier this month near Tampa Bay, Florida. The Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida is arguably the most active area in the world for waterspouts, with hundreds forming each year. Some people speculate that waterspouts are responsible for some of the losses recorded in the Bermuda Triangle.
Video Credit: Fabio Governato et al. (U. Washington), N-Body Shop, NASA Advanced Supercomputing
How do galaxies like our Milky Way form? Since our universe moves too slowly to watch, faster-moving computer simulations are created to help find out. Green depicts (mostly) hydrogen gas in the above movie, while time is shown in billions of years since the Big Bang on the lower right. Pervasive dark matter is present but not shown. As the simulation begins, ambient gas falls into and accumulates in regions of relatively high gravity. Soon numerous proto-galaxies form, spin, and begin to merge. After about four billion years, a well-defined center materializes that dominates a region about 100,000 light-years across and starts looking like a modern disk galaxy. After a few billion more years, however, this early galaxy collides with another, all while streams of gas from other mergers rain down on this strange and fascinating cosmic dance. As the simulation reaches half the current age of the universe, a single larger disk develops. Even so, gas blobs -- some representing small satellite galaxies -- fall into and become absorbed by the rotating galaxy as the present epoch is reached and the movie ends. For our Milky Way Galaxy, however, big mergers may not be over -- recent evidence indicates that our large spiral disk Galaxy will collide and coalesce with the slightly larger Andromeda spiral disk galaxy in the next few billion years.
You could be the first person ever to take a real single-exposure image like this. The above image from Vienna, Austria is not real in the sense that the 360 degree star trails in the sky appear only because of a digital trick. Real star trails observed above Vienna could never go 360 degrees around because the Sun would rise at some time during the exposure and dominate the frame. Star trails of any length occur because as the Earth spins on its axis, the sky seems to rotate around us. This motion, called diurnal motion, produces the beautiful concentric arcs traced by stars during long time exposures. Towards the middle of the above digitally stretched picture is the North Celestial Pole (NCP), easily identified as the point in the sky at the center of all the star trail arcs. The star Polaris, commonly known as the North Star, made the very short bright circle near the NCP. Walter Lewin, though, has asked APOD to pose this as a challenge to astrophotographers: create a real single-exposure image of a clear night sky that features 360 degree star trails. Of course, such an image would only be possible near the poles of our fair planet, because only there could a nighttime run for more than 24 hours.
Large galaxies grow by eating small ones. Even our own galaxy practices galactic cannibalism, absorbing small galaxies that get too close and are captured by the Milky Way's gravity. In fact, the practice is common in the universe and illustrated by this striking pair of interacting galaxies from the banks of the southern constellation Eridanus (The River). Located over 50 million light years away, the large, distorted spiral NGC 1532 is seen locked in a gravitational struggle with dwarf galaxy NGC 1531, a struggle the smaller galaxy will eventually lose. Seen edge-on, spiral NGC 1532 spans about 100,000 light-years. Nicely detailed in this sharp image, the NGC 1532/1531 pair is thought to be similar to the well-studied system of face-on spiral and small companion known as M51.
Beautiful island universe M94 lies a mere 15 million light-years distant in the northern constellation of the hunting dogs, Canes Venatici. A popular target for earth-based astronomers, the face-on spiral galaxy is about 30,000 light-years across. Its remarkable features include prominent dust lanes, a bright, point-like nucleus, and a bright, bluish ring dominated by the light of young, massive stars. The massive stars in the ring are all likely less than 10 million years old, indicating the galaxy experienced a well-defined era of rapid star formation. As a result, while the small, bright nucleus is typical of the Seyfert class of active galaxies, M94 is also known as a starburst galaxy. Because M94 is relatively nearby, astronomers can explore in detail reasons for the galaxy's burst of star formation.
A careful look at the full field of view for this sharp image reveals a surprising number of galaxies both near and far toward the constellation Ursa Major. The most striking is clearly NGC 3718, the warped spiral galaxy right of center. NGC 3718's faint spiral arms look twisted and extended, its bright central region crossed by obscuring dust lanes. A mere 150 thousand light-years to the left is another large spiral galaxy, NGC 3729. The two are likely interacting gravitationally, accounting for the peculiar appearance of NGC 3718. While this galaxy pair lies about 52 million light-years away, the remarkable Hickson Group 56 can also be seen clustered just below NGC 3718. Hickson Group 56 consists of five interacting galaxies and lies over 400 million light-years away.
Are square A and B the same color? They are. Are too. To verify this, click on the above image to see them connected. The above illusion, called the same color illusion, illustrates that purely human observations in science may be ambiguous or inaccurate. Even such a seemingly direct perception as relative color. Similar illusions exist on the sky, such as the size of the Moon near the horizon, or the apparent shapes of astronomical objects. The advent of automated, reproducible, measuring devices such as CCDs have made science in general and astronomy in particular less prone to, but not free of, human-biased illusions.
Humanity now has a spacecraft orbiting Venus. The robotic Venus Express spacecraft launched by the European Space Agency in 2005 November arrived at Venus in 2006 April. Venus Express is now orbiting Earth's sister planet and returning pictures. Pictured above is a false-color, time-lapse movie in ultraviolet light captured by the Venus Express spacecraft as it flew over Venus' northern hemisphere in late May. Venus Express is scheduled to orbit Venus for three years and collect data that might help in answering questions that include why Venus continually generates hurricane-force winds, why Venus became so hot in the past, and if there is any current volcanic activity on Venus. It is hoped that a better understanding of Venus's hot and inhospitable climate will help humanity better understand Earth's climate as well.
A fantastic jumble of young blue star clusters, gigantic glowing gas clouds, and imposing dark dust lanes surrounds the central region of the active galaxy Centaurus A. This mosaic of Hubble Space Telescope images taken in blue, green, and red light has been processed to present a natural color picture of this cosmic maelstrom. Infrared images from the Hubble have also shown that hidden at the center of this activity are what seem to be disks of matter spiraling into a black hole with a billion times the mass of the Sun! Centaurus A itself is apparently the result of a collision of two galaxies and the left over debris is steadily being consumed by the black hole. Astronomers believe that such black hole central engines generate the radio, X-ray, and gamma-ray energy radiated by Centaurus A and other active galaxies. But for an active galaxy Centaurus A is close, a mere 10 million light-years away, and is a relatively convenient laboratory for exploring these powerful sources of energy.
Venus glides in front of an enormous solar disk in these two frames from the TRACE satellite imaging of the inner planet's 2004 transit. Arranged in a "right/left" stereogram, the frames are intended to be viewed at a comfortable distance from the screen with your eyes gently crossed, allowing the images to merge and produce a pleasing stereo effect. Shown during the ingress (beginning) phase of the transit, the silhouetted portion of the planet appears to float dramatically in front of the Sun's granulated surface. Of course, the dense Cytherian (Venusian) atmosphere also scatters and refracts the intense sunlight. The effect is visible across the portion of the planet still beyond the Sun's edge and viewed against the blackness of space.
As soon as we find out whose cat did this . . . Nebulae are as famous for being identified with familiar shapes as perhaps cats are for getting into trouble. No cat, though, could have created the vast Cat's Paw Nebula visible in Scorpius. At 5500 light years distant, Cat's Paw is an emission nebula with a red color that originates from an abundance of ionized hydrogen atoms. Alternatively known as the Bear Claw Nebula or NGC 6334, stars nearly ten times the mass of our Sun have been born there in only the past few million years. Pictured above, the Cat's Paw nebula was photographed during an astrophotography expedition to Namibia.
The star cluster in RCW38 was hiding. Looking at the star forming region RCW38 will not normally reveal most of the stars in this cluster. The reason is that the open cluster is so young that it is still shrouded in thick dust that absorbs visible light. This dust typically accompanies the gas that condenses to form young stars. When viewed in infrared light, however, many stars in RCW38 are revealed, because dust is less effective at absorbing infrared light. The above representative-color image mosaic of RCW38 taken by the 2MASS sky survey in infrared light shows not only many bright blue stars from the star cluster but clouds of brightly emitting gas and dramatic lanes of dark dust. RCW38 spans about 10 light-years and is located about 5500 light years away towards the constellation of Vela.
Stars, like people, do not always go gentle into that good night. The above Carina Nebula, also known as the Keyhole Nebula and NGC 3372, results from dying star Eta Carinae's violently casting off dust and gas during its final centuries. Eta Carinae, one of the most luminous stars known, is visible as the bright star near the center of the nebula. The above picture was taken in three distinct colors of light: blue light as emitted from hot oxygen, green light as emitted by warm hydrogen, and red light as emitted by cool sulfur. Eta Carinae faded from being one of the brightest stars in the sky during the 1800s, but is still visible with binoculars in southern skies towards the constellation of Carina.
Nobody knows what causes lightning. It is known that charges slowly separate in some clouds causing rapid electrical discharges (lightning), but how electrical charges get separated in clouds remains a topic of much research. Nevertheless, lightning bolts are common in clouds during rainstorms, and on average 6000 lightning bolts occur between clouds and the Earth every minute. Above, several lightning strokes were photographed behind Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona. Lightning has also been found on the planets Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Uranus. NASA launched the TRMM mission in 1997 that continues to measure rainfall and lightning on planet Earth.
Robert H. Goddard, one of the founding fathers of modern rocketry, was born in Worcester Massachusetts in 1882. As a 16 year old, Goddard read H.G. Wells' science fiction classic "War Of The Worlds" and dreamed of space flight. By 1926 he had designed, built, and launched the world's first liquid fuel rocket. During his career he was ridiculed by the press for suggesting that rockets could be flown to the Moon, but he kept up his experiments in rocketry supported in part by the Smithsonian Institution and championed by Charles Lindbergh. Pictured above in 1937 in the desert near Roswell, New Mexico, Goddard examines a nose cone and parachute from one of his test rockets. Widely recognized as a gifted experimenter and engineering genius, his rockets were many years ahead of their time. He died in 1945 holding over 200 patents in rocket technology. A liquid fuel rocket constructed on principles developed by Goddard landed humans on the Moon in 1969.
Comets are cosmic icebergs. They follow very elongated orbits which carry them from the frozen, remote outer reaches of the Solar System to close encounters with the Sun. Heated by sunlight, they slough off layers of material as gas and dust, forming their characteristic awe-inspiring comas (heads) and tails. In the spring of 1996, Comet Hyakutake inspired Arizona photographers Rick Scott and Joe Orman to take this picture showing faint stars near the constellation Ursa Minor (the Little Dipper) shining through the comet's long, graceful tail. Blown by the solar wind, comet tails generally point away from the Sun.
What are these Earthlings trying to tell us? The above message was broadcast from Earth towards the globular star cluster M13 in 1974. During the dedication of the Arecibo Observatory - still the largest radio telescope in the world - a string of 1's and 0's representing the above diagram was sent. This attempt at extraterrestrial communication was mostly ceremonial - humanity regularly broadcasts radio and television signals out into space accidentally. Even were this message received, M13 is so far away we would have to wait almost 50,000 years to hear an answer. The above message gives a few simple facts about humanity and its knowledge: from left to right are numbers from one to ten, atoms including hydrogen and carbon, some interesting molecules, DNA, a human with description, basics of our Solar System, and basics of the sending telescope. Several searches for extraterrestrial intelligence are currently underway, including Project Phoenix under the direction of Dr. Jill Tarter.
This picture of Saturn could not have been taken from Earth. No Earth based picture could possibly view the night side of Saturn and the corresponding shadow cast across Saturn's rings. Since Earth is much closer to the Sun than Saturn, only the day side of the planet is visible from the Earth. In fact, this photo was taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it flew by Saturn in November 1980. The next spacecraft to approach Saturn will be Cassini which is currently scheduled to be be launched next year and reach Saturn in 2004.
"Yes, I have been to Barsoom again ..." begins John Carter in Edgar Rice Burroughs' 1913 science fiction classic "The Gods of Mars". In Burroughs' novels describing Carter's adventures on Mars, "Barsoom" is the local name for the red planet. Long after Burroughs' stories were published, Mars has continued to capture the imagination of science fiction writers as a popular location for extraterrestrial adventures. This dramatic picture of a crescent Mars was taken by NASA's Viking 2 spacecraft in 1976.