Is this person throwing a lightning bolt? No. Despite appearances, this person is actually pointing in the direction of a bright Iridium flare
, a momentary reflection of sunlight off of a communications satellite
in orbit around the Earth. As the Iridium satellite
orbits, reflective antennas became aligned between the observer and the Sun to create a flash brighter
than any star in the night sky. Iridium flares
typically last several seconds, longer than most meteors. Also unlike meteors, the flare
s are symmetric and predictable
. The featured flare
involved Iridium satellite 15 and occurred over southern Estonia
last week. In this well-planned image
, a spectacular night sky appears in the background, complete with the central band
of our Milky Way Galaxy
running vertically up the image center.
How different are space and time at very small scales? To explore the unfamiliar domain of the miniscule Planck scale -- where normally unnoticeable quantum effects might become dominant -- a newly developed instrument called the Fermilab Holometer has begun operating at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) near Chicago, Illinois, USA. The instrument seeks to determine if slight but simultaneous jiggles of a mirror in two directions expose a fundamental type of holographic noise that always exceeds a minimum amount. Pictured above is one of the end mirrors of a Holometer prototype. Although the discovery of holographic noise would surely be groundbreaking, the dependence of such noise on a specific laboratory length scale would surprise some spacetime enthusiasts. One reason for this is the Lorentz Invariance postulate of Einstein's special relativity, which states that all length scales should appear contracted to a relatively moving observer -- even the diminutive Planck length. Still, the experiment is unique and many are curious what the results will show.
What's that below the Milky Way? First, across the top of the above image, lies the faint band that is our planet's sideways view of the central disk of our home Milky Way Galaxy. The Milky Way band can be seen most clear nights from just about anywhere on Earth with a dark sky. What lies beneath is, by comparison, is a much less common sight. It is the striking peak of Castildetierra, a rock formation located in Bardenas Reales, a natural badlands in northeast Spain. Standing 50 meters tall, the rock spire includes clay and sandstone left over from thousands of years of erosion by wind and water. The astrophotographer waited months for the sky to appear just right -- and then took the 14 exposures that compose the above image in a single night.
This graceful arc traces a Delta rocket climbing through Thursday's early morning skies over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida, USA. Snug inside the rocket's Centaur upper stage were NASA's twin Radiation Belt Storm Probes (RBSP), now in separate orbits within planet Earth's Van Allen radiation belts. Reflected in the Turn Basin from a vantage point about 3 miles from Space Launch Complex 41, the scene was captured in a composite of two exposures. One highlights the dramatic play of launch pad lighting, clouds, and sky. A subsequent 3 minute long exposure records the rocket's fiery trail. While most spacecraft try to avoid the radiation belts, named for their discoverer James Van Allen, RBSP's mission will be to explore their dynamic and harsh conditions.
With a 3.5 meter diameter mirror, larger than the Hubble Space Telescope, ESA's Herschel Space Observatory explores the Universe at infrared wavelengths. Herschel is named for German-born British astronomer Frederick William Herschel who discovered infrared light over 200 years ago. Herschel's sensitive cameras have combined to deliver this spectacular skyscape looking toward the constellation of the Southern Cross. Spanning some 2 degrees the premier, false-color, far-infrared view captures our galaxy's cold dust clouds in extreme detail, showing a remarkable, connected maze of filaments and star-forming regions. Such observations are intended to unravel mysteries of star formation by surveying broad areas of the galactic plane.
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-type star, several hundred thousand times more luminous and approximately 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. A false-color Hubble palette was used to create this sharp image and shows emission from sulfur, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms in red, green, and blue hues. The image data was recorded using a small telescope under clear, steady skies, from Mount Wilson Observatory.
Just one minute before midnight EDT, Friday, August 28, the Space Shuttle Discovery began a long arc into a cloudy sky. Following the launch, a bright and remarkably colorful trail was captured in this time exposure from the Banana River Viewing Site, looking east toward pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center. On STS-128, Discovery docked with the International Space Station Sunday evening. The 13-day mission will exchange space station crew members and deliver more than 7 tons of supplies and equipment. Of course, the equipment includes the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (COLBERT).
Astronomers turn detectives when trying to figure out the cause of startling sights like NGC 1316. Their investigation indicates that NGC 1316 is an enormous elliptical galaxy that started, about 100 million years ago, to devour a smaller spiral galaxy neighbor, NGC 1317, just above it. Supporting evidence includes the dark dust lanes characteristic of a spiral galaxy, and faint swirls of stars and gas visible in this wide and deep image. What remains unexplained are the unusually small globular star clusters, seen as faint dots on the image. Most elliptical galaxies have more and brighter globular clusters than NGC 1316. Yet the observed globulars are too old to have been created by the recent spiral collision. One hypothesis is that these globulars survive from an even earlier galaxy that was subsumed into NGC 1316.
Our Moon's appearance changes nightly. This time-lapse sequence shows what our Moon looks like during a lunation, a complete lunar cycle. As the Moon orbits the Earth, the half illuminated by the Sun first becomes increasingly visible, then decreasingly visible. The Moon always keeps the same face toward the Earth. The Moon's apparent size changes slightly, though, and a slight wobble called a libration is discernable as it progresses along its elliptical orbit. During the cycle, sunlight reflects from the Moon at different angles, and so illuminates different features differently. A full lunation takes about 29.5 days, just under a month (moon-th).
When morning twilight came to the Paranal Observatory in Chile, astronomers Mark Neeser and Peter Barthel interrupted their search for faint quasars, billions of light-years away. And just for a moment, they used Very Large Telescopes at the European Southern Observatory to appreciate the beauty of the nearby Universe. One result was this stunning view of beautiful spiral galaxy M66, a mere 35 million light-years away. About 100 thousand light-years across with striking dust lanes and bright star clusters along sweeping spiral arms, M66 is well known to astronomers as a member of the Leo Triplet of galaxies. Gravitational interactions with its neighborhood galaxies have likely influenced the shape of dusty spiral M66.
A wonder of planet Earth's southern sky, star cluster Trumpler 14 lies about nine thousand light-years away in the Carina complex -- a rich star forming region at the edge of a giant molecular cloud. This false-color x-ray portrait of Trumpler 14 from the orbiting Chandra Observatory spans over 40 light-years and reveals stunning details of a cluster with one of the highest concentrations of massive stars in the Galaxy. Profoundly affecting their environment, the hot cluster stars are themselves a mere one million years old. Energetic winds from the stars have cleared out a cavity in the dense cloud, filling it with shock heated, x-ray emitting gas. Still to come, the next few million years will see these stellar prodigies rapidly exhaust their nuclear fuel and explode in violent supernovae, flooding their cosmic neighborhood with gas enriched in heavy elements.
Portuguese navigator Fernando de Magellan and his crew had plenty of time to study the southern sky during the first circumnavigation of planet Earth. As a result, two fuzzy cloud-like objects easily visible for southern hemisphere skygazers are known as the Clouds of Magellan. Of course, these star clouds are now understood to be dwarf irregular galaxies, satellites of our larger spiral Milky Way galaxy. The Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) pictured above is only about 180,000 light-years distant in the constellation Dorado. Spanning about 15,000 light-years or so, it is the most massive of the Milky Way's satellite galaxies and is the site of the closest supernova in modern times. The prominent red knot on the right is 30 Doradus, or the Tarantula Nebula, a giant star-forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud.
Is that really another world? Thousands of people the world over lined up last week to see Mars through a telescope as the red planet and Earth passed unusually close together in their orbits around the Sun. Reviews of Mars were mixed, with some people disappointed that Mars still appeared somewhat blurry. Veteran sky gazers appeared somewhat surprised by the popularity of the phenomenon, as it seemed to many that Mars was not very much brighter than it frequently appears, and the event held little promise for real discovery. Most observers, though, appeared quietly pleased to take advantage of a unique opportunity and see such an uncommon sight. Many were awed by the simple enormity of being able to see the face of a completely different world with their own eyes. Pictured above, a youngster peered toward Mars last week at an East Antrim Astronomical Society star party at the Big Collin Picnic Area north of Belfast, Northern Ireland, UK.
How can an aurora appear so near the ground? Pictured above are not aurora but nearby light pillars, a local phenomenon that can appear as a distant one. In most places on Earth, a lucky viewer can see a Sun-pillar, a column of light appearing to extend up from the Sun caused by flat fluttering ice-crystals reflecting sunlight from the upper atmosphere. Usually these ice crystals evaporate before reaching the ground. During freezing temperatures, however, flat fluttering ice crystals may form near the ground in a form of light snow, sometimes known as a crystal fog. These ice crystals may then reflect ground lights in columns not unlike a Sun-pillar. In the above picture, the colorful lights causing the light pillars surround a ice-skating rink in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Mars has two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos. Pictured above is Deimos, the smaller moon of Mars. In fact, Deimos is one of the smallest known moons in the Solar System measuring only nine miles across. The diminutive Martian moons were discovered in 1877 by Asaph Hall, an American astronomer working at the US Naval Observatory in Washington D.C. The existence of two Martian moons was predicted around 1610 by Johannes Kepler, the astronomer who derived the laws of planetary motion. In this case, Kepler's prediction was not based on scientific principles, but his writings and ideas were so influential that the two Martian moons are discussed in works of fiction such as Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels, written in 1726, over 150 years before their actual discovery.
This x-ray image of the Moon was made by the orbiting ROSAT (Röntgensatellit) Observatory in 1990. In this digital picture, pixel brightness corresponds to x-ray intensity. Consider the image in three parts: the bright hemisphere of the x-ray moon, the darker half of the moon, and the x-ray sky background. The bright lunar hemisphere shines in x-rays because it reflects x-rays emitted by the sun ... just as it shines at night by reflecting visible sunlight. The background sky has an x-ray glow in part due to the myriad of distant, powerful active galaxies, unresolved in the ROSAT picture but recently detected in Chandra Observatory x-ray images. But why isn't the dark half of the moon completely dark? It's true that the dark lunar face is in shadow and so is not reflecting solar x-rays. Still, the few x-ray photons which seem to come from the moon's dark half are currently thought to be caused by energetic particles in the solar wind bombarding the lunar surface.
Undaunted by world wide anticipation of the August 11 total solar eclipse, the moon also performed a lunar eclipse just two weeks earlier, on July 28. Crossing the edge of Earth's shadow the moon was only partially eclipsed - but the spectacle could be seen by observers located across the Earth's night side. For example, this photo was taken in early morning hours shortly after the mid-point of the eclipse as seen from Cody, Wyoming, USA. Still illuminating the landscape and obscured by a wisp of cloud, the moon is setting behind Sheep Mountain, west of Cody. Enjoying the celestial display, astrophotographer Mack Frost reported fairly clear skies tinged with a little smoke from area grass fires.
Saturn is the second largest planet in our Solar System. Saturn has been easily visible in the sky since history has been recorded. Galileo used one of the first telescopes in 1610 to discover Saturn's rings, which he first thought were moons. Maxwell showed in 1856 that Saturn's rings couldn't be a single solid, since Saturn's own gravity would break it up. Were Saturn's rings assembled into a single body, it would measure less than 100 kilometers across. The origin of Saturn's rings, and of unusual radial patterns that appear on them called spokes, are still unknown. The above representative-color picture was taken from Earth in infrared light. A robot spacecraft Cassini launched in 1997 will reach Saturn in 2004.
In low Earth orbit there is not enough atmosphere to diffuse and scatter sunlight, so shadows are black and the sky is dark - even when the Sun shines. The harsh lighting produced this dramatic effect as mission specialist Gregory Harbaugh photographed colleague Joseph Tanner during their second spacewalk to service the Hubble Space Telescope in February 1997. The aft section of the Space Shuttle Discovery is visible in the background with the Sun hanging over a delicate crescent of the Earth's limb. A checklist is attached to Tanner's left arm, and Harbaugh's reflection is just visible in Tanner's visor.
Sirius is the brightest star in the night sky. Intrinsically, Sirius is over 20 times brighter than our Sun and over twice as massive. As Sirius is 8.7 light years distant, it is not the closest star system -- the Alpha Centauri system holds this distinction. Sirius is called the Dog Star because of its prominence in the constellation of Canis Majoris (Big Dog). In 1862, Sirius was discovered to be a binary star system with a companion star, Sirius B, 10,000 times dimmer than the bright primary, Sirius A. Sirius B was the first white dwarf star discovered, a type of star first understood by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar in 1930. While studying Sirius in 1718, Edmond Halley discovered that stars move with respect to each other. The Sirius system is shown above captured in X-ray light.
Is the gravity of the above galaxies high enough to contain the glowing hot gas? Superposed on an optical picture of a group of galaxies is an image taken in X-ray light. The X-ray picture, taken by ROSAT, shows confined hot gas highlighted in false red color, and provides clear evidence that the gravity exerted in groups and clusters of galaxies exceeds all the individual component galaxies combined. The extra gravity is attributed to dark matter, the nature and abundance of which is the biggest mystery in astronomy today.