Seen from the Canary Island
, this bright Full Moon rose at sunset. Reaching its full phase on the night
of January 4/5, it was the first Full Moon of the new year and the first to follow December's solstice. Of course, in North America the first Full Moon of January has been known as the Wolf's Moon
. But this Full Moon, posed in the twilight above an island of strong winds and traditional windmills, suggests another name. The telephoto image
, taken at a distance from the foreground windmill, creates the dramatic
comparison in apparent
size for windmill and Full Moon.
A mere seven hundred light years from Earth, in the constellation Aquarius, a sun-like star is dying. Its last few thousand years have produced the Helix Nebula (NGC 7293), a well studied and nearby example of a Planetary Nebula, typical of this final phase of stellar evolution. A total of 28.5 hours of exposure time have gone in to creating this deep view of the nebula. Combining narrow band image data from emission lines of hydrogen atoms in red and oxygen atoms in blue-green hues, it shows remarkable details of the Helix's brighter inner region, about 3 light-years across, but also follows fainter outer halo features that give the nebula a span of well over six light-years. The white dot at the Helix's center is this Planetary Nebula's hot, central star. A simple looking nebula at first glance, the Helix is now understood to have a surprisingly complex geometry.
Cosmic bullets pierce the outskirts of the Orion Nebula some 1500 light-years distant in this sharp infrared close-up. Blasted out by energetic massive star formation the bullets, relatively dense, hot gas clouds about ten times the size of Pluto's orbit, are blue in the false color image. Glowing with the light of ionized iron atoms they travel at speeds of hundreds of kilometers per second, their passage traced by yellowish trails of the nebula's shock-heated hydrogen gas. The cone-shaped wakes are up to a fifth of a light-year long. The detailed image was created using the 8.1 meter Gemini South telescope in Chile with a newly commisioned adaptive optics system (GeMS). Achieving a larger field of view than previous generation adaptive optics, GeMS uses five laser generated guide stars to help compensate for the blurring effects of planet Earth's atmosphere.
The star near the top is so bright that it is sometimes hard to notice the galaxy toward the bottom. Pictured above, both the star, Regulus, and the galaxy, Leo I, can be found within one degree of each other toward the constellation of the Lion (Leo). Regulus is part of a multiple star system, with a close companion double star visible to the lower left of the young main sequence star. Leo I is a dwarf spheroidal galaxy in the Local Group of galaxies dominated by our Milky Way Galaxy and M31. Leo I is thought to be the most distant of the several known small satellite galaxies orbiting our Milky Way Galaxy. Regulus is located about 75 light years away, in contrast to Leo 1 which is located about 800,000 light years away.
What's happened to the Sun? Sometimes it looks like the Sun is being viewed through a large lens. In the above case, however, there are actually millions of lenses: ice crystals. As water freezes in the upper atmosphere, small, flat, six-sided, ice crystals might be formed. As these crystals flutter to the ground, much time is spent with their faces flat, parallel to the ground. An observer may pass through the same plane as many of the falling ice crystals near sunrise or sunset. During this alignment, each crystal can act like a miniature lens, refracting sunlight into our view and creating phenomena like parhelia, the technical term for sundogs. The above image was taken <="" a=""> last year in Stockholm, Sweden. Visible in the image center is the Sun, while two bright sundogs glow prominently from both the left and the right. Also visible is the bright 22 degree halo -- as well as the rarer and much fainter 46 degree halo -- also created by sunlight reflecting off of atmospheric ice crystals.
How did this spherule come to be on the Moon? When a meteorite strikes the Moon, the energy of the impact melts some of the splattering rock, a fraction of which might cool into tiny glass beads. Many of these glass beads were present in lunar soil samples returned to Earth by the Apollo missions. Pictured above is one such glass spherule that measures only a quarter of a millimeter across. This spherule is particularly interesting because it has been victim to an even smaller impact. A miniature crater is visible on the upper left, surrounded by a fragmented area caused by the shockwaves of the small impact. By dating many of these impacts, astronomers can estimate the history of cratering on our Moon.
This month, the Mars Exploration Rovers are celebrating their 5th anniversary of operations on the surface of the Red Planet. The serene sunset view, part of their extensive legacy of images from the martian surface, was recorded by the Spirit rover on May 19, 2005. Colors in the image have been slightly exaggerated but would likely be apparent to a human explorer's eye. Of course, fine martian dust particles suspended in the thin atmosphere lend the sky a reddish color, but the dust also scatters blue light in the forward direction, creating a bluish sky glow near the setting Sun. The Sun is setting behind the Gusev crater rim wall some 80 kilometers (50 miles) in the distance. Because Mars is farther away, the Sun is less bright and only about two thirds the size seen from planet Earth.
A mere 11 million light-years away, Centaurus A is a giant elliptical galaxy - the closest active galaxy to Earth. This remarkable composite view of the galaxy combines image data from the x-ray ( Chandra), optical(ESO), and radio(VLA) regimes. Centaurus A's central region is a jumble of gas, dust, and stars in optical light, but both radio and x-ray telescopes trace a remarkable jet of high-energy particles streaming from the galaxy's core. The cosmic particle accelerator's power source is a black hole with about 10 million times the mass of the Sun coincident with the x-ray bright spot at the galaxy's center. Blasting out from the active galactic nucleus toward the upper left, the energetic jet extends about 13,000 light-years. A shorter jet extends from the nucleus in the opposite direction. Other x-ray bright spots in the field are binary star systems with neutron stars or stellar mass black holes. Active galaxy Centaurus A is likely the result of a merger with a spiral galaxy some 100 million years ago.
Near the outskirts of the Small Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy some 200 thousand light-years distant, lies 5 million year young star cluster NGC 602. Surrounded by natal gas and dust, NGC 602 is featured in this stunning Hubble image of the region. Fantastic ridges and swept back shapes strongly suggest that energetic radiation and shock waves from NGC 602's massive young stars have eroded the dusty material and triggered a progression of star formation moving away from the cluster's center. At the estimated distance of the Small Magellanic Cloud, the picture spans about 200 light-years, but a tantalizing assortment of background galaxies are also visible in the sharp Hubble view. The background galaxies are hundreds of millions of light-years or more beyond NGC 602.
Venus goes through phases. Just like our Moon, Venus can appear as full as a disk or as a thin as a crescent. Venus, frequently the brightest object in the post-sunset or pre-sunrise sky, appears so small, however, that it usually requires binoculars or a small telescope to clearly see its current phase. The above time-lapse sequence, however, was taken over the course of many months and shows not only how Venus changes phase but how it's apparent angular size also changes. In the middle negative image, Venus is in a new phase, the same phase that occurred during its rare partial eclipse of the Sun in 2004.
What creates the cosmic dust sculptures in the Rosette Nebula? Noted for the common beauty of its overall shape, parts of the Rosette Nebula, also known as NGC 2244, show beauty even when viewed up close. Visible above are globules of dark dust and gas that are slowly being eroded away by the energetic light and winds by nearby massive stars. Left alone long enough, the molecular-cloud globules would likely form stars and planets. The above image was taken in very specific colors of Sulfur (shaded red), Hydrogen (green), and Oxygen (blue). The Rosette Nebula spans about 50 light-years across, lies about 4,500 light-years away, and can be seen with a small telescope towards the constellation of Monoceros.
Two Worlds, One Sun, is the legend emblazoned on the Spirit rover's camera calibration target. Resting on the rover's rear deck, it also doubles as a sundial, allowing students to determine the solar time at Spirit's landing site on Mars. Examples of the sundial or Marsdial are shown above where the left image, captured near local noon, shows the effect of the Sun high in the martian sky. The right image from later in the afternoon with the Sun lower in the sky, shows a long shadow cast by the Marsdial's 3.5 centimeter high central post. Based on the computer generated grid overlay, students determined the local time in the central inset image to be about 12:17 pm local solar time. The face of the Marsdial was designed by astronomy artist Jon Lomberg in collaboration with other team members. Did you know, the Marsdial idea was a brainchild of Bill Nye, the Science Guy? Now you know ...
Wandering through the constellation Taurus, Saturn made its closest approach to planet Earth last month, tilting its lovely rings toward appreciative skygazers while rising high in midnight skies. On January 4th and 5th, Saturn also crossed in front of the high and far-off Crab Nebula (M1), a cosmic cloud of debris from a stellar explosion and first on the list of astronomer Charles Messier's celestial sights. But Saturn and the Crab made poor playmates, as light from the bright planet overwhelmed the the diffuse nebula, all but hiding the Crab during the transit. Taken on January 2nd, a few days before their closest encounter, this composite digital image illustrates the problem. The subtle nebula is just visible at the right, while on the left, light from a drastically over-exposed Saturn overflows its pixels. Composited into the image is a correctly exposed picture of ringed Saturn with the Saturnian moons labeled. The well-exposed Saturn image was also taken on January 2nd, but captured with an exposure lasting only a fraction of a second, in contrast with the tens of seconds of exposure time required to reveal the Crab.
If you had x-ray vision, the center regions of our Galaxy would not be hidden from view by immense cosmic dust clouds opaque to visible light. Instead, the Milky Way toward Sagittarius might look something like this stunning mosaic of images from the orbiting Chandra Observatory. Pleasing to look at, the gorgeous false-color representation of the x-ray data shows high energy x-rays in blue, medium energies in green, and low energies in red. Hundreds of white dwarf stars, neutron stars, and black holes immersed in a fog of multimillion-degree gas are included in the x-ray vista. Within the white patch at the image center lies the Galaxy's central supermassive black hole. Chandra's sharp x-ray vision will likely lead to a new appreciation of our Milky Way's most active neighborhood and has already indicated that the hot gas itself may have a temperature of a mere 10 million degrees Celsius instead of 100 million degrees as previously thought. The full mosaic is composed of 30 separate images and covers a 900 by 400 light-year swath at the galactic center.
If you could watch the sky for an entire night, what would you see? The above time-lapse sequence from the CONtinuous CAMera (CONCAM) project shows the answer for the skies above Kitt Peak National Observatory on 2000 December 23. First and foremost stars appear to orbit about Polaris, a star near the top of the image. Actually, the Earth is spinning under the sky, and the camera is affixed to the Earth. The diffuse band of light that moves across the image is actually the central disk of our Milky Way Galaxy. Identifiable objects rotating across the frame include the constellation of Orion, stars such as Sirius and Betelgeuse, and planets such as Jupiter and Saturn. The CONCAM project is deploying astronomical quality web-cameras to major observatories with goals of starting a continuous record of the sky and helping astronomers using large telescopes monitor weather conditions remotely.
Our Sun may look like all soft and fluffy, but its not. Our Sun is an extremely large ball of bubbling hot gas, mostly hydrogen gas. The above picture was taken in a specific color of light emitted by hydrogen gas called Hydrogen-alpha. Granules cover the solar photosphere surface like shag carpet, interrupted by bright regions containing dark sunspots. Visible at the left edge is a solar prominence. Our Sun glows because it is hot, but it is not on fire. Fire is the rapid acquisition of oxygen, and there is very little oxygen on the Sun. The energy source of our Sun is the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium deep within its core. Astronomers are still working to understand, however, why so few neutrinos are measured from the Sun's core.
If you could look at Venus with radar eyes - this is what you might see. This computer reconstruction of the surface of Venus was created from data from the Magellan spacecraft. Magellan orbited Venus and used radar to map our neighboring planet's surface between 1990 and 1994. Magellan found many interesting surface features, including the large circular domes, typically 25-kilometers across, that are depicted above. Volcanism is thought to have created the domes, although the precise mechanism remains unknown. Venus' surface is so hot and hostile that no surface probe has lasted more than a few minutes.
What are five closely grouped galaxies doing in this image? The grouping is commonly known as Stephan's Quintet. Four of the galaxies show essentially the same redshift suggesting that they are at the same distance from us. The large bluish spiral below and left of center actually has a smaller redshift than the others, indicating it is much closer. It is probably a foreground object which happens to lie along the line of sight to the more distant galaxies. Of the four distant galaxies, three seem to be colliding, showing serious distortions due to gravitational tidal forces. The fourth is a normal appearing elliptical galaxy (at the lower right edge of the field). Recent results suggest that collisions play an important role in the life cycles of galaxies.
Last September's total lunar eclipse disappointed many observers in the Eastern and Midwestern US who were cursed with cloudy skies. However, the Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX) satellite had a spectacular view from Earth orbit and SPIRIT III, an onboard imaging infrared telescope, was used to repeatedly image the moon during the eclipse. Above is one of the images taken during the 70 minute totality, the Moon completely immersed in the Earth's shadow. Infrared light has wavelengths longer than visible light - human's can not see it but feel it as heat. The bright spots correspond to the warm areas on the lunar surface, dark areas are cooler. The brightest spot below and left of center is the crater Tycho, the dark region at the upper right is the Mare Crisium. The series of SPIRIT III images allow the determination of cooling curves for geologically different areas, exploring the physical properties of the Moon's surface.
Can this blinking star tell us how fast the universe is expanding? Many astronomers also believe it may also tell us the age of the universe! The photographed "Cepheid variable" star in M100 brightens and dims over the course of days as its atmosphere expands and contracts. A longer blinking cycle means an intrinsically brighter star. Cepheids variable stars are therefore used as distance indicators. By noting exactly how long the blinking period is and exactly how bright the star appears to be, one can tell the distance to the star and hence the star's parent galaxy. This distance can then be used to match-up easily measured recessional velocity ("redshift") with distance. Once this "Hubble relation" is determined for M100, it should be the same for all galaxies - and hence tell us how fast the universe is expanding. The exact magnitude of this calibration is under dispute and so a real live debate involving the value of Hubble's constant titled "The Scale of the Universe" will occur in April 1996 in Washington, DC.