Some 60 million light-years away in the southerly constellation Corvus
, two large galaxies are colliding
. The stars in the two galaxies, cataloged as NGC 4038 and NGC 4039
, very rarely collide in the course of the ponderous cataclysm
, lasting hundreds of millions of years. But their large clouds of molecular gas
and dust often do, triggering furious episodes of star formation near the center of the cosmic wreckage
. Spanning about 500 thousand light-years, this stunning composited view
also reveals new star clusters and matter flung far from the scene of the accident by gravitational tidal
forces. The remarkable collaborative image is a mosaic constructed using data from small and large ground-based telescopes to bring out large-scale and faint tidal streams, composited with the bright cores imaged in extreme detail by the Hubble Space Telescope. Of course
, the suggestive visual appearance of the extended arcing structures gives the galaxy pair its popular name - The Antennae.
Can the night sky appear both serene and surreal? Perhaps classifiable as serene in the above panoramic image taken last Friday are the faint lights of small towns glowing across a dark foreground landscape of Doi Inthanon National Park in Thailand, as well as the numerous stars glowing across a dark background starscape. Also visible are the planet Venus and a band of zodiacal light on the image left. Unusual events are also captured, however. First, the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy, while usually a common sight, appears here to hover surreally above the ground. Next, a fortuitous streak of a meteor was captured on the image right. Perhaps the most unusual component is the bright spot just to the left of the meteor. That spot is the plume of a rising Ariane 5 rocket, launched a few minutes before from Kourou, French Guiana. How lucky was the astrophotographer to capture the rocket launch in his image? Pretty lucky -- the image was not timed to capture the rocket. Also lucky was how photogenic -- and perhaps surreal -- the rest of the sky turned out to be.
Some auroras can only be seen with a camera. They are called subvisual and are too faint to be seen with the unaided eye. In the above image, the green aurora were easily visible to the eye, but the red aurora only became apparent after a 20-second camera exposure. The reason is that the human eye only accumulates light for a fraction of a second at a time, while a camera shutter can be left open much longer. When photographing an already picturesque scene near Anchorage, Alaska, USA, last autumn, a camera caught both the visual green and subvisual red aurora reflected in a lily pad-covered lake. High above, thousands of stars were visible including the Pleiades star cluster, while the planet Jupiter posed near the horizon, just above clouds, toward the image right. Auroras are caused by energetic particles from the Sun impacting the Earth's magnetosphere, causing electrons and protons to rain down near the Earth's poles and impact the air. Both red and green aurora are typically created by excited oxygen atoms, with red emission, when visible, dominating higher up. Auroras are known to have many shapes and colors.
The constellation of Orion holds much more than three stars in a row. A deep exposure shows everything from dark nebula to star clusters, all embedded in an extended patch of gaseous wisps in the greater Orion Molecular Cloud Complex. The brightest three stars on the far left are indeed the famous three stars that make up the belt of Orion. Just below Alnitak, the lowest of the three belt stars, is the Flame Nebula, glowing with excited hydrogen gas and immersed in filaments of dark brown dust. Below the frame center and just to the right of Alnitak lies the Horsehead Nebula, a dark indentation of dense dust that has perhaps the most recognized nebular shapes on the sky. On the upper right lies M42, the Orion Nebula, an energetic caldron of tumultuous gas, visible to the unaided eye, that is giving birth to a new open cluster of stars. Immediately to the left of M42 is a prominent bluish reflection nebula sometimes called the Running Man that houses many bright blue stars. The above image, a digitally stitched composite taken over several nights, covers an area with objects that are roughly 1,500 light years away and spans about 75 light years.
It's easy to get lost following the intricate filaments in this detailed mosaic image of faint supernova remnant Simeis 147. Also cataloged as Sh2-240 and seen towards the constellation Taurus, it covers nearly 3 degrees (6 full moons) on the sky. That corresponds to a width of 150 light-years at the stellar debris cloud's estimated distance of 3,000 light-years. The remarkable composite includes image data taken through narrow-band filters to highlight emission from hydrogen and oxygen atoms tracing regions of shocked, glowing gas. This supernova remnant has an estimated age of about 40,000 years - meaning light from the massive stellar explosion first reached Earth 40,000 years ago. But this expanding remnant is not the only aftermath. The cosmic catastrophe also left behind a spinning neutron star or pulsar, all that remains of the original star's core.
The snow capped Teide volcano is reflected in a pool of water in this nearly symmetric night sky view from the Canary Island Tenerife. Bright north star Polaris stands above the peak in an exposure that also captures the brilliant trail of a polar orbiting Iridium satellite. Of course, with the camera fixed to a tripod, the stars themselves produce concentric trails in long exposures, a reflection of the Earth's rotation around its axis. In fact, you can add about 4.5 hours of exposure time to this image by just sliding your cursor over the picture. Large astronomical observatories also take advantage of the calm Canary Island sky.
Two fundamental planes of planet Earth's sky compete for attention in this remarkable wide-angle vista, recorded on January 23rd. Arcing above the horizon and into the night at the left is a beautiful band of Zodiacal Light - sunlight scattered by dust in the solar system's ecliptic plane. Its opponent on the right is composed of the faint stars, dust clouds, and nebulae along the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy. Both celestial bands stand above the domes and towers of the Teide Observatory on the island of Tenerife. Also out to play in the pristine, dark skies over the Canary Islands, are brilliant Venus (lower left), the distant Andromeda Galaxy (near center), and the lovely Pleiades star cluster (top center). Of course, seasoned skygazers might even spot M33, the California Nebula, IC1805, and the double star cluster of Perseus. (Need some help? Just slide your cursor over the picture.)
This dusty reflection nebula surrounds pulsating star RS Pup, some 10 times more massive than the Sun and on average 15,000 times more luminous. In fact, RS Pup is a Cepheid type variable star; a class of stars whose brightness is used to estimate distances to nearby galaxies as one of the first steps in establishing the cosmic distance scale. As RS Pup pulsates over a period of about 40 days, its regular changes in brightness are also seen along the nebula delayed in time, effectively a light echo. The otherwise overwhelming light from RS Pup itself is hidden behind the dark central stripe in the color image. Using new measurements of the time delay and angular size of the nebula, the known speed of light allows astronomers to geometrically determine the distance to RS Pup to be 6,500 light-years, with a remarkably small error of plus or minus 90 light-years. An impressive achievement for stellar astronomy, the echo-measured distance also more accurately establishes the true brightness of RS Pup, and by extension other Cepheid stars, improving the knowledge of distances to galaxies beyond the Milky Way.
Comet McNaught is perhaps the most photogenic comet of our time. After making quite a show in the northern hemisphere in mid January, the comet moved south and developed a long and unusual dust tail that dazzled southern hemisphere observers starting in late January. Comet McNaught was imaged two weeks ago between Mount Remarkable and Cecil Peak in this spectacular image taken from Queenstown, South Island, New Zealand. The bright comet dominates the right part of the above image, while the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy dominates the left. Careful inspection of the image will reveal a meteor streak just to the left of the comet. Comet McNaught continues to move out from the Sun and dim, but should remain visible in southern skies with binoculars through the end of this month.
Was Saturn's moon Phoebe once a comet? Images from the robotic Cassini spacecraft taken two years ago when entering the neighborhood of Saturn indicate that Phoebe may have originated in the outer Solar System. Phoebe's irregular surface, retrograde orbit, unusually dark surface, assortment of large and small craters, and low average density appear consistent with the hypothesis that Phoebe was once part of the Kuiper belt of icy comets beyond Neptune before being captured by Saturn. Visible in the above image of Phoebe are craters, streaks, and layered deposits of light and dark material. The image was taken from around 30,000 kilometers out from this 200-kilometer diameter moon. Two weeks after taking the above image, Cassini fired its engines to decelerate into orbit around Saturn.
On 12 February, 2001, the NEAR-Shoemaker spacecraft gently touched-down on the surface of Eros -- the first ever landing on an asteroid. During the descent, the spacecraft's camera recorded successive images of the diminutive world's surface, revealing fractured boulders, dust filled craters, and a mysterious collapsed channel. The last frame, seen in the above montage at the far left, was taken at a range of 128 meters. Expanded in the inset, it shows surface features a few centimeters across. Stereo experimenter Patrick Vantuyne, constructed this montage from the final images in the landing sequence, carefully identifying the overlapping areas in successive frames. Frames which overlap were taken by the spacecraft from slightly different viewpoints, allowing Vantuyne to construct close-up stereo images of the surface of asteroid 433 Eros.
Beginning with a full view of beautiful spiral galaxy M81, follow the insets (left, bottom, then right) to zoom in on a real survivor. Seen at the center of the final field on the right is a star recently identified as the survivor of a cosmic cataclysm -- the supernova explosion of its companion star. Light from the cosmic blast, likely triggered by the core collapse of a star initially more than 10 times as massive as the Sun, first reached Earth over 10 years ago and was cataloged as supernova SN 1993J. Though the supernova itself is no longer visible, light-echoes from dust in the region can still be seen near the companion, the first known survivor of a supernova in a binary star system. Astronomers believe that a substantial transfer of material to the surviving companion star during the last few hundred years before the stellar explosion can explain peculiarities seen in this supernova. After supernova SN 1987A in the Large Magellanic Cloud, SN 1993J in nearby M81 is the brightest supernova seen in modern times.
Analyses of a new high-resolution map of microwave light emitted only 380,000 years after the Big Bang appear to define our universe more precisely than ever before. The eagerly awaited results from the orbiting Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe resolve several long-standing disagreements in cosmology rooted in less precise data. Specifically, present analyses of above WMAP all-sky image indicate that the universe is 13.7 billion years old (accurate to 1 percent), composed of 73 percent dark energy, 23 percent cold dark matter, and only 4 percent atoms, is currently expanding at the rate of 71 km/sec/Mpc (accurate to 5 percent), underwent episodes of rapid expansion called inflation, and will expand forever. Astronomers will likely research the foundations and implications of these results for years to come.
Can you help in reducing this blanket of methane gas that is warming up our Earth? Recent evidence holds that methane (CH4
) is second only to carbon dioxide (CO2
) in creating a warming greenhouse effect but is easier to control. Atmospheric methane has doubled over the past 200 years, and its smothering potency is over 20 times that of CO2
. Methane may even be responsible for a sudden warming of the Earth by seven degrees Celsius about 55 million years ago. As most methane is produced biologically, the gas is sometimes associated with bathroom humor. The largest abundance released by the US, however, is created when anaerobic bacteria break down carbon-based garbage in landfills. Therefore, a more effective way to help our planet than trying to restrict your own methane emissions would be to encourage efficient landfill gas management.
Today, at about 3 pm EST, the first human-made spacecraft is scheduled to touchdown on an asteroid. At an impact speed of 8 kilometers per hour, it is most probable that the robot spacecraft NEAR-Shoemaker will not survive its planned collision with 433 Eros. A primary reason for the descent, diagrammed above, will be to take images during the four hours on the way down. If all goes well, some of those pictures will show surface features as small as 10 centimeters across. Scientists hope to learn more about this unusual Manhattan-sized rock that is, quite possibly, older than the Earth.
Get out your red/blue glasses and launch yourself into this stereo picture of Saturn! The picture is actually composed from two images recorded weeks apart by the Voyager 2 spacecraft during its visit to the Saturnian System in August of 1981. Traveling at about 35,000 miles per hour, the spacecraft's changing viewpoint from one image to the next produced this exaggerated but pleasing stereo effect. Saturn is the second largest planet in the Solar System, after Jupiter. Its spectacular ring system is so wide that it would span the space between the Earth and Moon. Although they look solid here, Saturn's rings consist of individually orbiting bits of ice and rock ranging in size from grains of sand to barn-sized boulders.
Late last month, NASA's Lunar Prospector spacecraft moved in for a closer look at the Moon. Now entering an extended mission phase, controllers have reduced the altitude of this polar lunar orbiter from 100 kilometers to about 30 kilometers (18 miles). Having mapped global properties and recorded evidence for water-ice at the lunar poles, the lower orbit allows Prospector's instruments to gather valuable confirming data at higher resolutions. The new orbit is not without some risk, though, and maneuvers are required every 28 days to maintain it. Should the maneuvers fail to be performed, the spacecraft would impact the surface only two days later. This lunar close-up was recorded by the European Southern Observatory's new WFI camera. It shows dramatic shadows and contrasting terrain near the prominent Gassendi crater at the northern edge of the Moon's Mare Humorum.
In a grand canyon on Mars, steep slopes fall away from a smooth plateau revealing striking layered rock formations. The canyon is part of the Valles Marineris, a 2,500 mile long system of canyons cutting across the Martian equator. This view, recorded on January 1 by the orbiting Mars Global Surveyor shows a small portion of Valles Marineris in amazing detail. The image is about 6 miles wide and high resolution versions show features as small as 20 feet across. What processes caused the layering? In the Grand Canyon on planet Earth, sedimentary processes have resulted in spectacular rock layers. But similar layers of rock in canyons of the Hawaiian Islands were created by volcanoes. Regardless of the origin of layering on Mars, its extent suggests that early Mars was geologically active and complex.
Comet Hale-Bopp has quite a tail to tell already. This remarkable comet was first discovered in 1995, even before Comet Hyakutake. Since then, this erupting snowball continues to fall into our inner Solar System and is starting to put on quite a show. Comets have been known throughout history to show tails that spread across the sky. In the above picture, the blue stream is the ion tail which consists of ions pushed away from the comet's head by the solar wind. The ion tail always points directly away from the Sun. Comet Hale-Bopp is now visible in the morning sky, moving a few degrees each day. Comet Hale-Bopp is expected to be at its best and brightest in late March and early April.
Cold, distant, Pluto is the only planet in our Solar System which has not been visited by a spacecraft from Earth. The story goes that the legend "Pluto Not Yet Explored" on a US postal stamp depicting the tiny, mysterious world inspired a JPL employee to develop plans for a Pluto flyby. These plans evolved into the current "Pluto Express" mission intended for launch early in the next decade. The type of small, high-tech spacecraft proposed is depicted above in an artist's vision approaching Pluto's mottled surface. A tenuous, transient atmosphere is visible as blue haze beyond the bright limb while Pluto's companion Charon looms in the distance. Images and data from such a mission would be an incredible boon to those studying these bizarre, inaccessible worlds as evidence mounts that Pluto itself is only the largest of many small ice dwarf mini-planets. Some have dubbed the yet unexplored Pluto-Charon system the last "astronomers' planet". Note: Pluto's discoverer, astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, celebrated his 90th birthday on February 4.