March 16, 2013

Hubble Panoramic View of Orion Nebula Reveals Thousands of Stars

Hubble Panoramic View of Orion Nebula Reveals Thousands of Stars

This dramatic image offers a peek inside a cavern of roiling dust and gas where thousands of stars are forming. The image, taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) aboard NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, represents the sharpest view ever taken of this region, called the Orion Nebula. More than 3,000 stars of various sizes appear in this image. Some of them have never been seen in visible light. These stars reside in a dramatic dust-and-gas landscape of plateaus, mountains, and valleys that are reminiscent of the Grand Canyon.

The Orion Nebula is a picture book of star formation, from the massive, young stars that are shaping the nebula to the pillars of dense gas that may be the homes of budding stars. The bright central region is the home of the four heftiest stars in the nebula. The stars are called the Trapezium because they are arranged in a trapezoid pattern. Ultraviolet light unleashed by these stars is carving a cavity in the nebula and disrupting the growth of hundreds of smaller stars. Located near the Trapezium stars are stars still young enough to have disks of material encircling them. These disks are called protoplanetary disks or "proplyds" and are too small to see clearly in this image. The disks are the building blocks of solar systems.

The bright glow at upper left is from M43, a small region being shaped by a massive, young star's ultraviolet light. Astronomers call the region a miniature Orion Nebula because only one star is sculpting the landscape. The Orion Nebula has four such stars. Next to M43 are dense, dark pillars of dust and gas that point toward the Trapezium. These pillars are resisting erosion from the Trapezium's intense ultraviolet light. The glowing region on the right reveals arcs and bubbles formed when stellar winds - streams of charged particles ejected from the Trapezium stars — collide with material.

The faint red stars near the bottom are the myriad brown dwarfs that Hubble spied for the first time in the nebula in visible light. Sometimes called "failed stars," brown dwarfs are cool objects that are too small to be ordinary stars because they cannot sustain nuclear fusion in their cores the way our Sun does. The dark red column, below, left, shows an illuminated edge of the cavity wall.

The Orion Nebula is 1,500 light-years away, the nearest star-forming region to Earth. Astronomers used 520 Hubble images, taken in five colors, to make this picture. They also added ground-based photos to fill out the nebula. The ACS mosaic covers approximately the apparent angular size of the full moon.

The Orion observations were taken between 2004 and 2005.

Image Credit: NASA,ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team
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March 15, 2013

A cloud of ash above Puyehue Volcano

Puyehue Volcano Eruption

Osorno, Los Lagos, Chile
June 5, 2011

Image Credit & Copyright: Claudio Santana

March 13, 2013

Quiet Interlude in Solar Max

Quiet Interlude in Solar Max

Something unexpected is happening on the Sun. 2013 was supposed to be the year of "solar maximum," the peak of the 11-year sunspot cycle. Yet 2013 has arrived and solar activity is relatively low. Sunspot numbers are well below their values from 2011, and strong solar flares have been infrequent.

The image above shows the Earth-facing surface of the Sun on February 28, 2013, as observed by the Helioseismic and Magnetic Imager (HMI) on NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. HMI observes the solar disk at 6173 Ã…ngstroms, a wavelength designed to study surface oscillations and the magnetic field. HMI observed just a few small sunspots on an otherwise clean face, which is usually riddled with many spots during peak solar activity.

Image Credit: NASA/SDO
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Ancient Mars Could Have Supported Life

Ancient Mars Could Have Supported Life

An analysis of a rock sample collected by NASA's Curiosity rover shows ancient Mars could have supported living microbes.

Scientists identified sulfur, nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and carbon -- some of the key chemical ingredients for life -- in the powder Curiosity drilled out of a sedimentary rock near an ancient stream bed in Gale Crater on the Red Planet last month.

"A fundamental question for this mission is whether Mars could have supported a habitable environment," said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA's Mars Exploration Program at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "From what we know now, the answer is yes."

Clues to this habitable environment come from data returned by the rover's Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) and Chemistry and Mineralogy (CheMin) instruments. The data indicate the Yellowknife Bay area the rover is exploring was the end of an ancient river system or an intermittently wet lake bed that could have provided chemical energy and other favorable conditions for microbes. The rock is made up of a fine-grained mudstone containing clay minerals, sulfate minerals and other chemicals. This ancient wet environment, unlike some others on Mars, was not harshly oxidizing, acidic or extremely salty.

The patch of bedrock where Curiosity drilled for its first sample lies in an ancient network of stream channels descending from the rim of Gale Crater. The bedrock also is fine-grained mudstone and shows evidence of multiple periods of wet conditions, including nodules and veins.

Curiosity's drill collected the sample at a site just a few hundred yards away from where the rover earlier found an ancient streambed in September 2012.

"Clay minerals make up at least 20 percent of the composition of this sample," said David Blake, principal investigator for the CheMin instrument at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif.

These clay minerals are a product of the reaction of relatively fresh water with igneous minerals, such as olivine, also present in the sediment. The reaction could have taken place within the sedimentary deposit, during transport of the sediment, or in the source region of the sediment. The presence of calcium sulfate along with the clay suggests the soil is neutral or mildly alkaline.

Scientists were surprised to find a mixture of oxidized, less-oxidized, and even non-oxidized chemicals, providing an energy gradient of the sort many microbes on Earth exploit to live. This partial oxidation was first hinted at when the drill cuttings were revealed to be gray rather than red.

"The range of chemical ingredients we have identified in the sample is impressive, and it suggests pairings such as sulfates and sulfides that indicate a possible chemical energy source for micro-organisms," said Paul Mahaffy, principal investigator of the SAM suite of instruments at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.

An additional drilled sample will be used to help confirm these results for several of the trace gases analyzed by the SAM instrument.

"We have characterized a very ancient, but strangely new 'gray Mars' where conditions once were favorable for life," said John Grotzinger, Mars Science Laboratory project scientist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. "Curiosity is on a mission of discovery and exploration, and as a team we feel there are many more exciting discoveries ahead of us in the months and years to come."

Scientists plan to work with Curiosity in the "Yellowknife Bay" area for many more weeks before beginning a long drive to Gale Crater's central mound, Mount Sharp. Investigating the stack of layers exposed on Mount Sharp, where clay minerals and sulfate minerals have been identified from orbit, may add information about the duration and diversity of habitable conditions.

Image Credit: Daein Ballard
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NASA’s SDO Observes Earth, Lunar Transits in Same Day

NASA’s SDO Observes Earth, Lunar Transits in Same Day NASA’s SDO Observes Earth, Lunar Transits in Same Day

On March 2, 2013, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) entered its semiannual eclipse season, a period of three weeks when Earth blocks its view of the Sun for a period of time each day. On March 11, however, SDO was treated to two transits. Earth blocked SDO’s view of the Sun from about 2:15 to 3:45 a.m. EDT. Later in the same day, from around 7:30 to 8:45 a.m. EDT, the Moon moved in front of the Sun for a partial eclipse.

When Earth blocks the Sun, the boundaries of Earth’s shadow appear fuzzy, since SDO can see some light from the Sun coming through Earth’s atmosphere. The line of Earth appears almost straight, since Earth - from SDO’s point of view - is so large compared to the Sun.

The eclipse caused by the Moon looks far different. Since the Moon has no atmosphere, its curved shape can be seen clearly, and the line of its shadow is crisp and clean. Any spacecraft observing the Sun from an orbit around Earth has to contend with such eclipses, but SDO's orbit is designed to minimize them as much as possible, with only two three-week eclipse seasons each year. The 2013 spring eclipse season continues until March 26. The fall season will begin on September 2.

Images Credit: NASA/SDO
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March 12, 2013

Aurora over Kongsberg

Aurora Kongsberg

Kongsberg, Norway
December 4, 2010

Image Credit & Copyright: Odd Smedsrud

March 11, 2013

Sakurajima Volcano with Lightning

Sakurajima Volcano with Lightning

Why does a volcanic eruption sometimes create lightning? On this picture, the Sakurajima volcano in southern Japan was caught erupting in early January 2013. Magma bubbles so hot they glow shoot away as liquid rock bursts through the Earth's surface from below. This image is particularly notable, however, for the lightning bolts caught near the volcano's summit. Why lightning occurs even in common thunderstorms remains a topic of research, and the cause of volcanic lightning is even less clear. Surely, lightning bolts help quench areas of opposite but separated electric charges. One hypothesis holds that catapulting magma bubbles or volcanic ash are themselves electrically charged, and by their motion create these separated areas. Other volcanic lightning episodes may be facilitated by charge-inducing collisions in volcanic dust. Lightning is usually occurring somewhere on Earth, typically over 40 times each second.

Image Credit & Copyright: Martin Rietze
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