March 11, 2017

Earth and the International Space Station seen from Space Shuttle Discovery

Earth and the International Space Station seen from Space Shuttle Discovery

Backdropped by a blue and white Earth, the International Space Station is seen from Space Shuttle Discovery as the two spacecraft begin their relative separation. Earlier the STS-119 and Expedition 18 crews concluded 9 days, 20 hours and 10 minutes of cooperative work onboard the shuttle and station. Undocking of the two spacecraft occurred at 2:53 p.m. (CDT) on March 25, 2009.

Space Shuttle Discovery, Orbit of the Earth
March 25, 2009

Image Credit: NASA

Planetary Nebula NGC 3918

Planetary Nebula NGC 3918

This dramatic image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows the planetary nebula NGC 3918, a brilliant cloud of colourful gas in the constellation of Centaurus, around 4900 light-years from Earth.

In the centre of the cloud of gas, and completely dwarfed by the nebula, are the dying remnants of a red giant. During the final convulsive phase in the evolution of these stars, huge clouds of gas are ejected from the surface of the star before it emerges from its cocoon as a white dwarf. The intense ultraviolet radiation from the tiny remnant star then causes the surrounding gas to glow like a fluorescent sign. These extraordinary and colourful planetary nebulae are among the most dramatic sights in the night sky, and often have strange and irregular shapes, which are not yet fully explained.

NGC 3918’s distinctive eye-like shape, with a bright inner shell of gas and a more diffuse outer shell that extends far from the nebula looks as if it could be the result of two separate ejections of gas. But this is in fact not the case: studies of the object suggest that they were formed at the same time, but are being blown from the star at different speeds. The powerful jets of gas emerging from the ends of the large structure are estimated to be shooting away from the star at speeds of up to 350 000 kilometres per hour.

By the standards of astronomical phenomena, planetary nebulae like NGC 3918 are very short-lived, with a lifespan of just a few tens of thousands of years.

The image is a composite of visible and near-infrared snapshots taken with Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2. The filters used were F658N, F814W, F555W and F502N, seen in red, orange, green and blue respectively. The image is about 20 arcseconds across.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble and NASA
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/images/potw1015a/

Supernova 1987A

Supernova 1987A

Using the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers are witnessing the unprecedented transition of a supernova to a supernova remnant, where light from an exploding star in a neighboring galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, reached Earth in February 1987. Named Supernova 1987A, it was the closest supernova explosion witnessed in almost 400 years. The supernova's close proximity to Earth allows astronomers to study it in detail as it evolves. Now, the supernova debris, which has faded over the years, is brightening. This means that a different power source has begun to light the debris. The debris of SN 1987A is beginning to impact the surrounding ring, creating powerful shock waves that generate X-rays observed with NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. Those X-rays are illuminating the supernova debris and shock heating is making it glow in visible light. Since its launch in 1990, the Hubble telescope has provided a continuous record of the changes in SN 1987A.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and P. Challis (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)
Explanation from: https://www.nasa.gov/multimedia/imagegallery/image_feature_2058.html

Roll Cloud over Sweers Island

Roll Cloud over Sweers Island

Sweers Island, Queensland, Australia

Image Credit & Copyright: Tex Battle

Exoplanet Gliese 667 Cb

Exoplanets Gliese 667 Cb

On 19 October 2009, the team who built the High Accuracy Radial Velocity Planet Searcher, better known as HARPS, the spectrograph for ESO’s 3.6-metre telescope, reported on the incredible discovery of some 32 new exoplanets, cementing HARPS’s position as the world’s foremost exoplanet hunter. One of these is surrounding the star Gliese 667 C, which belongs to a triple system. The 6 Earth-mass exoplanet circulates around its low-mass host star at a distance equal to only 1/20th of the Earth-Sun distance. The host star is a companion to two other low-mass stars, which are seen here in the distance.

Image Credit: ESO/L. Cal├žada
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/images/eso0939a/

Jupiter's moon Io

Jupiter's moon Io

NASA's Galileo spacecraft acquired its highest resolution images of Jupiter's moon Io on 3 July 1999 during its closest pass to Io since orbit insertion in late 1995. This color mosaic uses the near-infrared, green and violet filters (slightly more than the visible range) of the spacecraft's camera and approximates what the human eye would see. Most of Io's surface has pastel colors, punctuated by black, brown, green, orange, and red units near the active volcanic centers.

The improved resolution reveals small-scale color units which had not been recognized previously and which suggest that the lavas and sulfurous deposits are composed of complex mixtures (Cutout A of false color image). Some of the bright (whitish), high-latitude (near the top and bottom) deposits have an ethereal quality like a transparent covering of frost (Cutout B of false color image). Bright red areas were seen previously only as diffuse deposits. However, they are now seen to exist as both diffuse deposits and sharp linear features like fissures (Cutout C of false color image). Some volcanic centers have bright and colorful flows, perhaps due to flows of sulfur rather than silicate lava (Cutout D of false color image). In this region bright, white material can also be seen to emanate from linear rifts and cliffs.

Galileo will make two close passes of Io beginning in October of this year. Most of the high-resolution targets for these flybys are seen on the hemisphere shown here.

North is to the top of the picture and the sun illuminates the surface from almost directly behind the spacecraft. This illumination geometry is good for imaging color variations, but poor for imaging topographic shading. However, some topographic shading can be seen here due to the combination of relatively high resolution (1.3 kilometers or 0.8 miles per picture element) and the rugged topography over parts of Io. The image is centered at 0.3 degrees north latitude and 137.5 degrees west longitude. The resolution is 1.3 kilometers (0.8 miles) per picture element. The images were taken on 3 July 1999 at a range of about 130,000 kilometers (81,000 miles) by the Solid State Imaging (SSI) system on NASA's Galileo spacecraft during its twenty-first orbit.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
Explanation from: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA02308

March 10, 2017

Supercell and Lightning over Nebraska

Supercell and Lightning over Nebraska

McCook, Nebraska, USA
June 19, 2011

Image Credit & Copyright: Mike Hollingshead

Hundreds of Galaxies

Hundreds of Galaxies

Gazing deep into the Universe, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has spied a menagerie of galaxies. Located within the same tiny region of space, these numerous galaxies display an assortment of unique characteristics. Some are big; some are small. A few are relatively nearby, but most are far away. Hundreds of these faint galaxies have never been seen before until their light was captured by Hubble.

This image represents a typical view of our distant Universe. In taking this picture, Hubble is looking down a long corridor of galaxies stretching billions of light-years distant in space, corresponding to looking billions of years back in time. The field shown in this picture covers a relatively small patch of sky, a fraction of the area of the full moon, yet it is richly populated with a variety of galaxy types.

A handful of large fully formed galaxies are scattered throughout the image. These galaxies are easy to see because they are relatively close to us. Several of the galaxies are spirals with flat disks that are oriented edge-on or face-on to our line of sight, or somewhere in between. Elliptical galaxies and more exotic galaxies with bars or tidal tails are also visible.

Many galaxies that appear small in this image are simply farther away. These visibly smaller galaxies are so distant that their light has taken billions of years to reach us. We are seeing these galaxies, therefore, when they were much younger than the larger, nearby galaxies in the image. One red galaxy to the lower left of the bright central star is acting as a lens to a large galaxy directly behind it. Light from the farther galaxy is bent around the nearby galaxy's nucleus to form a distorted arc.

Sprinkled among the thousands of galaxies in this image are at least a dozen foreground stars that reside in our Milky Way Galaxy. The brightest of these foreground stars is the red object in the center of the image. The stars are easily discernable from galaxies because of their diffraction spikes, long cross-hair-like features that look like they are emanating from the centers of the stars. Diffraction spikes are an image artifact caused by starlight traveling through the telescope's optical system.

This image is a composite of multiple exposures of a single field taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys. The image, taken in September 2003, was a bonus picture, taken when one of the other Hubble cameras was snapping photos for a science program. This image took nearly 40 hours to complete and is one of the longest exposures ever taken by Hubble.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA
Explanation from: http://hubblesite.org/image/1730/news_release/2005-20

Snow Fields of Pluto

Snow Fields of Pluto

In this digital painting, Pluto is depicted as a world of ice in many forms. Its surface shows mountains of rock, thought to be super-cold water ice, and vast fields of carbon dioxide, ammonia, nitrogen, and carbon monoxide snows. Pluto's largest moon, Charon, composed of the same materials, looms large in the sky.

This illustration is based on images and data from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft currently exploring the outer reaches of our Solar System.

Image Credit: K.B. Kofoed

Solar Eclipse seen from Myanmar

Solar Eclipse seen from Myanmar

Naypyitaw, Myanmar
March 9, 2016

Image Credit: AP Photo

Solar Prominence

Solar Prominence

A solar prominence gathered itself into a twisting cone, then rose up and broke apart in a delicate dance of plasma above the Sun (February 20, 2017). The event, observed in a wavelength of extreme ultraviolet light, lasted just about four hours. Prominences are unstable clouds of plasma suspended above the sun's surface by magnetic forces. This kind of event is not uncommon. The brighter area near the bottom of the images is an active region.

Image Credit: NASA/GSFC/Solar Dynamics Observatory

Artist's Impression of binary star sunset seen from the surface of Exoplanet Kepler-16b

Exoplanet Kepler-16b Sunset

NASA's Kepler mission has discovered a world where two suns set over the horizon instead of just one. The planet, called Kepler-16b, is the most "Tatooine-like" planet yet found in our galaxy and is depicted here in this artist's concept with its two stars. Tatooine is the name of Luke Skywalker's home world in the science fiction movie Star Wars. In this case, the planet is not thought to be habitable. It is a cold world, with a gaseous surface, but like Tatooine, it circles two stars. The largest of the two stars, a K dwarf, is about 69 percent the mass of our Sun, and the smallest, a red dwarf, is about 20 percent the Sun's mass.

Most of what we know about the size of stars comes from pairs of stars that are oriented toward Earth in such a way that they are seen to eclipse each other. These star pairs are called eclipsing binaries. In addition, virtually all that we know about the size of planets around other stars comes from their transits across their stars. The Kepler-16 system combines the best of both worlds with planetary transits across an eclipsing binary system. This makes Kepler-16b one of the best-measured planets outside our solar system.

Kepler-16 orbits a slowly rotating K-dwarf that is, nevertheless, very active with numerous star spots. Its other parent star is a small red dwarf. The planetary orbital plane is aligned within half a degree of the stellar binary orbital plane. All these features combine to make Kepler-16 of major interest to studies of planet formation as well as astrophysics.

Image Credit: NASA/Ames Research Center/Kepler Mission
Explanation from: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/kepler/multimedia/images/Kepler-16_transit-art.html

March 8, 2017

Solar Eclipse seen from Indonesia

Solar Eclipse seen from Indonesia

Banda Aceh, Indonesia
March 9, 2016

Image Credit: Chaideer Mahyuddin/AFP/Getty Images

Artist’s impression of the remote dusty galaxy A2744_YD4

Artist’s impression of the remote dusty galaxy A2744_YD4
This artist’s impression shows what the very distant young galaxy A2744_YD4 might look like. Observations using ALMA have shown that this galaxy, seen when the Universe was just 4% of its current age, is rich in dust. Such dust was produced by an earlier generation of stars and these observations provide insights into the birth and explosive deaths of the very first stars in the Universe.

Astronomers have used ALMA to detect a huge mass of glowing stardust in a galaxy seen when the Universe was only four percent of its present age. This galaxy was observed shortly after its formation and is the most distant galaxy in which dust has been detected. This observation is also the most distant detection of oxygen in the Universe. These new results provide brand-new insights into the birth and explosive deaths of the very first stars.

An international team of astronomers, led by Nicolas Laporte of University College London, have used the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) to observe A2744_YD4, the youngest and most remote galaxy ever seen by ALMA. They were surprised to find that this youthful galaxy contained an abundance of interstellar dust — dust formed by the deaths of an earlier generation of stars.

Follow-up observations using the X-shooter instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope confirmed the enormous distance to A2744_YD4. The galaxy appears to us as it was when the Universe was only 600 million years old, during the period when the first stars and galaxies were forming.

“Not only is A2744_YD4 the most distant galaxy yet observed by ALMA,” comments Nicolas Laporte, “but the detection of so much dust indicates early supernovae must have already polluted this galaxy.”

Cosmic dust is mainly composed of silicon, carbon and aluminium, in grains as small as a millionth of a centimetre across. The chemical elements in these grains are forged inside stars and are scattered across the cosmos when the stars die, most spectacularly in supernova explosions, the final fate of short-lived, massive stars. Today, this dust is plentiful and is a key building block in the formation of stars, planets and complex molecules; but in the early Universe — before the first generations of stars died out — it was scarce.

The observations of the dusty galaxy A2744_YD4 were made possible because this galaxy lies behind a massive galaxy cluster called Abell 2744. Because of a phenomenon called gravitational lensing, the cluster acted like a giant cosmic “telescope” to magnify the more distant A2744_YD4 by about 1.8 times, allowing the team to peer far back into the early Universe.

The ALMA observations also detected the glowing emission of ionised oxygen from A2744_YD4. This is the most distant, and hence earliest, detection of oxygen in the Universe, surpassing another ALMA result from 2016.

The detection of dust in the early Universe provides new information on when the first supernovae exploded and hence the time when the first hot stars bathed the Universe in light. Determining the timing of this “cosmic dawn” is one of the holy grails of modern astronomy, and it can be indirectly probed through the study of early interstellar dust.

The team estimates that A2744_YD4 contained an amount of dust equivalent to 6 million times the mass of our Sun, while the galaxy’s total stellar mass — the mass of all its stars — was 2 billion times the mass of our Sun. The team also measured the rate of star formation in A2744_YD4 and found that stars are forming at a rate of 20 solar masses per year — compared to just one solar mass per year in the Milky Way.

“This rate is not unusual for such a distant galaxy, but it does shed light on how quickly the dust in A2744_YD4 formed,” explains Richard Ellis (ESO and University College London), a co-author of the study. “Remarkably, the required time is only about 200 million years — so we are witnessing this galaxy shortly after its formation.”

This means that significant star formation began approximately 200 million years before the epoch at which the galaxy is being observed. This provides a great opportunity for ALMA to help study the era when the first stars and galaxies “switched on” — the earliest epoch yet probed. Our Sun, our planet and our existence are the products — 13 billion years later — of this first generation of stars. By studying their formation, lives and deaths, we are exploring our origins.

“With ALMA, the prospects for performing deeper and more extensive observations of similar galaxies at these early times are very promising,” says Ellis.

And Laporte concludes: “Further measurements of this kind offer the exciting prospect of tracing early star formation and the creation of the heavier chemical elements even further back into the early Universe.”

Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/news/eso1708/

LL Pegasi

LL Pegasi

Although it looks like the pattern of a shell on the beach, this intriguing spiral is in fact astronomical in nature. The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) captured this remarkable image of a binary star system, where two stars — LL Pegasi and its companion — are locked in a stellar waltz, orbiting around their common centre of gravity. The old star LL Pegasi is continuously losing gaseous material as it evolves into a planetary nebula, and the distinct spiral shape is the imprint made by the stars orbiting in this gas.

The spiral spans light-years and winds around with extraordinary regularity. Based on the expansion rate of the spiralling gas, astronomers estimate that a new “layer” appears every 800 years — approximately the same time it takes for the two stars to complete one orbit around each other.

LL Pegasi was first highlighted about 10 years ago when the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope obtained a picture of the almost-perfect spiral structure. This was the first time a spiral pattern had been found in material surrounding an old star. Now, ALMA’s observations, of which this image only shows one “cross-section”, have added an extra dimension to reveal the exquisitely-ordered 3D geometry of the spiral pattern.

Image Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/H. Kim et al.
Explanation from: https://www.eso.org/public/images/potw1710a/

Lightning over New Mexico

Lightning over New Mexico

Elephant Butte, New Mexico, USA

Image Credit & Copyright: Carsten Peter

Star Cluster Westerlund 1

Star Cluster Westerlund 1

Light travels through space at just under 300 000 kilometres per second! This staggering speed is used to calculate astronomical distances; although often misinterpreted as a unit of time (due to its misleading name), a light-year is actually a unit of astronomical distance, and is defined as the distance that light travels in a year. For reference, this is around nine trillion kilometres… but it’s a little tricky to visualise!

With this in mind, 15 000 light-years may sound like a truly huge distance, but compared to the vastness of the cosmos, it’s really quite nearby. In fact, an object sitting 15 000 light-years away would not even be outside our home galaxy, the Milky Way. This is roughly the distance between us and a young super star cluster known as Westerlund 1, home to one of the largest stars ever discovered.

Stars are classified according to their spectral type, surface temperature, and luminosity. While studying and classifying the cluster’s constituent stars, astronomers discovered that Westerlund 1 is home to one of the largest stars ever discovered, originally named Westerlund 1-26. It is a red supergiant (although sometimes classified as a hypergiant) with a radius over 1500 times that of our Sun. If Westerlund 1-26 were placed where our Sun is in our Solar System, it would extend out beyond the orbit of Jupiter.

Most of Westerlund 1’s stars are thought to have formed in the same burst of activity, meaning that they have similar ages and compositions. The cluster is relatively young in astronomical terms —at around three million years old it is a baby compared to our own Sun, which is some 4.6 billion years old.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
Explanation from: https://www.spacetelescope.org/images/potw1710a/

The north pole of Saturn

The north pole of Saturn

The north pole of Saturn sits at the center of its own domain. Around it swirl the clouds, driven by the fast winds of Saturn. Beyond that orbits Saturn's retinue of moons and the countless small particles that form the ring.

Although the poles of Saturn are at the center of all of this motion, not everything travels around them in circles. Some of the jet-stream patterns, such as the hexagon-shaped pattern seen here, have wavy, uneven shapes. The moons as well have orbits that are elliptical, some quite far from circular.

This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 26 degrees above the ring plane. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on December 2, 2016 using a spectral filter which preferentially admits wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 890 nanometers.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 619,000 miles (996,000 kilometers) from Saturn. Image scale is 37 miles (60 kilometers) per pixel.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Explanation from: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA20520