November 3, 2012

Mammatus Clouds over Olympic Valley

What's happened to these clouds? Normal cloud bottoms are flat because moist warm air that rises and cools will condense into water droplets at a very specific temperature, which usually corresponds to a very specific height. After water droplets form that air becomes an opaque cloud. Under some conditions, however, cloud pockets can develop that contain large droplets of water or ice that fall into clear air as they evaporate. Such pockets may occur in turbulent air near a thunderstorm, being seen near the top of an anvil cloud, for example. Resulting mammatus clouds can appear especially dramatic if sunlit from the side. These mammatus clouds were photographed in August 2010 over Olympic Valley, California, USA.

Image Credit & Copyright: Matt Saal
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Aurora over Kvaløya

Kvaløya, Norway
September 27, 2011

Image Credit & Copyright: Fredrik Broms

November 2, 2012

Comets Kick Up Dust in Helix Nebula

This infrared image from NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Helix nebula, a cosmic starlet often photographed by amateur astronomers for its vivid colors and eerie resemblance to a giant eye.

The nebula, located about 700 light-years away in the constellation Aquarius, belongs to a class of objects called planetary nebulae. Discovered in the 18th century, these cosmic butterflies were named for their resemblance to gas-giant planets.

Planetary nebulae are actually the remains of stars that once looked a lot like our sun. When sun-like stars die, they puff out their outer gaseous layers. These layers are heated by the hot core of the dead star, called a white dwarf, and shine with infrared and visible-light colors. Our own sun will blossom into a planetary nebula when it dies in about five billion years.

In Spitzer's infrared view of the Helix nebula, the eye looks more like that of a green monster's. Infrared light from the outer gaseous layers is represented in blues and greens. The white dwarf is visible as a tiny white dot in the center of the picture. The red color in the middle of the eye denotes the final layers of gas blown out when the star died.

The brighter red circle in the very center is the glow of a dusty disk circling the white dwarf (the disk itself is too small to be resolved). This dust, discovered by Spitzer's infrared heat-seeking vision, was most likely kicked up by comets that survived the death of their star. Before the star died, its comets and possibly planets would have orbited the star in an orderly fashion. But when the star blew off its outer layers, the icy bodies and outer planets would have been tossed about and into each other, resulting in an ongoing cosmic dust storm. Any inner planets in the system would have burned up or been swallowed as their dying star expanded.

The Helix nebula is one of only a few dead-star systems in which evidence for comet survivors has been found.

This image is made up of data from Spitzer's infrared array camera and multiband imaging photometer. Blue shows infrared light of 3.6 microns; green shows infrared light of 5.8 microns; and red shows infrared light of 24 microns.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/K. Su
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November 1, 2012

A Sun Halo

What's happened to the Sun? Sometimes it looks like the Sun is being viewed through a large lens. In this 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. This image was taken in 2010 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.

Image Credit & Copyright: Peter Rosén
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October 31, 2012

Ghost of the Cepheus Flare

Spooky shapes seem to haunt this starry expanse, drifting through the night in the royal constellation Cepheus. Of course, the shapes are cosmic dust clouds faintly visible in dimly reflected starlight. Far from your own neighborhood on planet Earth, they lurk at the edge of the Cepheus Flare molecular cloud complex some 1,200 light-years away. Over 2 light-years across the ghostly nebula and relatively isolated Bok globule, also known as vdB 141 or Sh2-136, is near the center of the field. The core of the dark cloud on the right is collapsing and is likely a binary star system in the early stages of formation. Even so, if the spooky shapes could talk, they might well wish you a happy Halloween.

Image Credit & Copyright: Adam Block
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