November 10, 2012

Aurora Australis observed from the International Space Station

Among the views of Earth afforded astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS), surely one of the most spectacular is of the aurora. These ever-shifting displays of colored ribbons, curtains, rays, and spots are most visible near the North (aurora borealis) and South (aurora australis) Poles as charged particles (ions) streaming from the Sun (the solar wind) interact with Earth’s magnetic field.

While aurora are generally only visible close to the poles, severe magnetic storms impacting the Earth’s magnetic field can shift them towards the equator. This striking aurora image was taken during a geomagnetic storm that was most likely caused by a coronal mass ejection from the Sun on May 24, 2010. The ISS was located over the Southern Indian Ocean at an altitude of 350 kilometers (220 miles), with the astronaut observer most likely looking towards Antarctica (not visible) and the South Pole.
The aurora has a sinuous ribbon shape that separates into discrete spots near the lower right corner of the image. While the dominant coloration of the aurora is green, there are faint suggestions of red left of image center. Dense cloud cover is dimly visible below the aurora. The curvature of the Earth’s horizon (the limb) is clearly visible, as is the faint blue line of the upper atmosphere directly above it (at image top center). Several stars appear as bright pinpoints against the blackness of space at image top right.

Auroras happen when ions in the solar wind collide with atoms of oxygen and nitrogen in the upper atmosphere. The atoms are excited by these collisions, and they typically emit light as they return to their original energy level. The light creates the aurora that we see. The most commonly observed color of aurora is green, caused by light emitted by excited oxygen atoms at wavelengths centered at 0.558 micrometers, or millionths of a meter. (Visible light is reflected from healthy (green) plant leaves at approximately the same wavelength.) Red aurora are generated by light emitted at a longer wavelength (0.630 micrometers), and other colors such as blue and purple are also sometimes observed.

Image Credit: NASA
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November 9, 2012

Yepun’s Laser and the Magellanic Clouds

Milky Way Galaxy Laser

One of the major enemies of astronomers is the Earth’s atmosphere, which makes celestial objects appear blurry when observed by ground-based telescopes. To counteract this, astronomers use a technique called adaptive optics, in which computer-controlled deformable mirrors are adjusted hundreds of times per second to correct for the distortion of the atmosphere.

This spectacular image shows Yepun, the fourth 8.2-metre Unit Telescope of ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) facility, launching a powerful yellow laser beam into the sky. The beam creates a glowing spot — an artificial star — in the Earth’s atmosphere by exciting a layer of sodium atoms at an altitude of 90 km. This Laser Guide Star (LGS) is part of the VLT’s adaptive optics system. The light coming back from the artificial star is used as a reference to control the deformable mirrors and remove the effects of atmospheric distortions, producing astronomical images almost as sharp as if the telescope were in space.

Yepun’s laser is not the only thing glowing brightly in the sky. The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds can be seen, to the left and to the right of the laser beam, respectively. These nearby irregular dwarf galaxies are conspicuous objects in the southern hemisphere, and can be easily observed with the unaided eye. The prominent bright star to the left of the Large Magellanic Cloud is Canopus, the brightest star in the constellation Carina (The Keel), while the one towards the top-right of the image is Achernar, the brightest in the constellation Eridanus (The River).

Image Credit: ESO/B. Tafreshi
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The Moon and Earth's atmosphere

ISS, Orbit of the Earth
January 8, 2012

Image Credit: NASA

November 8, 2012

NGC 2264 and the Christmas Tree cluster

This colour image of the region known as NGC 2264 — an area of sky that includes the sparkling blue baubles of the Christmas Tree star cluster and the Cone Nebula

Image Credit: Rolf Geissinger

November 7, 2012

Lunar Eclipse over Tenerife

Tenerife, Canary Islands, Spain
December 21, 2010

Image Credit & Copyright: Itahisa N. González

November 6, 2012

Nile River Delta at Night

One of the fascinating aspects of viewing Earth at night is how well the lights show the distribution of people. In this view of Egypt, we see a population almost completely concentrated along the Nile Valley, just a small percentage of the country’s land area.

The Nile River and its delta look like a brilliant, long-stemmed flower in this astronaut photograph of the southeastern Mediterranean Sea, as seen from the International Space Station. The Cairo metropolitan area forms a particularly bright base of the flower. The smaller cities and towns within the Nile Delta tend to be hard to see amidst the dense agricultural vegetation during the day. However, these settled areas and the connecting roads between them become clearly visible at night. Likewise, urbanized regions and infrastructure along the Nile River becomes apparent (see also The Great Bend of Nile, Day & Night.)

Another brightly lit region is visible along the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean—the Tel-Aviv metropolitan area in Israel (image right). To the east of Tel-Aviv lies Amman, Jordan. The two major water bodies that define the western and eastern coastlines of the Sinai Peninsula—the Gulf of Suez and the Gulf of Aqaba—are outlined by lights along their coastlines (image lower right). The city lights of Paphos, Limassol, Larnaca, and Nicosia are visible on the island of Cyprus (image top).

Scattered blue-grey clouds cover the Mediterranean Sea and the Sinai, while much of northeastern Africa is cloud-free. A thin yellow-brown band tracing the Earth’s curvature at image top is airglow, a faint band of light emission that results from the interaction of atmospheric atoms and molecules with solar radiation at approximately 100 kilometers (60 miles) altitude.

Image Credit: NASA
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Aurora and Fireball over Norway

Aurora Fireball Norway

What's happening behind that mountain? A convergence of variable sky spectacles. One night in September 2012 near Tromsø, Norway, high red aurora could be seen shimmering through lower green aurora in a way that created a striking and somewhat unusual violet glow. Suddenly, though, the sky flashed with the brightest fireball the astrophotographer had ever seen, as a small pebble from outer space violently crashed into the Earth's atmosphere. The glow illuminated the distant mountain peak known as Otertinden of the Lyngen Alps. The bright meteor, which coincidently disappeared behind the same mountain, was also reflected in the foreground Signalelva River. 

Image Credit & Copyright: Ole C. Salomonsen
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Aurora over Edmonton

Aurora Edmonton

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
August 20, 2009

Image Credit & Copyright: Zoltan Kenwell

November 5, 2012

Solar Eclipse over El Dorado Springs

El Dorado Springs, Missouri, USA
May 20, 2012

Image Credit & Copyright: Elon Gane

Laser & Lightning

On Thursday 18 August, 2011 the sky above the Allgäu Public Observatory in southwestern Bavaria was an amazing sight, with the night lit up by two very different phenomena: one an example of advanced technology, and the other of nature’s dramatic power.

As ESO tested the new Wendelstein laser guide star unit by shooting a powerful laser beam into the atmosphere, one of the region’s intense summer thunderstorms was approaching — a very visual demonstration of why ESO’s telescopes are in Chile, and not in Germany. Heavy grey clouds threw down bolts of lightning as Martin Kornmesser, visual artist for the ESO outreach department, took timelapse photographs of the test. With purely coincidental timing this photograph was snapped just as lightning flashed, resulting in a breathtaking image that looks like a scene from a science fiction movie. Although the storm was still far from the observatory, the lightning appears to clash with the laser beam in the sky.

Laser guide stars are artificial stars created 90 kilometres up in the Earth’s atmosphere using a laser beam. Measurements of this artificial star can be used to correct for the blurring effect of the atmosphere in astronomical observations — a technique known as adaptive optics. The Wendelstein laser guide star unit is a new design, combining the laser with the small telescope used to launch it in a single modular unit, which can then be placed onto larger telescopes.

The laser in this photograph is a powerful one, with a 20-watt beam, but the power in a bolt of lightning peaks at a trillion (one million million) watts, albeit for just a fraction of a second! Shortly after this picture was taken the storm reached the observatory, forcing operations to close for the night. While we may have the ability to harness advanced technology for devices such as laser guide stars, we are still subject to the forces of nature, not least among them the weather!

Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser
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November 4, 2012

ALMA antennas under the Milky Way

Milky Way Galaxy - ALMA Antennas

Four antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) gaze up at the star-filled night sky, in anticipation of the work that lies ahead. The Moon lights the scene on the right, while the band of the Milky Way stretches across the upper left.

ALMA is being constructed at an altitude of 5000 m on the Chajnantor plateau in the Atacama Desert in Chile. This is one of the driest places on Earth and this dryness, combined with the thin atmosphere at high altitude, offers superb conditions for observing the Universe at millimetre and submillimetre wavelengths. At these long wavelengths, astronomers can probe, for example, molecular clouds, which are dense regions of gas and dust where new stars are born when a cloud collapses under its own gravity. Currently, the Universe remains relatively unexplored at submillimetre wavelengths, so astronomers expect to uncover many new secrets about star formation, as well as the origins of galaxies and planets, when ALMA is operational.

Image Credit: ESO/José Francisco Salgado
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Solar Eclipse over Sundown

Sundown, Texas
May 20, 2012

Image Credit & Copyright: Jimmy Westlake & Linda Westlake