NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2004-11

Spooky Star Forming Region DR 6

How could stars form such a spooky and familiar shape as a human skull? First, the complex process of star formation creates nebulas of many shapes and sizes -- it is human perception that identifies the skull shape. Next, the physical reasons for the large nearly empty cavities that resemble the skull's eyes and mouth in nebula DR 6 are the strong stellar winds and energetic light emanating from about ten bright young stars in the nebula's central "nose". The length of the central nasal bridge is about 3.5 light years. Star forming nebula DR 6 is located about 4000 light years away toward the constellation of Cygnus. The Spitzer Space Telescope took the above image last year in four infrared colors. The perhaps-perceived eeriness of nebula DR 6 commemorates today being historically spooky All Hallow's Day, which follows All Hallow's Eve or "Halloween".

Storm Alley on Saturn

What causes storms on Saturn? To help find out, scientists commanded the robot Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn to inspect a circulating band of clouds nicknamed "Storm Alley." This westwardly moving cloud ring has been unusually active since the beginning of 2004, spawning white swirling storms and dark storms ringed by sprawling white clouds all cascading around the gas giant. The rogue band, as well as other parts of south Saturn, were imaged in stunning detail in a very specific band of infrared light that passes through Saturn's upper haze relatively unblurred. The result was then digitally sharpened, showing more cloud detail but creating fake image artifacts such as a surrounding ring. Speculation on the nature of past Saturn storms included convective motions of small amounts of ammonia and water, seasons, and shadowing effects of the great ring system. Although the above image provides data and clues, the power behind Saturn's storms still remains a mystery.

A Time-Lapse Lunar Eclipse

During last week's lunar eclipse, our Moon appeared to disappear. As the Earth moved between the Moon and the Sun, the Earth's shadow fell on the moon, making it quite dark. In the above picture the Earth's rotation, multiple exposures, and digital enhancements are used to create a time-lapse effect that dramatizes how the Moon looked as it faded out and re-appeared during the three hour lunar eclipse. As the Earth's shadow engulfed the Moon, the lunar images became less and less bright, practically disappearing during totality. At this time, the Moon, which normally shines by reflecting direct sunlight, shone only by sunlight refracted through the Earth's atmosphere. The next total lunar eclipse won't be visible from Earth until 2007.

NGC 7023: The Iris Nebula

Like delicate cosmic petals, these clouds of interstellar dust and gas have blossomed 1,300 light-years away in the fertile star fields of the constellation Cepheus. Sometimes called the Iris Nebula and dutifully cataloged as NGC 7023, this is not the only nebula in the sky to evoke the imagery of flowers. Still, the beautiful digital image shows off the Iris Nebula's range of colors and symmetries in impressive detail. Within the Iris, dusty nebular material surrounds a massive, hot, young star in its formative years. Central filaments of cosmic dust glow with a reddish photoluminesence as some dust grains effectively convert the star's invisible ultraviolet radiation to visible red light. Yet the dominant color of the nebula is blue, characteristic of dust grains reflecting starlight. Dark, obscuring clouds of dust and cold molecular gas are also present and can lead the eye to see other convoluted and fantastic shapes. Infrared observations indicate that this nebula may contain complex carbon molecules known as PAHs. As shown here, the Iris Nebula is about 6 light-years across.

Supernova Remnant Imaged in Gamma Rays

Gamma rays are the most energetic form of light. With up to a billion times the energy of ordinary "medical" x-rays, they easily penetrate telescope lenses and mirrors, making it very difficult to create gamma-ray images of cosmic sources. Still, an array of large telescopes designed to detect gamma-ray induced atmospheric flashes - the HESS (High Energy Stereoscopic System) experiment - has produced this historic, resolved image of a supernova remnant at extreme gamma-ray energies. Astronomers note that the premier gamma-ray view of the expanding stellar debris cloud is clearly similar to x-ray images of the remnant and convincingly supports the idea that these sites of powerful shock waves are also sources of cosmic rays within our galaxy. The gamma-ray intensity is color-coded in the picture, shown with dark contour lines that trace levels of x-ray emission from the object. At an estimated distance of 3,000 light-years, the supernova remnant measures about 50 light-years across and lies near the galactic plane.

X-Rays from the Galactic Core

Using the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory, astronomers have taken this long look at the core of our Milky Way galaxy, some 26,000 light-years away. The spectacular false-color view spans about 130 light-years. It reveals an energetic region rich in x-ray sources and high-lighted by the central source, Sagittarius A*, known to be a supermassive black hole with 3 million times the mass of the Sun. Given its tremendous mass, Sagittarius A* is amazingly faint in x-rays in comparison to central black holes observed in distant galaxies, even during its frequent x-ray flares. This suggests that this supermassive black hole has been starved by a lack of infalling material. In fact, the sharp Chandra image shows clouds of multi-million degree gas dozens of light-years across flanking (upper right and lower left) the central region -- evidence that violent events have cleared much material from the vicinity of the black hole.

The Galactic Center in Infrared

The center of our Galaxy is a busy place. In visible light, much of the Galactic Center is obscured by opaque dust. In infrared light, however, dust glows more and obscures less, allowing nearly one million stars to be recorded in the above photograph. The Galactic Center itself appears on the right and is located about 30,000 light years away towards the constellation of Sagittarius. The Galactic Plane of our Milky Way Galaxy, the plane in which the Sun orbits, is identifiable by the dark diagonal dust lane. The absorbing dust grains are created in the atmospheres of cool red-giant stars and grow in molecular clouds. The region directly surrounding the Galactic Center glows brightly in radio and high-energy radiation, and is thought to house a large black hole.

Jupiter and Venus at Sunrise

What are those bright objects in the morning sky? Early morning dog walkers, among many others across our world's Northern Hemisphere, have likely noticed tremendously bright Venus hanging in the eastern sky just before sunrise. Looking a bit like an approaching airplane, Venus holds its place in the sky and never seems to land. Last week, impressive but less bright Jupiter appeared within a degree of the Venusian orb, creating a dazzling sky that you might appreciate a bit more than your dog. This night sky early show will change slightly over the next week, with the planets moving past each other, Mars moving into the picture, guest stars like Spica appearing to shift in the background, and even a crescent Moon stopping in for a cameo. Pictured above last week, Jupiter and Venus were photographed rising before the Sun over the city of Bursa, Turkey.

A Full Sky Multicolored Auroral Corona

On some nights the sky is the most interesting show in town. This fisheye picture captures a particularly active and colorful auroral corona that occurred two days ago over l'Observatoire de la Decouverte in Val Belair near Quebec, Canada. The above spectacular aurora has an unusually high degree of detail, range of colors, and breadth across the sky. The vivid green, red, and blue auroral colors are likely caused by high atmospheric oxygen and hydrogen reacting to incoming electrons. The trigger events were magnetically induced explosions on the Sun from sunspot region 696 over the past few days. Continued activity from this active solar region could mean more auroras visible to northern observers over the next few days. Early in the morning but far in the background, planets, stars and the Moon will be simultaneously putting on their own show.

Leo A: Nearby Dwarf Irregular Galaxy

Why isn't this small galaxy simple? The above image and contemporary observations of small nearby galaxy Leo A were supposed to show it has a simple structure. Now Leo A is known to be a dwarf irregular galaxy - one of the most common types of galaxies in the universe and a type that is likely a building block of more massive galaxy like our Milky Way Galaxy. In general, larger galaxies have recently been shown to continually eat, and be primarily composed of, many of the smaller satellite galaxies that have surrounded them. Leo A's surprising complexity indicates that that it, and possibly many small galaxies, have formation histories nearly as complex as large galaxies. Leo A spans about 10,000 light years and lies about 2.5 million light years away toward the constellation of Leo.

Pastel Planet, Triple Eclipse

This false-color image of banded gas giant Jupiter shows a triple eclipse in progress on March 28 - a relatively rare event, even for a large planet with many moons. Captured by the Hubble Space Telescope's near-infrared camera are shadows of Jupiter's moons Ganymede (left edge), Callisto (right edge) and Io, three black spots crossing the sunlit Jovian cloud tops. In fact, Io itself is visible as a white spot near picture center with a bluish Ganymede above and to the right, but Callisto is off the right hand edge of the scene. Viewed from Jupiter's perspective, these shadow crossings would be seen as solar eclipses, analogous to the Moon's shadow crossing the sunlit face of planet Earth. Historically, timing the eclipses of Jupiter's moons allowed astronomer Ole Roemer to make the first accurate measurement of the speed of light in 1676.

Missouri's Green Ribbon Sky

The critics rave - "Amazing!", "Unbelievable!", "The best I've ever seen!" They aren't talking about a movie, though. Instead, even casual sky critics are remarking on November's stunning auroral displays, visible with surprising intensities well beyond the confines of high latitudes where auroral activity is normally observed. In fact, in this example of an unforgettable performance a green ribbon of auroral light stretches from horizon to horizon - recorded on November 7th with a fisheye lens near Warrensburg, Missouri, USA. Want to see an aurora? Relatively wide-spread displays may continue, triggered by activity from an energetic sunspot region.

Moon Over Shiraz

rly morning risers around the world have enjoyed the sight of bright planets in this week's predawn skies - further enhanced by the celestial spectacle of the waning crescent Moon. From some locations the Moon was seen to pass in front of Jupiter or Venus, a lunar occultation. Recorded near sunrise on November 10th from Shiraz, Iran, this eastern horizon view finds Jupiter (top) and a brilliant Venus in line with the Moon, a lovely conjunction of the three brightest objects in the night sky. Although the Moon has now fallen out of the early morning scene, Venus and Jupiter (along with a much fainter Mars) still precede the rising Sun above the eastern horizon.

Leonids Above Torre de la Guaita

The 1999 Leonids Meteor Shower came to an impressive crescendo. Observers in Europe observed a sharp peak in the number of meteors visible around 0210 UTC during the early morning hours of November 18. Meteor counts then exceeded 1000 per hour - the minimum needed to define a true meteor storm. At other times and from other locations around the world, observers typically reported respectable rates of between 30 and 100 meteors per hour. The above photograph is a 20-minute exposure ending just before the main Leonids peak began. Visible are at least five Leonids meteors streaking high above the Torre de la Guaita, an observation tower used during the 12th century in Girona, Spain. This year's Leonids should peak twice on November 19th, but is predicted to be less impressive than in 1999.

Burns Cliff on Mars

The majestic walls of Endurance Crater contain layers of clues about the ancient past of Mars. In fact, the deeper the layer, the older the clue. The particular crater wall imaged above was dubbed Burns Cliff and was in front of the robot rover Opportunity last week. Close inspection of different layers has found slightly different compositions as well as interesting trends in relative compositions. For example, deeper layers contain similarly decreasing amounts of both magnesium and sulfur, indicating a common reason for their decline -- possibly dissolution in water. Today, more practically, Burns Cliff blocks one exit direction for Opportunity to leave Endurance Crater. When combined with slippery sand elsewhere on the crater floor, controllers have decided to program Opportunity to back out of the crater the way it came in - after a few more days exploration.

Sagittarius Dwarf Irregular Galaxy

How old is this galaxy? The nearby Local Group galaxy dubbed the Sagittarius Dwarf Irregular Galaxy (SagDIG) is not only very small but also has relatively few elements more massive than helium. Now the lack of heavy elements might mean that SagDIG is very young, so that component stars had little time to create and disperse massive elements. Conversely, SagDIG's diminutive size could indicate that it formed in the early universe, being a surviving building block of modern large galaxies. The above detailed image from the Hubble Space Telescope has now resolved enough stars to solve this mystery: SagDIG is ancient. Although SagDIG does have some groups of young stars, many stars are very old, and the galaxy as a whole helps astronomers to understand how the universe evolved, and show that at least one metal-poor galaxy is almost as old as the universe. Pictured above, SagDIG spans about 1,500 light years and lies about 3.5 million light years away toward the constellation of Sagittarius.

Aurora Over Wisconsin

The auroral displays of the past week are being reported as some of the most beautiful in memory. In particular, impressive auroral bands fanned out over much of eastern North America after sunset on November 8. The multicolored aurora pictured above was caught reflecting in one of the many small lakes in central Wisconsin near that time. Continued solar activity might create more aurora visible over the next few nights as the Leonids meteor shower peaks. News flash: NASA air breathing jet sets new air speed record.

A Sharper View of a Tilted Planet

These sharp views of tilted gas giant Uranus show dramatic details of the planet's atmosphere and ring system. The remarkable ground-based images were made using a near-infrared camera and the Keck Adaptive Optics system to reduce the blurring effects of Earth's atmosphere. Recorded in July, the pictures show two sides of Uranus (careful how you pronounce that ...). In both, high, white cloud features are seen mostly in the northern (right hand) hemisphere, with medium level cloud bands in green and lower level clouds in blue. The artificial color scheme lends a deep reddish tint to the otherwise faint rings. Because of the severe tilt of its rotational axis, seasons on Uranus are extreme and last nearly 21 Earth years on the distant planet. Uranus is now slowly approaching its southern autumnal equinox - the beginning of fall in the southern hemisphere - in 2007.

Phobos: Doomed Moon of Mars

This moon is doomed. Mars, the red planet named for the Roman god of war, has two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, whose names are derived from the Greek for Fear and Panic. These martian moons may well be captured asteroids originating in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter or perhaps from even more distant reaches of the Solar System. The largest moon, Phobos, is indeed seen to be a cratered, asteroid-like object in this stunning new color image from the Mars Express spacecraft, recorded at a resolution of about seven meters per pixel. But Phobos orbits so close to Mars - about 5,800 kilometers above the surface compared to 400,000 kilometers for our Moon - that gravitational tidal forces are dragging it down. In 100 million years or so it will likely crash into the surface or be shattered by stress caused by the relentless tidal forces, the debris forming a ring around Mars.

Stereo Phobos

Get out your red/blue glasses and float next to Phobos, grooved moon of Mars! Also featured in yesterday's episode, the image data from the Mars Express High Resolution Stereo Camera was recorded at a distance of about 200 kilometers. This tantalizing stereo anaglyph view shows the Mars-facing side of the asteroid-like moon's cratered and grooved surface. Up to hundreds of meters wide, the mysterious grooves may be fractures related to the impact which created 10 kilometer wide Stickney crater, the large crater at the left.

Spiral Galaxies in Collision

Billions of years from now, only one of these two galaxies will remain. Until then, spiral galaxies NGC 2207 and IC 2163 will slowly pull each other apart, creating tides of matter, sheets of shocked gas, lanes of dark dust, bursts of star formation, and streams of cast-away stars. Astronomers predict that NGC 2207, the larger galaxy on the left, will eventually incorporate IC 2163, the smaller galaxy on the right. In the most recent encounter that peaked 40 million years ago, the smaller galaxy is swinging around counter-clockwise, and is now slightly behind the larger galaxy. The space between stars is so vast that when galaxies collide, the stars in them usually do not collide.

Swift Launches

Where do gamma ray bursts occur? To help find out, NASA launched the Swift satellite on Saturday, as pictured above. What Swift is designed to do better than any previous satellite is to quickly locate these enigmatic explosions in both sky position and distance. Once a gamma ray burst (GRB) is located, Swift itself will rotate to face it head-on and determine its distance directly. Swift locations will be immediately beamed down to Earth-based telescopes operating around the world and across the electromagnetic spectrum that are just waiting for a place on the sky to point. Subsequently collected GRB and afterglow information will help astronomers not only determine the nature of the initial explosions, but also the nature of the expanding shockwaves. Some Swift-located GRBs could turn out to be the most distant transient events ever detected, holding unique clues to the nature and rate of the very first wave of star formation in the early universe.

Leonid Meteors Streak

The 2004 Leonids meteor shower had its ups and downs. Although average rates were significantly less than many previous years, as expected, at least two unexpected "mini-outbursts" of several bright meteors over a few minutes were reported. Pictured above, a bright Leonid meteor was imaged by a Night Sky Live camera over Kitt Peak National Observatory early in the morning of November 19 during one mini-outburst. The meteor appears as the streak just to the left of the green "Ursa Major" label. Moving your cursor over the image will show the image taken about 25 minutes later where two bright Leonid meteors from a second mini-outburst were recorded, visible on the lower right just to the left of the green words "Canis" and "Minor". The stars appear to shift between the two images because of the rotation of the Earth. The Night Sky Live frames show fisheye images, capturing the entire sky as a person would see it looking straight up, including peripheral vision. In mid-December, the Geminids meteor shower will give sky enthusiasts another good chance to see live meteors.

A Radar View of Titan

Where are Titan's craters? Throughout our Solar System's five billion-year history, dangerous rocks and chunks of ice have continually slammed into planets and moons - usually creating numerous long lasting impact craters. When the robot spacecraft Cassini swooped past Saturn's moon Titan last month, however, radar images showed few craters. One such image, spanning 75 kilometers across, is shown above. The imaged structures are not yet understood, but may involve some sort of flows. Titan is already known to be an unusual moon, sporting a thick atmosphere, large size, small amounts of organic compounds. Craters are surely created on all surfaces in the Solar System, but might be destroyed later, as on Earth and Jupiter's moon Io. How craters are destroyed on Titan remains a topic of speculation, but might become better understood by consideration of data returned by future flybys of Cassini and by the probe Huygens that will descend toward Titan's surface in December.

What the Hubble Saw

In this striking 41 inch by 38 inch quilt, astronomy enthusiast Judy Ross has interpreted some of the Hubble Space Telescope's best galactic and extragalactic vistas. Featured in past APODs, clockwise from the lower right are; the Red Rectangle Nebula, the Eskimo Nebula, the Sleeping Beauty Galaxy, V838 Monocerotis - the Milky Way's most mysterious star, and supernova remnant N49 - the cosmic debris from an exploded star. Of course, quilts have been used historically to represent astronomical concepts. And while inspired by the images of the cosmos that she incorporates into her quilts, Ross reports that she is still a little daunted by the intricacies of the Cat's Eye Nebula revealed by the Hubble's sharp vision.

Magnetars In The Sky

Indicated on this infrared image of the galactic center region are positions of candidate magnetars -- believed to be the strongest magnets in the galaxy. Classified by observers as Soft Gamma Repeaters (SGRs) and Anomalous X-ray Pulsars (AXPs), these cosmic powerhouses are likely city-sized, spinning, highly-magnetized neutron stars. How strong is a magnetar's magnetic field? The Earth's magnetic field which deflects compass needles is measured to be about 1 Gauss, while the strongest fields sustainable in earthbound laboratories are about 100,000 Gauss. A magnetar's monster magnetic field is estimated to be as high as 1,000,000,000,000,000 Gauss. A magnet this strong, located at about half the distance to the Moon would easily erase your credit cards and suck pens out of your pocket. In 1998, from a distance of about 20,000 light-years, one magnetar, SGR 1900+14 generated a powerful flash of gamma-rays detected by many spacecraft. That blast of high-energy radiation is now known to have had a measurable effect on Earth's ionosphere. At the surface of the magnetar, its powerful magnetic field is thought to buckle and shift the neutron star crust generating the intense high-energy flares

NGC 2683: Spiral Edge-On

This gorgeous island universe, cataloged as NGC 2683, lies a mere 16 million light-years distant in the northern constellation Lynx. A spiral galaxy comparable to our own Milky Way, NGC 2683 is seen nearly edge-on in this cosmic vista, with more distant galaxies scattered in the background. Blended light from a large population of old yellowish stars forms the remarkably bright galactic core. Starlight silhouettes the dust lanes along winding spiral arms, dotted with the telltale pink glow of ionized hydrogen gas from this galaxy's star forming regions.

Doomed Star Eta Carinae

Carinae may be about to explode. But no one knows when - it may be next year, it may be one million years from now. Eta Carinae's mass - about 100 times greater than our Sun - makes it an excellent candidate for a full blown supernova. Historical records do show that about 150 years ago Eta Carinae underwent an unusual outburst that made it one of the brightest stars in the southern sky. Eta Carinae, in the Keyhole Nebula, is the only star currently thought to emit natural LASER light. This image, taken in 1996, resulted from sophisticated image-processing procedures designed to bring out new details in the unusual nebula that surrounds this rogue star. Now clearly visible are two distinct lobes, a hot central region, and strange radial streaks. The lobes are filled with lanes of gas and dust which absorb the blue and ultraviolet light emitted near the center. The streaks remain unexplained. Will these clues tell us how the nebula was formed? Will they better indicate when Eta Carinae will explode?

Saturn's Moon Tethys from Cassini

Tethys is one of the larger and closer moons of Saturn. The Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn passed near the frozen moon at the end of October, capturing the most detailed images since the Voyager spacecrafts in the early 1980s. Tethys is composed almost completely of water ice and shows a large impact crater that nearly circles the moon. Because this crater did not disrupt the moon, Tethys is hypothesized to be at least partly liquid in its past. Two smaller moons, Telesto and Calypso, orbit Saturn just ahead of and behind Tethys. Giovanni Cassini discovered Tethys in 1684. The Cassini spacecraft is scheduled for a close fly-by of Tethys in September 2005.

Lake Effect Snow on Earth

What are those strange clouds stretching out from these lakes? The clouds are caused by cold air moving over a warm water and result in bands of lake-effect snow. The rising bands of moistened, warmed air that drop lake-effect snow alternate with clear bands of falling cold air. During a winter, such bands can create hundreds of centimeters of snow more than upwind areas only a hundred kilometers away. During this lake-effect snowfall of 2000 December 5, practically all of the state of Michigan, USA got covered. A cold northwesterly wind over Great Lakes Superior and Michigan created the unusual clouds. The above image was taken with NASA's SeaWiFS satellite.

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