NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2005-6

White Dwarf Star Spiral

About 1,600 light-years away, in a binary star system fondly known as J0806, two dense white dwarf stars orbit each other once every 321 seconds. Interpreting x-ray data from the Chandra Observatory astronomers argue that the stars' already impressively short orbital period is steadily getting shorter as the stars spiral closer together. Even though they are separated by about 80,000 kilometers (the Earth-Moon distance is 400,000 kilometers) the two stars are therefore destined to merge. Depicted in this artist's vision, the death spiral of the remarkable J0806 system is a consequence of Einstein's theory of General Relativity that predicts the white dwarf stars will lose their orbital energy by generating gravity waves. In fact, J0806 could be one of the brightest sources of gravitational waves in our galaxy, directly detectable by future space-based gravity wave instruments.

Sculpting the South Pillar

Carinae, one of the most massive and unstable stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, has a profound effect on its environment. Found in the the South Pillar region of the Carina Nebula, these fantastic pillars of glowing dust and gas with embedded newborn stars were sculpted by the intense wind and radiation from Eta Carinae and other massive stars. Glowing brightly in planet Earth's southern sky, the expansive Eta Carinae Nebula is a mere 10,000 light-years distant. Still, this remarkable cosmic vista is largely obscured by nebular dust and only revealed here in penetrating infrared light by the Spitzer Space Telescope. Eta Carinae itself is off the top left of the false-color image, with the bright-tipped dust pillars pointing suggestively toward the massive star's position. The Spitzer image spans almost 200 light-years at the distance of Eta Carinae.

M27: The Dumbbell Nebula

The first hint of what will become of our Sun was discovered inadvertently in 1764. At that time, Charles Messier was compiling a list of diffuse objects not to be confused with comets. The 27th object on Messier's list, now known as M27 or the Dumbbell Nebula, is a planetary nebula, the type of nebula our Sun will produce when nuclear fusion stops in its core. M27 is one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky, and can be seen in the constellation Vulpecula with binoculars. It takes light about 1000 years to reach us from M27, shown above, digitally sharpened, in three standard colors. Understanding the physics and significance of M27 was well beyond 18th century science. Even today, many things remain mysterious about bipolar planetary nebula like M27, including the physical mechanism that expels a low-mass star's gaseous outer-envelope, leaving an X-ray hot white dwarf.

First U.S. Spacewalk

In 1965, forty years ago on June 3rd, astronaut Edward White made the first U.S. spacewalk. Tethered to his Gemini IV capsule, White is pictured above holding a compressed gas "zip gun" for maneuvers in his right hand. His spacewalk began over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii and ended 23 minutes later above the Gulf of Mexico. Of course, the term spacewalk is a bit deceiving as White was falling freely in low earth orbit alongside his capsule manned by fellow astronaut James McDivitt. In free-fall, White was able to control his motions by firing bursts from his gun until its supply of compressed gas ran out. He ultimately returned, exhausted, to the two-man Gemini capsule.

A Milky Way Band

Most bright stars in our Milky Way Galaxy reside in a disk. Since our Sun also resides in this disk, these stars appear to us as a diffuse band that circles the sky. The above panorama of a northern band of the Milky Way's disk covers 90 degrees and is a digitally created mosaic of several independent exposures. Scrolling right will display the rest of this spectacular picture. Visible are many bright stars, dark dust lanes, red emission nebulae, blue reflection nebulae, and clusters of stars. In addition to all this matter that we can see, astronomers suspect there exists even more dark matter that we cannot see.

Saturn: Dirty Rings and a Clean Moon

g surface ice from Enceladus might be healthier than eating ice from Saturn's rings -- it certainly appears cleaner. From their apparent densities and reflectance properties, both the rings of Saturn and its shiniest moon, Enceladus, are thought to be composed predominantly of water ice. For reasons that are not yet understood, however, many of Saturn's ring particles have become partly coated with some sort of relatively dark dust, while the surface of Enceladus appears comparatively bright and clean. The contrast between the two can be seen in the above image taken last month by the robot Cassini spacecraft now in orbit around Saturn. Bright Enceladus shines in the background in contrast to the darker foreground rings. The reason why Enceladus is so bright is currently unknown but might involve bringing fresh water to its surface with water volcanoes.

Galaxies in View

Galaxies abound in this cosmic scene, a well chosen telescopic view toward the northern constellation of Ursa Major. Most noticeable are the striking pair of spiral galaxies - NGC 3718 (above, right) and NGC 3729 (below center) - a mere 52 million light-years distant. In particular, NGC 3718 has dramatic dust lanes sweeping through its bright central region and extensive but faint spiral arms. Seen about 150 thousand light-years apart, these two galaxies are likely interacting gravitationally, accounting for the warped and peculiar appearance of NGC 3718. While a careful study of the deep image reveals a number of fainter and more distant background galaxies, another remarkable galaxy grouping known as Hickson Group 56 can be found just to the right of NGC 3718. Hickson Group 56 contains five interacting galaxies and lies over 400 million light-years away.

Rampaging Supernova Remnant N63A

What has this supernova left behind? As little as 2,000 years ago, light from a massive stellar explosion in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) first reached planet Earth. The LMC is a close galactic neighbor of our Milky Way Galaxy and the rampaging explosion front is now seen moving out - destroying or displacing ambient gas clouds while leaving behind relatively dense knots of gas and dust. What remains is one of the largest supernova remnants in the LMC: N63A. Many of the surviving dense knots have been themselves compressed and may further contract to form new stars. Some of the resulting stars may then explode in a supernova, continuing the cycle. Pictured above is a close-up of one of the largest remaining knots of dust and gas in N63A taken by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. N63A spans over 25 light years and lies about 150,000 light years away toward the southern constellation of Dorado.

Venus Returns to the Evening Sky

This serene image of boats moored in the harbor of l'Île-Tudy, Bretagne, France was taken on June 1st, about an hour after sunset. It also features Venus, third brightest celestial object after the Sun and Moon. For casual skygazers, this month marks Venus' return to the evening sky as the brilliant 'star', shining low in the west-northwest shortly after sunset. In the picture, astrophotographer and APOD translator Laurent Laveder notes that Venus is easily mistaken for a light atop a sailboat's tall mast, giving the otherwise stunning celestial beacon an unremarkable appearance. Of course, a year ago Venus' appearance was quite remarkable. On June 8, 2004, Venus crossed the Sun's disk, the first transit of Venus since 1882. Late this week Venus shares the evening sky with the young crescent Moon, and will next transit the Sun on June 6, 2012.

Titan's Cryovolcano

Investigators suspect the domed feature detailed above is an ice volcano, or cryovolcano, seen in infrared light through the hazy atmosphere on Saturn's moon Titan. Since Titan's surface temperature is around minus 180 degrees Celsius, lava welling up to form the volcanic mound would be icy indeed - possibly a slurry of methane, ammonia, and water ice combined with other ices and hydrocarbons. The circular feature is roughly thirty kilometers in diameter. If its volcanic nature is confirmed, the discovery of cryovolcanism on Titan could explain the origin of methane in Titan's atmosphere. Before the Cassini-Huygens mission to Saturn, a popular explanation for replenishing Titan's concentration of atmospheric methane was the presence of an extensive, methane-rich, hydrocarbon sea. But Cassini's instruments and the Huygens surface probe have failed to find such a global ocean.

Earth at Twilight

No sudden, sharp boundary marks the passage of day into night in this gorgeous view of ocean and clouds over our fair planet Earth. Instead, the shadow line or terminator is diffuse and shows the gradual transition to darkness we experience as twilight. With the Sun illuminating the scene from the right, the cloud tops reflect gently reddened sunlight filtered through the dusty troposphere, the lowest layer of the planet's nurturing atmosphere. A clear high altitude layer, visible along the dayside's upper edge, scatters blue sunlight and fades into the blackness of space. This picture actually is a single digital photograph taken in June of 2001 from the International Space Station orbiting at an altitude of 211 nautical miles.

M2-9: Wings of a Butterfly Nebula

Are stars better appreciated for their art after they die? Actually, stars usually create their most artistic displays as they die. In the case of low-mass stars like our Sun and M2-9 pictured above, the stars transform themselves from normal stars to white dwarfs by casting off their outer gaseous envelopes. The expended gas frequently forms an impressive display called a planetary nebula that fades gradually over thousand of years. M2-9, a butterfly planetary nebula 2100 light-years away shown in representative colors, has wings that tell a strange but incomplete tale. In the center, two stars orbit inside a gaseous disk 10 times the orbit of Pluto. The expelled envelope of the dying star breaks out from the disk creating the bipolar appearance. Much remains unknown about the physical processes that cause planetary nebulae.

Tornado and Rainbow Over Kansas

The scene might have been considered serene if it weren't for the tornado. Last June in Kansas, storm chaser Eric Nguyen photographed this budding twister in a different light -- the light of a rainbow. Pictured above, a white tornado cloud descends from a dark storm cloud. The Sun, peeking through a clear patch of sky to the left, illuminates some buildings in the foreground. Sunlight reflects off raindrops to form a rainbow. By coincidence, the tornado appears to end right over the rainbow. Streaks in the image are hail being swept about by the high swirling winds. Over 1,000 tornadoes, the most violent type of storm known, occur on Earth every year, many in tornado alley. If you see a tornado while driving, do not try to outrun it -- park your car safely, go to a storm cellar, or crouch under steps in a basement.

Gliese 876 System Includes Large Terrestrial Planet

Is our Earth unique? In continuing efforts to answer this question, astronomers have now discovered an Earth-like planet orbiting a distant normal star. Previously over 150 gas-giant planets like Jupiter had been so discovered. Slight, fast, but regular wobbles of nearby small M-dwarf star Gliese 876 showed evidence for a planet with a likely mass slightly higher than a minimum six times the mass of Earth. The planet's small mass indicates that it is likely terrestrial in nature, similar in composition to the inner planets of our Solar System. If indeed made predominantly of rock, the planet's surface gravity would not even be able to contain the gasses of a Jupiter-like planet. The newly discovered planet would not make a good vacation spot for humans, however, as it orbits so close that the surface temperature probably tops a searing 200 degrees Celsius. The system is illustrated in the above drawing as seen from a hypothetical moon orbiting one of the two Jupiter-like planets already known. The newly discovered terrestrial-like planet is depicted in the insert. Gliese 876 lies only 15 light-years away and is visible with binoculars toward the constellation of Aquarius.

Cassiopeia A Light Echoes in Infrared

Why is the image of Cassiopeia A changing? Two images of the nearby supernova remnant taken a year apart in infrared light appear to show outward motions at tremendous speeds. This was unexpected since the supernova that created the picturesque nebula was seen 325 years ago. The reason is likely light echoes. Light from the supernova heated up distant ambient dust that is just beginning to show its glow. As time goes by, more distant dust lights up, giving the appearance of outward motion. The above image is a composite of X-ray, optical, and infrared light exposures that have been digitally combined. The infrared light image was taken by the orbiting Spitzer Space Telescope and was used in the discovery of the light echo. The portion of Cassiopeia A shown spans about 15 light years and lies 10,000 light years away toward the constellation of Cassiopeia.

APOD Is Ten Years Old Today

Welcome to the eleventh year of Astronomy Picture of the Day! In a decade of editing the APOD web pages, the industrious Robert Nemiroff (left) and persistent Jerry Bonnell (right) have enjoyed exploring compelling images of the cosmos that are not limited to those taken from earth orbit, much less to those taken by professional astronomers. In fact, seen in this recently released Vermeer, the editors are extremely grateful for the continued large volume of gracious e-mail and APOD submissions. Today, they would like to offer a sincere thank you to all. And while these APOD editors are definitely not getting any younger, tomorrow's picture may actually be ...

The Small Cloud of Magellan

Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan and his crew had plenty of time to study the southern sky during the first circumnavigation of planet Earth. As a result, two celestial wonders easily visible for southern hemisphere skygazers are known as the Clouds of Magellan. These cosmic clouds are now understood to be dwarf irregular galaxies, satellites of our larger spiral Milky Way Galaxy. The Small Magellanic Cloud pictured above actually spans 15,000 light-years or so and contains several hundred million stars. About 210,000 light-years distant in the constellation Tucana, it is the fourth closest of the Milky Way's known satellite galaxies, after the Canis Major and Sagittarius Dwarf galaxies and the Large Magellanic Cloud. This gorgeous view also includes two foreground globular star clusters NGC 362 (top left) and 47 Tucanae. Spectacular 47 Tucanae is a mere 13,000 light-years away and seen here to the right of the Small Magellanic Cloud.

Visitors' Galaxy Gallery

A tantalizing assortment of island universes is assembled here. From top left to bottom right are the lovely but distant galaxies M61, NGC 4449, NGC 4725, NGC 5068, NGC 5247, and NGC 5775/5774. Most are spiral galaxies more or less like our own Milky Way. The color images reveal distinct pink patches marking the glowing hydrogen gas clouds in star forming regions along the graceful spiral arms. While Virgo cluster galaxy M61 is perhaps the most striking of these spirals, the interesting galaxy pair NGC 5775/5774 neatly contrasts the characteristic spiral edge-on and face-on appearance. The one exception to this parade of photogenic spiral galaxies is the small and relatively close irregular galaxy NGC 4449 (top middle). Similar to the Large Magellanic Cloud, companion galaxy to the Milky Way, NGC 4449 also sports young blue star clusters and pink star forming regions. All the galaxies in this gallery were imaged with a small (16 inch diameter) reflecting telescope and digital camera by public participants in the Kitt Peak National Observatory Visitor Center's Advanced Observing Program.

Noctilucent Clouds

Sometimes it's night on the ground but day in the air. As the Earth rotates to eclipse the Sun, sunset rises up from the ground. Therefore, at sunset on the ground, sunlight still shines on clouds above. Under usual circumstances, a pretty sunset might be visible, but unusual noctilucent clouds float so high up they can be seen well after dark. Pictured above, a network of noctilucent clouds casts a colorful but eerie glow visible above the dark. Although noctilucent clouds are thought to be composed of small ice-coated particles, much remains unknown about them. Recent evidence indicates that at least some noctilucent clouds result from freezing water exhaust from Space Shuttles.

Sunset Over Gusev Crater

What would it be like to see a sunset on Mars? To help find out, the robotic rover Spirit was deployed last month to park and serenely watch the Sun dip below the distant lip of Gusev crater. It was a tough job, but some robot had to do it. Now on Earth a red sunset is caused by two effects -- by blue light being preferentially scattered out of sunlight by oxygen and nitrogen molecules in the atmosphere, and by scattering off a small amount of impurities like volcanic dust. (The magnitude of the first effect was computed in one of Albert Einstein's most cited papers.) Although Mars lacks oxygen and nitrogen, it is covered in red dust frequently hoisted into the atmosphere by fast but thin winds. Analyses of images like the above photograph show that at least some Martian days are capped by a sunset significantly longer and redder than typical on Earth. For up to two hours after twilight, sunlight continued to reflect off Martian dust high in the atmosphere, casting a diffuse glow. The result helps atmospheric scientists understand not only the atmosphere of Mars, but atmospheres across the Solar System, including our home Earth.

The Cygnus Wall of Star Formation

The North America Nebula in the sky can do what North Americans on Earth cannot -- form stars. Specifically, in analogy to the Earth-confined continent, the bright part that appears as Central America and Mexico is actually a hot bed of gas, dust, and newly formed stars known as the Cygnus Wall. The above image in representative colors shows the star forming wall lit and eroded by bright young stars, and partly hidden by the dark dust they have created. The part of the North America nebula (NGC 7000) shown spans about 15 light years and lies about 1,500 light years away toward the constellation of Cygnus. News: Solar Sail Spacecraft Launch

Saturn's Rings from the Other Side

What do Saturn's rings look like from the other side? From Earth, we usually see Saturn's rings from the same side of the ring plane that the Sun illuminates them. Geometrically, in the above picture taken in April by the robot Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn, the Sun is behind the camera but on the other side of the ring plane. Such a vantage point gives a breathtaking views of the most splendid ring system in the Solar System. Strangely, the rings have similarities to a photographic negative of a front view. For example, the dark band in the middle is actually the normally bright B-ring. The ring brightness as recorded from different angles indicates ring thickness and particle density of ring particles. Images like these are also interesting for what they do not show: spokes. The unexpected shadowy regions once recorded by the Voyager missions when they passed Saturn in the early 1980s are not, so far, being seen by Cassini. Extra credit: Can you spot the small moon (Prometheus) among the rings?

Moonrise, Cape Sounion, Greece

The Moon was full this month on June 22nd, only a day after the northern hemisphere's summer solstice. Since this solstice marked the northernmost point of the Sun's annual motion through planet Earth's sky, the full Moon rising near the ecliptic plane opposite the Sun was at its farthest south for the year. Only a month earlier, on May 23rd, astronomer Anthony Ayiomamitis recorded this picture of another southerly full Moon rising above Cape Sounion, Greece. The twenty-four hundred year old Temple of Poseidon lies in the foreground, also visible to sailors on the Aegean Sea. In this well-planned, single exposure, a long telephoto lens makes the Moon loom large, but even without optical aid casual skygazers often find the full Moon looking astonishingly large when seen near the horizon. That powerful visual effect is known as the Moon Illusion.

Planets in the West

This weekend three planets will grace the western sky, forming a lovely trio easily visible shortly after sunset. Saturday evening in particular will find Saturn, Venus, and Mercury all within a 2 degree circle (about the size of your thumb held at arm's length) above the western horizon. Recorded last Sunday, June 19, this image shows the same three planets arrayed along the ecliptic plane above a Colorado Rocky Mountain skyline. Venus is easiest to pick out of the twilight, the brightest celestial beacon below picture center, with Saturn above and to the left of Venus, and Mercury closest to the horizon, right of prominent Pinnacle Peak. By Saturday, the wandering planets will draw even closer together. For help spotting the planets here, put your cursor over the picture.

Venus: Just Passing By

Venus, the second closest planet to the Sun, is by far the brightest of the three planets gathered in this weekend's western sky at sunset. It has also proven to be a popular way-point for spacecraft headed for the gas giant planets in the outer reaches of the solar system. Why visit Venus first? Using a gravity assist maneuver, spacecraft can swing by planets and gain energy during their brief encounter, saving fuel for use at the end of their long interplanetary voyage. This colorized image of Venus was recorded by the Jupiter-bound Galileo spacecraft shortly after its gravity assist flyby of Venus in February of 1990. Galileo's glimpse of the veiled planet shows structure in swirling sulfuric acid clouds. The bright area is sunlight glinting off the upper cloud deck.

The 2MASS Galaxy Sky

Are the nearest galaxies distributed randomly? A plot of over one million of the brightest "extended sources" detected by the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS) shows that they are not. The vast majority of these infrared extended sources are galaxies. Visible above is an incredible tapestry of structure that provides limits on how the universe formed and evolved. Many galaxies are gravitationally bound together to form clusters, which themselves are loosely bound into superclusters, which in turn are sometimes seen to align over even larger scale structures. In contrast, very bright stars inside our own Milky Way Galaxy cause the vertical blue sash.

Globular Cluster M22 from CFHT

The globular cluster M22, pictured above, contains over 100,000 stars. These stars formed together and are gravitationally bound. Stars orbit the center of the cluster, and the cluster orbits the center of our Galaxy. So far, about 140 globular clusters are known to exist in a roughly spherical halo around the Galactic center. Globular clusters do not appear spherically distributed as viewed from the Earth, and this fact was a key point in the determination that our Sun is not at the center of our Galaxy. Globular clusters are very old. There is a straightforward method of determining their age, and this nearly matches the 13.7 billion-year age of our entire universe.

The Giant Radio Lobes of Fornax A

Together, the radio lobes span over one million light years -- what caused them? In the center is a large but peculiar elliptical galaxy dubbed NGC 1316. Detailed inspection of the NGC 1316 system indicates that it began absorbing a small neighboring galaxy about 100 million years ago. Gas from the galactic collision has fallen inward toward the massive central black hole, with friction heating the gas to 10 million degrees. For reasons not yet well understood, two oppositely pointed fast moving jets of particles then developed, eventually smashing into the ambient material on either side of the giant elliptical galaxy. The result is a huge reservoir of hot gas that emits radio waves, observed as the orange (false-color) radio lobes in the above image. The radio image is superposed on an optical survey image of the same part of the sky. Strange patterns in the radio lobes likely indicate slight changes in the directions of the jets. First Annual Radio Astronomy Image Contest

Thirteen Million Kilometers from Comet Tempel 1

The Deep Impact spacecraft continues to close on Comet Tempel 1, a comet roughly the size of Manhattan. Early on July 3 (EDT), the Deep Impact spacecraft will separate in to two individual robotic spaceships, one called Flyby and the other called Impactor. During the next 24 hours, both Flyby and Impactor will fire rockets and undergo complex maneuvers in preparation for Impactor's planned collision with Comet Tempel 1. On July 4 (1:52 am EDT) if everything goes as scheduled, the 370-kilogram Impactor will strike Tempel 1's surface at over 14,000 kilometers per hour. Impactor will attempt to photograph the oncoming comet right up to the time of collision, while Flyby photographs the result from nearby. The above image was taken on 19 June from about 13 million kilometers out and used to help identify the central nucleus of the comet inside the diffuse coma. Telescopes around the Earth, including the Hubble Space Telescope, will also be closely watching the distant silent space ballet. The result may give crucial information about the structure of comets and the early history of our Solar System.

history record