NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2008-5

The Giants of Omega Centauri

Globular star cluster Omega Centauri is some 15,000 light-years away and 150 light-years in diameter. Packed with about 10 million stars, Omega Cen is the largest of 200 or so known globular clusters that roam the halo of our Milky Way galaxy. This intriguing color picture combines a visible light image of the cluster in blue hues with infrared image data from the Spitzer Space Telescope. The Spitzer data includes images in two infrared bands, one shown in green and one in red. Both infrared bands are sensitive to light from the cool, giant stars in the cluster. Adding the red and green colors together creates yellow, showing off the cluster's giant stars as yellow spots. Of course, red spots also indicate cool, giant stars in the image, but some of the red spots are even more distant background galaxies. Also known simply as Red Giant Stars, they represent a stage in the life-cycle of stars more evolved than our own Sun, a stage the Sun will reach in about 5 billion years. Dust grains formed in the atmospheres of cool, giant stars are ultimately involved in the formation of other stars and planets. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Shaping NGC 6188

Dark shapes with bright edges winging their way through dusty NGC 6188 are tens of light-years long. The emission nebula is found near the edge of an otherwise dark large molecular cloud in the southern constellation Ara, about 4,000 light-years away. Formed in that region only a few million years ago, the massive young stars of the embedded Ara OB1 association sculpt the fantastic shapes and power the nebular glow with stellar winds and intense ultraviolet radiation. The recent star formation itself was likely triggered by winds and supernova explosions, from previous generations of massive stars, that swept up and compressed the molecular gas. A false-color Hubble palette was used to create the this gorgeous wide-field image and shows emission from sulfur, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms in red, green, and blue hues. At the estimated distance of NGC 6188, the picture spans about 300 light-years. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Alborz Mountain Milky Way

Snow-capped stratovolcano Mt. Damavand climbs to 5,670 meters (18,598 feet) near the left edge in this panoramic view of the world at night. In the sky to the left of Damavand's peak are the stars of the Big Dipper in Ursa Major. Pan to the right and your gaze will sweep across the arch of our Milky Way Galaxy above the Alborz Mountain Range bordering the Caspian Sea. Near the center of the panorama, recorded in the predawn hours of April 4th, bright stars Deneb and Altair lie close to the curve of the Milky Way, above the glow of the Haraz valley. Farther right, brilliant Jupiter dominates the sky near the stars, nebulae, and dark dust clouds toward the bulging galactic center. Finally, the horizon glow at the right edge, below bright yellowish giant star Antares, is from the city of Damavand, named for the legendary mountain peak. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

An Antarctic Total Solar Eclipse

The Sun, the Moon, Antarctica, and two photographers all lined up in 2003 Antarctica during an unusual total eclipse of the Sun. Even given the extreme location, a group of enthusiastic eclipse chasers ventured near the bottom of the world to experience the surreal momentary disappearance of the Sun behind the Moon. One of the treasures collected was the above picture -- a composite of four separate images digitally combined to realistically simulate how the adaptive human eye saw the eclipse. As the image was taken, both the Moon and the Sun peaked together over an Antarctic ridge. In the sudden darkness, the magnificent corona of the Sun became visible around the Moon. Quite by accident, another photographer was caught in one of the images checking his video camera. Visible to his left are an equipment bag and a collapsible chair. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

A Persistent Electrical Storm on Saturn

How do large storms evolve on Saturn? On Earth, a hurricane can persist for weeks, while the Great Red Spot on Jupiter has been in existence for over 150 years. On Saturn, a storm system has now set a new endurance record, now being discernable for greater than three months. Electrical signals were detected from the storm in late November of 2007, while the above image was taken in early March 2008. The storm has roughly the width of planet Earth. Planetary scientists hypothesize that the storm runs deep into Saturn's cloud tops. The above image is shown in exaggerated colors combining violet and green light with light normally too red for humans to see. Visible on the upper right are shadows of Saturn's expansive ring system. Careful inspection will reveal Saturn's small moon Janus just below a ring shadow. Understanding weather on other planets helps atmospheric scientists better understand our Earth's weather. Observers of our Solar System's huge ringed world will be tracking the storm to see how it evolves and how long it will ultimately last. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Galaxies Collide in NGC 3256

Galaxies don't normally look like this. NGC 3256 actually shows a current picture of two galaxies that are slowly colliding. Quite possibly, in hundreds of millions of years, only one galaxy will remain. Today, however, NGC 3256 shows intricate filaments of dark dust, unusual tidal tails of stars, and a peculiar center that contains two distinct nuclei. Although it is likely that no stars in the two galaxies will directly collide, the gas, dust, and ambient magnetic fields do interact directly. NGC 3256, part of the vast Hydra-Centaurus supercluster of galaxies, spans over 100 thousand light-years across and is located about 100 million light-years away. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

The Gegenschein Over Chile

Is the night sky darkest in the direction opposite the Sun? No. In fact, a rarely discernable faint glow known as the gegenschein (German for "counter glow") can be seen 180 degrees around from the Sun in an extremely dark sky. The gegenschein is sunlight back-scattered off small interplanetary dust particles. These dust particles are millimeter sized splinters from asteroids and orbit in the ecliptic plane of the planets. Pictured above from last October is one of the most spectacular pictures of the gegenschein yet taken. Here a deep exposure of an extremely dark sky over Paranal Observatory in Chile shows the gegenschein so clearly that even a surrounding glow is visible. In the foreground are several of the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescopes, while notable background objects include the Andromeda galaxy toward the lower left and the Pleiades star cluster just above the horizon. The gegenschein is distinguished from zodiacal light near the Sun by the high angle of reflection. During the day, a phenomenon similar to the gegenschein called the glory can be seen in reflecting air or clouds opposite the Sun from an airplane. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

The Dark Tower in Scorpius

In silhouette against a crowded star field toward the constellation Scorpius, this dusty cosmic cloud evokes for some the image of an ominous dark tower. In fact, clumps of dust and molecular gas collapsing to form stars may well lurk within the dark nebula, a structure that spans almost 40 light-years across the gorgeous telescopic view. Known as a cometary globule, the swept-back cloud, extending from the upper right to the head (top of the tower) left and below center, is shaped by intense ultraviolet radiation from the OB association of very hot stars in NGC 6231, off the left edge of the scene. That energetic ultraviolet light also powers the globule's bordering reddish glow of hydrogen gas. Hot stars embedded in the dust can be seen as small bluish reflection nebulae. This dark tower, NGC 6231, and associated nebulae are about 5,000 light-years away. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Moon Meets Mercury

On Tuesday, May 6, while standing on planet Earth and sweeping your binoculars along the western horizon just after sunset, you might have encountered this arresting skyscape. The view features a slender crescent Moon and bright planet Mercury separated on the sky by only about 2 degrees. Cradled in the sunlit lunar crescent, the night side of the Moon is faintly illuminated by earthshine -- sunlight reflected from planet Earth. Of course, the clouds in silhouette and fading twilight colors are common elements in pictures of the sky after sunset, but much less often seen is inner planet Mercury, usually hiding close to the Sun in Earth's sky. Still, the coming week will be a good time to spot Mercury near the western horizon about 30 minutes after sunset. As for the Moon, tonight and tomorrow night the crescent Moon will wander close to Mars in the early evening sky. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Stars and Mars

Wandering through the evening sky, on May 4th planet Mars stood in line with Castor and Pollux, the two bright stars of the constellation Gemini. In this time exposure of the celestial alignment, Mars actually takes on a distinct yellowish hue, contrasting in color with Pollux; a giant star known to have a Jupiter-class planet, and Castor; itself a multiple star system. Though in mythology Pollux and Castor are twin brothers, the two stars are physically unrelated and are about 34 and 50 light-years distant respectively. Included in the skyview are Procyon, alpha star of Canis Minor, and famous star cluster M44 also known as the Beehive Cluster. Dust in our own solar system reflecting sunlight creates the faint band of Zodiacal light emerging from the lower right corner of the frame. Just put your cursor over the picture for help with identifications. Of course, bright Mars can still be found in the western evening skies and tonight wanders near the crescent Moon. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Retrograde Mars

Why would Mars appear to move backwards? Most of the time, the apparent motion of Mars in Earth's sky is in one direction, slow but steady in front of the far distant stars. About every two years, however, the Earth passes Mars as they orbit around the Sun. During the most recent such pass over the last year, the proximity of Mars made the red planet appear larger and brighter than usual. Also during this time, Mars appeared to move backwards in the sky, a phenomenon called retrograde motion. Pictured above is a series of images digitally stacked so that all of the stars images coincide. Here, Mars appears to trace out a loop in the sky. Near the top of the loop, Earth passed Mars and the retrograde motion was the highest. Retrograde motion can also be seen for other Solar System planets. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

The M81 Galaxy Group Through the Integrated Flux Nebula

Large galaxies and faint nebulae highlight this deep image of the M81 Group of galaxies. First and foremost in the wide-angle 12-hour exposure is the grand design spiral galaxy M81, the largest galaxy visible in the image. M81 is gravitationally interacting with M82 just below it, a big galaxy with an unusual halo of filamentary red-glowing gas. Around the image many other galaxies from the M81 Group of galaxies can be seen. Together with other galaxy congregates including our Local Group of galaxies and the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, the M81 Group is part of the expansive Virgo Supercluster of Galaxies. This whole galaxy menagerie is seen through the faint glow of an Integrated Flux Nebula, a little studied complex of diffuse gas and dust clouds in our Milky Way Galaxy. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Ancient Craters of Southern Rhea

Saturn's ragged moon Rhea has one of the oldest surfaces known. Estimated as changing little in the past billion years, Rhea shows craters so old they no longer appear round – their edges have become compromised by more recent cratering. Like Earth's Moon, Rhea's rotation is locked on Saturn, and the above image shows part of Rhea's surface that always faces Saturn. Rhea's leading surface is more highly cratered than its trailing surface. Rhea is composed mostly of water-ice but is thought to include about 25 percent rock and metal. The above image was taken by the robot Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn. Cassini swooped past Rhea last month and captured the above image from about 350,000 kilometers away. Rhea spans 1,500 kilometers making it Saturn's second largest moon after Titan. Several surface features on Rhea remain unexplained including large light patches like those seen near the image top. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

A Supply Ship Docks with the International Space Station

Looking out a window of the International Space Station brings breathtaking views. Visible vistas include a vast and colorful Earth, a deep dark sky, and an occasional spaceship sent to visit the station. Visible early last month was a Soyuz TMA-12 spacecraft carrying not only supplies but also three newcomers. The three new astronauts were Expedition 17 commander Sergei Volkov, flight engineer Oleg Kononenko, and spaceflight participant So-yeon Yi. Yi returned to Earth a few days later, while Volkov and Konenenko are scheduled to return in a few months. The docking module pictured above involved the Pirs Docking Compartment. The Expedition 17 crew, including NASA flight engineer Gregory Chamitoff, will carry out repairs on the ISS, explore new methods of living in space, and conduct research in space including the effects of space radiation on vitamin molecules. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Sideways Galaxy NGC 3628

Dark dust lanes cut across the middle of this gorgeous island universe, a strong hint that NGC 3628 is a spiral galaxy seen sideways. About 35 million light-years away in the northern springtime constellation Leo, NGC 3628 also bears the distinction of being the only member of the well known Leo triplet of galaxies not in Charles Messier's famous catalog. Otherwise similar in size to our Milky Way Galaxy, the disk of NGC 3628 is clearly seen to fan out near the edges. A faint arm of material also extends to the left in this sharp and deep view of the region. The distorted shape and faint tidal tail suggest that NGC 3628 is interacting gravitationally with the other spiral galaxies in the Leo triplet, M66 and M65. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Circles in the Sky

Gazing skyward on a sunny day in May, photographer Jean-Marc Lecleire captured this engaging display of ice halos forming complete circles in the sky. Recorded with a fish-eye lens from a spot near the grand Château de Chambord in France, the picture looks straight up, spanning almost 180 degrees from horizon to horizon. Surrounding the Sun is a halo formed by sunlight refracting through hexagonal-shaped ice crystals in high, thin clouds. The halo is circular and exactly 22 degrees in radius, but it looks squashed because of the distortion of the extremely wide-angle lens. Surrounding the zenith (the point directly above the observer) and always at the same altitude as the Sun is a lovely parhelic circle, caused by sunlight reflecting from ice crystals with nearly vertical faces. On average more common than rainbows, beautiful ice halos can often be seen in planet Earth's sky by those who know how to look for them.

Logarithmic Spirals

Uncomfortably close Typhoon Rammasun (right) and 25 million light-year distant galaxy M101 don't seem to have much in common. For starters, Rammasun was only a thousand kilometers or so across while M101 (aka the Pinwheel Galaxy) spans about 170,000 light-years, making them vastly dissimilar in scale, not to mention the different physical environments that control their formation and development. But they do look amazingly alike: each with arms exhibiting the shape of a simple and beautiful mathematical curve known as a logarithmic spiral, a spiral whose separation grows in a geometric way with increasing distance from the center. Also known as the equiangular spiral, growth spiral, and Bernoulli's spiral or spira mirabilis, this curve's rich properties have fascinated mathematicians since its discovery by 17th century philosopher Descartes. Intriguingly, this abstract shape is much more abundant in nature than suggested by the striking visual comparison above. For example, logarithmic spirals can also describe the tracks of subatomic particles in a bubble chamber, the arrangement of sunflower seeds and, of course, cauliflower. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

On the Origin of Gold

Where did the gold in your jewelry originate? No one is completely sure. The relative average abundance in our Solar System appears higher than can be made in the early universe, in stars, and even in typical supernova explosions. Some astronomers have recently suggested that neutron-rich heavy elements such as gold might be most easily made in rare neutron-rich explosions such as the collision of neutron stars. Pictured above is an artist's illustration depicting two neutron stars spiraling in toward each other, just before they collide. Since neutron star collisions are also suggested as the origin of short duration gamma-ray bursts, it is possible that you already own a souvenir from one of the most powerful explosions in the universe. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Flying Over the Columbia Hills of Mars

What it would be like to fly over Mars? Combining terrain data from the orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft with information about the robotic Spirit rover currently rolling across Mars has resulted in a digital movie that shows what a flight over the Columbia Hills might look like. Dark rippled sand dunes are highlighted against the Columbia Hills in the above opening image. Clicking on the above image, though, will launch you across Mars, approaching the Columbia Hills. On the far side of the hills, the dark sand dunes come into view. Soon you pass an unusual white-rimmed structure, slightly raised, known as Home Plate, the origin of which is currently unknown and being researched. Turning, you re-approach the hills from a different angle, this time zooming in on Spirit, a curious alien rover sent from planet Earth. A final zoom pans out over the region. This coming Sunday, NASA's Phoenix Lander will attempt to set down near the icy North Pole of Mars and search for signs of ancient life. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

The Perseus Cluster of Galaxies

Here is one of the largest objects that anyone will ever see on the sky. Each of these fuzzy blobs is a galaxy, together making up the Perseus Cluster, one of the closest clusters of galaxies. The cluster is seen through a foreground of faint stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy. Near the cluster center, roughly 250 million light-years away, is the cluster's dominant galaxy NGC 1275, seen above as the large galaxy on the image left. A prodigious source of x-rays and radio emission, NGC 1275 accretes matter as gas and galaxies fall into it. The Perseus Cluster of Galaxies is part of the Pisces-Perseus supercluster spanning over 15 degrees and containing over 1,000 galaxies. At the distance of NGC 1275, this view covers about 7.5 million light-years. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

A Dangerous Sunrise on Gliese 876d

On planet Gliese 876d, sunrises might be dangerous. Although nobody really knows what conditions are like on this close-in planet orbiting variable red dwarf star Gliese 876, the above artistic illustration gives one impression. With an orbit well inside Mercury and a mass several times that of Earth, Gliese 876d might rotate so slowly that dramatic differences exist between night and day. Gliese 876d is imagined above showing significant volcanism, possibly caused by gravitational tides flexing and internally heating the planet, and possibly more volatile during the day. The rising red dwarf star shows expected stellar magnetic activity which includes dramatic and violent prominences. In the sky above, a hypothetical moon has its thin atmosphere blown away by the red dwarf's stellar wind. Gliese 876d excites the imagination partly because it is one of the few extrasolar planets known to be close to the habitable zone of its parent star. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Windblown NGC 3199

NGC 3199 lies about 12,000 light-years away, a glowing cosmic cloud in the southern constellation of Carina. The nebula is about 75 light-years across in this haunting, false-color view. Though the deep image reveals a more or less complete ring shape, it does look very lopsided with a much brighter edge at the lower right. Near the center of the ring is a Wolf-Rayet star, a massive, hot, short-lived star that generates an intense stellar wind. In fact, Wolf-Rayet stars are known to create nebulae with interesting shapes as their powerful winds sweep up surrounding interstellar material. In this case, the bright edge was thought to indicate a bow shock produced as the star plowed through a uniform medium, like a boat through water. But measurements have shown the star is not really moving directly toward the bright edge. So a more likely explanation is that the material surrounding the star is not uniform, but clumped and denser near the bright edge of windblown NGC 3199. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Jupiter's Three Red Spots

For about 300 years Jupiter's banded atmosphere has shown a remarkable feature to telescopic viewers, a large swirling storm system known as The Great Red Spot. In 2006, another red storm system appeared, actually seen to form as smaller whitish oval-shaped storms merged and then developed the curious reddish hue. Now, Jupiter has a third red spot, again produced from a smaller whitish storm. All three are seen in this image made from data recorded on May 9 and 10 with the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2. The spots extend above the surrounding clouds and their red color may be due to deeper material dredged up by the storms and exposed to ultraviolet light, but the exact chemical process is still unknown. For scale, the Great Red Spot has almost twice the diameter of planet Earth, making both new spots less than one Earth-diameter across. The newest red spot is on the far left (west), along the same band of clouds as the Great Red Spot and is drifting toward it. If the motion continues, the new spot will encounter the much larger storm system in August. Jupiter's recent outbreak of red spots is likely related to large scale climate change as the gas giant planet is getting warmer near the equator. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Space Station in the Sun

Still bathed in sunlight, the International Space Station tracked through night skies above Hombressen, Germany on May 12. From a range of at least 360 kilometers, astronomer Dirk Ewers was able to record an impressively sharp video sequence of the passage with a small telescope, using some of the individual frames to construct this composite image. Sporting solar arrays, the station's integrated truss structure is nearly 90 meters long. The ATV Jules Verne is docked with the station, while the space station itself is orbiting at aproximately 27,800 kilometers per hour (17,200 mph). A complete video sequence is available as a 1 megabyte mpeg file or avi file. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Phoenix Lander Arrives at Mars

Will Phoenix survive its landing today on Mars? Phoenix's landing sequence will ramp up starting at about 7:30 pm EDT (23:30 UTC) today and last just over an hour. If all goes well, one of Phoenix's first images from Mars will appear on APOD tomorrow. The Phoenix Lander is programmed to set down near the North Pole of Mars, and, over the next three months, sample alien soil and ice and look for conditions conducive for ancient microbial life. Shown above is an artistic animation of what it might look like to see Phoenix land on Mars. In the animated sequence, the Phoenix spacecraft arrives at Mars, deploys its braking parachute, jettisons its heat shield, fires it thrusters, lands, unfurls its solar panels, deploys its instruments, scoops up some of Mars, and begins its analysis. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

A New Horizon for Phoenix

This flat horizon stretches across the red planet as seen by the Phoenix spacecraft after yesterday's landing on Mars. Touching down shortly after 7:30pm Eastern Time, Phoenix made the first successful soft landing on Mars, using rockets to control its final speed, since the Viking landers in 1976. Launched in August of 2007, Phoenix has now made the northernmost landing and is intended to explore the Martian arctic's potentially ice-rich soil. The lander has returned images and data initially indicating that it is in excellent shape after a nearly flawless descent. News updates will be available throughout the day. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Phoenix at Mars

The Phoenix lander's footpads are about the size of a dinner plate. One of three is shown at the right, covered with Martian soil after a successful soft landing on the Red Planet on May 25. Amazingly, the left panel image is of the spacecraft during its descent phase, captured by the HiRISE camera onboard Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter -- the first image ever of a spacecraft descending to the surface of another planet. Taken from a range of 750 kilometers, the picture shows Phoenix suspended beneath its unfurling, 10 meter-wide parachute, against the much darker Martian surface. The lander is still attached to its protective backshell. Phoenix released its parachute at an altitude of 12.6 kilometers. Using rockets to further reduce its speed for landing, Phoenix now rests in the northern polar region of Mars at about 68 degrees latitude. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Dark Clouds of the Carina Nebula

What dark forms lurk in the mists of the Carina Nebula? These ominous figures are actually molecular clouds, knots of molecular gas and dust so thick they have become opaque. In comparison, however, these clouds are typically much less dense than Earth's atmosphere. Pictured above is part of the most detailed image of the Carina Nebula ever taken, a part where dark molecular clouds are particularly prominent. The entire Carina Nebula spans over 300 light years and lies about 7,500 light-years away in the constellation of Carina. NGC 3372, known as the Great Nebula in Carina, is home to massive stars and changing nebula. Eta Carinae, the most energetic star in the nebula, was one of the brightest stars in the sky in the 1830s, but then faded dramatically. Wide-field annotated and zoomable versions of the larger image composite are also available. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

A Fog Bow Over Ocean Beach

What is that white arch over the water? What is being seen is a fogbow, a reflection of sunlight by water drops similar to a rainbow but without the colors. The fog itself is not confined to an arch -- the fog is mostly transparent but relatively uniform. The fogbow shape is created by those drops with the best angle to divert sunlight to the observer. The fogbow's relative lack of colors are caused by the relatively smaller water drops. The drops active above are so small that the quantum mechanical wavelength of light becomes important and smears out colors that would be created by larger rainbow water drops acting like small prisms reflecting sunlight. The above striking image of a fogbow was taken last week with the Sun behind the photographer. The rocks in the foreground are part of Ocean Beach in California, USA. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

Descent of the Phoenix

In this sweeping view, the 10 kilometer-wide crater Heimdall lies on the north polar plains of Mars. But the bright spot highlighted in the inset is the Phoenix lander parachuting toward the surface. The amazing picture was captured on May 25th by the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Though the lander looks like it might be dropping straight into Heimdall, it is really descending about 20 kilometers in front of the crater, in the foreground of the scene. The orbiter was 760 kilometers away from Phoenix when picture was taken, at an altitude of 310 kilometers. Subsequently the orbiter's camera was also able to image the lander on the surface. The parachute attached to the backshell and the heat shield were identified in the image, scattered nearby. Of course, the Phoenix lander itself is now returning much closer views of its landing site as it prepares to dig into the Martian surface. digg_url = ''; digg_skin = 'compact';

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