NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2011-5

Molecular Cloud Barnard 163

It may look to some like a duck, but it lays stars instead of eggs. In the center of the above image lies Barnard 163, a nebula of molecular gas and dust so thick that visible light can't shine through it. With a wing span measured in light years, Barnard 163's insides are surely colder than its exterior, allowing conditions where gas can clump and eventually form stars. Barnard 163 lies about 3,000 light years from Earth toward the constellation of Cepheus the King. The red glow in the background results from IC 1396, a large emission nebula that houses the Elephant's Trunk Nebula. Finding Barnard 163 in an image of its greater emission nebula IC 1396 can be a challenge, but it's possible.

Jupiter's Great Red Spot from Voyager 1

It is a hurricane twice the size of the Earth. It has been raging at least as long as telescopes could see it, and shows no signs of slowing. It is Jupiter's Great Red Spot, the largest swirling storm system in the Solar System. Like most astronomical phenomena, the Great Red Spot was neither predicted nor immediately understood after its discovery. Still today, details of how and why the Great Red Spot changes its shape, size, and color remain mysterious. A better understanding of the weather on Jupiter may help contribute to the better understanding of weather here on Earth. The above image is a recently completed digital enhancement of an image of Jupiter taken in 1979 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft as it zoomed by the Solar System's largest planet. At about 117 AU from Earth, Voyager 1 is currently the most distant human made object in the universe and expected to leave the entire solar heliosheath any time now.

Globular Cluster M15 from Hubble

Stars, like bees, swarm around the center of bright globular cluster M15. This ball of over 100,000 stars is a relic from the early years of our Galaxy, and continues to orbit the Milky Way's center. M15, one of about 150 globular clusters remaining, is noted for being easily visible with only binoculars, having at its center one of the densest concentrations of stars known, and containing a high abundance of variable stars and pulsars. This sharp image, taken by the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, spans about 120 light years. It shows the dramatic increase in density of stars toward the cluster's center. M15 lies about 35,000 light years away toward the constellation of the Winged Horse (Pegasus). Recent evidence indicates that a massive black hole might reside as the center of M15.

Celestial Trails over Greece

If you watch the horizon at just the right place and at just the right time, you can witness some spectacular juxtapositions between Earth and sky. In the above video, stars, the Moon, and even a partially eclipsed Sun were recorded rising and setting over photogenic landmarks in Greece. The inspiring video features effects on star trails that are pretty but somewhat deceiving, as stars will typically remain at nearly the same brightness as the Earth turns beneath them. Also, the time lapse nature of part of the video causes clouds to appear to jump about and fade in an unfamiliar fashion. Several stills of these scenes have appeared on APOD previously, including the partial solar eclipse over the Temple of Poseidon, cloud and star trails over a deserted church, and star trails over an old ship. Other foreground venues include an old church in Peloponnese, a stone bridge in Ioannina, a Frankish Castle in Euboea, and a picturesque sunset above Lycabettus Hill, Athens.

50 Years Ago: Freedom 7 Flies

Fifty years ago, near the dawn of the space age, NASA controllers "lit the candle" and sent Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard arcing into space atop a Redstone rocket. His cramped space capsule was dubbed Freedom 7. Broadcast live to a global television audience, the historic Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3) spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral Florida at 9:34 a.m. Eastern Time on May 5, 1961. The flight of Freedom 7 - the first space flight by an American - followed less than a month after the first human venture into space by Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The 15 minute sub-orbital flight achieved an altitude of 116 miles and a maximum speed of 5,134 miles per hour. As Shepard looked back toward planet Earth near the peak of Freedom 7's trajectory, he could see the outlines of the west coast of Florida, Lake Okeechobe in central Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Bahamas.

Farther Along

What is humanity's most distant spacecraft? Launched in 1977, Voyager 1 now holds that distinction at 17.5 billion kilometers from the Sun. That corresponds to 16 light-hours or 117 Astronomical Units (AU). This graphic shows the position of Voyager 1 relative to the outer solar system (top and side views) along with other distant spacecraft contenders. Next most distant, Pioneer 10 is about 15.4 billion kilometers from the Sun, though on the opposite side of the solar system from Voyager 1. Voyager 2 and Pioneer 11, both also well beyond the orbit of Pluto, are 14.2 billion and 12.4 billion kilometers from the Sun respectively. Still outbound for Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft is presently 3 billion kilometers from the Sun and will encounter the Pluto system in July of 2015. All these spacecraft have used sling-shot style gravity assist maneuvers to increase their speeds through the outer solar system. Voyager 1 is moving the fastest, escaping the solar system at about 17 kilometers per second. Still operational, both Voyagers are headed towards the outer boundary of the solar system, in search of the heliopause and the beginning of interstellar space.

Dawn of the Planets

This month, four of the five naked-eye planets gather along the eastern horizon near dawn. The celestial grouping is seen here just before sunrise on May 5, from a beach near Buenos Aires, Argentina. Starting near the top of the frame, the brightest beacon is Venus. Mercury is below and right of Venus and brilliant Jupiter is lower still, near image center. Below Jupiter, Mars is relatively faint and struggles the most to shine through a thin cloud bank and the warming twilight glow. Watch, and as the month progresses the tantalizing configuration will change, with Mars and Jupiter moving higher while Venus and Mercury wander through the sky closer to the rising sun.

Shadow of a Martian Robot

What if you saw your shadow on Mars and it wasn't human? Then you might be the Opportunity rover currently exploring Mars. Opportunity and sister robot Spirit have been probing the red planet since early 2004, finding evidence of ancient water, and sending breathtaking images across the inner Solar System. Pictured above, Opportunity looks opposite the Sun into Endurance Crater and sees its own shadow. Two wheels are visible on the lower left and right, while the floor and walls of the unusual crater are visible in the background. Although the Spirit rover is now stuck, Opportunity is continuing on its long trek to expansive Endeavor crater.

Wonder and Mystery above the Very Large Telescopes

What's that bright orange dot above the large telescope on the right? Even seasoned sky enthusiasts might ponder the origin of the orange orb seen by scrolling across this panoramic image, taken last December. Perhaps identifying known objects will help. To start, on the far left is a diagonal band of light known as zodiacal light, sunlight reflected off of dust orbiting in the inner Solar System. The bright white spot on the left, just above the horizon, is Venus, which also glows by reflected sunlight. Rising diagonally from the ground to the right of Venus is the band of our Milky Way Galaxy. In the image, the band, which usually stretches dramatically overhead, appears to arch above the elevated Chilean landscape. Under the Milky Way arch, toward the left, lie both the Large and Small Magellanic Cloud galaxies, while toward the right lies the constellation of Orion surrounded by the red ring of Barnard's Loop. On the ground, each of the four Very Large Telescopes is busy keeping an eye on the distant universe. The orange spot -- it's the Moon. The image was taken during a total lunar eclipse when the normally bright full moon turned into a faint orb tinted orange by the intervening Earth's atmosphere.

Gravity Probe B Confirms the Existence of Gravitomagnetism

Does gravity have a magnetic counterpart? Spin any electric charge and you get a magnetic field. Spin any mass and, according to Einstein, you should get a very slight effect that acts something like magnetism. This effect is expected to be so small that it is beyond practical experience and ground laboratory measurement. In a bold attempt to directly measure gravitomagnetism, NASA launched in 2004 the smoothest spheres ever manufactured into space to see how they spin. These four spheres, each roughly the size of a ping-pong ball, are the key to the ultra-precise gyroscopes at the core of Gravity Probe B. Last week, after accounting for persistent background signals, the results were announced -- the gyroscopes precessed at a rate consistent with the gravitational predictions of Einstein's General Theory of Relativity. The results, which bolster existing findings, may have untold long term benefits as well as shorter term benefits such as better clocks and global positioning trackers.

The Southern Cliff in the Lagoon

Undulating bright ridges and dusty clouds cross this close-up of the nearby star forming region M8, also known as the Lagoon Nebula. A sharp, false-color composite of narrow band visible and broad band near-infrared data from the 8-meter Gemini South Telescope, the entire view spans about 20 light-years through a region of the nebula sometimes called the Southern Cliff. The highly detailed image explores the association of many newborn stars imbedded in the tips of the bright-rimmed clouds and Herbig-Haro objects. Abundant in star-forming regions, Herbig-Haro objects are produced as powerful jets emitted by young stars in the process of formation heat the surrounding clouds of gas and dust. The cosmic Lagoon is found some 5,000 light-years away toward constellation Sagittarius and the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. (Editor's Note: For location and scale, check out this image superimposing the close-up region shown in today's APOD on the larger Lagoon Nebula. Scale image is courtesy R. Barbá.)

Enceladus Looms

A sunlit crescent of Saturn's moon Enceladus looms above the night side of Saturn in this dramatic image from the Cassini spacecraft. Captured on August 13, 2010 looking in a sunward direction during a flyby of the icy moon, the view also traces layers in the upper atmosphere of Saturn scattering sunlight along the planet's bright limb. Closer to the spacecraft than Saturn, Enceladus is a mere 60,000 kilometers from Cassini's camera. The south polar region of the 500 kilometer-diameter moon is illuminated, including plumes of water vapor and icy particles spraying above the long fissures in the moon's surface. The fissures have been dubbed tiger stripes. First discovered in Cassini images from 2005, the plumes are strong evidence that liquid water exists near the surface of surprisingly active Enceladus.

A Beautiful Trifid

The beautiful Trifid Nebula is a cosmic study in colorful contrasts. Also known as M20, it lies about 5,000 light-years away toward the nebula rich constellation Sagittarius. A star forming region in the plane of our galaxy, the Trifid illustrates three different types of astronomical nebulae; red emission nebulae dominated by light emitted by hydrogen atoms, blue reflection nebulae produced by dust reflecting starlight, and dark nebulae where dense dust clouds appear in silhouette. The bright red emission region, roughly separated into three parts by obscuring, dark dust lanes, lends the Trifid its popular name. In this well met scene, the red emission is also juxtaposed with the telltale blue haze of reflection nebulae. Pillars and jets sculpted by newborn stars, below and left of the emission nebula's center, appear in Hubble Space Telescope close-up images of the region. The Trifid Nebula is about 40 light-years across.

The Little Dipper

At 2nd magnitude, Polaris is far from the brightest star in the night sky. But it is the brightest star at the left of this well-composed, starry mosaic spanning about 23 degrees across the northern sky asterism dubbed the Little Dipper. Polaris is famous as the North Pole Star, a friend to navigators and astrophotographers alike, but it's not located exactly at the North Celestial Pole (NCP) either. It's presently offset from the NCP by 0.7 degrees. Sliding your cursor over the picture will locate Polaris and the NCP as well as other stars of the Little Dipper. The stars are shown with their proper names preceded by their greek alphabet designations within the ancient constellation Ursa Minor, the Little Bear. Dust clouds suspended above the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy are also faintly visible throughout the wide field of view.

The Sombrero Galaxy from Hubble

What's going on in the center of this spiral galaxy? Named the Sombrero Galaxy for its hat-like resemblance, M104 features a prominent dust lane and a bright halo of stars and globular clusters. Reasons for the Sombrero's hat-like appearance include an unusually large and extended central bulge of stars, and dark prominent dust lanes that appear in a disk that we see nearly edge-on. Billions of old stars cause the diffuse glow of the extended central bulge. Close inspection of the bulge in the above photograph shows many points of light that are actually globular clusters. M104's spectacular dust rings harbor many younger and brighter stars, and show intricate details astronomers don't yet fully understand. The very center of the Sombrero glows across the electromagnetic spectrum, and is thought to house a large black hole. Fifty million-year-old light from the Sombrero Galaxy can be seen with a small telescope towards the constellation of Virgo.

Time Lapse Clouds and Sky Over the Canary Islands

If you could sit back and watch clouds and the sky move all night and day, what might you see? One answer from the island of Tenerife, captured over the course of the year, includes sequences that are not only breathtaking but instructive. Visible in the above time-lapse movie include clouds that seem to flow like water, a setting sun that shows numerous green flashes, the Milky Way Galaxy rising behind towering plants, a colorful double fogbow, lenticular clouds that appear stationary near their mountain peaks, and colorful moon coronas. The above video was shot solely from the Teide National Park on Tenerife in the Canary Islands of Spain, off the north west coast of Africa. The video also features an unusual type of plant in several scenes -- can you identify it?

A Starry Night of Iceland

On some nights, the sky is the best show in town. On this night, the sky was not only the best show in town, but a composite image of the sky won an international competition for landscape astrophotography. The above winning image was taken two months ago over Jökulsárlón, the largest glacial lake in Iceland. The photographer combined six exposures to capture not only two green auroral rings, but their reflections off the serene lake. Visible in the distant background sky is the band of our Milky Way Galaxy, the Pleiades open clusters of stars, and the Andromeda galaxy. A powerful coronal mass ejection from the Sun caused auroras to be seen as far south as Wisconsin, USA. As the Sun progresses toward solar maximum in the next few years, many more spectacular images of aurora are expected.

The Last Launch of Space Shuttle Endeavour

Two days ago, powerful yet controlled explosions rocketed the Space Shuttle Endeavour on its final trip into Earth orbit. The above image was taken seconds after liftoff as the massive orbiter and six astronauts began a climb to a height where the atmosphere is so thin it is unbreathable. The shuttle, on mission STS-134, is expected to dock with the International Space Station (ISS) today. The Endeavour will deliver to the ISS, among other things, an ambitious detector called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer 2 (AMS), a detector that over the next few years could detect a significant abundance of specific types of dark matter, charged antimatter, and even a strangely possible variation of familiar matter called strangelets. The very last trip for any space shuttle is currently planned for mid-July when Atlantis will also visit the space station.

NGC 253: Close Up

This dusty island universe is one of the brightest spiral galaxies in planet Earth's sky. Seen nearly edge-on, NGC 253 is only 13 million light-years away, the largest member of the Sculptor Group of galaxies, neighbor to our own local galaxy group. The detailed close-up view is a five frame mosaic based on data assembled from the Hubble Legacy Archive. Beginning on the left near the galaxy's core, the sharp panorama follows dusty filaments, interstellar gas clouds, and even individual stars toward the galaxy's edge at the right. The magnificent vista spans nearly 50,000 light-years. The frame at the far right has been compressed slightly to bring into view an intriguing pair of background galaxies. Designated a starburst galaxy because of its frantic star forming activity, NGC 253 features tendrils of dust rising from a galactic disk laced with young star clusters and star forming regions. NGC 253 is also known to be a strong source of high-energy x-rays and gamma rays, likely due to massive black holes near the galaxy's center.

A Journey Through the Night Sky

Majestic nebulae and stars of our Milky Way Galaxy stretch across this panoramic image of the entire night sky. At full resolution, the 5 gigapixel mosaic was stitched together from over 37,000 images, the result of a season following, year long effort and 60,000 travel miles in search of still dark skies in the American west and the western Cape of South Africa. The well-planned project combined many exposures from the dark sites, intended to produce an inspiring view of the night to rival the brightness of day. An interactive journey through the scene will uncover a congeries of innumerable stars with vast clouds of gas and dust strewn along the galactic plane and central bulge, too faint to see with the unaided eye. Even galaxies of stars beyond our Milky Way can be found within the cosmic vista.

Planets, Endeavour at Dawn

When dawn broke over Kennedy Space Center on Monday, May 16, the space shuttle orbiter Endeavour still stood on pad 39A. Its final launch, on mission STS-134 to the International Space Station, was only hours away. Shining through the early morning twilight four planets were also poised above the eastern horizon, a moving scene captured here from across the Banana River at the center's Saturn V VIP viewing site. Scattered by planet Earth's dense atmosphere, floodlight beams play over the launch pad, glancing skyward toward the celestial beacons. Jupiter is highest, near the top of the frame, but even the solar sytem's ruling gas giant is outshone by brilliant Venus near picture center. Innermost planet Mercury is below Venus, to the right. Below and left, Mars almost fades into the twilight glow. The four planets continue to hug the eastern horizon at dawn throughout the month, while Endeavour is now scheduled to make its final approach to planet Earth on June 1.

Io: The Prometheus Plume

What's happening on Jupiter's moon Io? Two sulfurous eruptions are visible on Jupiter's volcanic moon Io in this color composite image from the robotic Galileo spacecraft that orbited Jupiter from 1995 to 2003. At the image top, over Io's limb, a bluish plume rises about 140 kilometers above the surface of a volcanic caldera known as Pillan Patera. In the image middle, near the night/day shadow line, the ring shaped Prometheus plume is seen rising about 75 kilometers above Io while casting a shadow below the volcanic vent. Named for the Greek god who gave mortals fire, the Prometheus plume is visible in every image ever made of the region dating back to the Voyager flybys of 1979 - presenting the possibility that this plume has been continuously active for at least 18 years. The above digitally sharpened image of Io was originally recorded in 1997 from a distance of about 600,000 kilometers. Recent analyses of Galileo data has uncovered evidence of a magma ocean beneath Io's surface.

An Unexpected Flare from the Crab Nebula

Why does the Crab Nebula flare? No one is sure. The unusual behavior, discovered over the past few years, seems only to occur in very high energy light -- gamma rays. As recently as one month ago, gamma-ray observations of the Crab Nebula by the Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope showed an unexpected increase in gamma-ray brightness, becoming about five times the nebula's usual gamma-ray brightness, and fading again in only a few days. Now usually the faster the variability, the smaller the region involved. This might indicate that the powerful pulsar at the center of the Crab, a compact neutron star rotating 30 times a second, is somehow involved. Specifically, speculation is centered on the changing magnetic field that surely surrounds the powerful pulsar. Rapid changes in this field might lead to waves of rapidly accelerated electrons which emit the flares, possibly in ways similar to our Sun. The above image shows how the Crab Nebula normally appears in gamma rays, as compared to the Geminga pulsar, and how it then appeared during the recent brightening.

Three Arches Above Utah

How many arches can you count in the above image? If you count both spans of the Double Arch in the Arches National Park in Utah, USA, then two. But since the above image was taken during a clear dark night, it caught a photogenic third arch far in the distance -- that of the overreaching Milky Way Galaxy. Because we are situated in the midst of the spiral Milky Way Galaxy, the band of the central disk appears all around us. The sandstone arches of the Double Arch were formed from the erosion of falling water. The larger arch rises over 30 meters above the surrounding salt bed and spans close to 50 meters across. The dark silhouettes across the image bottom are sandstone monoliths left over from silt-filled crevices in an evaporated 300 million year old salty sea. A dim flow created by light pollution from Moab, Utah can also be seen in the distance.

Space Shuttle Rising

What's that rising from the clouds? The space shuttle. If you looked out the window of an airplane at just the right place and time last week, you could have seen something very unusual -- the space shuttle Endeavour launching to orbit. Images of the rising shuttle and its plume became widely circulated over the web shortly after Endeavour's final launch. The above image was taken from a shuttle training aircraft and is not copyrighted. Taken well above the clouds, the image can be matched with similar images of the same shuttle plume taken below the clouds. Hot glowing gasses expelled by the engines are visible near the rising shuttle, as well as a long smoke plume. A shadow of the plume appears on the cloud deck, indicating the direction of the Sun. The shuttle Endeavour remains docked with the International Space Station and is currently scheduled to return to Earth next week.

Supernova Sonata

To create a sonata from supernovae, first you have to find the supernovae. To do that composers Alex Parker and Melissa Graham relied on the Canada France Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) Legacy Survey data of four deep fields on the sky monitored from April 2003 through August 2006, adopting 241 Type Ia supernovae. Enchanting to cosmologists, Type Ia supernovae are thermonuclear explosions that destroy white dwarf stars. Then, they gave each supernova a note to play, the volume of the note determined by the distance to the supernova. Fainter, more distant supernovae play quieter notes. Each note's pitch was based on a stretch factor measured by how fast the supernova brightens and fades over time relative to a standard time history. Higher stretch factors play higher notes in pitches drawn from the illustrated Phrygian dominant scale. Of course, each supernova note is played on an instrument. Supernovae in massive galaxies were assigned to a stand-up bass, while supernovae in less massive galaxies played their note on a grand piano. Click on the image or follow these links (Vimeo, YouTube) to watch a time compressed animation of the CFHT Legacy Survey data while listening to the Supernova Sonata.

Messier Marathon

In this action scene, red night vision lights, green laser pointers, tripods and telescopes in faint silhouette surround intrepid sky gazers embarked on the 10th annual Iran Messier Marathon. Completing the marathon requires viewing all 110 objects in 18th century French astronomer Charles Messier's catalog in one glorious dusk-to-dawn observing run. As daunting as it sounds, there are often favorable weekend dates for northern hemisphere marathoners to complete the task that fall on nearly moonless nights near the spring equinox. With the Milky Way as a backdrop, this group of about 150 astronomy enthusiasts conducted their 2011 marathon on such a night in April from the desert area of Seh Qaleh, in eastern Iran. Placing your cursor over the image will map the stunning night sky above their remote and very dark observing site. Follow the green laser pointer toward the Messier catalog objects (for example, M8) near the galactic center. Astronomer and former Messier Marathon organizer Babak Tafreshi also composed Sky Gazers, a time-lapse movie of this year's event.

The Mileage of Light

If you're driving down a dark road on a starry night, you might want to check the odometer. Earlier this month, when traveling astronomer Dennis Mammana did he was greeted with the significant mileage reading of 186,282 miles. That's the number of miles light travels in one second. Or, if you prefer kilometers, the number you are looking for is 299,792. Mammana muses that in driving to countless observatories, star parties, and night sky photo shoots it has taken his 1998 vintage sport utility vehicle over 13 years to cover that distance. Of course, he considers his next important mileage milestone to be the distance to the Moon.

Comet Between Fireworks and Lightning

Sometimes the sky itself is the best show in town. In January 2007, people from Perth, Australia gathered on a local beach to watch a sky light up with delights near and far. Nearby, fireworks exploded as part of Australia Day celebrations. On the far right, lightning from a thunderstorm flashed in the distance. Near the image center, though, seen through clouds, was the most unusual sight of all: Comet McNaught. The photogenic comet was so bright that it even remained visible though the din of Earthly flashes. Comet McNaught has now returned to the outer Solar System and is now only visible with a large telescope. The above image is actually a three photograph panorama digitally processed to reduce red reflections from the exploding firework.

Last Panorama of the Spirit Rover on Mars

This is the last thing that the Spirit rover on Mars ever saw. Operating years beyond original expectations, Spirit eventually got mired in martian dirt and then ran out of power when investigating the unusual Home Plate surface feature on Mars. Visible in the above panorama are numerous rocks and slopes of the surrounding Columbia Hills of Mars. The strange hill with the light colored top, visible near the top center of the image, has been dubbed von Braun and was a future destination when Spirit got bogged down. A leading hypothesis holds that von Braun is related to martian volcanism. Last week, NASA stopped trying to contact Spirit after numerous attempts. Half a world away, Spirit's sister rover Opportunity continues to roll toward Endeavour Crater, which could become the largest crater yet visited by an earthling-created robot.

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