NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2013-5

Omega Centauri: The Brightest Globular Cluster

This huge ball of stars predates our Sun. Long before humankind evolved, before dinosaurs roamed, and even before our Earth existed, ancient globs of stars condensed and orbited a young Milky Way Galaxy. Of the 200 or so globular clusters that survive today, Omega Centauri is the largest, containing over ten million stars. Omega Centauri is also the brightest globular cluster, at apparent visual magnitude 3.9 it is visible to southern observers with the unaided eye. Cataloged as NGC 5139, Omega Centauri is about 18,000 light-years away and 150 light-years in diameter. Unlike many other globular clusters, the stars in Omega Centauri show several different ages and trace chemical abundances, indicating that the globular star cluster has a complex history over its 12 billion year age.

Saturn Hurricane

Acquiring its first sunlit views of far northern Saturn late last year, the Cassini spacecraft's narrow-angle camera recorded this stunning image of the vortex at the ringed planet's north pole. The false color, near-infrared image results in red hues for low clouds and green for high ones, causing the north-polar hurricane to take on the appearance of a rose. Enormous by terrestrial hurricane standards, this storm's eye is about 2,000 kilometers wide, with clouds at the outer edge traveling at over 500 kilometers per hour. The north pole Saturn hurricane swirls inside the large, six-sided weather pattern known as the hexagon. Of course, in 2006 Cassini also imaged the hurricane at Saturn's south pole.

Horsehead: A Wider View

Combined image data from the massive, ground-based VISTA telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope was used to create this wide perspective of the interstellar landscape surrounding the famous Horsehead Nebula. Captured at near-infrared wavelengths, the region's dusty molecular cloud sprawls across the scene that covers an angle about two-thirds the size of the Full Moon on the sky. Left to right the frame spans just over 10 light-years at the Horsehead's estimated distance of 1,600 light-years. Also known as Barnard 33, the still recognizable Horsehead Nebula stands at the upper right, the near-infrared glow of a dusty pillar topped with newborn stars. Below and left, the bright reflection nebula NGC 2023 is itself the illuminated environs of a hot young star. Obscuring clouds below the base of the Horsehead and on the outskirts of NGC 2023 show the tell-tale far red emission of energetic jets, known as Herbig-Haro objects, also associated with newborn stars.

Hungarian Spring Eclipse

Last week, as the Sun set a Full Moon rose over the springtime landscape of Tihany, Hungary on the northern shores of Lake Balaton. As it climbed into the clear sky, the Moon just grazed the dark, umbral shadow of planet Earth in the year's first partial lunar eclipse. The partial phase, seen near the top of this frame where the lunar disk is darkened along the upper limb, lasted for less than 27 minutes. Composited from consecutive exposures, the picture presents the scene's range of natural colors and subtle shading apparent to the eye. At next week's New Moon, the season's celestial shadow play will continue with an annular solar eclipse, the path of annularity tracking through northern Australia and the central Pacific.

A Supercell Thunderstorm Cloud Over Montana

Is that a spaceship or a cloud? Although it may seem like an alien mothership, it's actually a impressive thunderstorm cloud called a supercell. Such colossal storm systems center on mesocyclones -- rotating updrafts that can span several kilometers and deliver torrential rain and high winds including tornadoes. Jagged sculptured clouds adorn the supercell's edge, while wind swept dust and rain dominate the center. A tree waits patiently in the foreground. The above supercell cloud was photographed in July west of Glasgow, Montana, USA, caused minor damage, and lasted several hours before moving on. Follow APOD on: Facebook (Daily) (Sky) (Spanish) or Google Plus (Daily) (River)

Tails of Comet Lemmon

What caused the interestingly intricate tails that Comet Lemmon displayed earlier this year? First of all, just about every comet that nears the Sun displays two tails: a dust tail and an ion tail. Comet Lemmon's dust tail, visible above and around the comet nucleus in off-white, is produced by sun-light reflecting dust shed by the comet's heated nucleus. Flowing and more sculptured, however, is C/2012 F6 (Lemmon)'s blue ion tail, created by the solar wind pushing ions expelled by the nucleus away from the Sun. Also of note is the coma seen surrounding Comet Lemmon's nucleus, tinted green by diatomic C2 gas fluorescing in sunlight. The above image was taken from the dark skies of Namibia in mid-April. Comet Lemmon is fading as it now heads back to the outer Solar System. Cosmonova: APOD editor to speak in Sweden on May 28

Galaxy Cove Vista

To see a vista like this takes patience, hiking, and a camera. Patience was needed in searching out just the right place and waiting for just the right time. A short hike was needed to reach this rugged perch above a secluded cove in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park in California, USA. And a camera was needed for the long exposure required to bring out the faint light from stars and nebulae in the background Milky Way galaxy. Moonlight and a brief artificial flash illuminated the hidden beach and inlet behind nearby trees in the above composite image taken about two weeks ago. Usually obscured McWay Falls is visible just below the image center, while the Pacific Ocean is in view to its right.

Earth's Major Telescopes Investigate GRB 130427A

A tremendous explosion has occurred in the nearby universe and major telescopes across Earth and space are investigating. Dubbed GRB 130427A, the gamma-ray burst was first detected by the Earth-orbiting Fermi and Swift satellites observing at high energies and quickly reported down to Earth. Within three minutes, the half-meter ISON telescope in New Mexico found the blast in visible light, noted its extreme brightness, and relayed more exact coordinates. Within the next few minutes, the bright optical counterpart was being tracked by several quickly re-pointable telescopes including the 2.0-meter P60 telescope in California, the 1.3-meter PAIRITEL telescope in Arizona, and the 2.0-meter Faulkes Telescope North in Hawaii. Within two hours, the 8.2-meter Gemini North telescope in Hawaii noted a redshift of 0.34, placing the explosion about 5 billion light years away -- considered nearby in cosmological terms. Previously recorded images from the RAPTOR full-sky monitors were scanned and a very bright optical counterpart -- magnitude 7.4 -- was found 50 seconds before the Swift trigger. The brightest burst in recent years, a signal from GRB 130427A has also been found in low energy radio waves by the Very Large Array (VLA) and at the highest energies ever recorded by the Fermi satellite. Neutrino, gravitational wave, and telescopes designed to detect only extremely high energy photons are checking their data for a GRB 130427A signal. Pictured in the above animation, the entire gamma-ray sky is shown becoming momentarily dominated by the intense glow of GRB 130427A. Continued tracking the optical counterpart will surely be ongoing as there is a possibility that the glow of a classic supernova will soon emerge.

Ring of Fire over Monument Valley

As the New Moon continues this season's celestial shadow play, an annular solar eclipse track begins in western Australia at 22:30 UT on May 9 -- near sunrise on May 10 local time. Because the eclipse occurs within a few days of lunar apogee, the Moon's silhouette does not quite cover the Sun during mid-eclipse, momentarily creating a spectacular ring of fire. While a larger region witnesses a partial eclipse, the annular mid-eclipse phase is visible along a shadow track only about 200 kilometers wide but 13,000 kilometers long, extending across the central Pacific. For given locations along it, the ring of fire lasts from 4 to 6 minutes. Near the horizon, the appearance of the May 9/10 annular eclipse (online viewing) is suggested by this dramatic composite from May of 2012. The timelapse sequence depicts an annular eclipse in progress before sunset over Monument Valley in the southwestern United States.

Messier 77

Face-on spiral galaxy M77 lies a mere 47 million light-years away toward the aquatic constellation Cetus. At that estimated distance, the gorgeous island universe is about 100 thousand light-years across. Also known as NGC 1068, its compact and very bright core is well studied by astronomers exploring the mysteries of supermassive black holes in active Seyfert galaxies. M77 is also seen at x-ray, ultraviolet, infrared, and radio wavelengths. But this sharp visible light image based on Hubble data follows its winding spiral arms traced by obscuring dust clouds and red-tinted star forming regions close in to the galaxy's luminous core.

Cape York Annular Eclipse

This week the shadow of the New Moon fell on planet Earth, crossing Queensland's Cape York in northern Australia ... for the second time in six months. On the morning of May 10, the Moon's apparent size was too small to completely cover the Sun though, revealing a "ring of fire" along the central path of the annular solar eclipse. Near mid-eclipse from Coen, Australia, a webcast team captured this telescopic snapshot of the annular phase. Taken with a hydrogen-alpha filter, the dramatic image finds the Moon's silhouette just within the solar disk, and the limb of the active Sun spiked with solar prominences. Still, after hosting back-to-back solar eclipses, northern Australia will miss the next and final solar eclipse of 2013. This November, a rare hybrid eclipse will track across the North Atlantic and equatorial Africa.

Clouds, Birds, Moon, Venus

Sometimes the sky above can become quite a show. In early September of 2010, for example, the Moon and Venus converged, creating quite a sight by itself for sky enthusiasts around the globe.   From some locations, though, the sky was even more picturesque. In the above image taken in Spain, a crescent Moon and the planet Venus, on the far right, were captured during sunset posing against a deep blue sky.   In the foreground, dark storm clouds loom across the image bottom, while a white anvil cloud shape appears above. Black specks dot the frame, caused by a flock of birds taking flight. Very soon after this picture was taken, however, the birds passed by, the storm ended, and Venus and the Moon set.   Bright Venus again becomes visible just after sunset this 2013 May and will appear near Jupiter toward the end of the month.

Partial Solar Eclipse with Airplane

It was just eight minutes after sunrise, last week, and already there were four things in front of the Sun. The largest and most notable was Earth's Moon, obscuring a big chunk of the Sun's lower limb as it moved across the solar disk, as viewed from Fremantle, Australia. This was expected as the image was taken during a partial solar eclipse -- an eclipse that left sunlight streaming around all sides of the Moon from some locations. Next, a band of clouds divided the Sun horizontally while showing interesting internal structure vertically. The third intervening body might be considered to be the Earth's atmosphere, as it dimmed the Sun from its higher altitude brightness while density fluctuations caused the Sun's edges to appear to shimmer. Although closest to the photographer, the least expected solar occulter was an airplane. Quite possibly, passengers on both sides of that airplane were contemplating the unusual view only visible out the eastern-facing windows. Cosmonova: APOD editor to speak in Sweden on May 28

Galaxy Collisions: Simulation vs Observations

What happens when two galaxies collide? Although it may take over a billion years, such titanic clashes are quite common. Since galaxies are mostly empty space, no internal stars are likely to themselves collide. Rather the gravitation of each galaxy will distort or destroy the other galaxy, and the galaxies may eventually merge to form a single larger galaxy. Expansive gas and dust clouds collide and trigger waves of star formation that complete even during the interaction process. Pictured above is a computer simulation of two large spiral galaxies colliding, interspersed with real still images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. Our own Milky Way Galaxy has absorbed several smaller galaxies during its existence and is even projected to merge with the larger neighboring Andromeda galaxy in a few billion years. Follow APOD on: Facebook (Daily) (Sky) (Spanish) or Google Plus (Daily) (River)

Kepler's Supernova Remnant in X-Rays

What caused this mess? Some type of star exploded to create the unusually shaped nebula known as Kepler's supernova remnant, but which type? Light from the stellar explosion that created this energized cosmic cloud was first seen on planet Earth in October 1604, a mere four hundred years ago. The supernova produced a bright new star in early 17th century skies within the constellation Ophiuchus. It was studied by astronomer Johannes Kepler and his contemporaries, without the benefit of a telescope, as they searched for an explanation of the heavenly apparition. Armed with a modern understanding of stellar evolution, early 21st century astronomers continue to explore the expanding debris cloud, but can now use orbiting space telescopes to survey Kepler's supernova remnant (SNR) across the spectrum. Recent X-ray data and images of Kepler's supernova remnant taken by the orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory has shown relative elemental abundances typical of a Type Ia supernova, and further indicated that the progenitor was a white dwarf star that exploded when it accreted too much material from a companion Red Giant star and went over Chandrasekhar's limit. About 13,000 light years away, Kepler's supernova represents the most recent stellar explosion seen to occur within our Milky Way galaxy. Cosmonova: APOD editor to speak in Sweden on May 28

Four X-class Flares

Swinging around the Sun's eastern limb on Monday, a group of sunspots labeled active region AR1748 has produced the first four X-class solar flares of 2013 in less than 48 hours. In time sequence clockwise from the top left, flashes from the four were captured in extreme ultraviolet images from the Solar Dynamics Observatory. Ranked according to their peak brightness in X-rays, X-class flares are the most powerful class and are frequently accompanied by coronal mass ejections (CMEs), massive clouds of high energy plasma launched into space. But CMEs from the first three flares were not Earth-directed, while one associated with the fourth flare may deliver a glancing blow to the Earth's magnetic field on May 18. Also causing temporary radio blackouts, AR1748 is likely not finished. Still forecast to have a significant chance of producing strong flares, the active region is rotating into more direct view across the Sun's nearside.

The Waterfall and the World at Night

Above this boreal landscape, the arc of the Milky Way and shimmering aurorae flow through the night. Like an echo, below them lies Iceland's spectacular Godafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods. Shining just below the Milky Way, bright Jupiter is included in the panoramic nightscape recorded on March 9. Faint and diffuse, the Andromeda Galaxy (M31) appears immersed in the auroral glow. The digital stitch of four frames is a first place winner in the 2013 International Earth and Sky Photo Contest on Dark Skies Importance organized by The World at Night. An evocative record of the beauty of planet Earth's night sky, all the contest's winning entries are featured in this video.

Comet PanSTARRS Anti-Tail

Once the famous sunset comet, PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) is now visible all night from much of the northern hemisphere, bound for the outer solar system as it climbs high above the ecliptic plane. Dimmer and fading, the comet's broad dust tail is still growing, though. This widefield telescopic image was taken against the starry background of the constellation Cepheus on May 15. It shows the comet has developed an extensive anti-tail, dust trailing along the comet's orbit (to the left of the coma), stretching more than 3 degrees across the frame. Since the comet is just over 1.6 astronomical units from planet Earth, that corresponds to a distance of over 12 million kilometers. In late May Comet PanSTARRS will pass within a few degrees of the north celestial pole.

Earth's Richat Structure

What on Earth is that? The Richat Structure in the Sahara Desert of Mauritania is easily visible from space because it is nearly 50 kilometers across. Once thought to be an impact crater, the Richat Structure's flat middle and lack of shock-altered rock indicates otherwise. The possibility that the Richat Structure was formed by a volcanic eruption also seems improbable because of the lack of a dome of igneous or volcanic rock. Rather, the layered sedimentary rock of the Richat structure is now thought by many to have been caused by uplifted rock sculpted by erosion. The above image was captured by the ASTER instruments onboard the orbiting orbiting Terra satellite. Why the Richat Structure is nearly circular remains a mystery.

Blue Sun Bursting

Our Sun is not a giant blueberry. Our Sun can be made to appear similar to the diminutive fruit, however, by imaging it in a specific color of extreme violet light called CaK that is emitted by the very slight abundance of ionized Calcium in the Sun's atmosphere, and then false color-inverting the image. This solar depiction is actually scientifically illuminating as a level of the Sun's chromosphere appears quite prominent, showing a crackly textured surface, cool sunspots appearing distinctly bright, and surrounding hot active regions appearing distinctly dark. The Sun is currently near the maximum activity level in its 11 year cycle, and has emitted powerful flares over the past week. During times of high activity, streams of energetic particles from Sun may impact the Earth's magnetosphere and set off spectacular auroras.

The Red Rectangle Nebula from Hubble

How was the unusual Red Rectangle nebula created? At the nebula's center is an aging binary star system that surely powers the nebula but does not, as yet, explain its colors. The unusual shape of the Red Rectangle is likely due to a thick dust torus which pinches the otherwise spherical outflow into tip-touching cone shapes. Because we view the torus edge-on, the boundary edges of the cone shapes seem to form an X. The distinct rungs suggest the outflow occurs in fits and starts. The unusual colors of the nebula are less well understood, however, and speculation holds that they are partly provided by hydrocarbon molecules that may actually be building blocks for organic life. The Red Rectangle nebula lies about 2,300 light years away towards the constellation of the Unicorn (Monoceros). The nebula is shown above in great detail as recently reprocessed image from Hubble Space Telescope. In a few million years, as one of the central stars becomes further depleted of nuclear fuel, the Red Rectangle nebula will likely bloom into a planetary nebula. Cosmonova: APOD editor to speak in Sweden on May 28

Red Sprite Lightning with Aurora

What's that in the sky? It is a rarely seen form of lightning confirmed only about 25 years ago: a red sprite. Recent research has shown that following a powerful positive cloud-to-ground lightning strike, red sprites may start as 100-meter balls of ionized air that shoot down from about 80-km high at 10 percent the speed of light and are quickly followed by a group of upward streaking ionized balls. The above image, taken a few days ago above central South Dakota, USA, captured a bright red sprite, and is a candidate for the first color image ever recorded of a sprite and aurora together. Distant storm clouds cross the bottom of the image, while streaks of colorful aurora are visible in the background. Red sprites take only a fraction of a second to occur and are best seen when powerful thunderstorms are visible from the side.

Messier 109

Beautiful barred spiral galaxy M109, 109th entry in Charles Messier's famous catalog of bright Nebulae and Star Clusters, is found just below the Big Dipper's bowl in the northern constellation Ursa Major. In telescopic views, its striking central bar gives the galaxy the appearance of the Greek letter "theta", θ, a common mathematical symbol representing an angle. Of course M109 spans a very small angle in planet Earth's sky, about 7 arcminutes or 0.12 degrees. But that small angle corresponds to an enormous 120,000 light-year diameter at the galaxy's estimated 60 million light-year distance. The brightest member of the now recognized Ursa Major galaxy cluster, M109 (aka NGC 3992) is joined by three spiky foreground stars strung out across this frame. The three small, fuzzy bluish galaxies also on the scene, identified left to right as UGC 6969, UGC 6940 and UGC 6923, are possibly satellite galaxies of the larger M109.

Caterpillar Moon

A close series of consecutive exposures are combined in this intriguing composite of the Full Moon slowly crawling, across the sky. Beginning on the upper right at 19:42 UT and ending at 22:14 UT on April 25, the sequence follows the Moon from Germany as it passes through Earth's shadow in a partial lunar eclipse. Near the top, the Moon just grazes the southern edge of Earth's dark central shadow, or umbra. But the decreased brightness in the darker part of the outer shadow region, the penumbra, is also apparent on the lunar disk. In fact, the relative size and shape of the Earth's shadow regions and the Moon are easier to see along the segments of this lunar caterpillar. Nearly impossible to follow with the eye though, a penumbral lunar eclipse, the Full Moon passing only through the pale outer penumbral shadow, will begin on May 25.

Lunar Corona over Cochem Castle

This bat-like apparition does not shine on clouds passing over Gotham city. Instead, the cloud bank in silhouette against a colorful lunar corona was spotted on the evening of May 18 over Cochem, Germany from the banks of the river Moselle. The lunar corona is formed as bright moonlight is diffracted by water droplets in thin clouds drifting in front of the lunar disk. Below it lies the region's historic Cochem Castle dating from the 11th century, and not Wayne Manor. Still, regardless of your location on planet Earth it is well worth scanning the evening skies this weekend, as a Full Moon rises and bright planets gather in the west.

PanSTARRS Anti-Tail Grows

As planet Earth approached the plane of the Comet PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) orbit on May 23rd, comet watchers were treated to this view of its magnificent anti-tail. The long, narrow anti-tail stretches to the right across this frame for nearly 4 degrees or about 8 times the angular size of the full Moon. Dust forming the anti-tail trails along the comet's orbit as it leaves the inner solar system behind. An almost edge-on perspective from near the outbound comet's orbital plane enhances the view of the anti-tail and makes it seem to point in the sunward direction, only apparently contrary to the behavior of comet dust tails pushed outward by the pressure of sunlight. Sweeping far north in planet Earth's skies, the comet is up all night for most of the northern hemisphere, but now bright moonlight interferes with its visibility. PanSTARRS anti-tail is one of the longest since the appearance of Comet Arend-Roland in 1957. Cosmonova: APOD editor to speak in Stockholm on Tuesday at 6 pm

Bird Sun Dog

Have you ever seen a little rainbow off to the side of the Sun? Rare but rewarding to see, such spectacles are known as sundogs, mock suns or parhelia. Sundogs are just sunlight refracting through hexagonal falling ice crystals in the Earth's atmosphere. When thin ice crystals flitter down nearly horizontally, they best refract sunlight sideways and create sundogs. Alternatively, randomly oriented ice crystals may create a complete circular sun halo. Sundogs occur 22 degrees to each side of a setting or rising Sun, although sometimes nearby clouds can block one or both. The above image was taken through a polarizing filter during October 2012 in Mérida, Spain.

The Large Cloud of Magellan

The 16th century 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 fuzzy cloud-like objects easily visible to southern hemisphere skygazers are known as the Clouds of Magellan, now understood to be satellite galaxies of our much larger, spiral Milky Way galaxy. About 160,000 light-years distant in the constellation Dorado, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is seen here in a remarkably deep, colorful, and annotated composite image. Spanning about 15,000 light-years or so, it is the most massive of the Milky Way's satellite galaxies and is the home of the closest supernova in modern times, SN 1987A. The prominent patch just left of center is 30 Doradus, also known as the magnificent Tarantula Nebula, is a giant star-forming region about 1,000 light-years across.

NGC 6960: The Witch's Broom Nebula

Ten thousand years ago, before the dawn of recorded human history, a new light would have suddenly have appeared in the night sky and faded after a few weeks. Today we know this light was from a supernova, or exploding star, and record the expanding debris cloud as the Veil Nebula, a supernova remnant. This sharp telescopic view is centered on a western segment of the Veil Nebula cataloged as NGC 6960 but less formally known as the Witch's Broom Nebula. Blasted out in the cataclysmic explosion, the interstellar shock wave plows through space sweeping up and exciting interstellar material. Imaged with narrow band filters, the glowing filaments are like long ripples in a sheet seen almost edge on, remarkably well separated into atomic hydrogen (red) and oxygen (blue-green) gas. The complete supernova remnant lies about 1400 light-years away towards the constellation Cygnus. This Witch's Broom actually spans about 35 light-years. The bright star in the frame is 52 Cygni, visible with the unaided eye from a dark location but unrelated to the ancient supernova remnant.

One-Armed Spiral Galaxy NGC 4725

While most spiral galaxies, including our own Milky Way, have two or more spiral arms, NGC 4725 has only one. In this sharp color composite image, the solo spira mirabilis seems to wind from a prominent ring of bluish, newborn star clusters and red tinted star forming regions. The odd galaxy also sports obscuring dust lanes a yellowish central bar structure composed of an older population of stars. NGC 4725 is over 100 thousand light-years across and lies 41 million light-years away in the well-groomed constellation Coma Berenices. Computer simulations of the formation of single spiral arms suggest that they can be either leading or trailing arms with respect to a galaxy's overall rotation. Also included in the frame, a more traditional looking spiral appears as a smaller background galaxy.

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