NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2013-6

The Milky Trail

Have you ever hiked the Queen's Garden trail in Bryce Canyon, Utah, USA, planet Earth? Walking along that path in this dark night skyscape, you can almost imagine your journey continues along the pale, luminous Milky Way. Of course, the name for our galaxy, the Milky Way (in Latin, Via Lactea), does refer to its appearance as a milky band or path in the sky. In fact, the word galaxy itself derives from the Greek for milk. Visible on moonless nights from dark sky areas, though not so bright or quite so colorful as in this image, the glowing celestial band is due to the collective light of myriad stars along the plane of our galaxy, too faint to be distinguished individually. The diffuse starlight is cut by dark swaths of obscuring galactic dust clouds. Four hundred years ago, Galileo turned his telescope on the Milky Way and announced it to be "... a congeries of innumerable stars ..."

A Roll Cloud Over Uruguay

What kind of cloud is this? A roll cloud. These rare long clouds may form near advancing cold fronts. In particular, a downdraft from an advancing storm front can cause moist warm air to rise, cool below its dew point, and so form a cloud. When this happens uniformly along an extended front, a roll cloud may form. Roll clouds may actually have air circulating along the long horizontal axis of the cloud. A roll cloud is not thought to be able to morph into a tornado. Unlike a similar shelf cloud, a roll cloud, a type of Arcus cloud, is completely detached from their parent cumulonimbus cloud. Pictured above, a roll cloud extends far into the distance in 2009 January above Las Olas Beach in Maldonado, Uruguay.

Curiosity: Wheels on Mars

Could life ever have existed on Mars? To help find out, humanity landed the Curiosity rover on Mars last August. To make sure the car-sized explorer survived the interplanetary trip and dramatic landing intact, the above image and others was taken peering at, under, and around Curiosity. Pictured above in this unusual vista are three of Curiosity's six wheels, each measuring about half a meter across. In recent months, Curiosity has been exploring the surroundings of an area dubbed Yellowknife Bay. Analyses of data taken by Curiosity's cameras and onboard laboratories has provided strong new evidence that Mars could once have supported life. In the distance is part of the slope to the central peak inside Gale Crater that Curiosity is scheduled to attempt to climb -- Mt. Sharp.

Orion Nebula in Oxygen, Hydrogen, and Sulfur

Few astronomical sights excite the imagination like the nearby stellar nursery known as the Orion Nebula. The Nebula's glowing gas surrounds hot young stars at the edge of an immense interstellar molecular cloud. Many of the filamentary structures visible in the above image are actually shock waves - fronts where fast moving material encounters slow moving gas. The Orion Nebula spans about 40 light years and is located about 1500 light years away in the same spiral arm of our Galaxy as the Sun. The Great Nebula in Orion can be found with the unaided eye just below and to the left of the easily identifiable belt of three stars in the popular constellation Orion. The above image shows the nebula in three colors specifically emitted by hydrogen, oxygen, and sulfur gas. The whole Orion Nebula cloud complex, which includes the Horsehead Nebula, will slowly disperse over the next 100,000 years.

M57: The Ring Nebula

cept for the rings of Saturn, the Ring Nebula (M57) is probably the most famous celestial band. Its classic appearance is understood to be due to our own perspective, though. The recent mapping of the expanding nebula's 3-D structure, based in part on this clear Hubble image, indicates that the nebula is a relatively dense, donut-like ring wrapped around the middle of a football-shaped cloud of glowing gas. The view from planet Earth looks down the long axis of the football, face-on to the ring. Of course, in this well-studied example of a planetary nebula, the glowing material does not come from planets. Instead, the gaseous shroud represents outer layers expelled from the dying, once sun-like star, now a tiny pinprick of light seen at the nebula's center. Intense ultraviolet light from the hot central star ionizes atoms in the gas. In the picture, the blue color in the center is ionized helium, the cyan color of the inner ring is the glow of hydrogen and oxygen, and the reddish color of the outer ring is from nitrogen and sulfur. The Ring Nebula is about one light-year across and 2,000 light-years away.

Star Size Comparisons

How big is our Sun compared to other stars? In a dramatic and popular video featured on YouTube, the relative sizes of planets and stars are shown from smallest to largest. The above video starts with Earth's Moon and progresses through increasingly larger planets in our Solar System. Next, the Sun is shown along as compared to many of the brighter stars in our neighborhood of the Milky Way Galaxy. Finally, some of the largest stars known spin into view. Note that the true sizes of most stars outside of the Sun and Betelgeuse are not known by direct observation, but rather inferred by measurements of their perceived brightness, temperature, and distance. Although an inspiring learning tool that is mostly accurate, APOD readers are encouraged to complete the learning experience -- and possibly help make future versions more accurate -- by pointing out slight inaccuracies in the video.

NGC 6302: The Butterfly Nebula

The bright clusters and nebulae of planet Earth's night sky are often named for flowers or insects. Though its wingspan covers over 3 light-years, NGC 6302 is no exception. With an estimated surface temperature of about 250,000 degrees C, the dying central star of this particular planetary nebula has become exceptionally hot, shining brightly in ultraviolet light but hidden from direct view by a dense torus of dust. This sharp and colorful close-up of the dying star's nebula was recorded in 2009 by the Hubble Space Telescope's Wide Field Camera 3, installed during the final shuttle servicing mission. Cutting across a bright cavity of ionized gas, the dust torus surrounding the central star is near the center of this view, almost edge-on to the line-of-sight. Molecular hydrogen has been detected in the hot star's dusty cosmic shroud. NGC 6302 lies about 4,000 light-years away in the arachnologically correct constellation of the Scorpion (Scorpius).

Messier Craters in Stereo

Many bright nebulae and star clusters in planet Earth's sky are associated with the name of astronomer Charles Messier, from his famous 18th century catalog. His name is also given to these two large and remarkable craters on the Moon. Standouts in the dark, smooth lunar Sea of Fertility or Mare Fecunditatis, Messier (left) and Messier A have dimensions of 15 by 8 and 16 by 11 kilometers respectively. Their elongated shapes are explained by an extremely shallow-angle trajectory followed by the impactor, moving left to right, that gouged out the craters. The shallow impact also resulted in two bright rays of material extending along the surface to the right, beyond the picture. Intended to be viewed with red/blue glasses (red for the left eye), this striking stereo picture of the crater pair was recently created from high resolution scans of two images (AS11-42-6304, AS11-42-6305) taken during the Apollo 11 mission to the moon. Surf the Universe: Click here to see a randomly selected APOD!

Flowing Auroras Over Norway

Have you ever seen an aurora? Auroras are occurring again with increasing frequency. With the Sun peaking at its eleven year maximum in aurora-triggering activity, it is exhibiting a greater abundance of sunspots, flares, and coronal mass ejections. Solar activity like this typically expels charged particles into the Solar System, some of which impact Earth's magnetosphere and trigger Earthly auroras. In late 2010, the above timelapse displays of picturesque auroras were captured above Tromsø, Norway. Curtains of auroral light, usually green, flow, shimmer and dance as energetic particles fall toward the Earth and excite atoms of air high up in the Earth's atmosphere. There may even be opportunities to see auroras tonight, as recent solar explosions have triggered numerous aurora sightings over the past few days.

The Large Magellanic Cloud in Ultraviolet

Where are the hottest stars in the nearest galaxies? To help find out, NASA commissioned its Earth-orbiting Swift satellite to compile a multi-image mosaic of the neighboring Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) galaxy in ultraviolet light. The above image shows where recently formed stars occur in the LMC, as the most massive of these young stars shine brightly in blue and ultraviolet. In contrast, visible in an image roll-over, a more familiar view of the LMC in visible light better highlights older stars. On the upper left is one of the largest star forming regions known in the entire Local Group of galaxies: the Tarantula Nebula. The Large Magellanic Cloud and its smaller companion the Small Magellanic Cloud are easily visible with the unaided eye to sky enthusiasts with a view of the southern sky. Detailed inspection of the above image is allowing a better galaxy-comprehensive picture for how star formation occurs.

Star Forming Region NGC 3582

What's happening in the NGC 3582 nebula? Bright stars and interesting molecules are forming. The complex nebula resides in the star forming region called RCW 57. Visible in this image are dense knots of dark interstellar dust, bright stars that have formed in the past few million years, fields of glowing hydrogen gas ionized by these stars, and great loops of gas expelled by dying stars. A detailed study of NGC 3582, also known as NGC 3584 and NGC 3576, uncovered at least 33 massive stars in the end stages of formation, and the clear presence of the complex carbon molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are thought to be created in the cooling gas of star forming regions, and their development in the Sun's formation nebula five billion years ago may have been an important step in the development of life on Earth. The above image was taken at the Desert Hollow Observatory north of Phoenix, Arizona, USA. Follow APOD on: Facebook (Daily) (Sky) (Spanish) or Google Plus (Daily) (River)

All of Mercury

For the first time, the entire surface of planet Mercury has been mapped. Detailed observations of the innermost planet's surprising crust have been ongoing since the robotic MESSENGER spacecraft first passed Mercury in 2008 and began orbiting in 2011. Previously, much of the Mercury's surface was unknown as it is too far for Earth-bound telescopes to see clearly, while the Mariner 10 flybys in the 1970s observed only about half. The above video is a compilation of thousands of images of Mercury rendered in exaggerated colors to better contrast different surface features. Visible on the rotating world are rays emanating from a northern impact that stretch across much of the planet, while about half-way through the video the light colored Caloris Basin rotates into view, a northern ancient impact feature that filled with lava. MESSENGER has now successfully completed its primary and first extended missions. Surf the Universe: Click here to see a randomly selected APOD!

Four Planet Sunset

You can see four planets in this serene sunset image, created from a series of stacked digital exposures captured near dusk on May 25. The composite picture follows the trail of three of them, Jupiter, Venus, and Mercury (left to right) dropping toward the western horizon, gathered close in last month's remarkable triple planetary conjunction. Similar in brightness to planet Mercury, the star Elnath (Beta Tauri) is also tracked across the scene, leaving its dotted trail still farther to the right. Of course, in the foreground are the still, shallow waters of Alikes salt lake, reflecting the striking colors of sunset over Kos Island, Greece, planet Earth. For now, Jupiter has wandered into the glare of the setting Sun, but Mercury and Venus remain low in the west at twilight.

Sharpless 115

Sharpless 115 stands just north and west of Deneb, the alpha star of Cygnus the Swan in planet Earth's skies. Noted in the 1959 catalog by astronomer Stewart Sharpless (as Sh2-115) the faint but lovely emission nebula lies along the edge of one of the outer Milky Way's giant molecular clouds, about 7,500 light-years away. Shining with the light of ionized atoms of hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen in this Hubble palette color composite image, the nebular glow is powered by hot stars in star cluster Berkeley 90. The cluster stars are likely only 100 million years old or so and are still embedded in Sharpless 115. But the stars' strong winds and radiation have cleared away much of their dusty, natal cloud. At the emission nebula's estimated distance, this cosmic close-up spans just under 100 light-years.

Delphinid Meteor Mystery

Over a five hour period last Tuesday morning, exposures captured this tantalizing view of meteor streaks and the Milky Way in dark skies above Las Campanas Observatory in Chile. During that time, astronomers had hoped to see an outburst from the gamma Delphinid meteor shower as Earth swept through the dust trail left by an unknown comet. Named for the shower's radiant point in the constellation Delphinus, a brief but strong outburst was reported in bright, moonlit skies on June 10, 1930. While no strong Delphinid meteor activity was reported since, an outburst was tentatively predicted to occur again in 2013. But even though Tuesday's skies were dark, the overall rate of meteors in this field is low, and only the three lower meteor streaks seem to point back to the shower's estimated radiant.

APOD Turns Eighteen

The first APOD appeared eighteen years ago today, on 1995 June 16. Although garnering only 14 pageviews on that day, we are proud to estimate that APOD has now served over one billion space-related images over the past eighteen years. That early beginning, along with a nearly unchanging format, has allowed APOD to be a consistent and familiar site on a web frequently filled with change. Many people don't know, though, that APOD is now translated daily into many major languages. We again thank our readers, astrophotographers, and NASA for their continued support, but ask that any potentially congratulatory e-mail go this year to the volunteers all around the world who translate APOD's captions daily, many times with considerable effort. Some APOD images are featured in the above spectacular collage visualizing APOD as a classic film reel, submitted by an APOD enthusiast skilled in digital image manipulation. How many APOD images can you identify? APOD is also available in: Arabic, Bahasa Indonesian, Catalan, Chinese, Chinese, Czech, Dutch, Farsi, Farsi, Galego, German, French, Hebrew, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Slovenian, Spanish, Thai, or Turkish

Dry Ice Sled Streaks on Mars

What creates these long and nearly straight grooves on Mars? Dubbed linear gullies, they appear on the sides of some sandy slopes during Martian spring, have nearly constant width, extend for as long as two kilometers, and have raised banks along their sides. Unlike most water flows, they do not appear to have areas of dried debris at the downhill end. A leading hypothesis -- actually being tested here on Earth -- is that these linear gullies are caused by chunks of carbon dioxide ice (dry ice) breaking off and sliding down hills while sublimating into gas, eventually completely evaporating into thin air. If true, these natural dry-ice sleds may well provide future adventurers a smooth ride on cushions of escaping carbon dioxide. The above recently-released image was taken in 2006 by the HiRISE camera on board the NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter currently orbiting Mars. Astrophysicists: Browse 600+ codes in the Astrophysics Source Code Library

A Supercell Thunderstorm Over Texas

Is that a cloud or an alien spaceship? It's an unusual and sometimes dangerous type of thunderstorm cloud called a supercell. Supercells may spawn damaging tornados, hail, downbursts of air, or drenching rain. Or they may just look impressive. A supercell harbors a mesocyclone -- a rising column of air surrounded by drafts of falling air. Supercells could occur over many places on Earth but are particularly common in Tornado Alley of the USA. Pictured above are four time lapse sequences of a supercell rotating above and moving across Booker, Texas. Captured in the video are new clouds forming near the storm center, dust swirling on the ground, lightning flashing in the upper clouds, all while the impressively sculptured complex rotates ominously. Finally, after a few hours, as shown in the final sequence, dense rain falls as the storm begins to die out. Follow APOD on: Facebook (Daily) (Sky) (Spanish) or Google Plus (Daily) (River)

Milky Way Over Crater Lake with Airglow

How many different astronomical phenomena have come together to create the above vista? Several. First, in the foreground, is Crater Lake -- a caldera created by volcanism on planet Earth about 7,700 years ago. Next, inside the lake, is water. Although the origin of the water in the crater is melted snowfall, the origin of water on Earth more generally is unclear, but possibly related to ancient Earthly-impacts of icy bodies. Next, the green glow in the sky is airglow, light emitted by atoms high in the Earth's atmosphere as they recombine at night after being separated during the day by energetic sunlight. The many points of light in the sky are stars, glowing by nuclear fusion. They are far above the atmosphere but nearby to our Sun in the Milky Way Galaxy. Finally, the bright arch across the image is the central band of the Milky Way, much further away, on the average, than the nearby stars, and shaped mostly by gravity. Contrary to appearances, the Milky Way band glows by itself and is not illuminated by the airglow. The above image is a six-frame panorama taken during about two weeks ago in Oregon, USA.

Edge-on NGC 3628

Sharp telescopic views of magnificent edge-on spiral galaxy NGC 3628 show a puffy galactic disk divided by dark dust lanes. Of course, this deep galactic portrait puts some astronomers in mind of its popular moniker, The Hamburger Galaxy. The tantalizing island universe is about 100,000 light-years across and 35 million light-years away in the northern springtime constellation Leo. NGC 3628 shares its neighborhood in the local Universe with two other large spirals M65 and M66 in a grouping otherwise known as the Leo Triplet. Gravitational interactions with its cosmic neighbors are likely responsible for the extended flare and warp of this spiral's disk.

A Solstice Sunset Self Portrait

Today, the solstice is at 05:04 Universal Time, the Sun reaching the northernmost declination in its yearly journey through planet Earth's sky. A June solstice marks the astronomical beginning of summer in the northern hemisphere and winter in the south. It also brings the north's longest day, the longest period between sunrise and sunset. This composite image follows the Sun's path toward the end of the June solstice day of 2012 as it approaches the western horizon in a colorful, clear sky. The scene looks north and west along the Tyrrhenian Sea coast from Santa Severa, Italy. Appearing in the well-timed sequence, the small figure of the photographer himself is illuminated against the wall of the town's medieval castle.

Perigee's Full Moon

A big, bright, beautiful Full Moon will rise at sunset on Sunday. Its exact full phase (June 23, 11:32 UT) will occur shortly before it reaches perigee, the closest point to Earth in the Moon's orbit, and make it the largest Full Moon of 2013. But such circumstances are not very rare. The full lunar phase falls near the Moon's orbit perigee about every 14 lunar months. That means the following Full Perigee Moon will be on August 10, 2014, the 14th Full Moon after June 23. On May 5, 2012, 14 Full Moons ago, this inspired telescopic night skyscape captured the Full Perigee Moon rising over Cape Sounion, Greece and the ancient Temple of Poseidon.

Venus' Once Molten Surface

If you could look across Venus with radar eyes, what might you see? This computer reconstruction of the surface of Venus was created from data from the Magellan spacecraft.   Magellan orbited Venus and used radar to map our neighboring planet's surface between 1990 and 1994. Magellan found many interesting surface features, including the large circular domes, typically 25-kilometers across, that are depicted above.   Volcanism is thought to have created the domes, although the precise mechanism remains unknown. Venus' surface is so hot and hostile that no surface probe has lasted more than a few minutes.

The Porpoise Galaxy from Hubble

What's happening to this spiral galaxy? Just a few hundred million years ago, NGC 2936, the upper of the two large galaxies shown, was likely a normal spiral galaxy -- spinning, creating stars -- and minding its own business. But then it got too close to the massive elliptical galaxy NGC 2937 below and took a dive. Dubbed the Porpoise Galaxy for its iconic shape, NGC 2936 is not only being deflected but also being distorted by the close gravitational interaction. A burst of young blue stars forms the nose of the porpoise toward the left of the upper galaxy, while the center of the spiral appears as an eye. Alternatively, the galaxy pair, together known as Arp 142, look to some like a penguin protecting an egg. Either way, intricate dark dust lanes and bright blue star streams trail the troubled galaxy to the lower right. The above recently-released image showing Arp 142 in unprecedented detail was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope last year. Arp 142 lies about 300 million light years away toward the constellation, coincidently, of the Water Snake (Hydra). In a billion years or so the two galaxies will likely merge into one larger galaxy. New Mirror: APOD now availble from Thailand in Thai and English

Rock Nest Panorama from Curiosity on Mars

This is Mars -- have a look around. More specifically, this is one area picked for its promise of holding clues to the habitability of Mars to ancient life. To better search for telling leads, the robotic Curiosity rover took a series of detailed images from a location called Rock Nest. Over 900 of these images were then composed into one of the highest resolution images ever created of the red planet -- a composite containing over one billion pixels. Shown above, toward the middle of this image mosaic, is Mt. Sharp, the central peak of the large crater where the Curiosity rover landed and is currently exploring. An interactive and zoomable version of this image is available here. Over the next few years, Curiosity is scheduled to roll toward the peak of ancient Mt. Sharp, all the while keeping a lookout for distinguishing geological and chemical markers.

M31: The Andromeda Galaxy

Andromeda is the nearest major galaxy to our own Milky Way Galaxy. Our Galaxy is thought to look much like Andromeda. Together these two galaxies dominate the Local Group of galaxies. The diffuse light from Andromeda is caused by the hundreds of billions of stars that compose it. The several distinct stars that surround Andromeda's image are actually stars in our Galaxy that are well in front of the background object. Andromeda is frequently referred to as M31 since it is the 31st object on Messier's list of diffuse sky objects. M31 is so distant it takes about two million years for light to reach us from there. Although visible without aid, the above image of M31 was taken with a small telescope. Much about M31 remains unknown, including how it acquired its unusual double-peaked center.

Noctilucent Clouds over Moscow

This panoramic night scene from June 8 looks out across a Moscow skyline from atop the main building of Lomonosov Moscow State University. Shining in the darkened sky above are widespread noctilucent clouds. From the edge of space, about 80 kilometers above Earth's surface, the icy clouds can still reflect sunlight even though the Sun itself is below the horizon as seen from the ground. Usually spotted at high latitudes in summer months the diaphanous apparitions, also known as polar mesospheric clouds, have come early this season. The seasonal clouds are understood to form as water vapor driven into the cold upper atmosphere condenses on the fine dust particles supplied by meteor smoke (debris left by disintegrating meteors) or volcanic ash. Their early start this year may be connected to changing global circulation patterns in the lower atmosphere. During this northern summer, NASA's AIM mission provides daily projections of the noctilucent clouds as seen from space.

A Super Moon's Halo

A Full Perigee Moon rose as the Sun set last Sunday. At its closest to Earth it was, by just a bit, the year's brightest and largest Full Moon also known as a Super Moon. Seen from Punta Piedras, Argentina and the mouth of the Rio de La Plata, near Buenos Aires, the Super Moon's light created this magnificent circular lunar halo. Still, the size of a lunar halo is determined by the geometry of six sided water ice crystals in planet Earth's high, thin clouds. The crystals deflect the rays of moonlight more strongly through a minimum angle of 22 degrees. So this halo has an inner radius of 22 degrees, just like the halos of the less-than-super moons. Even more common than a Super Moon, beautiful 22 degree halos can be spotted at any time of year.

PanSTARRS: The Anti Tail Comet

Once known as Earth's sunset comet, PanSTARRS (C/2011 L4) is up all night now, but only for northern hemisphere skygazers. Telescopes are required to track its progress as it fades and heads for the outer solar system. But because planet Earth passed through the comet's orbital plane in late May, PanSTARRS will also be remembered for its remarkably long anti-tail. That edge-on perspective looking along the broad, fanned-out dust tail as it trailed behind the comet created the appearance of an anti-tail pointing in the sunward direction, back toward the inner solar system. Recorded on the night of May 27, this 13 pane mosaic (shown in positive and negative views) follows PanSTARRS' anti-tail as it stretches over 7 degrees from the comet's coma at the far right. The anti-tail was likely much longer, but gets lost in the evening's bright moonlight encroaching on the left edge of the scene. Background star cluster NGC 188 in Cepheus shows up along the way, near top left.

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