NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2015-1

Vela Supernova Remnant

The plane of our Milky Way Galaxy runs through this complex and beautiful skyscape. At the northwestern edge of the constellation Vela (the Sails) the telescopic frame is over 10 degrees wide, centered on the brightest glowing filaments of the Vela Supernova Remnant, an expanding debris cloud from the death explosion of a massive star. Light from the supernova explosion that created the Vela remnant reached Earth about 11,000 years ago. In addition to the shocked filaments of glowing gas, the cosmic catastrophe also left behind an incredibly dense, rotating stellar core, the Vela Pulsar. Some 800 light-years distant, the Vela remnant is likely embedded in a larger and older supernova remnant, the Gum Nebula

At the Heart of Orion

Near the center of this sharp cosmic portrait, at the heart of the Orion Nebula, are four hot, massive stars known as the Trapezium. Tightly gathered within a region about 1.5 light-years in radius, they dominate the core of the dense Orion Nebula Star Cluster. Ultraviolet ionizing radiation from the Trapezium stars, mostly from the brightest star Theta-1 Orionis C powers the complex star forming region's entire visible glow. About three million years old, the Orion Nebula Cluster was even more compact in its younger years and a dynamical study indicates that runaway stellar collisions at an earlier age may have formed a black hole with more than 100 times the mass of the Sun. The presence of a black hole within the cluster could explain the observed high velocities of the Trapezium stars. The Orion Nebula's distance of some 1,500 light-years would make it the closest known black hole to planet Earth.

Apollo 17: A Stereo View from Lunar Orbit

Get out your red/blue glasses and check out this awesome stereo view of another world. The scene was recorded by Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene Cernan on December 11, 1972, one orbit before descending to land on the Moon. The stereo anaglyph was assembled from two photographs (AS17-147-22465, AS17-147-22466) captured from his vantage point on board the Lunar Module Challenger as he and Dr. Harrison Schmitt flew over Apollo 17's landing site in the Taurus-Littrow Valley. The broad, sunlit face of the mountain dubbed South Massif rises near the center of the frame, above the dark floor of Taurus-Littrow to its left. Beyond the mountains, toward the lunar limb, lies the Moon's Mare Serenitatis. Piloted by Ron Evans, the Command Module America is visible in orbit in the foreground against the South Massif's peak.

Crescent Rhea Occults Crescent Saturn

Soft hues, partially lit orbs, a thin trace of the ring, and slight shadows highlight this understated view of the majestic surroundings of the giant planet Saturn. Looking nearly back toward the Sun, the robot Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn captured crescent phases of Saturn and its moon Rhea in color a few years ago. As striking as the above image is, it is but a single frame from a 60-frame silent movie where Rhea can be seen gliding in front of its parent world. Since Cassini was nearly in the plane of Saturn's rings, the normally impressive rings are visible here only as a thin line across the image center.

A Fox Fur, a Unicorn, and a Christmas Tree

What do the following things have in common: a cone, the fur of a fox, and a Christmas tree? Answer: they all occur in the constellation of the unicorn (Monoceros). Pictured as a star forming region and cataloged as NGC 2264, the complex jumble of cosmic gas and dust is about 2,700 light-years distant and mixes reddish emission nebulae excited by energetic light from newborn stars with dark interstellar dust clouds. Where the otherwise obscuring dust clouds lie close to the hot, young stars they also reflect starlight, forming blue reflection nebulae. The image spans about the diameter of a full moon, covering about 30 light-years at the distance of NGC 2264. Its cast of cosmic characters includes the Fox Fur Nebula, whose convoluted pelt lies on the lower right, bright variable star S Mon visible just above the Fox Fur, and the Cone Nebula on the image left. Given their distribution, the stars of NGC 2264 are also known as the Christmas Tree star cluster. The triangular tree shape traced by the stars appears here with its apex at the Cone Nebula on the left with its broader base near S Mon on the right.

100 Million Stars in the Andromeda Galaxy

What stars compose the Andromeda galaxy? To better understand, a group of researchers studied the nearby spiral by composing the largest image ever taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. The result, called the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury (PHAT), involved thousands of observations, hundreds of fields, spanned about a third of the galaxy, and resolved over 100 million stars. In the featured composite image, the central part of the galaxy is seen on the far left, while a blue spiral arm is prominent on the right. The brightest stars, scattered over the frame, are actually Milky Way foreground stars. The PHAT data is being analyzed to better understand where and how stars have formed in M31 in contrast to our Milky Way Galaxy, and to identify and characterize Andromeda's stellar clusters and obscuring dust.

Hubble 25th Anniversary: Pillars of Creation

To celebrate 25 years (1990-2015) of exploring the Universe from low Earth orbit, the Hubble Space Telescope's cameras were used to revisit its most iconic image. The result is this sharper, wider view of the region dubbed the Pillars of Creation, first imaged by Hubble in 1995. Stars are forming deep inside the towering structures. The light-years long columns of cold gas and dust are some 6,500 light-years distant in M16, the Eagle Nebula, toward the constellation Serpens. Sculpted and eroded by the energetic ultraviolet light and powerful winds from M16's cluster of young, massive stars, the cosmic pillars themselves are destined for destruction. But the turbulent environment of star formation within M16, whose spectacular details are captured in this Hubble visible-light snapshot, is likely similar to the environment that formed our own Sun. APOD Talk: Friday, January 9 in New York City

Stars and Dust in Corona Australis

Cosmic dust clouds and young, energetic stars inhabit this telescopic vista, less than 500 light-years away toward the northern boundary of Corona Australis, the Southern Crown. The dust clouds effectively block light from more distant background stars in the Milky Way. But the striking complex of reflection nebulae cataloged as NGC 6726, 6727, and IC 4812 produce a characteristic blue color as light from the region's young hot stars is reflected by the cosmic dust. The dust also obscures from view stars still in the process of formation. At the left, smaller yellowish nebula NGC 6729 bends around young variable star R Coronae Australis. Just below it, glowing arcs and loops shocked by outflows from embedded newborn stars are identified as Herbig-Haro objects. On the sky this field of view spans about 1 degree. That corresponds to almost 9 light-years at the estimated distance of the nearby star forming region. APOD Talk: Friday, January 9 in New York City

In the Arms of NGC 1097

Spiral galaxy NGC 1097 shines in southern skies, about 45 million light-years away in the chemical constellation Fornax. Its blue spiral arms are mottled with pinkish star forming regions in this colorful galaxy portrait. They seem to have wrapped around a small companion galaxy below and left of center, about 40,000 light-years from the spiral's luminous core. That's not NGC 1097's only peculiar feature, though. The very deep exposure hints of faint, mysterious jets, most easily seen to extend well beyond the bluish arms toward the left. In fact, four faint jets are ultimately recognized in optical images of NGC 1097. The jets trace an X centered on the galaxy's nucleus, but probably don't originate there. Instead, they could be fossil star streams, trails left over from the capture and disruption of a much smaller galaxy in the large spiral's ancient past. A Seyfert galaxy, NGC 1097's nucleus also harbors a supermassive black hole. Tonight: APOD Talk in New York City

The Windmill's Moon

Seen from the Canary Island of Fuerteventura, this bright Full Moon rose at sunset. Reaching its full phase on the night of January 4/5, it was the first Full Moon of the new year and the first to follow December's solstice. Of course, in North America the first Full Moon of January has been known as the Wolf's Moon. But this Full Moon, posed in the twilight above an island of strong winds and traditional windmills, suggests another name. The telephoto image, taken at a distance from the foreground windmill, creates the dramatic comparison in apparent size for windmill and Full Moon.

Cataclysmic Dawn

Will this dawn bring another nova? Such dilemmas might be pondered one day by future humans living on a planet orbiting a cataclysmic variable binary star system. Cataclysmic variables involve gas falling from a large star onto an accretion disk surrounding a massive but compact white dwarf star. Explosive cataclysmic events such as a dwarf nova can occur when a clump of gas in the interior of the accretion disk heats up past a certain temperature. At that point, the clump will fall more quickly onto the white dwarf and land with a bright flash. Such dwarf novas will not destroy either star, and may occur irregularly on time scales from a few days to tens of years. Although a nova is much less energetic than a supernova, if recurrent novas are not violent enough to expel more gas than is falling in, mass will accumulate onto the white dwarf star until it passes its Chandrasekhar limit. At that point, a foreground cave may provide little protection, as the entire white dwarf star will explode in a tremendous supernova.

Super Planet Crash

Can you create a planetary system that lasts for 500 years? Super Planet Crash, the featured game, allows you to try. To create up to ten planets, just click anywhere near the central star. Planet types can be selected on the left in order of increasing mass: Earth, Super-Earth, Ice giant, Giant planet, Brown dwarf, or Dwarf star. Each planet is gravitationally attracted not only to the central Sun-like star, but to other planets. Points are awarded, with bonus factors applied for increasingly crowded and habitable systems. The game ends after 500 years or when a planet is gravitationally expelled. Many exoplanetary systems are being discovered in recent years, and Super Planet Crash demonstrates why some remain stable. As you might suspect after playing Super Planet Crash a few times, there is reason to believe that our own Solar System has lost planets during its formation.

The Soap Bubble Nebula

Adrift in the rich star fields of the constellation Cygnus, this lovely, symmetric nebula was only recognized a few years ago and does not yet appear in some astronomical catalogs. In fact, amateur astronomer Dave Jurasevich identified it as a nebula on 2008 July 6 in his images of the complex Cygnus region that included the Crescent Nebula (NGC 6888). He subsequently notified the International Astronomical Union. Only eleven days later the same object was independently identified by Mel Helm at Sierra Remote Observatories, imaged by Keith Quattrocchi and Helm, and also submitted to the IAU as a potentially unknown nebula. The nebula, appearing on the left of the featured image, is now known as the Soap Bubble Nebula. What is the newly recognized nebula? Most probably it is a planetary nebula, a final phase in the life of a sun-like star.

The Hunter, the Bull, and Lovejoy

Heading north, Comet Lovejoy (C/2014 Q2) is putting on its best show for comet watchers now, with moonlight absent from mid-January's early evening skies. An easy binocular target and just visible to the unaided eye from dark sites, the comet sweeps across the constellation Taurus the Bull in this deep night skyscape. The starry scene was captured just two days ago on January 12, from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, planet Earth. In fact, the head of Taurus formed by the V-shaped Hyades star cluster points toward Lovejoy at the right. The comet's greenish coma and tail streaming in the anti-sunward direction also seem to have been shot from Orion's bow. You can spot the familiar stars of the nebula rich constellation of the Hunter on the left, and follow this link to highlight Comet Lovejoy in the wide field of view.

Venus and Mercury at Sunset

Inner planets Venus and Mercury can never wander far from the Sun in Earth's sky. This week you've probably seen them both gathered near the western horizon just after sunset, a close conjunction of bright celestial beacons in the fading twilight. The pair are framed in this early evening skyview captured on January 13 from the ruins of Szarvasko Castle in northwestern Hungary. Above the silhouette of the landscape's prominent volcanic hill Venus is much the brighter, separated from Mercury by little more than the width of two Full Moons. On Friday, planet Earth's early morning risers will also be treated to a close conjunction, when Saturn meets an old crescent Moon near the southeastern horizon at dawn.

Huygens Lands on Titan

Delivered by Saturn-bound Cassini, ESA's Huygens probe touched down on the ringed planet's largest moon Titan, ten years ago on January 14, 2005. These panels show fisheye images made during its slow descent by parachute through Titan's dense atmosphere. Taken by the probe's descent imager/spectral radiometer instrument they range in altitude from 6 kilometers (upper left) to 0.2 kilometers (lower right) above the moon's surprisingly Earth-like surface of dark channels, floodplains, and bright ridges. But at temperatures near -290 degrees F (-180 degrees C), the liquids flowing across Titan's surface are methane and ethane, hydrocarbons rather than water. After making the most distant landing for a spacecraft from Earth, Huygens transmitted data for more than an hour. The Huygens data and a decade of exploration by Cassini have shown Titan to be a tantalizing world hosting a complex chemistry of organic compounds, dynamic landforms, lakes, seas, and a possible subsurface ocean of liquid water.

Comet Lovejoy's Tail

Sweeping north in planet Earth's sky, Comet Lovejoy's greenish coma and blue tinted ion tail stretched across this field of stars in the constellation Taurus on January 13. The inset at the upper left shows the 1/2 degree angular size of the full moon for scale. So Lovejoy's coma appears only a little smaller (but much fainter) than a full moon on the sky, and its tail is visible for over 4 degrees across the frame. That corresponds to over 5 million kilometers at the comet's estimated distance of 75 million kilometers from Earth. Blown by the solar wind, the comet's tenuous, structured ion tail streams away from the Sun, growing as this Comet Lovejoy heads toward perihelion, its closest approach to the Sun, on January 30. While diatomic carbon (C2) gas fluorescing in sunlight produces the coma's green color, the fainter bluish tail is tinted by emission from ionized carbon monoxide (CO+).

The Galactic Core in Infrared

What's happening at the center of our Milky Way Galaxy? To help find out, the orbiting Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes have combined their efforts to survey the region in unprecedented detail in infrared light. Infrared light is particularly useful for probing the Milky Way's center because visible light is more greatly obscured by dust. The above image encompasses more than 2,000 images from the Hubble Space Telescope's NICMOS taken in 2008. The image spans 300 by 115 light years with such high resolution that structures only 20 times the size of our own Solar System are discernable. Clouds of glowing gas and dark dust as well as three large star clusters are visible. Magnetic fields may be channeling plasma along the upper left near the Arches Cluster, while energetic stellar winds are carving pillars near the Quintuplet Cluster on the lower left. The massive Central Cluster of stars surrounding Sagittarius A* is visible on the lower right. Why several central, bright, massive stars appear to be unassociated with these star clusters is not yet understood. Follow APOD on: Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter

Infrared Orion from WISE

The Great Nebula in Orion is an intriguing place. Visible to the unaided eye, it appears as a small fuzzy patch in the constellation of Orion. But this image, an illusory-color four-panel mosaic taken in different bands of infrared light with the Earth orbiting WISE observatory, shows the Orion Nebula to be a bustling neighborhood of recently formed stars, hot gas, and dark dust. The power behind much of the Orion Nebula (M42) is the stars of the Trapezium star cluster, seen near the center of the above wide field image. The orange glow surrounding the bright stars pictured here is their own starlight reflected by intricate dust filaments that cover much of the region. The current Orion Nebula cloud complex, which includes the Horsehead Nebula, will slowly disperse over the next 100,000 years. Now Available: APOD 2015 Wall Calendars

Approaching Asteroid Ceres

It is the largest asteroid in the asteroid belt -- what secrets does it hold? To find out, NASA has sent the robotic Dawn spacecraft to explore and map this cryptic 1,000-kilometer wide world: Ceres. Orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, Ceres is officially categorized as a dwarf planet but has never been imaged in detail. Featured here is a 20-frame video taken a week ago of Dawn's approach that now rivals even the best images of Ceres ever taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The video shows enough surface definition to discern its 9-hour rotation period. On target to reach Ceres in early March, Dawn will match speeds and attempt to orbit this previously unexplored body, taking images and data that may help humanity better understand not only the nature and history of Ceres but also the early history of our entire Solar System.

The Complex Ion Tail of Comet Lovejoy

What causes the structure in Comet Lovejoy's tail? Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy), which is currently at naked-eye brightness and near its brightest, has been showing an exquisitely detailed ion tail. As the name implies, the ion tail is made of ionized gas -- gas energized by ultraviolet light from the Sun and pushed outward by the solar wind. The solar wind is quite structured and sculpted by the Sun's complex and ever changing magnetic field. The effect of the variable solar wind combined with different gas jets venting from the comet's nucleus accounts for the tail's complex structure. Following the wind, structure in Comet Lovejoy's tail can be seen to move outward from the Sun even alter its wavy appearance over time. The blue color of the ion tail is dominated by recombining carbon monoxide molecules, while the green color of the coma surrounding the head of the comet is created mostly by a slight amount of recombining diatomic carbon molecules. The featured three-panel mosaic image was taken nine days ago from the IRIDA Observatory in Bulgaria. Comet Lovejoy made it closest pass to the Earth two weeks ago and will be at its closest to the Sun in about ten days. After that, the comet will fade as it heads back into the outer Solar System, to return only in about 8,000 years. Astrophysicists: Browse 950+ codes in the Astrophysics Source Code Library

Launch to Lovejoy

Blasting skyward an Atlas V rocket carrying a U.S. Navy satellite pierces a cloud bank in this starry night scene captured on January 20. On its way to orbit from Space Launch Complex 41, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, planet Earth, the rocket streaks past brightest star Sirius, as seen from a dark beach at Canaveral National Seashore. Above the alpha star of Canis Major, Orion the Hunter strikes a pose familiar to northern winter skygazers. Above Orion is the V-shaped Hyades star cluster, head of Taurus the Bull, and farther still above Taurus it's easy to spot the compact Pleiades star cluster. Of course near the top of the frame you'll find the greenish coma and long tail of Comet Lovejoy, astronomical darling of these January nights.

Interior View

Some prefer windows, and these are the best available on board the International Space Station. Taken on January 4, this snapshot from inside the station's large, seven-window Cupola module also shows off a workstation for controlling Canadarm2. Used to grapple visiting cargo vehicles and assist astronauts during spacewalks, the robotic arm is just outside the window at the right. The Cupola itself is attached to the Earth-facing or nadir port of the station's Tranquility module, offering dynamic panoramas of our fair planet. Seen from the station's 90 minute long, 400 kilometer high orbit, Earth's bright limb is in view above center.

Light from Cygnus A

Celebrating astronomy in this International Year of Light, the detailed image reveals spectacular active galaxy Cygnus A in light across the electromagnetic spectrum. Incorporating X-ray data ( blue) from the orbiting Chandra Observatory, Cygnus A is seen to be a prodigious source of high energy x-rays. But it is actually more famous at the low energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum. One of the brightest celestial sources visible to radio telescopes, at 600 million light-years distant Cygnus A is the closest powerful radio galaxy. Radio emission ( red) extends to either side along the same axis for nearly 300,000 light-years powered by jets of relativistic particles emanating from the galaxy's central supermassive black hole. Hot spots likely mark the ends of the jets impacting surrounding cool, dense material. Confined to yellow hues, optical wavelength data of the galaxy from Hubble and the surrounding field in the Digital Sky Survey complete a remarkable multiwavelength view.

A Twisted Solar Eruptive Prominence

Ten Earths could easily fit in the "claw" of this seemingly solar monster. The monster, actually a huge eruptive prominence, is seen moving out from our Sun in this condensed half-hour time-lapse sequence. This large prominence, though, is significant not only for its size, but its shape. The twisted figure eight shape indicates that a complex magnetic field threads through the emerging solar particles. Differential rotation of gas just inside the surface of the Sun might help account for the surface explosion. The five frame sequence was taken in early 2000 by the Sun-orbiting SOHO satellite. Although large prominences and energetic Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) are relatively rare, they are again occurring more frequently now that we are near the Solar Maximum, a time of peak sunspot and solar activity in the eleven-year solar cycle.

The Milky Way over the Seven Strong Men Rock Formations

You may have heard of the Seven Sisters in the sky, but have you heard about the Seven Strong Men on the ground? Located just west of the Ural Mountains, the unusual Manpupuner rock formations are one of the Seven Wonders of Russia. How these ancient 40-meter high pillars formed is yet unknown. The persistent photographer of this featured image battled rough terrain and uncooperative weather to capture these rugged stone towers in winter at night, being finally successful in February of last year. Utilizing the camera's time delay feature, the photographer holds a flashlight in the foreground near one of the snow-covered pillars. High above, millions of stars shine down, while the band of our Milky Way Galaxy crosses diagonally down from the upper left. Follow APOD on: Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter

Our Galaxy's Magnetic Field from Planck

What does the magnetic field of our Galaxy look like? It has long been known that a modest magnetic field pervades our Milky Way Galaxy because it is seen to align small dust grains that scatter background light. Only recently, however, has the Sun-orbiting Planck satellite made a high-resolution map of this field. Color coded, the 30-degree wide map confirms, among other things, that the Galaxy's interstellar magnetism is strongest in the central disk. The revolution of charged gas around the Galactic center creates this magnetism, and it is hypothesized that viewed from the top, the Milky Way's magnetic field would appear as a spiral swirling out from the center. What caused many of the details in this and similar Planck maps -- and how magnetism in general affected our Galaxy's evolution -- will likely remain topics of research for years to come.

Comet Lovejoy in a Winter Sky

Which of these night sky icons can you find in this beautiful and deep exposure of the northern winter sky? Skylights include the stars in Orion's belt, the Orion Nebula, the Pleiades star cluster, the bright stars Betelgeuse and Rigel, the California Nebula, Barnard's Loop, and Comet Lovejoy. The belt stars of Orion are nearly vertical in the central line between the horizon and the image center, with the lowest belt star obscured by the red glowing Flame Nebula. To the belt's left is the red arc of Barnard's Loop followed by the bright orange star Betelgeuse, while to the belt's right is the colorful Orion Nebula followed by the bright blue star Rigel. The blue cluster of bright stars near the top center is the Pleiades, and the red nebula to its left is the California nebula. The bright orange dot above the image center is the star Aldebaran, while the green object with the long tail to its right is Comet C/2014 Q2 (Lovejoy). The featured image was taken about two weeks ago near Palau village in Spain.

Close Encounter with M44

On Monday, January 26, well-tracked asteroid 2004 BL86 made its closest approach, a mere 1.2 million kilometers from our fair planet. That's about 3.1 times the Earth-Moon distance or 4 light-seconds away. Moving quickly through Earth's night sky, it left this streak in a 40 minute long exposure on January 27 made from Piemonte, Italy. The remarkably pretty telescopic field of view includes M44, also known as the Beehive or Praesepe star cluster in Cancer. Of course, its close encounter with M44 is only an apparent one, with the cluster nearly along the same line-of-sight to the near-earth asteroid. The actual distance between star cluster and asteroid is around 600 light-years. Still, the close approach to planet Earth allowed detailed radar imaging from NASA's Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California and revealed the asteroid to have its own moon.

A Night at Poker Flat

Four NASA suborbital sounding rockets leapt into the night on January 26, from the University of Alaska's Poker Flat Research Range. This time lapse composite image follows all four launches of the small, multi-stage rockets to explore winter's mesmerizing, aurora-filled skies. During the exposures, stars trailed around the North Celestial Pole, high above the horizon at the site 30 miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska. Lidar, beams of pulsed green lasers, also left traces through the scene. Operating successfully, the payloads lofted were two Mesosphere-Lower Thermosphere Turbulence Experiments (M-TeX) and two Mesospheric Inversion-layer Stratified Turbulence (MIST) experiments, creating vapor trails at high altitudes to be tracked by ground-based observations.

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