NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2015-3

Inside the Coma Cluster of Galaxies

Almost every object in the above photograph is a galaxy. The Coma Cluster of Galaxies pictured above is one of the densest clusters known - it contains thousands of galaxies. Each of these galaxies houses billions of stars - just as our own Milky Way Galaxy does. Although nearby when compared to most other clusters, light from the Coma Cluster still takes hundreds of millions of years to reach us. In fact, the Coma Cluster is so big it takes light millions of years just to go from one side to the other! The above mosaic of images of a small portion of Coma was taken in unprecedented detail in 2006 by the Hubble Space Telescope to investigate how galaxies in rich clusters form and evolve. Most galaxies in Coma and other clusters are ellipticals, although some imaged here are clearly spirals. The spiral galaxy on the upper left of the above image can also be found as one of the bluer galaxies on the upper left of this wider field image. In the background thousands of unrelated galaxies are visible far across the universe.

Lenticular Cloud, Moon, Mars, Venus

It is not every day that such an interesting cloud photobombs your image. The original plan was to photograph a rare angular conjunction of Mars and Venus that occurred a week and a half ago, with the added bonus of a crescent Moon and the International Space Station (ISS) both passing nearby. Unfortunately, on Madeira Island, Portugal, this event was clouded out. During the next day, however, a spectacular lenticular cloud appeared before sunset, so the industrious astrophotographer quickly formulated a new plan. A close look at the resulting image reveals the Moon visible toward the left of the frame, while underneath, near the bottom, are the famous planets with Venus being the brighter. It was the unexpected lenticular cloud, though, perhaps looking like some sort of futuristic spaceship, that stole the show. The setting Sun illuminated the stationary cloud (and everything else) from the bottom, setting up an intricate pattern of shadows, layers, and brightly illuminated regions, all seen evolving in a corresponding video. Mars and Venus will next appear this close on the sky in late August, but whether any place on Earth will catch them behind such a photogenic cloud is unknown. Follow APOD on: Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter

A Dust Devil on Mars

It was late in the northern martian spring when the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spied this local denizen. Tracking across the flat, dust-covered Amazonis Planitia in 2012, the core of this whirling dust devil is about 140 meters in diameter. Lofting dust into the thin martian atmosphere, its plume reaches about 20 kilometers above the surface. Common to this region of Mars, dust devils occur as the surface is heated by the Sun, generating warm, rising air currents that begin to rotate. Tangential wind speeds of up to 110 kilometers per hour are reported for dust devils in other HiRISE images. Follow APOD on: Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter

Pillars and Jets in the Pelican Nebula

What dark structures arise from the Pelican Nebula? Visible as a bird-shaped nebula toward the constellation of a bird (Cygnus, the Swan), the Pelican Nebula is a place dotted with newly formed stars but fouled with dark dust. These smoke-sized dust grains formed in the cool atmospheres of young stars and were dispersed by stellar winds and explosions. Impressive Herbig-Haro jets are seen emitted by a star on the right that is helping to destroy the light year-long dust pillar that contains it. The featured image was scientifically-colored to emphasize light emitted by small amounts of ionized nitrogen, oxygen, and sulfur in the nebula made predominantly of hydrogen and helium. The Pelican Nebula (IC 5067 and IC 5070) is about 2,000 light-years away and can be found with a small telescope to the northeast of the bright star Deneb.

Enhanced Color Caloris

The sprawling Caloris basin on Mercury is one of the solar system's largest impact basins, created during the early history of the solar system by the impact of a large asteroid-sized body. The multi-featured, fractured basin spans about 1,500 kilometers in this enhanced color mosaic based on image data from the Mercury-orbiting MESSENGER spacecraft. Mercury's youngest large impact basin, Caloris was subsequently filled in by lavas that appear orange in the mosaic. Craters made after the flooding have excavated material from beneath the surface lavas. Seen as contrasting blue hues, they likely offer a glimpse of the original basin floor material. Analysis of these craters suggests the thickness of the covering volcanic lava to be 2.5-3.5 kilometers. Orange splotches around the basin's perimeter are thought to be volcanic vents.

Cometary Globule CG4

The faint and somehow menacing cometary globule CG4 reaches through the center of this deep southern skyscape. About 1,300 light-years from Earth toward the constellation Puppis, its head is about 1.5 light-years in diameter and its tail about 8 light-years long. That's far larger than the Solar System's comets that it seems to resemble. In fact, the dusty cloud contains enough material to form several Sun-like stars and likely has ongoing star formation within. How its distinctive form came about is still debated, but its long tail trails away from the Vela Supernova remnant near the center of the Gum Nebula, while its head could represent the rupture of an originally more spherical cloud. Still, the edge-on spiral galaxy also near picture center is not actually being threatened by CG4. The galaxy lies in the distant background more than 100 million light-years away.

NGC 602 in the Flying Lizard Nebula

Near the outskirts of the Small Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy some 200 thousand light-years distant, lies 5 million year young star cluster NGC 602. Surrounded by natal gas and dust, NGC 602 is just below center in this telescopic field of view with the angular size of the Full Moon on the sky. The cluster itself is about 200 light-years in diameter. Glowing interior ridges and swept back shapes strongly suggest that energetic radiation and shock waves from NGC 602's massive young stars have eroded the dusty material and triggered a progression of star formation moving away from the cluster's center. Of course, the more extended wings of emission in the region suggest a popular name for the complex cosmic environment, The Flying Lizard Nebula.

Stars at the Galactic Center

The center of our Milky Way Galaxy is hidden from the prying eyes of optical telescopes by clouds of obscuring dust and gas. But in this stunning vista, the Spitzer Space Telescope's infrared cameras, penetrate much of the dust revealing the stars of the crowded galactic center region. A mosaic of many smaller snapshots, the detailed, false-color image shows older, cool stars in bluish hues. Reddish glowing dust clouds are associated with young, hot stars in stellar nurseries. The very center of the Milky Way was only recently found capable of forming newborn stars. The galactic center lies some 26,000 light-years away, toward the constellation Sagittarius. At that distance, this picture spans about 900 light-years.

Galaxy and Cluster Create Four Images of Distant Supernova

What are the unusual spots surrounding that galaxy? They are all images of the same supernova. For the first time, a single supernova explosion has been seen split into multiple images by the gravitational lens deflections of intervening masses. In this case the masses are a large galaxy and its home galaxy cluster. The featured image was captured last November by the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. The yellow-hued quadruply-imaged Supernova Refsdal occurred in the early universe far behind the cluster. Measuring the locations and time-delays between the supernova images should allow astrophysicists to recover the amount of dark matter in the galaxy and cluster. With patience and luck, a fifth image of the supernova will also be recovered nearby in the next few years. Astrophysicists: Browse 1,000+ codes in the Astrophysics Source Code Library

Aurora over Icelandic Glacier

Several key conditions came together to create this award-winning shot. These included a dark night, few clouds, an epic auroral display, and a body of water that was both calm enough and unfrozen enough to show reflected stars. The featured skyscape of activity and serenity appeared over Iceland's Vatnajökull Glacier a year ago January, with the Jökulsárlón Iceberg Lagoon captured in the foreground. Aurora filled skies continue to be common near Earth's poles as our Sun, near Solar Maximum, continues to expel energetic clouds of plasma into the Solar System. Follow APOD on: Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter

Volcano of Fire Erupts Under the Stars

First, there was an unusual smell. Then there was a loud bang. But what appeared to the eye was the most amazing of all. While waiting near midnight to see a possible eruption of Volcán de Fuego (Volcano of Fire) in Guatemala last month, a ready camera captured this extraordinary image. Lava is seen running down the side of the volcano, while ash rises up, and glowing magma bubbles explode out of the caldera. Lights near the town of Escuintla can be seen in the background, one of several nearby towns that have witnessed several spectacular eruptions previously. High above, seemingly tranquil by comparison, are familiar stars from the night sky. Although the Volcán de Fuego usually undergoes low-level activity, when the next spectacular eruption will occur is unknown. Click Through the Universe: Random APOD Generator

Along the Cygnus Wall

The W-shaped ridge of emission featured in this vivid skyscape is known as the Cygnus Wall. Part of a larger emission nebula with a distinctive outline popularly called The North America Nebula, the cosmic ridge spans about 20 light-years. Constructed using narrowband data to highlight the telltale reddish glow from ionized hydrogen atoms recombining with electrons, the two frame mosaic image follows an ionization front with fine details of dark, dusty forms in silhouette. Sculpted by energetic radiation from the region's young, hot, massive stars, the dark shapes inhabiting the view are clouds of cool gas and dust with stars likely forming within. The North America Nebula itself, NGC 7000, is about 1,500 light-years away.

The Great Wall by Moonlight

Last Friday, an almost Full Moon rose as the Sun set, over this mountainous landscape north of Beijing, China. Also near apogee, the farthest point in its elliptical orbit around planet Earth, it was this year's smallest and faintest Full Moon. The Jiankou section of the Great Wall of China meanders through the scene, the ancient Great Wall itself the subject of an older-than-the-space-age myth that it would be visible to the eye when standing on the lunar surface. But even from low Earth orbit, the large scale artifact of human civilization is very difficult to identify. At its farthest from our fair planet, the Moon shines brightly in the twilight sky though, posing in the faint, pinkish band known as the antitwilight arch or the belt of Venus.

Return at Sunrise

Thursday, shortly after local sunrise over central Asia, this Soyuz spacecraft floated over a sea of golden clouds during its descent by parachute through planet Earth's dense atmosphere. On board were Expedition 42 commander Barry Wilmore of NASA and Alexander Samokutyaev and Elena Serova of the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos). Touch down was at approximately 10:07 p.m. EDT (8:07 a.m. March 12, Kazakh time) southeast of Zhezkazgan, Kazakhstan. The three were returning from low Earth orbit, after almost six months on the International Space Station as members of the Expedition 41 and Expedition 42 crews.

A Total Eclipse at the End of the World

Would you go to the end of the world to see a total eclipse of the Sun? If you did, would you be surprised to find someone else there already? In 2003, the Sun, the Moon, Antarctica, and two photographers all lined up in Antarctica during an unusual total solar eclipse. Even given the extreme location, a group of enthusiastic eclipse chasers ventured near the bottom of the world to experience the surreal momentary disappearance of the Sun behind the Moon. One of the treasures collected was the above picture -- a composite of four separate images digitally combined to realistically simulate how the adaptive human eye saw the eclipse. As the image was taken, both the Moon and the Sun peeked together over an Antarctic ridge. In the sudden darkness, the magnificent corona of the Sun became visible around the Moon. Quite by accident, another photographer was caught in one of the images checking his video camera. Visible to his left are an equipment bag and a collapsible chair. A total solar eclipse will occur on Friday and be visible from the north Atlantic Ocean.

The Clouds of Orion the Hunter

Cradled in cosmic dust and glowing hydrogen, stellar nurseries in Orion the Hunter lie at the edge of giant molecular clouds some 1,500 light-years away. Spanning about 30 degrees, this breath-taking vista stretches across the well-known constellation from head to toe (left to right) and beyond. At 1,500 light years away, the Great Orion Nebula is the closest large star forming region, here visible just right and below center. To its left are the Horsehead Nebula, M78, and Orion's belt stars. Sliding your cursor over the picture will also find red giant Betelgeuse at the hunter's shoulder, bright blue Rigel at his foot, the Witch Head Nebula above -- and illuminated by -- Rigel, and the glowing Lambda Orionis (Meissa) nebula on the left, near Orion's head. Of course, the Orion Nebula and bright stars are easy to see with the unaided eye, but dust clouds and emission from the extensive interstellar gas in this nebula-rich complex, are too faint and much harder to record. In this mosaic of broadband telescopic images, additional image data acquired with a narrow hydrogen alpha filter was used to bring out the pervasive tendrils of energized atomic hydrogen gas like in the arc of the giant Barnard's Loop.

The Big Dipper Enhanced

Do you see it? This common question frequently precedes the rediscovery of one of the most commonly recognized configurations of stars on the northern sky: the Big Dipper. This grouping of stars is one of the few things that has likely been seen, and will be seen, by every human generation. In this featured image, however, the stars of the Big Dipper have been digitally enhanced -- they do not really appear this much brighter than nearby stars. The image was taken earlier this month from France. The Big Dipper is not by itself a constellation. Although part of the constellation of the Great Bear (Ursa Major), the Big Dipper is an asterism that has been known by different names to different societies. Five of the Big Dipper stars are actually near each other in space and were likely formed at nearly the same time. Relative stellar motions will cause the Big Dipper to slowly change its apparent configuration over the next 100,000 years. Follow APOD on: Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter

Earth During a Total Eclipse of the Sun

What does the Earth look like during a total solar eclipse? It appears dark in the region where people see the eclipse, because that's where the shadow of the Moon falls. The shadow spot actually shoots across the Earth at nearly 2,000 kilometers per hour, darkening locations in its path for only a few minutes before moving on. The featured image shows the Earth during the total solar eclipse of 2006 March, as seen from the International Space Station. On Friday the Moon will move in front of the Sun once again, casting another distorted circular shadow that, this time, will zip over part of the north Atlantic Ocean.

Aurora in the Backyard

On the night of March 17/18 this umbrella of northern lights unfolded over backyards in Vallentuna, Sweden about 30 kilometers north of Stockholm. A result of the strongest geomagnetic storm of this solar cycle, auroral displays were captured on that night from back and front yards at even lower latitudes, including sightings in the midwestern United States. A boon for aurora hunting skywatchers, the space storm began building when a coronal mass ejection, launched by solar activity some two days earlier, struck planet Earth's magnetosphere. So what's the name of the backyard observatory on the right of the wide field view? That's Carpe Noctem Observatory, of course.

Sunshine, Earthshine

Today's date marks an Equinox and a New Moon. Remarkably, while the exact timing of both geocentric events occur within a span of only 13 hours, the moon also reaches its new phase only 14 hours after perigee, the closest point in its orbit. That makes the Equinox New Moon the largest New Moon of 2015, though hard to see since that lunar phase presents the Moon's dark, night side to planet Earth. Still, in this well composed image of a young lunar phase from late January you can glimpse both night and day on the lunar surface, the night side faintly illuminated by Earthshine next to the day side's brightly sunlit crescent. But some will see today's Equinox New Moon in silhouette! The Equinox Solar Eclipse will be total across stretches of the Arctic Ocean, visible in partial phases from Europe, northern Africa and western Asia. Gallery: Today's solar eclipse

Northern Equinox Eclipse

Snowy and cold is weather you might expect at the start of spring for Longyearbyen on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. But that turned out to be good weather for watching the Moon's umbral shadow race across northern planet Earth. The region was plunged into darkness for 3 minutes during the March 20 total solar eclipse while insulated eclipse chasers witnessed the dark Sun in the cold clear sky. In this well-timed snapshot captured near the end of totality, the Moon's shadow sweeps away from the horizon and the solar corona fades as the lunar disk just begins to uncover the Sun. Streaming past the Moon's edge, direct rays of sunlight create the fleeting appearance of a glistening diamond ring. Gallery: Solar Eclipse

A Double Eclipse of the Sun

Can the Sun be eclipsed twice at the same time? Last Friday was noteworthy because part of the Earth was treated to a rare total eclipse of the Sun. But also on Friday, from a part of the Earth that only saw part of the Sun eclipsed, a second object appeared simultaneously in front of the Sun: the Earth-orbiting International Space Station. Although space station eclipses are very quick -- in this case only 0.6 seconds, they are not so rare. Capturing this composite image took a lot of planning and a little luck, as the photographer had to dodge a series of third objects that kept, annoyingly, also lining up in front of the Sun: clouds. The above superposed time-lapse sequence was taken from Fregenal de la Sierra in southern Spain. The dark disk of the Moon dominates the lower right, while the Sun's textured surface shows several filaments and, over an edge, a prominence. Gallery: Solar Eclipse

Atlas V Launches MMS

Birds don't fly this high. Airplanes don't go this fast. The Statue of Liberty weighs less. No species other than human can even comprehend what is going on, nor could any human just a millennium ago. The launch of a rocket bound for space is an event that inspires awe and challenges description. Pictured above, an Atlas V rocket lifts off carrying NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission into Earth orbit 10 days ago to study the workings of the magnetosphere that surrounds and protects the Earth. From a standing start, the 300,000 kilogram rocket ship left to circle the Earth where the outside air is too thin to breathe. Rockets bound for space are now launched from somewhere on Earth about once a week.

Powers of Ten

How different does the universe look on small, medium, and large scales? The most famous short science film of its generation gives breathtaking comparisons. That film, Powers of Ten, originally created in the 1960s, has now been officially posted to YouTube and embedded above. Please click the above arrow to see the nine minute movie for yourself. From a picnic blanket near Chicago out past the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies, every ten seconds the film zooms out to show a square a factor of ten times larger on each side. The video then reverses, zooming back in a factor of ten every two seconds and ends up inside a single proton. The Powers of Ten sequence is actually based on the book Cosmic View by Kees Boeke in 1957, as is a similar but mostly animated film Cosmic Zoom that was also created in the late 1960s. The changing perspectives are so enthralling and educational that sections have been recreated using more modern computerized techniques, including the first few minutes of the movie Contact, and in a short digital video called The Known Universe created in 2010 for the American Museum of Natural History. Ray and husband Charles Eames, the film's creators, were known as quite visionary spirits and even invented their own popular chair.

Naked Eye Nova Sagittarii 2015 No. 2

It quickly went from obscurity to one of the brighter stars in Sagittarius -- but it's fading. Named Nova Sagittarii 2015 No. 2, the stellar explosion is the brightest nova visible from Earth in over a year. The featured image was captured four days ago from Ranikhet in the Indian Himalayas. Several stars in western Sagittarius make an asterism known as the Teapot, and the nova, indicated by the arrow, now appears like a new emblem on the side of the pot. As of last night, Nova Sag has faded from brighter than visual magnitude 5 to the edge of unaided visibility. Even so, the nova should still be easily findable with binoculars in dark skies before sunrise over the next week. Gallery: Solar Eclipse

Orion Spring

As spring comes to planet Earth's northern hemisphere, familiar winter constellation Orion sets in early evening skies and budding trees frame the Hunter's stars. The yellowish hue of cool red supergiant Alpha Orionis, the great star Betelgeuse, mingles with the branches at the top of this colorful skyscape. Orion's alpha star is joined on the far right by Alpha Tauri. Also known as Aldebaran and also a giant star cooler than the Sun, it shines with a yellow light at the head of Taurus, the Bull. Contrasting blue supergiant Rigel, Beta Orionis, is Orion's other dominant star though, and marks the Hunter's foot below center. Of course, the sword of Orion hangs from the Hunter's three blue belt stars near picture center, but the middle star in the sword is not a star at all. A slightly fuzzy pinkish glow hints at its true nature, a nearby stellar nursery visible to the unaided eye known as the Orion Nebula.

NGC 2403 in Camelopardalis

Magnificent island universe NGC 2403 stands within the boundaries of the long-necked constellation Camelopardalis. Some 10 million light-years distant and about 50,000 light-years across, the spiral galaxy also seems to have more than its fair share of giant star forming HII regions, marked by the telltale reddish glow of atomic hydrogen gas. The giant HII regions are energized by clusters of hot, massive stars that explode as bright supernovae at the end of their short and furious lives. A member of the M81 group of galaxies, NGC 2403 closely resembles another galaxy with an abundance of star forming regions that lies within our own local galaxy group, M33 the Triangulum Galaxy. Spiky in appearance, bright stars in this colorful galaxy portrait of NGC 2403 lie in the foreground, within our own Milky Way.

Diamond Rings and Baily's Beads

Near the March 20 equinox the cold clear sky over Longyearbyen, Norway, planet Earth held an engaging sight, a total eclipse of the Sun. The New Moon's silhouette at stages just before and after the three minute long total phase seems to sprout glistening diamonds and bright beads in this time lapse composite of the geocentric celestial event. The last and first glimpses of the solar disk with the lunar limb surrounded by the glow of the Sun's inner corona give the impression of a diamond ring in the sky. At the boundaries of totality, sunlight streaming through valleys in the irregular terrain along the Moon's edge, produces an effect known as Baily's Beads, named after English astronomer Francis Baily who championed an explanation for the phenomenon in 1836. This sharp composition also shows off the array of pinkish solar prominences lofted above the edge of the eclipsed 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 has been exploring the red planet since early 2004, finding evidence of ancient water, and sending breathtaking images across the inner Solar System. Pictured above in 2004, 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. Opportunity is continuing on its long trek exploring unusual terrain in Meridiani Planum which continues to yield clues to the ancient history of Mars, our Solar System, and even humanity.

A Flag Shaped Aurora over Sweden

It appeared, momentarily, like a 50-km tall banded flag. In mid-March, an energetic Coronal Mass Ejection directed toward a clear magnetic channel to Earth led to one of the more intense geomagnetic storms of recent years. A visual result was wide spread auroras being seen over many countries near Earth's magnetic poles. Captured over Kiruna, Sweden, the image features an unusually straight auroral curtain with the green color emitted low in the Earth's atmosphere, and red many kilometers higher up. It is unclear where the rare purple aurora originates, but it might involve an unusual blue aurora at an even lower altitude than the green, seen superposed with a much higher red. As the Sun continues near its top level of surface activity, colorful nights of auroras over Earth are likely to continue. Follow APOD on: Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter

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