NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2015-7

Venus, Jupiter, and Noctilucent Clouds

Have you seen the passing planets yet? Today the planets Jupiter and Venus pass within half a degree of each other as seen from Earth. This conjunction, visible all over the world, is quite easy to see -- just look to the west shortly after sunset. The brightest objects visible above the horizon will be Venus and Jupiter, with Venus being the brighter of the two. Featured above, the closing planets were captured two nights ago in a sunset sky graced also by high-level noctilucent clouds. In the foreground, the astrophotographer's sister takes in the vista from a bank of the Sec Reservoir in the Czech Republic. She reported this as the first time she has seen noctilucent clouds. Jupiter and Venus will appear even closer together tonight and will continue to be visible in the same part of the sky until mid-August. Tonight: See Venus & Jupiter together after sunset

Venus and Jupiter are Close

On June 30, Venus and Jupiter were close in western skies at dusk. Near the culmination of this year's gorgeous conjunction, the two bright evening planets are captured in the same telescopic field of view in this image taken after sunset from Bejing, China. As the two bright planets set together in the west, a nearly Full Moon rose above the horizon to the south and east. Imaged that night with the same telescope and camera, the rising Moon from the opposite part of the sky is compared with the planetary conjunction for scale in the digitally composited image. The full lunar disk covers an angle of about 1/2 degree on the sky. Visible as well in binoculars and small telescopes are Venus' crescent and Jupiter's four Galilean moons. Of course, Venus and Jupiter are still close.

Venus and Jupiter are Far

On June 30 Venus and Jupiter were actually far apart, but both appeared close in western skies at dusk. Near the culmination of this year's gorgeous conjunction, the two bright evening planets are captured in the same telescopic field of view in this sharp digital stack of images taken after sunset from Poznań in west-central Poland. In fact, banded gas giant Jupiter was about 910 million kilometers from Poland. That's over 11 times farther than crescent Venus, only 78 million kilometers distant at the time. But since the diameter of giant planet Jupiter is over 11 times larger than Venus both planets show about the same angular size. Of course, 16th century Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus would also have enjoyed the simultaneous telescopic view including Jupiter's four Galilean moons and a crescent Venus. Observations of Jupiter's moons and Venus' crescent phase were evidence for the Copernican or heliocentric model of the solar system.

Aurora Australis

Not fireworks, these intense shimmering lights still danced across Earth's night skies late last month, seen here above the planet's geographic south pole. The stunning auroral displays were triggered as a coronal mass ejection blasted from the Sun days earlier impacted the magnetosphere, beginning a widespread geomagnetic storm. The six fisheye panels were recorded with digital camera and battery in a heated box to guard against -90 degree F ambient temperatures of the long winter night. Around the horizon are south pole astronomical observatories, while beyond the Aurora Australis stretch the stars of the southern Milky Way.

Zeta Oph: Runaway Star

Like a ship plowing through cosmic seas, runaway star Zeta Ophiuchi produces the arcing interstellar bow wave or bow shock seen in this stunning infrared portrait. In the false-color view, bluish Zeta Oph, a star about 20 times more massive than the Sun, lies near the center of the frame, moving toward the left at 24 kilometers per second. Its strong stellar wind precedes it, compressing and heating the dusty interstellar material and shaping the curved shock front. Around it are clouds of relatively undisturbed material. What set this star in motion? Zeta Oph was likely once a member of a binary star system, its companion star was more massive and hence shorter lived. When the companion exploded as a supernova catastrophically losing mass, Zeta Oph was flung out of the system. About 460 light-years away, Zeta Oph is 65,000 times more luminous than the Sun and would be one of the brighter stars in the sky if it weren't surrounded by obscuring dust. The image spans about 1.5 degrees or 12 light-years at the estimated distance of Zeta Ophiuchi.

Colorful Clouds Near Rho Ophiuchi

Why is the sky near Antares and Rho Ophiuchi so colorful? The colors result from a mixture of objects and processes. Fine dust illuminated from the front by starlight produces blue reflection nebulae. Gaseous clouds whose atoms are excited by ultraviolet starlight produce reddish emission nebulae. Backlit dust clouds block starlight and so appear dark. Antares, a red supergiant and one of the brighter stars in the night sky, lights up the yellow-red clouds on the lower center of the featured image. Rho Ophiuchi lies at the center of the blue nebula on the left. The distant globular cluster M4 is visible to the upper right of center. These star clouds are even more colorful than humans can see, emitting light across the electromagnetic spectrum. Astrophysicists: Browse 1,000+ codes in the Astrophysics Source Code Library

The Milky Way from a Malibu Sea Cave

What’s happening outside this cave? Nothing unexpected – it’s just the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy passing by. As the Earth turns, the band of our Galaxy appears to rotate and shift along the horizon. The featured image was taken by a photographer who professes a passion for locating sea caves, and who found this spectacular grotto in Leo Carrillo State Park near Malibu, California, USA. After some planning, he timed this single shot image through the 10-meter high cave entrance to show the Milky Way far in the distance. In the foreground, several rocks about one meter across are visible. Visible in the background starscape are millions of stars including the relatively bright and orange Antares, situated just to the right of the image center. Follow APOD on: Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter

In the Company of Dione

That is not our Moon. It's Dione, and it’s a moon of Saturn. The robotic Cassini spacecraft took the featured image during a flyby of Saturn's cratered Moon last month. Perhaps what makes this image so interesting, though, is the background. First, the large orb looming behind Dione is Saturn itself, faintly lit by sunlight first reflected from the rings. Next, the thin lines running diagonally across the image are the rings of Saturn themselves. The millions of icy rocks that compose Saturn's spectacular rings all orbit Saturn in the same plane, and so appear surprisingly thin when seen nearly edge-on. Front and center, Dione appears in crescent phase, partially lit by the Sun that is off to the lower left. A careful inspection of the ring plane should also locate the moon Enceladus on the upper right.

5 Million Miles from Pluto

An image snapped on July 7 by the New Horizons spacecraft while just under 5 million miles (8 million kilometers) from Pluto is combined with color data in this most detailed view yet of the Solar System's most famous world about to be explored. The region imaged includes the tip of an elongated dark area along Pluto's equator already dubbed "the whale". A bright heart-shaped region on the right is about 1,200 miles (2,000) kilometers across, possibly covered with a frost of frozen methane, nitrogen, and/or carbon monoxide. The view is centered near the area that will be seen during New Horizons much anticipated July 14 closest approach to a distance of about 7,750 miles (12,500 kilometers).

Messier 43

Often imaged but rarely mentioned, Messier 43 is a large star forming region in its own right. It's just part of the star forming complex of gas and dust that includes the larger, more famous neighboring Messier 42, the Great Orion Nebula. In fact, the Great Orion Nebula itself lies off the lower edge of this scene. The close-up of Messier 43 was made while testing the capabilities of a near-infrared instrument with one of the twin 6.5 meter Magellan telescopes at Las Campanas Observatory in the Chilean Andes. The composite image shifts the otherwise invisible infrared wavelengths to blue, green, and red colors. Peering into caverns of interstellar dust hidden from visible light, the near-infrared view can also be used to study cool, brown dwarf stars in the complex region. Along with its celebrity neighbor, Messier 43 lies about 1,500 light-years away, at the edge of Orion's giant molecular cloud. At that distance, this field of view spans about 5 light-years.

Geology on Pluto

Pluto is coming into focus. As the robotic New Horizons spacecraft bears down on this unexplored world of the distant Solar System, new features on its surface are becoming evident. In the displayed image taken last Thursday and released yesterday, an unusual polygonal structure roughly 200 kilometers wide is visible on the left, while just below it relatively complex terrain runs diagonally across the dwarf planet. New Horizon's images and data on these structures will likely be studied for years to come in an effort to better understand the geologic history of Pluto and our Solar System. After suffering a troublesome glitch last week, New Horizons will make its historic flyby of Pluto and its moons on Tuesday. Pluto flyby updates: #PlutoFlyby, Twitter, Facebook, Web

New Horizons Launch to Pluto

Destination: Pluto. The New Horizons spacecraft roared off its launch pad at Cape Canaveral in Florida, USA in 2006 toward adventures in the distant Solar System. The craft is the fastest spaceships ever launched by humans, having passed the Moon only nine hours after launch, and Jupiter only a year later. After spending almost a decade crossing the Solar System, New Horizons will fly past Pluto on Tuesday. Pluto, officially a planet when New Horizons launched, has never been visited by a spacecraft or photographed up close. After Pluto, the robot spaceship will visit one or more Kuiper Belt Objects orbiting the Sun even farther out than Pluto. Pictured, the New Horizons craft launches into space atop a powerful Atlas V rocket. Pluto flyby updates: #PlutoFlyby, Twitter, Facebook, Web

Last Look at Pluto's Charon Side

Pluto surface is strange. As the robotic New Horizons barrels toward its closest approach to Pluto and its moons tomorrow, images already coming back show Pluto's surface to be curiouser and curiouser. The featured image, taken two days ago, shows the side of Pluto that always faces Pluto's largest moon Charon. Particularly noteworthy is the dark belt near the bottom that circles Pluto's equator. It is currently unclear whether regions in this dark belt are mountainous or flat, why boundaries are so sharply defined, and why the light regions seem to be nearly evenly spaced. As New Horizons will be flying past the other side of Pluto, this should be the best image of this distant landscape that humanity sees for a long time. Assuming the robotic spacecraft operates as hoped, images taken of the other side of Pluto, taken near closest approach, will be about 300 times more detailed. Latest: Best image yet of Charon.

New Horizons Passes Pluto and Charon

Will the New Horizons spacecraft survive its closest approach to Pluto and return useful images and data? Humanity will know in a few hours. Regardless of how well it functions, New Horizon's rapid speed will take it whizzing past Pluto and its moons today, with the time of closest approach being at 11:50 UT (7:50 am EDT). To better take images and data, though, the robotic spacecraft was preprogrammed and taken intentionally out of contact with the Earth until about 1:00 am UT July 15, which corresponds to about 9:00 pm EDT on July 14. Therefore, much of mankind will be holding its breath through this day, hoping that the piano-sized spacecraft communicates again with ground stations on Earth. Hopefully, at that time, New Horizons will begin beaming back new and enlightening data about a world that has remained remote and mysterious since its discovery 85 years ago. Featured above is a New Horizons composite image of the moon Charon (left) and Pluto (right) taken 3 days ago, already showing both worlds in unprecedented detail. Pluto flyby updates: #PlutoFlyby, Twitter, Facebook, Web, NASA TV

Pluto Resolved

New Horizons has survived its close encounter with Pluto and has resumed sending back images and data. The robotic spacecraft reported back on time, with all systems working, and with the expected volume of data stored. Featured here is the highest resolution image of Pluto taken before closest approach, an image that really brings Pluto into a satisfying focus. At first glance, Pluto is reddish and has several craters. Toward the image bottom is a surprisingly featureless light-covered region that resembles an iconic heart, and mountainous terrain appears on the lower right. This image, however, is only the beginning. As more images and data pour in today, during the coming week, and over the next year, humanity's understanding of Pluto and its moons will likely become revolutionized. Pluto flyby updates: #PlutoFlyby, Twitter, Facebook, Web

50 Miles on Pluto

A 50 mile (80 kilometer) trip across Pluto would cover the distance indicated by the scale bar in this startling image. The close-up of the icy world's rugged equatorial terrain was captured when the New Horizons spacecraft was about 47,800 miles (77,000 kilometers) from the surface, 1.5 hours before its closest approach. Rising to an estimated 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) the mountains are likely composed of water ice. Suggesting surprising geological activity, they are also likely young with an estimated age of 100 million years or so based on the apparent absence of craters. The region pictured is near the base of Pluto's broad, bright, heart-shaped feature.

Charon

Icy world Charon is 1,200 kilometers across. That makes Pluto's largest moon only about 1/10th the size of planet Earth but a whopping 1/2 the diameter of Pluto itself. Charon is seen in unprecedented detail in this image from New Horizons. The image was captured late July 13 during the spacecraft's flight through the Plutonian system from a range of less than 500,000 kilometers. For reference, the distance separating Earth and Moon is less than 400,000 kilometers. Charonian terrain, described as surprising, youthful, and varied, includes a 1,000 kilometer swath of cliffs and troughs stretching below center, a 7 to 9 kilometer deep canyon cutting the curve of the upper right edge, and an enigmatic dark north polar region unofficially dubbed Mordor.

Fly Over Pluto

It took 9.5 years to get this close, but you can now take a virtual flight over Pluto in this animation of image data from the New Horizons spacecraft. The Plutonian terrain unfolding 48,000 miles (77,000 kilometers) below is identified as Norgay Montes, followed by Sputnik Planum. The icy mountains, informally named for one of the first two Mount Everest climbers Tenzing Norgay, reach up to 11,000 feet (3,500 meters) above the surface. The frozen, young, craterless plains are informally named for the Earth's first artificial satellite. Sputnik Planum is north of Norgay Montes, within Pluto's expansive, bright, heart-shaped feature provisionally known as Tombaugh Regio for Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto in 1930.

The First Rocket Launch from Cape Canaveral

A new chapter in space flight began this week in 1950 July with the launch of the first rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida: the Bumper V-2. Shown above, the Bumper V-2 was an ambitious two-stage rocket program that topped a V-2 missile base with a WAC Corporal rocket. The upper stage was able to reach then-record altitudes of almost 400 kilometers, higher than even Space Shuttles once flew. Launched under the direction of the General Electric Company, the Bumper V-2 was used primarily for testing rocket systems and for research on the upper atmosphere. Bumper V-2 rockets carried small payloads that allowed them to measure attributes including air temperature and cosmic ray impacts. Seven years later, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I and Sputnik II, the first satellites into Earth orbit. In response in 1958, the US created NASA. Follow APOD on: Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter

Comet PanSTARRS and a Crescent Moon

A comet has brightened quickly and unexpectedly. Discovered last year, Comet C/2014 Q1 (PanSTARRS) is expected to be visible now for a few days to the unaided eye, just after sunset, from some locations. The comet rounded the Sun on July 6 and apparently has shed quite a bit of gas and dust. Today it is now as close as it will ever get to the Earth, which is another factor in its recent great apparent brightness and the large angular extent of its tails. In the featured image taken two days ago, Comet PanSTARRS is seen sporting a short white dust tail fading to the right, and a long blue ion tail pointing away from the recently set Sun. A crescent moon dominates the image center. Tomorrow, Comet PannSTARRS will pass only 7 degrees away from a bright Jupiter, with even brighter Venus nearby. Due to its proximity to the Sun, the comet and its tails may best be seen in the sunset din with binoculars or cameras using long-duration exposures. APOD Editor to Speak: Saturday, August 8 at Keweenaw Science & Engineering Festival

Comet Tails and Star Trails

After grazing the western horizon on northern summer evenings Comet PanSTARRS (also known as C/2014 Q1) climbed higher in southern winter skies. A visitor to the inner Solar System discovered in August 2014 by the prolific panSTARRS survey, the comet was captured here on July 17. Comet and colorful tails were imaged from Home Observatory in Mackay, Queensland, Australia. The field of view spans just over 1 degree. Sweeping quickly across a the sky this comet PanSTARRS was closest to planet Earth about 2 days later. Still, the faint stars of the constellation Cancer left short trails in the telescopic image aligned to track the comet's rapid motion. PanSTARRS' bluish ion tails stream away from the Sun, buffetted by the solar wind. Driven by the pressure of sunlight, its more diffuse yellowish dust tail is pushed outward and lags behind the comet's orbit. A good target for binoculars from southern latitudes, in the next few days the comet will sweep through skies near Venus, Jupiter, and bright star Regulus.

Gamma-ray Rain from 3C 279

If gamma-rays were raindrops a flare from a supermassive black hole might look like this. Not so gently falling on the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope from June 14 to June 16 the gamma-ray photons, with energies up to 50 billion electron volts, originated in active galaxy 3C 279 some 5 billion light-years away. Each gamma-ray "drop" is an expanding circle in the timelapse visualization, the color and maximum size determined by the gamma-ray's measured energy. Starting with a background drizzle, the sudden downpour that then trails off is the intense, high energy flare. The creative and calming presentation of the historically bright flare covers a 5 degree wide region of the gamma-ray sky centered on 3C 279.

Comet PanSTARRS, Moon, and Venus

It is the object to the left of the big tree that's generating much recent excitement. If you look closely, there you can see Comet PanSTARRS, complete with two tails. During July, this comet has increased markedly in brightness and has just passed its closest approach to Earth. The statuesque tree in the center is a Norfolk Island Pine, and to either side of this tree are New Zealand Pohutukawa trees. Over the trees, far in the distance, are bright Venus and an even brighter crescent Moon. If you look even more closely, you can find Jupiter hidden in the branches of the pine. The featured image was taken a few days ago in Fergusson Park, New Zealand, looking over Tauranga Harbour Inlet. In the coming days and weeks, Comet C/2014 Q1 (PANSTARRS) will slowly move away from the Sun and the Earth, drift deep into southern skies, and fade. Follow APOD on: Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter

Ultraviolet Rings of M31

A mere 2.5 million light-years away the Andromeda Galaxy, also known as M31, really is just next door as large galaxies go. So close and spanning some 260,000 light-years, it took 11 different image fields from the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX) satellite's telescope to produce this gorgeous portrait of the spiral galaxy in ultraviolet light. While its spiral arms stand out in visible light images of Andromeda, the arms look more like rings in the GALEX ultraviolet view, a view dominated by the energetic light from hot, young, massive stars. As sites of intense star formation, the rings have been interpreted as evidence Andromeda collided with its smaller neighboring elliptical galaxy M32 more than 200 million years ago. The large Andromeda galaxy and our own Milky Way are the most massive members of the local galaxy group.

Infrared Trifid

The Trifid Nebula, also known as Messier 20, is easy to find with a small telescope, a well known stop in the nebula rich constellation Sagittarius. But where visible light pictures show the nebula divided into three parts by dark, obscuring dust lanes, this penetrating infrared image reveals filaments of glowing dust clouds and newborn stars. The spectacular false-color view is courtesy of the Spitzer Space Telescope. Astronomers have used the Spitzer infrared image data to count newborn and embryonic stars which otherwise can lie hidden in the natal dust and gas clouds of this intriguing stellar nursery. As seen here, the Trifid is about 30 light-years across and lies only 5,500 light-years away.

The Sombrero Galaxy from Hubble

Why does the Sombrero Galaxy look like a hat? Reasons include the Sombrero's unusually large and extended central bulge of stars, and dark prominent dust lanes that appear in a disk that we see nearly edge-on. Billions of old stars cause the diffuse glow of the extended central bulge. Close inspection of the bulge in the above photograph shows many points of light that are actually globular clusters. M104's spectacular dust rings harbor many younger and brighter stars, and show intricate details astronomers don't yet fully understand. The very center of the Sombrero glows across the electromagnetic spectrum, and is thought to house a large black hole. Fifty million-year-old light from the Sombrero Galaxy can be seen with a small telescope towards the constellation of Virgo. Follow APOD on: Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter

Milky Way and Aurora over Antarctica

It has been one of the better skies of this long night. In parts of Antarctica, not only is it winter, but the Sun can spend weeks below the horizon. At China's Zhongshan Station, people sometimes venture out into the cold to photograph a spectacular night sky. The featured image from one such outing was taken in mid-July, just before the end of this polar night. Pointing up, the wide angle lens captured not only the ground at the bottom, but at the top as well. In the foreground is a colleague also taking pictures. In the distance, a spherical satellite receiver and several windmills are visible. Numerous stars dot the night sky, including Sirius and Canopus. Far in the background, stretching overhead from horizon to horizon, is the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy. Even further in the distance, visible as extended smudges near the top, are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies near our huge Milky Way Galaxy. Follow APOD on: Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter

Rainbows and Rays over Bryce Canyon

What's happening over Bryce Canyon? Two different optical effects that were captured in one image taken earlier this month. Both effects needed to have the Sun situated directly behind the photographer. The nearest apparition was the common rainbow, created by sunlight streaming from the setting sun over the head of the photographer, and scattering from raindrops in front of the canyon. If you look closely, even a second rainbow appears above the first. More rare, and perhaps more striking, are the rays of light that emanate out from the horizon above the canyon. These are known as anticrepuscular rays and result from sunlight streaming though breaks in the clouds, around the sky, and converging at the point 180 degrees around from the Sun. Geometrically, this antisolar point must coincide with the exact center of the rainbows. Located in Utah, USA, Bryce Canyon itself contains a picturesque array of ancient sedimentary rock spires known as hoodoos. APOD Editor to Speak: Saturday, August 8 at Keweenaw Science & Engineering Festival

The Deep Lagoon

Ridges of glowing interstellar gas and dark dust clouds inhabit the turbulent, cosmic depths of the Lagoon Nebula. Also known as M8, The bright star forming region is about 5,000 light-years distant. But it still makes for a popular stop on telescopic tours of the constellation Sagittarius, toward the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. Dominated by the telltale red emission of ionized hydrogen atoms recombining with stripped electrons, this stunning, deep view of the Lagoon's central reaches is about 40 light-years across. Near the center of the frame, the bright hourglass shape is gas ionized and sculpted by energetic radiation and extreme stellar winds from a massive young star.

Milky Way over Uluru

The central regions of our Milky Way Galaxy rise above Uluru/Ayers Rock in this striking night skyscape. Recorded on July 13, a faint airglow along the horizon shows off central Australia's most recognizable landform in silhouette. Of course the Milky Way's own cosmic dust clouds appear in silhouette too, dark rifts along the galaxy's faint congeries of stars. Above the central bulge, rivers of cosmic dust converge on a bright yellowish supergiant star Antares. Left of Antares, wandering Saturn shines in the night.

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