NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2018-1

Sun Halo over Sweden

What's happened to the Sun? Sometimes it looks like the Sun is being viewed through a giant lens. In the featured video, however, there are actually millions of tiny lenses: ice crystals. Water may freeze in the atmosphere into small, flat, six-sided, ice crystals. As these crystals flutter to the ground, much time is spent with their faces flat and parallel to the ground. An observer may find themselves in the same plane as many of the falling ice crystals near sunrise or sunset. During this alignment, each crystal can act like a miniature lens, refracting sunlight into our view and creating phenomena like parhelia, the technical term for sundogs. The featured video was taken a month ago on the side of a ski hill at the Vemdalen Ski Resort in central Sweden. Visible in the center is the most direct image of the Sun, while two bright sundogs glow prominently from both the left and the right. Also visible is the bright 22 degree halo -- as well as the rarer and much fainter 46 degree halo -- also created by sunlight reflecting off of atmospheric ice crystals.

Unexpected X-Rays from Perseus Galaxy Cluster

Why does the Perseus galaxy cluster shine so strangely in one specific color of X-rays? No one is sure, but a much-debated hypothesis holds that these X-rays are a clue to the long-sought identity of dark matter. At the center of this mystery is a 3.5 Kilo-electronvolt (KeV) X-ray color that appears to glow excessively only when regions well outside the cluster center are observed, whereas the area directly surrounding a likely central supermassive black hole is actually deficient in 3.5 keV X-rays. One proposed resolution -- quite controversial -- is that something never seen before might be present: fluorescent dark matter (FDM). This form of particle dark matter might be able to absorb 3.5 keV X-radiation. If operating, FDM, after absorption, might later emit these X-rays from all over the cluster, creating an emission line. However, when seen superposed in front of the central region surrounding the black hole, FDM's absorption would be more prominent, creating an absorption line. Pictured, a composite image of the Perseus galaxy cluster shows visible and radio light in red, and X-ray light from the Earth-orbiting Chandra Observatory in blue. Free APOD Lectures: January 5 in NYC & January 9 in DC

The Helix Nebula from CFHT

Will our Sun look like this one day? The Helix Nebula is one of brightest and closest examples of a planetary nebula, a gas cloud created at the end of the life of a Sun-like star. The outer gasses of the star expelled into space appear from our vantage point as if we are looking down a helix. The remnant central stellar core, destined to become a white dwarf star, glows in light so energetic it causes the previously expelled gas to fluoresce. The Helix Nebula, given a technical designation of NGC 7293, lies about 700 light-years away towards the constellation of the Water Bearer (Aquarius) and spans about 2.5 light-years. The featured picture was taken with the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) located atop a dormant volcano in Hawaii, USA. A close-up of the inner edge of the Helix Nebula shows complex gas knots of unknown origin. Free APOD Lectures: January 5 in NYC & January 9 in DC

Carina over Lake Ballard

A jewel of the southern sky, the Great Carina Nebula, also known as NGC 3372, is one of our galaxy's largest star forming regions. Easily visible to the unaided eye it stands high above the signature hill of Lake Ballard, ephemeral salt lake of Western Australia, in this serene night skyscape from December 25, 2017. The Milky Way itself stretches beyond the southern horizon. Along the Milky Way, bright stars Alpha and Beta Centauri lie just above the hill's right flank, with the Southern Cross and dark Coalsack Nebula above the hill top. Based on a 22 panel mosaic, the scene was cropped to reveal more closely the beauty of this region of the southern Milky Way. On that short summer night, a star tracking camera mount was used to record the mosaic images of the sky, but turned off to image the foreground in moonlight.

Planets on the Wing

Lately, bright Jupiter and fainter Mars have been easy to spot for early morning skygazers. Before dawn on January 7 the two naked-eye planets will reach a close conjunction near the horizon, only 1/4 degree apart in predawn eastern skies. That apparent separation corresponds to about half the angular diameter of a Full Moon. Just off the wing of a high-flying aircraft in this snapshot from early morning January 5, Jupiter (left) and Mars (middle) are also lined-up with the well-balanced Zubenelgenubi (right), alpha star of the constellation Libra. Below are lights from central Europe near Prague, Czech Republic, planet Earth.

A Tether in Space

One of the greatest unrequited legends of outer space is the tether. Tethers, long strands of material, hold the promise of stabilizing satellites, generating electricity, and allowing easy transportation. Possibly the most ambitious vision of the space tether is the space elevator popularized by Arthur C. Clarke, where a tether is constructed that connects the ground to geosynchronous orbit. One problem is strength - it is difficult to make a long useful tether that does not snap. Pictured here is the deployment of the Tethered Satellite System 1 (TSS-1) by the space shuttle Altantis in 1992. Like other tested tethers, TSS-1 failed to live up to its promise, although many valuable lessons were learned. Free APOD Lecture: January 9 in DC

Clouds of Andromeda

What are those red clouds surrounding the Andromeda galaxy? This galaxy, M31, is often imaged by planet Earth-based astronomers. As the nearest large spiral galaxy, it is a familiar sight with dark dust lanes, bright yellowish core, and spiral arms traced by clouds of bright blue stars. A mosaic of well-exposed broad and narrow-band image data, this colorful portrait of our neighboring island universe offers strikingly unfamiliar features though, faint reddish clouds of glowing ionized hydrogen gas in the same wide field of view. These ionized hydrogen clouds surely lie in the foreground of the scene, well within our Milky Way Galaxy. They are likely associated with the pervasive, dusty interstellar cirrus clouds scattered hundreds of light-years above our own galactic plane. Free APOD Lecture Tomorrow: January 9 at the National Harbor near Washington, DC

Bright Planetary Nebula NGC 7027 from Hubble

It is one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky -- what should it be named? First discovered in 1878, nebula NGC 7027 can be seen toward the constellation of the Swan (Cygnus) with a standard backyard telescope. Partly because it appears there as only an indistinct spot, it is rarely referred to with a moniker. When imaged with the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope, however, great details are revealed. Studying Hubble images of NGC 7027 have led to the understanding that it is a planetary nebula that began expanding about 600 years ago, and that the cloud of gas and dust is unusually massive as it appears to contain about three times the mass of our Sun. Pictured here in assigned colors, the resolved, layered, and dust-laced features of NGC 7027 might remind sky enthusiasts of a familiar icon that could be the basis for an informal name. A leading previous suggestion was the Pillow Nebula, but please feel free to make new suggestions -- for example, in an online APOD discussion forum. Free APOD Lecture Tonight near Washington, DC: Starting at 7 pm at the National Harbor

NGC 2623: Merging Galaxies from Hubble

Where do stars form when galaxies collide? To help find out, astronomers imaged the nearby galaxy merger NGC 2623 in high resolution with the Hubble Space Telescope. Analysis of this and other Hubble images as well as images of NGC 2623 in infrared light by the Spitzer Space Telescope, in X-ray light by XMM-Newton, and in ultraviolet light by GALEX, indicate that two originally spiral galaxies appear now to be greatly convolved and that their cores have unified into one active galactic nucleus (AGN). Star formation continues around this core near the featured image center, along the stretched out tidal tails visible on either side, and perhaps surprisingly, in an off-nuclear region on the upper left where clusters of bright blue stars appear. Galaxy collisions can take hundreds of millions of years and take several gravitationally destructive passes. NGC 2623, also known as Arp 243, spans about 50,000 light years and lies about 250 million light years away toward the constellation of the Crab (Cancer). Reconstructing the original galaxies and how galaxy mergers happen is often challenging, sometimes impossible, but generally important to understanding how our universe evolved.

RCW 114: A Dragon's Heart in Ara

Large and dramatically shaped, this cosmic cloud spans nearly 7 degrees or 14 full moons across planet Earth's sky toward the southern constellation Ara. Difficult to image, the filamentary apparition is cataloged as RCW 114 and traced in this telescopic mosaic by the telltale reddish emission of ionized hydrogen atoms. In fact, RCW 114 has been recognized as a supernova remnant. Its extensive filaments of emission are produced as the still expanding shockwave from the death explosion of a massive star sweeps up the surrounding interstellar medium. Consistent estimates place its distance at over 600 light-years, indicating a diameter of about 100 light-years or so. Light from the supernova explosion that created RCW 114 would have reached Earth around 20,000 years ago. A spinning neutron star or pulsar has recently been identified as the remains of the collapsed stellar core.

Blue Comet PanSTARRS

Discovered with the PanSTARRS telescope on September 7, 2016, this Comet PanSTARRS, C/2016 R2, is presently about 24 light minutes (3 AU) from the Sun, sweeping through planet Earth's skies across the background of stars in the constellation Taurus. An inbound visitor from our Solar System's distant Oort Cloud, its beautiful and complex ion tail is a remarkable shade of blue. Still relatively far from the Sun, the comet's already well-developed ion tail is very impressive. Emission from unusually abundant ionized carbon monoxide (CO+) molecules fluorescing in the increasing sunlight is largely responsible for the pretty blue tint. This color image of the blue comet is a combination of data taken from two different telescopes during the night of January 7. Located at the apex of the V-shaped Hyades star cluster in Taurus, bright star Gamma Tauri is responsible for the glow at the bottom left corner of the frame.

Launch and Landing

A composite of three consecutive exposures, this night skyscape follows the January 7 launch and first stage landing of a Falcon 9 rocket from a beach on planet Earth's space coast. With the launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the bright streak beginning farthest left traces the initial phase of the rocket's flight. A visible upward hook marks the first stage beginning its return trajectory with a "boostback burn" near the top of the arc, while the second stage separates and continues toward orbit. Above the top of the launch arc due to perspective, a bright streak shows the returning first stage slowing and descending toward the Cape. Centered below, the streak at the horizon is a 17 second burn finally slowing the first stage to a successful vertical landing about 8 minutes after launch at Landing Zone 1. During the scene's effective long exposure time, the background stars leave short trails in the night sky of the rotating planet.

Three Galaxies and a Comet

Diffuse starlight and dark nebulae along the southern Milky Way arc over the horizon and sprawl diagonally through this gorgeous nightscape. The breath-taking mosaic spans a wide 100 degrees, with the rugged terrain of the Patagonia, Argentina region in the foreground. Along with the insider's view of our own galaxy, the image features our outside perspective on two irregular satellite galaxies - the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. The scene also captures the broad tail and bright coma of Comet McNaught, the Great Comet of 2007. Follow APOD on: Facebook, Google Plus, Instagram, or Twitter

Rigel and the Witch Head Nebula

By starlight this eerie visage shines in the dark, a crooked profile evoking its popular name, the Witch Head Nebula. In fact, this entrancing telescopic portrait gives the impression that the witch has fixed her gaze on Orion's bright supergiant star Rigel. More formally known as IC 2118, the Witch Head Nebula spans about 50 light-years and is composed of interstellar dust grains reflecting Rigel's starlight. The blue color of the Witch Head Nebula and of the dust surrounding Rigel is caused not only by Rigel's intense blue starlight but because the dust grains scatter blue light more efficiently than red. The same physical process causes Earth's daytime sky to appear blue, although the scatterers in Earth's atmosphere are molecules of nitrogen and oxygen. Rigel, the Witch Head Nebula, and gas and dust that surrounds them lie about 800 light-years away. Open Science: Browse 1,600+ codes in the Astrophysics Source Code Library

An Elephant's Trunk in Cepheus

With image data from telescopes large and small, this close-up features the dusty Elephant's Trunk Nebula. It winds through the emission nebula and young star cluster complex IC 1396, in the high and far off constellation of Cepheus. Also known as vdB 142, the cosmic elephant's trunk is over 20 light-years long. The colorful view highlights bright, swept-back ridges that outline the region's pockets of cool interstellar dust and gas. Such embedded, dark, tendril-shaped clouds contain the raw material for star formation and hide protostars within. Nearly 3,000 light-years distant, the relatively faint IC 1396 complex covers a large region on the sky, spanning over 5 degrees. This dramatic scene spans a 1 degree wide field, about the size of 2 Full Moons.

In the Valley of Orion

This exciting and unfamiliar view of the Orion Nebula is a visualization based on astronomical data and movie rendering techniques. Up close and personal with a famous stellar nursery normally seen from 1,500 light-years away, the digitally modeled frame transitions from a visible light representation based on Hubble data on the left to infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope on the right. The perspective at the center looks along a valley over a light-year wide, in the wall of the region's giant molecular cloud. Orion's valley ends in a cavity carved by the energetic winds and radiation of the massive central stars of the Trapezium star cluster. The single frame is part of a multiwavelength, three-dimensional video that lets the viewer experience an immersive, three minute flight through the Great Nebula of Orion.

Blue Comet in the Hyades

Stars of the Hyades cluster are scattered through this mosaic spanning over 5 degrees on the sky toward the constellation Taurus. Presently cruising through the Solar System, the remarkably blue comet C/2016 R2 PanSTARRS is placed in the wide field of view using image data from January 12. With the apex of the V-shape in the Hyades cluster positioned near the top center, bright Aldebaran, alpha star of Taurus, anchors the frame at the lower right. A cool red giant, Aldebaran is seen in orange hues in the colorful starfield. While the stars of the Hyades are gathered 151 light-years away, Aldebaran lies only 65 light-years distant and so is separate from the cluster stars. On January 12, C/2016 R2 was over 17 light-minutes from planet Earth and nearly 24 light-minutes from the Sun. Its blue tinted tail largely due to CO+ gas fluorescing in sunlight, the head or coma of the comet appears with a slightly greenish hue, likely emission from diatomic carbon.

Clouds in the LMC

An alluring sight in southern skies, the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) is seen in this deep and detailed telescopic mosaic. Recorded with broadband and narrowband filters, the scene spans some 5 degrees or 10 full moons. The narrowband filters are designed to transmit only light emitted by hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. Ionized by energetic starlight, the atoms emit their characteristic light as electrons are recaptured and the atoms transition to a lower energy state. As a result, in this image the LMC seems covered with its own clouds of ionized gas surrounding its massive, young stars. Sculpted by the strong stellar winds and ultraviolet radiation, the glowing clouds, dominated by emission from hydrogen, are known as H II (ionized hydrogen) regions. Itself composed of many overlapping H II regions, the Tarantula Nebula is the large star forming region at the left. The largest satellite of our Milky Way Galaxy, the LMC is about 15,000 light-years across and lies a mere 160,000 light-years away toward the constellation Dorado.

Old Moon in the New Moon's Arms

Also known as the Moon's "ashen glow" or the "Old Moon in the New Moon's arms", earthshine is earthlight reflected from the Moon's night side. This stunning image of earthshine from a young crescent moon was taken from Las Campanas Observatory, Atacama Desert, Chile, planet Earth near moonset on January 18. Dramatic atmospheric inversion layers appear above the Pacific Ocean, colored by the sunset at the planet's western horizon. But the view from the Moon would have been stunning, too. When the Moon appears in Earth's sky as a slender crescent, a dazzlingly bright, nearly full Earth would be seen from the lunar surface. A description of earthshine, in terms of sunlight reflected by Earth's oceans in turn illuminating the Moon's dark surface, was written 500 years ago by Leonardo da Vinci.

The Upper Michigan Blizzard of 1938

Yes, but can your blizzard do this? In Upper Michigan's Storm of the Century in 1938, some snow drifts reached the level of utility poles. Nearly a meter of new and unexpected snow fell over two days in a storm that started 80 years ago this week. As snow fell and gale-force winds piled snow to surreal heights; many roads became not only impassable but unplowable; people became stranded; cars, school buses and a train became mired; and even a dangerous fire raged. Fortunately only two people were killed, although some students were forced to spend several consecutive days at school. The featured image was taken by a local resident soon after the storm. Although all of this snow eventually melted, repeated snow storms like this help build lasting glaciers in snowy regions of our planet Earth.

An Immersive Visualization of the Galactic Center

What if you could look out from the center of our Galaxy -- what might you see? Two scientifically-determined possibilities are shown in the featured video, an immersive 360-degree view which allows you to look around in every direction. The pictured computer simulation is based on infrared data from ESO's Very Large Telescope in Chile and X-ray data from NASA's orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory. As the video starts, you quickly approach Sgr A*, the supermassive black hole in the Galactic center. Then looking out, this 500-year time-lapse simulation shows glowing gas and many points of light orbiting all around you. Many of these points are young Wolf-Rayet stars that have visible hot winds blowing out into surrounding nebulas. Clouds approaching close become elongated, while objects approaching too close fall in. Toward the video's end the simulation repeats, but this time with the dynamic region surrounding Sgr A* expelling hot gas that pushes back against approaching material.

Ribbons and Pearls of Spiral Galaxy NGC 1398

Why do some spiral galaxies have a ring around the center? Spiral galaxy NGC 1398 not only has a ring of pearly stars, gas and dust around its center, but a bar of stars and gas across its center, and spiral arms that appear like ribbons farther out. The featured image was taken with ESO's Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile and resolves this grand spiral in impressive detail. NGC 1398 lies about 65 million light years distant, meaning the light we see today left this galaxy when dinosaurs were disappearing from the Earth. The photogenic galaxy is visible with a small telescope toward the constellation of the Furnace (Fornax). The ring near the center is likely an expanding density wave of star formation, caused either by a gravitational encounter with another galaxy, or by the galaxy's own gravitational asymmetries.

The Tadpoles of IC 410

This telescopic close-up shows off the otherwise faint emission nebula IC 410. It also features two remarkable inhabitants of the cosmic pond of gas and dust below and left of center, the tadpoles of IC 410. Partly obscured by foreground dust, the nebula itself surrounds NGC 1893, a young galactic cluster of stars. Formed in the interstellar cloud a mere 4 million years ago, the intensely hot, bright cluster stars energize the glowing gas. Composed of denser cooler gas and dust, the tadpoles are around 10 light-years long and are likely sites of ongoing star formation. Sculpted by winds and radiation from the cluster stars, their heads are outlined by bright ridges of ionized gas while their tails trail away from the cluster's central region. IC 410 lies some 10,000 light-years away, toward the nebula-rich constellation Auriga.

Cartwheel of Fortune

By chance, a collision of two galaxies has created a surprisingly recognizable shape on a cosmic scale, The Cartwheel Galaxy. The Cartwheel is part of a group of galaxies about 500 million light years away in the constellation Sculptor. Two smaller galaxies in the group are visible on the left. The Cartwheel Galaxy's rim is an immense ring-like structure 150,000 light years in diameter composed of newly formed, extremely bright, massive stars. When galaxies collide they pass through each other, their individual stars rarely coming into contact. Still, the galaxies' gravitational fields are seriously distorted by the collision. In fact, the ring-like shape is the result of the gravitational disruption caused by a small intruder galaxy passing through a large one, compressing the interstellar gas and dust and causing a a star formation wave to move out from the impact point like a ripple across the surface of a pond. In this case the large galaxy may have originally been a spiral, not unlike our own Milky Way, transformed into the wheel shape by the collision. But ... what happened to the small intruder galaxy?

Selfie at Vera Rubin Ridge

On sol 1943 of its journey of exploration across the surface of Mars, the Curiosity Rover recorded this selfie at the south rim of Vera Rubin Ridge. Of course a sol is a Martian solar day, about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day. Curiosity's sol 1943 corresponds to Earth date January 23, 2018. Also composed as an interactive 360 degree VR, the mosaicked panorama combines 61 exposures taken by the car-sized rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Frames containing the imager's arm have been edited out while the extended background used was taken by the rover's Mastcam on sol 1903. At the top of the rover's mast, sitting above the Mastcam, the laser-firing ChemCam housing blocks out the distant peak of Mount Sharp.

Laguna Starry Sky

Staring toward the heavens, one of the many lagunas in the Atacama Desert salt flat calmly reflects a starry night sky near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, planet Earth. Cosmic rifts of dust, star clouds, and nebulae of the central Milky Way galaxy are rising in the east, beyond a volcanic horizon. Caught in the six frame panorama serenely recorded in the early morning hours of January 15, planets Jupiter and Mars are close. Near the ecliptic, the bright planets are immersed in the Solar System's visible band of Zodiacal light extending up and left from the galactic center. Above the horizon to the south (right) are the Large and Small clouds of Magellan, satellite galaxies of the Milky Way.

A Total Lunar Eclipse Over Tajikistan

If the full Moon suddenly faded, what would you see? The answer during the total lunar eclipse in 2011 was recorded in a dramatic time lapse video from Tajikistan. During a total lunar eclipse, the Earth moves between the Moon and the Sun, causing the moon to fade dramatically. The Moon never gets completely dark, though, since the Earth's atmosphere refracts some light. As the featured video begins, the scene may appear to be daytime and sunlit, but actually it is a nighttime and lit by the glow of the full Moon. As the Moon becomes eclipsed and fades, the wind dies down and background stars can be seen reflected in foreground lake. Most spectacularly, the sky surrounding the eclipsed moon suddenly appears to be full of stars and highlighted by the busy plane of our Milky Way Galaxy. The sequence repeats with a closer view, and the final image shows the placement of the eclipsed Moon near the Eagle, Swan, Trifid, and Lagoon nebulas. Nearly two hours after the eclipse started, the moon emerges from the Earth's shadow and its bright full glare again dominates the sky. This Wednesday another total lunar eclipse will take place -- but this one will be during a rare Super Blue Blood Moon.

The Spider and The Fly

Will the spider ever catch the fly? Not if both are large emission nebulas toward the constellation of the Charioteer (Auriga). The spider-shaped gas cloud on the left is actually an emission nebula labelled IC 417, while the smaller fly-shaped cloud on the right is dubbed NGC 1931 and is both an emission nebula and a reflection nebula. About 10,000 light-years distant, both nebulas harbor young, open star clusters. For scale, the more compact NGC 1931 (Fly) is about 10 light-years across.

Venus at Night in Infrared from Akatsuki

Why is Venus so different from Earth? To help find out, Japan launched the robotic Akatsuki spacecraft which entered orbit around Venus late in 2015 after an unplanned five-year adventure around the inner Solar System. Even though Akatsuki was past its original planned lifetime, the spacecraft and instruments were operating so well that much of its original mission was reinstated. Also known as the Venus Climate Orbiter, Akatsuki's instruments investigated unknowns about Earth's sister planet, including whether volcanoes are still active, whether lightning occurs in the dense atmosphere, and why wind speeds greatly exceed the planet's rotation speed. In the featured image taken by Akatsuki's IR2 camera, Venus's night side shows a jagged-edged equatorial band of high dark clouds absorbing infrared light from hotter layers deeper in Venus' atmosphere. The bright orange and black stripe on the upper right is a false digital artifact that covers part of the much brighter day side of Venus. Analyses of Akatsuki images and data has shown that Venus has equatorial jet similar to Earth's jet stream. Watch: Lunar Extravaganza

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