NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day 2011-9

M27: Not a Comet

While hunting for comets in the skies above 18th century France, astronomer Charles Messier diligently kept a list of the things he encountered that were definitely not comets. This is number 27 on his now famous not-a-comet list. In fact, 21st century astronomers would identify it as a planetary nebula, but it's not a planet either, even though it may appear round and planet-like in a small telescope. Messier 27 (M27) is an excellent example of a gaseous emission nebula created as a sun-like star runs out of nuclear fuel in its core. The nebula forms as the star's outer layers are expelled into space, with a visible glow generated by atoms excited by the dying star's intense but invisible ultraviolet light. Known by the popular name of the Dumbbell Nebula, the beautifully symmetric interstellar gas cloud is over 2.5 light-years across and about 1,200 light-years away in the constellation Vulpecula. This impressive color composite highlights details within the well-studied central region and fainter, seldom imaged features in the nebula's outer halo. It incorporates broad and narrowband images recorded using filters sensitive to emission from sulfur, hydrogen and oxygen atoms.

Herschel Views the Milky Way

With a 3.5 meter diameter mirror, larger than the Hubble Space Telescope, ESA's Herschel Space Observatory explores the Universe at infrared wavelengths. Herschel is named for German-born British astronomer Frederick William Herschel who discovered infrared light over 200 years ago. Herschel's sensitive cameras have combined to deliver this spectacular skyscape looking toward the constellation of the Southern Cross. Spanning some 2 degrees the premier, false-color, far-infrared view captures our galaxy's cold dust clouds in extreme detail, showing a remarkable, connected maze of filaments and star-forming regions. Such observations are intended to unravel mysteries of star formation by surveying broad areas of the galactic plane.

Comet Garradd Passes Ten Thousand Stars

Comet Garradd continues to brighten as it drifts across the northern sky. Last week the comet, visible with binoculars and discernible by its green coma, passed nearly in front of globular cluster M71. M71 was once thought to be an open cluster, but is now known to be an older globular cluster containing over 10,000 stars. The photogenic duo was captured with a standard digital camera in a 10-minute, wide-angle exposure toward the northern constellation of the Arrow (Sagitta). The stars Sham (alpha Sagittae), beta Sagittae, gamma Sagittae, and the double star delta Sagittae are all visible in a diagonal band running down from the upper left. Comet C/2009 P1 (Garradd), will remain visible in northern skies for months and will reach its closest approach to the Sun in December.

In the Shadow of Saturn

In the shadow of Saturn, unexpected wonders appear. The robotic Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn drifted in giant planet's shadow for about 12 hours in 2006 and looked back toward the eclipsed Sun. Cassini saw a view unlike any other. First, the night side of Saturn is seen to be partly lit by light reflected from its own majestic ring system. Next, the rings themselves appear dark when silhouetted against Saturn, but quite bright when viewed away from Saturn, slightly scattering sunlight, in this exaggerated color image. Saturn's rings light up so much that new rings were discovered, although they are hard to see in the image. Seen in spectacular detail, however, is Saturn's E ring, the ring created by the newly discovered ice-fountains of the moon Enceladus and the outermost ring visible above. Far in the distance, at the left, just above the bright main rings, is the almost ignorable pale blue dot of Earth.

HH 47: A Young Star Jet Expands

Stars remain where they are. Nebulas appear the same. Day after day. Year after year. Given the vast distances in astronomy, even fast moving objects will not appear to change their appearance in a human lifetime. Typically. A recent spectacular exception to this, however, is the supersonic jet in the star forming Herbig Haro 47. HH 47 is so close -- and the jets are moving so fast -- that images from the Hubble Space Telescope from 1994 to 2008 have been combined into a time-lapse movie that actually shows a powerful jet expanding. Visible above, jets of plasma extending over 10,000 times the Earth-Sun distance shoot out from a forming star at speeds in excess of 150 kilometers per second. Studying how these jets evolve gives clues not only to how the star in HH 47 is forming, but how stars like our Sun formed billions of years ago. HH 47 is located about 1,500 light years away toward the constellation of Sails of a Ship (Vela).

M6: The Butterfly Cluster

To some, the outline of the open cluster of stars M6 resembles a butterfly. M6, also known as NGC 6405, spans about 20 light-years and lies about 2,000 light years distant. M6 can best be seen in a dark sky with binoculars towards the constellation of Scorpius, coving about as much of the sky as the full moon. Like other open clusters, M6 is composed predominantly of young blue stars, although the brightest star is nearly orange. M6 is estimated to be about 100 million years old. Determining the distance to clusters like M6 helps astronomers calibrate the distance scale of the universe. APOD Retrospective: Open Star Clusters

SDSS J102915+172927: A Star That Should Not Exist

Why does this star have so few heavy elements? Stars born in the generation of our Sun have an expected abundance of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium mixed into their atmospheres. Stars born in the generation before our Sun, Population II stars, the stars that created most of the heavy elements around us today, are seen to have some, although fewer, elements heavier than H and He. Furthermore, even the elusive never-seen first stars in the universe, so-called Population III stars, are predicted to have a large mass and a small but set amount of heavy elements. Yet low-mass Milky Way star SDSS J102915+172927, among others, appears to have fewer metals than ever predicted for any stars, including at least 50 times less lithium than came out of the Big Bang. The unusual nature of this star, initially cataloged by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) and pictured above, was discovered by detailed spectroscopic observations by a large VLT telescope in Chile. Many models of star formation indicate that such a star should not even form. Research is ongoing, however, with one leading hypothesis holding that fragile primordial lithium was destroyed in the star's hot core.

Apollo 17 Site: A Sharper View

This view of the Apollo 17 landing site in the Taurus-Littrow valley was captured last month by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), the sharpest ever recorded from space. The high resolution image data was taken during a period when LRO's orbit was modified to create a close approach of about 22 kilometers as it passed over some of the Apollo landing sites. That altitude corresponds to only about twice the height of a commercial airline flight over planet Earth. Labeled in this image are Apollo 17 lunar lander Challenger's descent stage (inset), the lunar rover (LRV) at its final parking spot, and the Apollo Lunar Surface Experiments Package (ALSEP) left to monitor the Moon's environment and interior. Clear, dual lunar rover tracks and the foot trails left by astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt, the last to walk on the lunar surface, are also easily visible at the Apollo 17 site.

Comet Garradd and the Coat Hanger

Sweeping through planet Earth's night sky, last weekend Comet Garradd (C/2009 P1) visited this lovely star field along the Milky Way in the constellation Vulpecula. Suggestively oriented, the colorful skyscape features stars in the asterism known as the Coat Hanger with the comet's tail pointing toward the southeast. Also known as Al Sufi's Cluster, the Coat Hanger itself is likely just a chance alignment and not a cluster of related stars. But compact open star cluster NGC 6802 does grace the field of view just right of the Coat Hanger, near the edge of the frame. Below naked eye visibility but approaching 7th magnitude in brightness, Comet Garradd has been a good target for binoculars and small telescopes. Still, bright moonlit skies this week will make the comet harder to spot.

Rollback from GRAIL's Rocket

This dramatic time-lapse photo traces a 20 minute long, late evening rollback of the lighted Mobile Service Tower at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 17. Twin spacecraft are snug inside the 13 story tall Delta 2 rocket poised for launch. The duo will journey to the Moon on NASA's Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory mission, GRAIL, using precision formation flying to map the Moon's gravity field. The scene was captured prior to the first launch attempt, canceled due to upper level winds, on September 8. Further launch opportunities for GRAIL begin this morning, September 10. The GRAIL launch is the last one planned from Complex 17 on Cape Canaveral's oldest still active pad, in use since 1957.

On the Origin of Gold

Where did the gold in your jewelry originate? No one is completely sure. The relative average abundance in our Solar System appears higher than can be made in the early universe, in stars, and even in typical supernova explosions. Some astronomers have recently suggested that neutron-rich heavy elements such as gold might be most easily made in rare neutron-rich explosions such as the collision of neutron stars. Pictured above is an artist's illustration depicting two neutron stars spiraling in toward each other, just before they collide. Since neutron star collisions are also suggested as the origin of short duration gamma-ray bursts, it is possible that you already own a souvenir from one of the most powerful explosions in the universe.

Tisdale 2 Rock Formation on Mars

Why does this Martian rock have so much zinc? Roughly the size and shape of a tilted coffee-table, this oddly flat, light-topped rock outcropping was chanced upon a few weeks ago by the robotic Opportunity rover currently rolling across Mars. Early last month Opportunity reached Endeavour crater, the largest surface feature it has ever encountered, and is now exploring Endeavour's rim for clues about how wet Mars was billions of years ago. Pictured above and named Tisdale 2, the unusual rock structure was probed by Opportunity last week and is now thought to be a remnant thrown off during the impact that created nearby Odyssey crater. The resulting chemical analysis of Tisdale 2, however, has shown it to have a strangely high amount of the element zinc. The reason for this is currently unknown, but might turn out to be a clue to the history of the entire region. Opportunity is already finding rocks older than any previously studied and will continue to explore several other intriguing rock formations only now glimpsed from a distance.

Great Orion Nebulae

The Great Nebula in Orion, also known as M42, is one of the most famous nebulas in the sky. The star forming region's glowing gas clouds and hot young stars are on the right in this sharp and colorful image that includes the smaller nebula M43 near center and dusty, bluish reflection nebulae NGC 1977 and friends on the left. Located at the edge of an otherwise invisible giant molecular cloud complex, these eye-catching nebulae represent only a small fraction of this galactic neighborhood's wealth of interstellar material. Within the well-studied stellar nursery, astronomers have also identified what appear to be numerous infant planetary systems. The gorgeous skyscape spans nearly two degrees or about 45 light-years at the Orion Nebula's estimated distance of 1,500 light-years.

The Bubble and M52

To the eye, this cosmic composition nicely balances the Bubble Nebula at the lower right with open star cluster M52. The pair would be lopsided on other scales, though. Embedded in a complex of interstellar dust and gas and blown by the winds from a single, massive O-type star, the Bubble Nebula, also known as NGC 7635, is a mere 10 light-years wide. On the other hand, M52 is a rich open cluster of around a thousand stars. The cluster is about 25 light-years across. Seen toward the northern boundary of Cassiopeia, distance estimates for the Bubble Nebula and associated cloud complex are around 11,000 light-years, while star cluster M52 lies nearly 5,000 light-years away. The wide telescopic field of view spans about 1.5 degrees on the sky or three times the apparent size of the Full Moon.

NGC 3521: Galaxy in a Bubble

Gorgeous spiral galaxy NGC 3521 is a mere 35 million light-years away, toward the constellation Leo. Relatively bright in planet Earth's sky, NGC 3521 is easily visible in small telescopes but often overlooked by amateur imagers in favor of other Leo spiral galaxies, like M66 and M65. It's hard to overlook in this colorful cosmic portrait, though. Spanning some 50,000 light-years the galaxy sports characteristic patchy, irregular spiral arms laced with dust, pink star forming regions, and clusters of young, blue stars. Remarkably, this deep image also finds NGC 3521 embedded in gigantic bubble-like shells. The shells are likely tidal debris, streams of stars torn from satellite galaxies that have undergone mergers with NGC 3521 in the distant past.

September's Harvest Moon

A Full Moon rising can be a dramatic celestial sight, and Full Moons can have many names. For example, Monday's Full Moon was the one nearest this year's autumnal equinox for the northern hemisphere, traditionally called the Harvest Moon. According to lore the name is a fitting one because farmers could work late into the night at the end of the growing season harvesting crops by moonlight. This serene telephoto image captures this September's harvest moonrise from Turin, Italy. In silhouette against an orange lunar disk is Turin's hilltop Basilica of Superga. APOD Retrospective: Harvest and Hunter Moons

Spitzer's Orion

Few cosmic vistas excite the imagination like the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This stunning false-color view spans about 40 light-years across the region, constructed using infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope. Compared to its visual wavelength appearance, the brightest portion of the nebula is likewise centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But the infrared image also detects the nebula's many protostars, still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. In fact, red spots along the dark dusty filament to the left of the bright cluster include the protostar cataloged as HOPS 68, recently found to have crystals of the silicate mineral olivine within its protostellar envelope.

A Sharp View of the Sun

Here is one of the sharper views of the Sun ever taken. This stunning image shows remarkable details of a dark sunspot across the image bottom and numerous boiling granules which appear like kernels of corn across the top. Taken in 2002, the picture was made using the Swedish Solar Telescope operating on the Canary Island of La Palma. The high resolution image was achieved using sophisticated adaptive optics, digital image stacking, and other processing techniques to counter the blurring effect of Earth's atmosphere. Currently a sunspot group is crossing the Sun that is so large it can be easily seen by the cautious observer even without magnification.

The South Pole of Asteroid Vesta

What created the circular structure around the south pole of asteroid Vesta? Pictured above, the bottom of the second largest object in the asteroid belt was recently imaged for the first time by the robotic Dawn satellite that arrived last month. A close inspection of the 260-meter resolution image shows not only hills and craters and cliffs and more craters, but ragged circular features that cover most of the lower right of the 500-kilometer sized object. Early speculation posits that the structure might have been created by a collision and coalescence with a smaller asteroid. Alternatively, the features might have originated in an internal process soon after the asteroid formed. New clues might come in the next few months as Dawn spirals down toward the rocky world and obtains images of increasingly high resolution.

Kepler-16b: A Planet with Two Suns

If you stay up long enough, you can watch both suns set. Such might be a common adage from beings floating in the atmosphere of Kepler 16b, a planet recently discovered by the space-based Kepler satellite. The above animated video shows how the planetary system might look to a visiting spaceship. Although multiple star systems are quite common, this is the first known to have a planet. Because our Earth is in the orbital plane of both stars and the planet, each body is seen to eclipse the others at different times, producing noticeable drop offs in the amount of light seen. The frequent eclipses have given Kepler 16b the most accurate mass and radius determination for a planet outside our Solar System. To find a planet like Saturn in an orbit like Venus -- so close to its binary star parents -- was a surprise and will surely become a focus of research.

Pleiades Deep Field

Have you ever seen the Pleiades star cluster? Even if you have, you probably have never seen it like this: all dusty. Perhaps the most famous star cluster on the sky, the bright stars of the Pleiades can be seen without binoculars from even the depths of a light-polluted city. With a long exposure from a dark location, though, the dust cloud surrounding the Pleiades star cluster becomes very evident. The above exposure took about 30 hours and covers a sky area several times the size of the full moon. Also known as the Seven Sisters and M45, the Pleiades lies about 400 light years away toward the constellation of the Bull (Taurus). A common legend with a modern twist is that one of the brighter stars faded since the cluster was named, leaving only six stars visible to the unaided eye. The actual number of Pleiades stars visible, however, may be more or less than seven, depending on the darkness of the surrounding sky and the clarity of the observer's eyesight. APOD Retrospective: The Pleiades Star Cluster

Arp 272

Linking spiral arms, two large colliding galaxies are featured in this remarkable cosmic portrait constructed using image data from the Hubble Legacy Archive. Recorded in astronomer Halton Arp's Atlas of Peculiar Galaxies as Arp 272, the pair is otherwise known as NGC 6050 near center, and IC 1179 at upper right. A third galaxy, likely also a member of the interacting system, can be spotted above and left of larger spiral NGC 6050. They lie some 450 million light-years away in the Hercules Galaxy Cluster. At that estimated distance, the picture spans over 150 thousand light-years. Although this scenario does look peculiar, galaxy collisions and their eventual mergers are now understood to be common, with Arp 272 representing a stage in this inevitable process. In fact, the nearby large spiral Andromeda Galaxy is known to be approaching our own galaxy and Arp 272 may offer a glimpse of the far future collision between Andromeda and the Milky Way.

September's Aurora

September's equinox arrives today at 0905 UT. As the Sun crosses the celestial equator heading south, spring begins in the southern hemisphere and autumn in the north. And though the seasonal connection is still puzzling, both spring and autumn bring an increase in geomagnetic storms. So as northern nights grow longer, the equinox also heralds the arrival of a good season for viewing aurora. Recorded earlier this month, these curtains of September's shimmering green light sprawl across a gorgeous night skyscape. In the foreground lies Hidden Lake Territorial Park near Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. Calm water reflects the aurora, with bright star trails peering through the mesmerizing sky glow. Of course, shining at altitudes of 100 kilometers or so, planet Earth's auroras are visible from space.

Mangaia's Milky Way

From Sagittarius to Carina, the Milky Way Galaxy shines in this dark night sky above planet Earth's lush island paradise of Mangaia. Familiar to denizens of the southern hemisphere, the gorgeous skyscape includes the bulging galactic center at the upper left and bright stars Alpha and Beta Centauri just right of center. About 10 kilometers wide, volcanic Mangaia is the southernmost of the Cook Islands. Geologists estimate that at 18 million years old it is the oldest island in the Pacific Ocean. Of course, the Milky Way is somewhat older, with the galaxy's oldest stars estimated to be over 13 billion years old. (Editor's note: This image holds the distinction of being selected as winner in the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, Astronomy Photographer of the Year competition in the Earth and Space category.)

A Large Tsunami Shock Wave on the Sun

Tsunamis this large don't happen on Earth. During 2006, a large solar flare from an Earth-sized sunspot produced a tsunami-type shock wave that was spectacular even for the Sun. Pictured above, the tsunami wave was captured moving out from active region AR 10930 by the Optical Solar Patrol Network (OSPAN) telescope in New Mexico, USA. The resulting shock wave, known technically as a Moreton wave, compressed and heated up gasses including hydrogen in the photosphere of the Sun, causing a momentarily brighter glow. The above image was taken in a very specific red color emitted exclusively by hydrogen gas. The rampaging tsunami took out some active filaments on the Sun, although many re-established themselves later. The solar tsunami spread at nearly one million kilometers per hour, and circled the entire Sun in a matter of minutes.

Dry Ice Pits on Mars

Part of Mars is defrosting. Around the South Pole of Mars, toward the end of every Martian summer, the warm weather causes a section of the vast carbon-dioxide ice cap to evaporate. Pits begin to appear and expand where the carbon dioxide dry ice sublimates directly into gas. These ice sheet pits may appear to be lined with gold, but the precise composition of the dust that highlights the pit walls actually remains unknown. The circular depressions toward the image center measure about 60 meters across. The HiRISE camera aboard the Mars-orbiting Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured the above image in late July. In the next few months, as Mars continues its journey around the Sun, colder seasons will prevail, and the thin air will turn chilly enough not only to stop the defrosting but once again freeze out more layers of solid carbon dioxide.

Flying Over Planet Earth

Have you ever dreamed of flying high above the Earth? Astronauts visiting the International Space Station do this every day, circling our restless planet twice every three hours. A dramatic example of their view was compiled in the above time-lapse video from images taken earlier this month. As the ISS speeds into the nighttime half of the globe, familiar constellations of stars remain visible above. An aerosol haze of Earth's thin atmosphere is visible on the horizon as an thin multi-colored ring. Many wonders whiz by below, including vast banks of white clouds, large stretches of deep blue sea, land lit up by the lights of big cities and small towns, and storm clouds flashing with lightning. The video starts over the northern Pacific Ocean and then passes from western North America to western South America, ending near Antarctica as daylight finally approaches.

Violent Sunspot Group AR 1302 Unleashes a Flare

One of the most active sunspot groups in years is currently crossing the Sun. AR 1302 first came around the Sun's edge last week and is so large it can be seen without a telescope. Coronal Mass Ejections from AR 1302 have already caused strong geomagnetic storms including notable aurora activity around both of Earth's poles. Pictured above, plasma was left magnetically hanging above the Sun's surface after AR 1302 emitted an X-class solar flare last Thursday. Earth is illustrated in the inset for a size comparison. Although another X-class flare was emitted on Saturday, no flares from AR 1302 have been aimed directly at the Earth, as yet. The AR 1302 sunspot group will continue to evolve but likely remain visible on the Sun for the next week. Instant Gallery: See recent pictures of sunspot group AR 1302.

Cocoon Nebula Wide Field

In this crowded starfield spanning some 3 degrees within the high flying constellation Cygnus, the eye is drawn to the Cocoon Nebula. A compact star forming region, the cosmic Cocoon punctuates a long trail of obscuring interstellar dust clouds. Cataloged as IC 5146, the nebula is nearly 15 light-years wide, located some 4,000 light years away. Like other star forming regions, it stands out in red, glowing, hydrogen gas excited by the young, hot stars and blue, dust-reflected starlight at the edge of an otherwise invisible molecular cloud. In fact, the bright star near the center of this nebula is likely only a few hundred thousand years old, powering the nebular glow as it clears out a cavity in the molecular cloud's star forming dust and gas. But the long dusty filaments that appear dark in this visible light image are themselves hiding stars in the process of formation, seen at infrared wavelengths.

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