Artistic Impression: The Surface of TRAPPIST 1f


If you could stand on the surface of the newly discovered Earth-sized exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f, what would you see? Presently, no Earthling knows for sure, but the featured illustration depicts a reasoned guess based on observational data taken by NASA‘s Sun-orbiting Spitzer Space Telescope. In 2017, four more Earth-sized planets were found by Spitzer, including TRAPPIST-1f, in addition to three discovered in 2015 from the ground. From the planet’s surface, near the mild terminator between night and day, you might see water, ice, and rock on the ground, while water-based clouds might hover above. Past the clouds, the small central star TRAPPIST-1 would appear more red than our Sun, but angularly larger due to the close orbit. With seven known Earth-sized planets — many of which pass near each other — the TRAPPIST-1 system is not only a candidate to have life, but intercommunicating life — although a preliminary search has found no obvious transmissions.

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The N44 Superbubble


What created this gigantic hole? The vast emission nebula N44 in our neighboring galaxy the Large Magellanic Cloud has a large, 250 light-year hole and astronomers are trying to figure out why. One possibility is particle winds expelled by massive stars in the bubble‘s interior that are pushing out the glowing gas. This answer was found to be inconsistent with measured wind velocities, however. Another possibility is that the expanding shells of old supernovas have sculpted the unusual space cavern. An unexpected clue of hot X-ray emitting gas was recently been detected escaping the N44 superbubble. The featured image was taken in three very specific colors by the huge 8-meter Gemini South Telescope on Cerro Pachon in Chile.

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Solstice Conjunction over Budapest


Before a solstice Sun rose on June 21, brilliant Venus and an old crescent Moon posed together over Budapest, Hungary for this predawn skyscape. In the foreground the view looks across the Danube river from Buda to Pest toward the dome and peaks of the Hungarian Parliament building. Low clouds are in silhouette against a twilight sky. But far enough above the eastern horizon to catch the sunlight shines another seasonal apparition on that solstice morning, noctilucent clouds. Seen near sunrise and sunset in summer months at high latitudes, the night-shining clouds are formed as water vapor in the cold upper atmosphere condenses on meteoric dust or volcanic ash near the edge of space.

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Northern Summer on Titan


While yesterday’s solstice brought summer to planet Earth’s northern hemisphere, a northern summer solstice arrived for ringed planet Saturn nearly a month ago on May 24. Following the Saturnian seasons, its large moon Titan was captured in this Cassini spacecraft image from June 9. The near-infrared view finds bright methane clouds drifting through Titan’s northern summer skies as seen from a distance of about 507,000 kilometers. Below Titan’s clouds, dark hydrocarbon lakes sprawl near the large moon’s now illuminated north pole.

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A Sundial that Shows Solstice


What day is it? If the day — and time — are right, this sundial will tell you: SOLSTICE. Only then will our Sun be located just right for sunlight to stream through openings and spell out the term for the longest and shortest days of the year. But this will happen today (and again in December). The sundial was constructed by Jean Salins in 1980 and is situated at the Ecole Supérieure des Mines de Paris in Valbonne Sophia Antipolis of south-eastern France. On two other days of the year, watchers of this sundial might get to see it produce another word: EQUINOXE.

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The Massive Stars in Westerlund 1


Star cluster Westerlund 1 is home to some of the largest and most massive stars known. It is headlined by the star Westerlund 1-26, a red supergiant star so big that if placed in the center of our Solar System, it would extend out past the orbit of Jupiter. Additionally, the young star cluster is home to 3 other red supergiants, 6 yellow hypergiant stars, 24 Wolf-Rayet stars, and several even-more unusual stars that continue to be studied. Westerlund 1 is relatively close-by for a star cluster at a distance of 15,000 light years, giving astronomers a good laboratory to study the development of massive stars. The featured image of Westerlund 1 was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope toward the southern constellation of the Altar (Ara). Although presently classified as a “super” open cluster, Westerlund 1 may evolve into a low mass globular cluster over the next billion years.

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Saturn near Opposition


Saturn reached its 2017 opposition on June 16. Of course, opposition means opposite the Sun in Earth’s sky and near opposition Saturn is up all night, at its closest and brightest for the year. This remarkably sharp image of the ringed planet was taken only days before, on June 11, with a 1-meter telescope from the mountain top Pic du Midi observatory. North is at the top with the giant planet’s north polar storm and curious hexagon clearly seen bathed in sunlight. But Saturn’s spectacular ring system is also shown in stunning detail. The narrow Encke division is visible around the entire outer A ring, small ringlets can be traced within the fainter inner C ring, and Saturn’s southern hemisphere can be glimpsed through the wider Cassini division. Near opposition Saturn’s rings also appear exceptionally bright, known as the opposition surge or Seeliger Effect. Directly illuminated from Earth’s perspective, the ring’s icy particles cast no shadows and strongly backscatter sunlight creating the dramatic increase in brightness. Still, the best views of the ringed planet are currently from the Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft. Diving close, Cassini’s Grand Finale orbit number 9 is in progress.

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