Comet ZTF: Orbital Plane Crossing


The current darling of the northern night, Comet C/2022 E3 ZTF is captured in this telescopic image from a dark sky location at June Lake, California. Of course Comet ZTF has been growing brighter in recent days, headed for its closest approach to Earth on February 1. But this view was recorded on January 23, very close to the time planet Earth crossed the orbital plane of long-period Comet ZTF. The comet’s broad, whitish dust tail is still curved and fanned out away from the Sun as Comet ZTF sweeps along its orbit. Due to perspective near the orbital plane crossing, components of the fanned out dust tail appear on both sides of the comet’s green tinted coma though, to lend Comet ZTF a visually striking (left) anti-tail. Buffeted by solar activity the comet’s narrower ion tail also streams away from the coma diagonally to the right, across the nearly three degree wide field of view.

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Active Galaxy NGC 1275


Active galaxy NGC 1275 is the central, dominant member of the large and relatively nearby Perseus Cluster of Galaxies. Wild-looking at visible wavelengths, the active galaxy is also a prodigious source of x-rays and radio emission. NGC 1275 accretes matter as entire galaxies fall into it, ultimately feeding a supermassive black hole at the galaxy’s core. This color composite image made from Hubble Space Telescope data recorded during 2006. It highlights the resulting galactic debris and filaments of glowing gas, some up to 20,000 light-years long. The filaments persist in NGC 1275, even though the turmoil of galactic collisions should destroy them. What keeps the filaments together? Observations indicate that the structures, pushed out from the galaxy’s center by the black hole’s activity, are held together by magnetic fields. Also known as Perseus A, NGC 1275 spans over 100,000 light years and lies about 230 million light years away.

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To some, the dark shape looks like a mythical boogeyman. Scientifically, Lynds’ Dark Nebula (LDN) 1622 appears against a faint background of glowing hydrogen gas only visible in long telescopic exposures of the region. In contrast, the brighter reflection nebula vdB 62 is more easily seen just above and to the right of center in the featured image. LDN 1622 lies near the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy, close on the sky to Barnard‘s Loop, a large cloud surrounding the rich complex of emission nebulae found in the Belt and Sword of Orion. With swept-back outlines, the obscuring dust of LDN 1622 is thought to lie at a similar distance, perhaps 1,500 light-years away. At that distance, this 2-degree wide field of view would span about 60 light-years. Young stars do lie hidden within the dark expanse and have been revealed in Spitzer Space Telescope infrared images.

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If you could stand on exoplanet LHS 475 b, what might you see? No one knows for sure but pictured here is an interesting guess made by an Earth-based artificial intelligence (AI) engine. The existence of the exoplanet was indicated in data taken by the Earth-orbiting TESS satellite but confirmed and further investigated only this year by the near-Earth Sun-orbiting James Webb Space Telescope. What is known for sure is that LHS 475 b has a mass very similar to our Earth and closely orbits a small red star about 40 light years away. The featured AI-illustrated guess depicts a plausibly rugged Earth-like landscape replete with molten lava and with the central red star rising in the distance. Webb data does not as yet reveal, however, whether LHS 475 b has an atmosphere. One of Webb’s science objectives is to follow up previous discoveries of distant exoplanets to better discern their potential for developing life.

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Two galaxies are squaring off in Virgo and here are the latest pictures. When two galaxies collide, the stars that compose them usually do not. This is because galaxies are mostly empty space and, however bright, stars only take up only a small fraction of that space. But during the collision, one galaxy can rip the other apart gravitationally, and dust and gas common to both galaxies does collide. If the two galaxies merge, black holes that likely resided in each galaxy center may eventually merge. Because the distances are so large, the whole thing takes place in slow motion — over hundreds of millions of years. Besides the two large spiral galaxies, a smaller third galaxy is visible on the far left of the featured image of Arp 274, also known as NGC 5679. Arp 274 spans about 200,000 light years across and lies about 400 million light years away toward the constellation of Virgo.

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Raise your arms if you see an aurora. With those instructions, two nights went by with, well, clouds — mostly. On the third night of returning to same peaks, though, the sky not only cleared up but lit up with a spectacular auroral display. Arms went high in the air, patience and experience paid off, and the creative featured image was captured as a composite from three separate exposures. The setting is a summit of the Austnesfjorden fjord close to the town of Svolvear on the Lofoten islands in northern Norway. The time was early 2014. Although our Sun passed the solar minimum of its 11-year cycle only a few years ago, surface activity is picking up and already triggering more spectacular auroras here on Earth.

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Naked Eye Comet ZTF


Comet C/2022E3 (ZTF) is no longer too dim to require a telescope for viewing. By January 19, it could just be seen with the naked eye in this rural sky with little light pollution from a location about 20 kilometers from Salamanca, Spain. Still, telescopic images are needed to show any hint of the comet’s pretty green coma, stubby whitish dust tail, and long ion tail. Its faint ion tail has been buffeted by recent solar activity. This visitor from the distant Oort cloud rounded the Sun on January 12. and is now sweeping through stars near the northern boundary of the constellation Bootes. Outward bound but still growing brighter, Comet ZTF makes its closest approach on February 2, coming to within about 2.4 light-minutes of our fair planet.

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Galaxy Wars: M81 and M82


The two dominant galaxies near center are far far away, 12 million light-years distant toward the northern constellation of the Great Bear. On the right, with grand spiral arms and bright yellow core is spiral galaxy M81. Also known as Bode’s galaxy, M81 spans some 100,000 light-years. On the left is cigar-shaped irregular galaxy M82. The pair have been locked in gravitational combat for a billion years. Gravity from each galaxy has profoundly affected the other during a series of cosmic close encounters. Their last go-round lasted about 100 million years and likely raised density waves rippling around M81, resulting in the richness of M81‘s spiral arms. M82 was left with violent star forming regions and colliding gas clouds so energetic that the galaxy glows in X-rays. In the next few billion years, their continuing gravitational encounters will result in a merger, and a single galaxy will remain. This extragalactic scenario also includes other members of the interacting M81 galaxy group with NGC 3077 below and right of the large spiral, and NGC 2976 at upper right in the frame. Captured under dark night skies in the Austrian Alps, the foreground of the wide-field image is filled with integrated flux nebulae. Those faint, dusty interstellar clouds reflect starlight above the plane of our own Milky Way galaxy.

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The Seagull Nebula


A broad expanse of glowing gas and dust presents a bird-like visage to astronomers from planet Earth, suggesting its popular moniker – The Seagull Nebula. Using narrowband image data, this 3-panel mosaic of the cosmic bird covers a 2.5 degree swath across the plane of the Milky Way, near the direction of Sirius, alpha star of the constellation Canis Major. Likely part of a larger shell structure swept up by successive supernova explosions, the broad Seagull Nebula is cataloged as Sh2-296 and IC 2177. The prominent bluish arc below and right of center is a bow shock from runaway star FN Canis Majoris. This complex of gas and dust clouds with other stars of the Canis Majoris OB1 association spans over 200 light-years at the Seagull Nebula’s estimated 3,800 light-year distance.

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Gravitational lensing by the galaxy cluster MACS0647 — in which the massive foreground cluster distorts and lenses the light emitted by distant background galaxies along the line of sight — is on vivid display here in this recent multi-color infrared image from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). In particular, the background source MACS0647-JD is seen to be lensed three times by the cluster. When first discovered with the Hubble Space Telescope, MACS0647-JD was observed as an amorphous blob. With Webb though, this single source is revealed to be a pair or small group of galaxies. The colors of the MACS0647-JD objects are different as well — indicating differences potentially in the age or dust content of these galaxies. These new images provide rare examples of galaxies in an era only a few 100 million years after the Big Bang.

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