It appeared, momentarily, like a 50-km tall banded flag. In mid-March, an energetic Coronal Mass Ejection directed toward a clear magnetic channel to Earth led to one of the more intense geomagnetic storms of recent years. A visual result was wide spread auroras being seen over many countries near Earth’s magnetic poles. Captured over Kiruna, Sweden, the image features an unusually straight auroral curtain with the green color emitted low in the Earth’s atmosphere, and red many kilometers higher up. It is unclear where the rare purple aurora originates, but it might involve an unusual blue aurora at an even lower altitude than the green, seen superposed with a much higher red. As the Sun continues near its top level of surface activity, colorful nights of auroras over Earth are likely to continue.
What if you saw your shadow on Mars and it wasn’t human? Then you might be the Opportunity rover currently exploring Mars. Opportunity has been exploring the red planet since early 2004, finding evidence of ancient water, and sending breathtaking images across the inner Solar System. Pictured above in 2004, Opportunity looks opposite the Sun into Endurance Crater and sees its own shadow. Two wheels are visible on the lower left and right, while the floor and walls of the unusual crater are visible in the background. Opportunity is continuing on its long trek exploring unusual terrain in Meridiani Planum which continues to yield clues to the ancient history of Mars, our Solar System, and even humanity.
Near the March 20 equinox the cold clear sky over Longyearbyen, Norway, planet Earth held an engaging sight, a total eclipse of the Sun. The New Moon’s silhouette at stages just before and after the three minute long total phase seems to sprout glistening diamonds and bright beads in this time lapse composite of the geocentric celestial event. The last and first glimpses of the solar disk with the lunar limb surrounded by the glow of the Sun’s inner corona give the impression of a diamond ring in the sky. At the boundaries of totality, sunlight streaming through valleys in the irregular terrain along the Moon’s edge, produces an effect known as Baily’s Beads, named after English astronomer Francis Baily who championed an explanation for the phenomenon in 1836. This sharp composition also shows off the array of pinkish solar prominences lofted above the edge of the eclipsed Sun.
Magnificent island universe NGC 2403 stands within the boundaries of the long-necked constellation Camelopardalis. Some 10 million light-years distant and about 50,000 light-years across, the spiral galaxy also seems to have more than its fair share of giant star forming HII regions, marked by the telltale reddish glow of atomic hydrogen gas. The giant HII regions are energized by clusters of hot, massive stars that explode as bright supernovae at the end of their short and furious lives. A member of the M81 group of galaxies, NGC 2403 closely resembles another galaxy with an abundance of star forming regions that lies within our own local galaxy group, M33 the Triangulum Galaxy. Spiky in appearance, bright stars in this colorful galaxy portrait of NGC 2403 lie in the foreground, within our own Milky Way.
As spring comes to planet Earth’s northern hemisphere, familiar winter constellation Orion sets in early evening skies and budding trees frame the Hunter’s stars. The yellowish hue of cool red supergiant Alpha Orionis, the great star Betelgeuse, mingles with the branches at the top of this colorful skyscape. Orion’s alpha star is joined on the far right by Alpha Tauri. Also known as Aldebaran and also a giant star cooler than the Sun, it shines with a yellow light at the head of Taurus, the Bull. Contrasting blue supergiant Rigel, Beta Orionis, is Orion’s other dominant star though, and marks the Hunter’s foot below center. Of course, the sword of Orion hangs from the Hunter’s three blue belt stars near picture center, but the middle star in the sword is not a star at all. A slightly fuzzy pinkish glow hints at its true nature, a nearby stellar nursery visible to the unaided eye known as the Orion Nebula.
It quickly went from obscurity to one of the brighter stars in Sagittarius — but it’s fading. Named Nova Sagittarii 2015 No. 2, the stellar explosion is the brightest nova visible from Earth in over a year. The featured image was captured four days ago from Ranikhet in the Indian Himalayas. Several stars in western Sagittarius make an asterism known as the Teapot, and the nova, indicated by the arrow, now appears like a new emblem on the side of the pot. As of last night, Nova Sag has faded from brighter than visual magnitude 5 to the edge of unaided visibility. Even so, the nova should still be easily findable with binoculars in dark skies before sunrise over the next week.
Birds don’t fly this high. Airplanes don’t go this fast. The Statue of Liberty weighs less. No species other than human can even comprehend what is going on, nor could any human just a millennium ago. The launch of a rocket bound for space is an event that inspires awe and challenges description. Pictured above, an Atlas V rocket lifts off carrying NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale Mission into Earth orbit 10 days ago to study the workings of the magnetosphere that surrounds and protects the Earth. From a standing start, the 300,000 kilogram rocket ship left to circle the Earth where the outside air is too thin to breathe. Rockets bound for space are now launched from somewhere on Earth about once a week.
Can the Sun be eclipsed twice at the same time? Last Friday was noteworthy because part of the Earth was treated to a rare total eclipse of the Sun. But also on Friday, from a part of the Earth that only saw part of the Sun eclipsed, a second object appeared simultaneously in front of the Sun: the Earth-orbiting International Space Station. Although space station eclipses are very quick — in this case only 0.6 seconds, they are not so rare. Capturing this composite image took a lot of planning and a little luck, as the photographer had to dodge a series of third objects that kept, annoyingly, also lining up in front of the Sun: clouds. The above superposed time-lapse sequence was taken from Fregenal de la Sierra in southern Spain. The dark disk of the Moon dominates the lower right, while the Sun’s textured surface shows several filaments and, over an edge, a prominence.
Snowy and cold is weather you might expect at the start of spring for Longyearbyen on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, Norway. But that turned out to be good weather for watching the Moon’s umbral shadow race across northern planet Earth. The region was plunged into darkness for 3 minutes during the March 20 total solar eclipse while insulated eclipse chasers witnessed the dark Sun in the cold clear sky. In this well-timed snapshot captured near the end of totality, the Moon’s shadow sweeps away from the horizon and the solar corona fades as the lunar disk just begins to uncover the Sun. Streaming past the Moon’s edge, direct rays of sunlight create the fleeting appearance of a glistening diamond ring.
Today’s date marks an Equinox and a New Moon. Remarkably, while the exact timing of both geocentric events occur within a span of only 13 hours, the moon also reaches its new phase only 14 hours after perigee, the closest point in its orbit. That makes the Equinox New Moon the largest New Moon of 2015, though hard to see since that lunar phase presents the Moon’s dark, night side to planet Earth. Still, in this well composed image of a young lunar phase from late January you can glimpse both night and day on the lunar surface, the night side faintly illuminated by Earthshine next to the day side’s brightly sunlit crescent. But some will see today’s Equinox New Moon in silhouette! The Equinox Solar Eclipse will be total across stretches of the Arctic Ocean, visible in partial phases from Europe, northern Africa and western Asia.