What’s that in front of the Moon? It’s the International Space Station. Using precise timing, the Earth-orbiting space platform was photographed in front of a partially lit Moon last year. The featured image was taken from Madrid, Spain with an exposure time of only 1/1000 of a second. In contrast, the duration of the transit of the ISS across the entire Moon was about half a second. The sun-glinting station can be seen just to the dark side of the day / night line known as the terminator. Numerous circular craters are visible on the distant Moon, as well as comparatively rough, light colored terrain known as highlands, and relatively smooth, dark colored areas known as maria. On-line tools can tell you when the International Space Station will be visible from your area.
Why isn’t this ant a big sphere? Planetary nebula Mz3 is being cast off by a star similar to our Sun that is, surely, round. Why then would the gas that is streaming away create an ant-shaped nebula that is distinctly not round? Clues might include the high 1000-kilometer per second speed of the expelled gas, the light-year long length of the structure, and the magnetism of the star visible above at the nebula’s center. One possible answer is that Mz3 is hiding a second, dimmer star that orbits close in to the bright star. A competing hypothesis holds that the central star’s own spin and magnetic field are channeling the gas. Since the central star appears to be so similar to our own Sun, astronomers hope that increased understanding of the history of this giant space ant can provide useful insight into the likely future of our own Sun and Earth.
Located 20,000 light-years away in the constellation Carina, the young cluster and starforming region Westerlund 2 fills this cosmic scene. Captured with Hubble’s cameras in near-infrared and visible light, the stunning image is a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope on April 24, 1990. The cluster’s dense concentration of luminous, massive stars is about 10 light-years across. Strong winds and radiation from those massive young stars have sculpted and shaped the region’s gas and dust, into starforming pillars that point back to the central cluster. Red dots surrounding the bright stars are the cluster’s faint newborn stars, still within their natal gas and dust cocoons. But brighter blue stars scattered around are likely not in the Westerlund 2 cluster and instead lie in the foreground of the Hubble anniversary field of view.
Lapping at rocks along the shore of the Island of Nangan, Taiwan, planet Earth, waves are infused with a subtle blue light in this sea and night skyscape. Composed of a series of long exposures made on April 16 the image captures the faint glow from Noctiluca scintillans. Also known as sea sparkles or blue tears, the marine plankton’s bioluminescence is stimulated by wave motion. City lights along the coast of mainland China shine beneath low clouds in the west but stars and the faint Milky Way still fill the night above. Over the horizon the galaxy’s central bulge and dark rifts seem to echo the rocks and luminous waves.
Earth’s April showers include the Lyrid Meteor Shower, observed for more than 2,000 years when the planet makes its annual passage through the dust stream of long-period Comet Thatcher. A grain of that comet’s dust, moving 48 kilometers per second at an altitude of 100 kilometers or so, is swept up in this night sky view from the early hours of April 21. Flashing toward the southeastern horizon, the meteor’s brilliant streak crosses the central region of the rising Milky Way. Its trail points back toward the shower’s radiant in the constellation Lyra, high in the northern springtime sky and off the top of the frame. The yellowish hue of giant star Antares shines to the right of the Milky Way’s bulge. Higher still is bright planet Saturn, near the right edge. Seen from Istra, Croatia, the Lyrid meteor’s greenish glow reflects in the waters of the Adriatic Sea.
Stars can form in colorful surroundings. Featured here is a star forming region rich in glowing gas and dark dust toward the constellation of the Swan (Cygnus), near the bright star Sadr. This region, which spans about 50 light years, is part of the Gamma Cygni nebula which lies about 1,800 light years distant. Toward the right of the image is Barnard 344, a dark and twisted dust cloud rich in cool molecular gas. A dramatic wall of dust and red-glowing hydrogen gas forms a line down the picture center. While the glowing red gas is indicative of small emission nebulas, the blue tinted areas are reflection nebulas — starlight reflecting from usually dark dust grains. The Gamma Cygni nebula will likely not last the next billion years, as most of the bright young stars will explode, most of the dust will be destroyed, and most of the gas will drift away.
Going, going, gone. That was the feeling in Svalbard, Norway last month during a total eclipse of the Sun by the Moon. In the featured image, the eclipse was captured every three minutes and then digitally merged with a foreground frame taken from the same location. Visible in the foreground are numerous gawking eclipse seekers, some deploying pretty sophisticated cameras. As the Moon and Sun moved together across the sky — nearly horizontally from this far north — an increasing fraction of the Sun appears covered by the Moon. In the central frame, the Moon’s complete blockage of the disk of the Sun makes the immediate surroundings appear like night during the day. The exception is the Moon itself, which now appears surrounded by the expansive corona of the Sun. Of course, about 2.5 minutes later, the surface of the Sun began to reappear. The next total eclipse of the Sun will occur in 2016 March and be visible from Southeast Asia.
How could a galaxy become shaped like a ring? The rim of the blue galaxy pictured on the right is an immense ring-like structure 150,000 light years in diameter composed of newly formed, extremely bright, massive stars. That galaxy, AM 0644-741, is known as a ring galaxy and was caused by an immense galaxy collision. When galaxies collide, they pass through each other — their individual stars rarely come into contact. The ring-like shape is the result of the gravitational disruption caused by an entire small intruder galaxy passing through a large one. When this happens, interstellar gas and dust become condensed, causing a wave of star formation to move out from the impact point like a ripple across the surface of a pond. The intruder galaxy is just outside of the frame taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. This featured image was taken to commemorate the anniversary of Hubble’s launch in 1990. Ring galaxy AM 0644-741 lies about 300 million light years away.
One of the largest young craters on Mercury, 114 kilometer (71 mile) diameter Hokusai crater’s bright rays are known to extend across much of the planet. But this mosaic of oblique views focuses on Hokusai close up, its sunlit central peaks, terraced crater walls, and frozen sea of impact melt on the crater’s floor. The images were captured by the MESSENGER spacecraft. The first to orbit Mercury, since 2011 MESSENGER has conducted scientific explorations, including extensive imaging of the Solar System’s innermost planet. Now running out of propellant and unable to counter orbital perturbations caused by the Sun’s gravity, MESSENGER is predicted to impact the surface of Mercury on April 30.
Galactic or open star clusters are young. These swarms of stars are born together near the plane of the Milky Way, but their numbers steadily dwindle as cluster members are ejected by galactic tides and gravitational interactions. In fact, this bright open cluster, known as M46, is around 300 million years young. It still contains a few hundred stars within a span of 30 light-years or so. Located about 5,000 light-years away toward the constellation Puppis, M46 also seems to contain contradictions to its youthful status. In this pretty starscape, the colorful, circular patch above and right of the center of M46 is the planetary nebula NGC 2438. Fainter still, a second planetary nebula, PK231+4.1, is identified by the box at the right and enlarged in the inset. Planetary nebulae are a brief, final phase in the life of a sun-like star a billion years old or more, whose central reservoir of hydrogen fuel has been exhausted. NGC 2438 is estimated to be only 3,000 light-years distant, though, and moves at a different speed than M46 cluster members. Along with its fainter cohort, planetary nebula NGC 2438 is likely only by chance appearing near our line-of-sight to the young stars of M46.