Many bright nebulae and star clusters in planet Earth’s sky are associated with the name of astronomer Charles Messier, from his famous 18th century catalog. His name is also given to these two large and remarkable craters on the Moon. Standouts in the dark, smooth lunar Sea of Fertility or Mare Fecunditatis, Messier (left) and Messier A have dimensions of 15 by 8 and 16 by 11 kilometers respectively. Their elongated shapes are explained by an extremely shallow-angle trajectory followed by the impactor, moving left to right, that gouged out the craters. The shallow impact also resulted in two bright rays of material extending along the surface to the right, beyond the picture. Intended to be viewed with red/blue glasses (red for the left eye), this striking stereo picture of the crater pair was recently created from high resolution scans of two images (AS11-42-6304, AS11-42-6305) taken during the Apollo 11 mission to the moon.
Telescopic observers on Earth have been treated to spectacular views of Saturn lately as the ringed planet reached its 2015 opposition on May 23 at 0200 UT. Of course opposition means opposite the Sun in Earth’s sky. So near opposition Saturn is up all night, at its closest and brightest for the year. These sharp images taken within hours of the Sun-Earth-Saturn alignment also show the strong brightening of Saturn’s rings known as the opposition surge or the Seeliger Effect. Directly illuminated, the ring’s icy particles cast no shadows and strongly backscatter sunlight toward planet Earth, creating the dramatic surge in brightness. Saturn currently stands in the sky not far from bright Antares, alpha star of the constellation Scorpius.
Large spiral galaxy NGC 4945 is seen edge-on near the center of this cosmic galaxy portrait. In fact, NGC 4945 is almost the size of our own Milky Way Galaxy. Its own dusty disk, young blue star clusters, and pink star forming regions standout in the sharp, colorful telescopic image. About 13 million light-years distant toward the expansive southern constellation Centaurus, NGC 4945 is only about six times farther away than Andromeda, the nearest large spiral galaxy to the Milky Way. Though the galaxy’s central region is largely hidden from view for optical telescopes, X-ray and infrared observations indicate significant high energy emission and star formation in the core of NGC 4945. Its obscured but active nucleus qualifies the gorgeous island universe as a Seyfert galaxy and home to a central supermassive black hole.
What could cause the center of M94 to be so bright? Spiral galaxy M94 has a ring of newly formed stars surrounding its nucleus, giving it not only an unusual appearance but also a strong interior glow. A leading progenitor hypothesis holds that an elongated knot of stars known as a bar rotates in M94 and has generated a burst of star formation in the inner ring. Recent observations have revealed the outer, fainter ring is not closed and relatively complex. M94, pictured here spans about 30,000 light years, lies about 15 million light years away, and can be seen with a small telescope toward the constellation of the Hunting Dogs (Canes Venatici).
First came the trees. In the town of Salamanca, Spain, the photographer noticed how distinctive a grove of oak trees looked after being pruned. Next came the galaxy. The photographer stayed up until 2 am, waiting until the Milky Way Galaxy rose above the level of a majestic looking oak. From this carefully chosen perspective, dust lanes in the galaxy appear to be natural continuations to branches of the tree. Last came the light. A flashlight was used on the far side of the tree to project a silhouette. By coincidence, other trees also appeared as similar silhouettes across the relatively bright horizon. The featured image was captured as a single 30-second frame earlier this month and processed to digitally enhance the Milky Way.
What’s that rising from the clouds? The space shuttle. Sometimes, if you looked out the window of an airplane at just the right place and time, you could have seen something very unusual — a space shuttle launching to orbit. Images of the rising shuttle and its plume became widely circulated over the web shortly after Endeavour’s final launch in 2011 May. The above image was taken from a shuttle training aircraft by NASA and is not copyrighted. Taken well above the clouds, the image can be matched with similar images of the same shuttle plume taken below the clouds. Hot glowing gasses expelled by the engines are visible near the rising shuttle, as well as a long smoke plume. A shadow of the plume appears on the cloud deck, indicating the direction of the Sun. The US Space Shuttle program concluded in 2011, and Endeavour can now be visited at the California Science Center.
Hot, young stars and cosmic pillars of gas and dust seem to crowd into NGC 7822. At the edge of a giant molecular cloud toward the northern constellation Cepheus, the glowing star forming region lies about 3,000 light-years away. Within the nebula, bright edges and dark shapes are highlighted in this colorful skyscape. The image includes data from narrowband filters, mapping emission from atomic oxygen, hydrogen, and sulfur into blue, green, and red hues. The atomic emission is powered by energetic radiation from the hot stars, whose powerful winds and radiation also sculpt and erode the denser pillar shapes. Stars could still be forming inside the pillars by gravitational collapse, but as the pillars are eroded away, any forming stars will ultimately be cutoff from their reservoir of star stuff. This field spans around 40 light-years at the estimated distance of NGC 7822.
In the dusty sky toward the constellation Taurus and the Orion Arm of our Milky Way Galaxy, this broad mosaic follows dark and faint reflection nebulae along the region’s fertile molecular cloud. The six degree wide field of view starts with long dark nebula LDN 1495 stretching from the lower left, and extends beyond the (upside down) bird-like visage of the Baby Eagle Nebula, LBN 777, at lower right. Small bluish reflection nebulae surround scattered fainter Taurus stars, sights often skipped over in favor of the constellation’s better known, brighter celestial spectacles. Associated with the young, variable star RY Tau, the yellowish nebula VdB 27 is toward the upper left. Only 400 light-years or so distant, the Taurus molecular cloud is one of the closest regions of low-mass star formation. At that distance this dark vista would span over 40 light-years.
NGC 6240 offers a rare, nearby glimpse of a cosmic catastrophe in its final throes. The titanic galaxy-galaxy collision takes place a mere 400 million light-years away in the constellation Ophiuchus. The merging galaxies spew distorted tidal tails of stars, gas, and dust and undergo fast and furious bursts of star formation. The two supermassive black holes in the original galactic cores will also coalesce into a single, even more massive black hole and soon, only one large galaxy will remain. This dramatic image of the scene is a composite of narrowband and near-infrared to visible broadband data from Hubble’s ACS and WPC3 cameras, a view that spans over 300,000 light-years at the estimated distance of NGC 6240.