It was one of the quietest nights of aurora in weeks. Even so, in northern- Iceland during last November, faint auroras lit up the sky every clear night. The featured 360-degree panorama is the digital fusion of four wide-angle cameras each simultaneously taking 101 shots over 42 minutes. In the foreground is serene Lake Myvatn dotted with picturesque rock formations left over from ancient lava flows. Low green auroras sweep across the sky above showing impressive complexity near the horizon. Stars far in the distance appear to show unusual trails — as the Earth turned — because early exposures were artificially faded.
Like a pearl, a white dwarf star shines best after being freed from its shell. In this analogy, however, the Sun would be a mollusk and its discarded hull would shine prettiest of all! In the above shell of gas and dust, the planetary nebula designated NGC 2440, contains one of the hottest white dwarf stars known. The glowing stellar pearl can be seen as the bright dot near the image center. The portion of NGC 2440 shown spans about one light year. The center of our Sun will eventually become a white dwarf, but not for another five billion years. The above false color image was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995. NGC 2440 lies about 4,000 light years distant toward the southern constellation Puppis.
This close-up from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera shows weathered craters and windblown deposits in southern Acidalia Planitia. A striking shade of blue in standard HiRISE image colors, to the human eye the area would probably look grey or a little reddish. But human eyes have not gazed across this terrain, unless you count the eyes of NASA astronauts in the scifi novel The Martian by Andy Weir. The novel chronicles the adventures of Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded at the fictional Mars mission Ares 3 landing site corresponding to the coordinates of this cropped HiRISE frame. For scale Watney’s 6-meter-diameter habitat at the site would be about 1/10th the diameter of the large crater. Of course, the Ares 3 landing coordinates are only about 800 kilometers north of the (real life) Carl Sagan Memorial Station, the 1997 Pathfinder landing site.
In this sharp snapshot, the Solar System’s largest moon Ganymede poses next to Jupiter, the largest planet. Captured on March 10 with a small telescope from our fair planet Earth, the scene also includes Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, the Solar System’s largest storm. In fact, Ganymede is about 5,260 kilometers in diameter. That beats out all three of its other fellow Galilean satellites, along with Saturn’s Moon Titan at 5,150 kilometers and Earth’s own Moon at 3,480 kilometers. Though its been shrinking lately, the Great Red Spot’s diameter is still around 16,500 kilometers. Jupiter, the Solar System’s ruling gas giant, is about 143,000 kilometers in diameter at its equator. That’s nearly 10 percent the diameter of the Sun.
Now at Ceres, Dawn’s camera recorded this closer view of the dwarf planet’s northern hemisphere and one of its mysterious bright spots on May 4. A sunlit portrait of a small, dark world about 950 kilometers in diameter, the image is part of a planned sequence taken from the solar-powered spacecraft’s 15-day long RC3 mapping orbit at a distance of 13,600 kilometers (8,400 miles). The animated sequence shows Ceres’ rotation, its north pole at the top of the frame. Imaged by Hubble in 2004 and then by Dawn as it approached Ceres in 2015, the bright spot itself is revealed to be made up of smaller spots of reflective material that could be exposed ice glinting in the sunlight. On Saturday, Dawn’s ion propulsion system was turned on to spiral the spacecraft into a closer 4,350-kilometer orbit by June 6. Of course another unexplored dwarf planet, Pluto, is expecting the arrival of a visitor from Earth, the New Horizons spacecraft, by mid-July.
Sculpted by stellar winds and radiation, a magnificent interstellar dust cloud by chance has assumed this recognizable shape. Fittingly named the Horsehead Nebula, it is some 1,500 light-years distant, embedded in the vast Orion cloud complex. About five light-years “tall”, the dark cloud is cataloged as Barnard 33 and is visible only because its obscuring dust is silhouetted against the glowing red emission nebula IC 434. Stars are forming within the dark cloud. Contrasting blue reflection nebula NGC 2023, surrounding a hot, young star, is at the lower left. The gorgeous featured image combines both narrowband and broadband images.
How different does sunset appear from Mars than from Earth? For comparison, two images of our common star were taken at sunset, one from Earth and one from Mars. These images were scaled to have same angular width and featured here side-by-side. A quick inspection will reveal that the Sun appears slightly smaller from Mars than from Earth. This makes sense since Mars is 50% further from the Sun than Earth. More striking, perhaps, is that the Martian sunset is noticeably bluer near the Sun than the typically orange colors near the setting Sun from Earth. The reason for the blue hues from Mars is not fully understood, but thought to be related to forward scattering properties of Martian dust. The terrestrial sunset was taken in 2012 March from Marseille, France, while the Martian sunset was captured last month by NASA‘s robotic Curiosity rover from Gale crater on Mars.
The sands of time are running out for the central star of this hourglass-shaped planetary nebula. With its nuclear fuel exhausted, this brief, spectacular, closing phase of a Sun-like star’s life occurs as its outer layers are ejected – its core becoming a cooling, fading white dwarf. In 1995, astronomers used the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) to make a series of images of planetary nebulae, including the one above. Here, delicate rings of colorful glowing gas (nitrogen-red, hydrogen-green, and oxygen-blue) outline the tenuous walls of the hourglass. The unprecedented sharpness of the HST images has revealed surprising details of the nebula ejection process that are helping to resolve the outstanding mysteries of the complex shapes and symmetries of planetary nebulas.
This popular group is famous as the Leo Triplet – a gathering of three magnificent galaxies in one field of view. Crowd pleasers when imaged with even modest telescopes, they can be introduced individually as NGC 3628 (left), M66 (bottom right), and M65 (top). All three are large spiral galaxies but they tend to look dissimilar because their galactic disks are tilted at different angles to our line of sight. NGC 3628 is seen edge-on, with obscuring dust lanes cutting across the plane of the galaxy, while the disks of M66 and M65 are both inclined enough to show off their spiral structure. Gravitational interactions between galaxies in the group have also left telltale signs, including the warped and inflated disk of NGC 3628 and the drawn out spiral arms of M66. This gorgeous view of the region spans about one degree (two full moons) on the sky. The field covers over 500 thousand light-years at the trio’s estimated distance of 30 million light-years.
In only about 12,000 years Vega will be the North Star, the closest bright star to our fair planet’s North Celestial Pole. By then, when you fix your camera to a tripod long exposures of the night sky will show the concentric arcs of star trails centered on a point near Vega as Earth rotates on its axis. Of course, presently the bright star conveniently near the North Celestial Pole is Polaris, but that will change as the Earth’s axis of rotation precesses, like the wobble of a spinning top with a precession period of about 26,000 years. If your camera is ready now and you don’t want to wait 12,000 years for Vega to be the North Star, consider this ingenious demonstration of contemporary star trails (left) versus star trails reminiscent of the year 14000 CE. Both were recorded this April at the Alqueva Dark Sky Reserve in Alentejo, Portugal. To produce the more Vega-centric star trails of the distant future, astronomer Miguel Claro combined the rotation of two startracking camera mounts to create the apparent shift in the North Celestial Pole. (Addendum: Thanks to APOD readers who note that when Vega is the North Star it will also appear near the same position that Polaris is now relative to the landscape.)