Phobos: Doomed Moon of Mars


This moon is doomed. Mars, the red planet named for the Roman god of war, has two tiny moons, Phobos and Deimos, whose names are derived from the Greek for Fear and Panic. These martian moons may well be captured asteroids originating in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter or perhaps from even more distant reaches of the Solar System. The larger moon, Phobos, is indeed seen to be a cratered, asteroid-like object in this stunning color image from the robotic Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, recorded at a resolution of about seven meters per pixel. But Phobos orbits so close to Mars – about 5,800 kilometers above the surface compared to 400,000 kilometers for our Moon – that gravitational tidal forces are dragging it down. A recent analysis of the long grooves indicates that they may result from global stretching caused by tides — the differing force of Mars’ gravity on different sides of Phobos. These grooves may then be an early phase in the disintegration of Phobos into a ring of debris around Mars.

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Recycling NGC 5291


Following an ancient galaxy-galaxy collision 200 million light-years from Earth, debris from a gas-rich galaxy, NGC 5291, was flung far into intergalactic space. NGC 5291 and the likely interloper, also known as the “Seashell” galaxy, are captured near the center of this spectacular scene. The sharp, ground-based telescopic image looks toward the galaxy cluster Abell 3574 in the southern constellation Centaurus. Stretched along the 100,000 light-year long tidal tails, are clumps resembling dwarf galaxies, but lacking old stars, apparently dominated by young stars and active star forming regions. Found to be unusually rich in elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, the dwarf galaxies were likely born in intergalactic space, recycling the enriched debris from NGC 5291 itself.

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Leonids and Friends


Leonid meteors rained down on planet Earth this week, the annual shower of dusty debris from the orbit of Comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. Leonids streak through this composite night skyview from a backyard observatory in southern Ontario. Recorded with camera fixed to a tripod, the individual frames capture the bright meteor activity throughout the night of November 16/17, about a day before the shower’s very modest peak. The frames are registered to the fixed field of view, so the meteor trails are not all aligned to the background star field recorded that same evening when nebula-rich Orion stood above the southern horizon. As a result, the trails don’t appear to point back to the shower’s radiant in Leo, situated off the left edge of the star field frame. In fact, some trails could be of Taurid meteors, a shower also active in November, or even sporadic meteors, including a bright fireball with its reflection near the horizon.

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Centaurus A


What’s the closest active galaxy to planet Earth? That would be Centaurus A, only 11 million light-years distant. Spanning over 60,000 light-years, the peculiar elliptical galaxy is also known as NGC 5128. Forged in a collision of two otherwise normal galaxies, Centaurus A’s fantastic jumble of young blue star clusters, pinkish star forming regions, and imposing dark dust lanes are seen here in remarkable detail. The colorful galaxy portrait is a composite of image data from space- and ground-based telescopes large and small. Near the galaxy’s center, left over cosmic debris is steadily being consumed by a central black hole with a billion times the mass of the Sun. As in other active galaxies, that process generates the radio, X-ray, and gamma-ray energy radiated by Centaurus A.

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A Sudden Jet on Comet 67P


There she blows! A dramatic demonstration of how short-lived some comet jets can be was documented in late July by the robotic Rosetta spacecraft orbiting the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The featured animation depicts changes in the rotating comet with three illuminating stills. Although the first frame shows nothing unusual, the second frame shows a sudden strong jet shooting off the 67P‘s surface only 20 minutes later, while the third frame — taken 20 minutes after that — shows but a slight remnant of the once-active jet. As comets near the Sun, they can produce long and beautiful tails that stream across the inner Solar System. How comet jets produce these tails is a topic of research — helped by images like this. Another recent Rosetta measurement indicates that the water on Earth could not have come from comets like 67P because of significant differences in impurities. Comet 67P spans about four kilometers, orbits the Sun between Earth and Jupiter, and has been the home for ESA‘s Rosetta spaceship since 2014 August. Rosetta is currently scheduled to make a slow crash onto Comet 67P’s surface in late 2016.

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The Pelican Nebula in Gas Dust and Stars


The Pelican Nebula is slowly being transformed. IC 5070, the official designation, is divided from the larger North America Nebula by a molecular cloud filled with dark dust. The Pelican, however, receives much study because it is a particularly active mix of star formation and evolving gas clouds. The featured picture was produced in three specific colors — light emitted by sulfur, hydrogen, and oxygen — that can help us to better understand these interactions. The light from young energetic stars is slowly transforming the cold gas to hot gas, with the advancing boundary between the two, known as an ionization front, visible in bright orange on the right. Particularly dense tentacles of cold gas remain. Millions of years from now this nebula might no longer be known as the Pelican, as the balance and placement of stars and gas will surely leave something that appears completely different.

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A Blazing Fireball between the Orion Nebula and Rigel


What’s happening to that meteor? A few days ago, a bright fireball was photographed from the Alps mountain range in Switzerland as it blazed across the sky. The fireball, likely from the Taurids meteor shower, was notable not only for how bright it was, but for the rare orange light it created that lingered for several minutes. Initially, the orange glow made it seem like the meteor trail was on fire. However, the orange glow, known as a persistent train, originated neither from fire nor sunlight-reflecting smoke. Rather, the persistent train‘s glow emanated from atoms in the Earth’s atmosphere in the path of the meteor — atoms that had an electron knocked away and emit light during reacquisition. Persistent trains often drift, so that the long 3-minute exposure actually captured the initial wind-blown displacement of these bright former ions. The featured image was acquired when trying to image the famous Orion Nebula, visible on the upper left. The bright blue star Rigel, part of the constellation of Orion, is visible to the right. This week the fireball-rich Taurids meteor shower continues to be active even though it has passed its peak, while the more active Leonids meteor shower is just peaking.

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