The Fox Fur Nebula


This interstellar canine is formed of cosmic dust and gas interacting with the energetic light and winds from hot young stars. The shape, visual texture, and color, combine to give the region the popular name Fox Fur Nebula. The characteristic blue glow on the left is dust reflecting light from the bright star S Mon, the bright star just below the top edge of the featured image. Textured red and black areas are a combination of the cosmic dust and reddish emission from ionized hydrogen gas. S Mon is part of a young open cluster of stars, NGC 2264, located about 2,500 light years away toward the constellation of the Unicorn (Monoceros).

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Dust of the Orion Nebula


What surrounds a hotbed of star formation? In the case of the Orion Nebula — dust. The entire Orion field, located about 1600 light years away, is inundated with intricate and picturesque filaments of dust. Opaque to visible light, dust is created in the outer atmosphere of massive cool stars and expelled by a strong outer wind of particles. The Trapezium and other forming star clusters are embedded in the nebula. The intricate filaments of dust surrounding M42 and M43 appear brown in the featured image, while central glowing gas is highlighted in red. Over the next few million years much of Orion’s dust will be slowly destroyed by the very stars now being formed, or dispersed into the Galaxy.

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Doomed Star Eta Carinae


Eta Carinae may be about to explode. But no one knows when – it may be next year, it may be one million years from now. Eta Carinae‘s mass – about 100 times greater than our Sun – makes it an excellent candidate for a full blown supernova. Historical records do show that about 150 years ago Eta Carinae underwent an unusual outburst that made it one of the brightest stars in the southern sky. Eta Carinae, in the Keyhole Nebula, is the only star currently thought to emit natural LASER light. This featured image, taken in 1996, brought out new details in the unusual nebula that surrounds this rogue star. Now clearly visible are two distinct lobes, a hot central region, and strange radial streaks. The lobes are filled with lanes of gas and dust which absorb the blue and ultraviolet light emitted near the center. The streaks remain unexplained.

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Southern Craters and Galaxies


The Henbury craters in the Northern Territory, Australia, planet Earth, are the scars of an impact over 4,000 years old. When an ancient meteorite fragmented into dozens of pieces, the largest made the 180 meter diameter crater whose weathered walls and floor are lit in the foreground of this southern hemisphere nightscape. The vertical panoramic view follows our magnificent Milky Way galaxy stretching above horizon, its rich central starfields cut by obscuring dust clouds. A glance along the galactic plane also reveals Alpha and Beta Centauri and the stars of the Southern Cross. Captured in the region’s spectacular, dark skies, the Small Magellanic Cloud, satellite of the Milky Way, is the bright galaxy to the left. Not the lights of a nearby town, the visible glow on the horizon below it is the Large Magellanic Cloud rising.

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Star Colors and Pinyon Pine


Beautiful, luminous decorations on this pinyon pine tree are actually bright stars in the constellation Scorpius and the faint glow of the central Milky Way. Captured in June from the north rim of the Grand Canyon of planet Earth, the shallow, close focus image has rendered pine needles on the tree branch sharp, but blurred the distant stars, their light smeared into remarkably colorful disks. Of course, temperature determines the color of a star. Most of the out-of-focus bright stars of Scorpius show a predominately blue hue, their surface temperatures much hotter than the Sun’s. Cooler and larger than the Sun, and noticably redder on the scene, is giant star Antares at the heart of the scorpion. In focused, telescopic views the whitish disk at the upper right would be immediately recognizable though, reflecting the Sun’s light as ringed gas giant Saturn.

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Geminid Meteors over Xinglong Observatory


Where do Geminid meteors come from? In terms of location on the sky, as the featured image composite beautifully demonstrates, the sand-sized bits of rock that create the streaks of the Geminid Meteor Shower appear to flow out from the constellation of Gemini. In terms of parent body, Solar System trajectories point to the asteroid 3200 Phaethon — but this results in a bit of a mystery since that unusual object appears mostly dormant. Perhaps, 3200 Phaethon undergoes greater dust-liberating events than we know, but even if so, exactly what happens and why remains a riddle. Peaking last week, over 50 meteors including a bright fireball were captured streaking above Xinglong Observatory in China. Since the Geminids of December are one of the most predictable and active meteor showers, investigations into details of its origin are likely to continue.

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SN Refsdal: The First Predicted Supernova Image


It’s back. Never before has an observed supernova been predicted. The unique astronomical event occurred in the field of galaxy cluster MACS J1149.5+2223. Most bright spots in the featured image are galaxies in this cluster. The actual supernova, dubbed Supernova Refsdal, occurred just once far across the universe and well behind this massive galaxy cluster. Gravity caused the cluster to act as a massive gravitational lens, splitting the image of Supernova Refsdal into multiple bright images. One of these images arrived at Earth about ten years ago, likely in the upper red circle, and was missed. Four more bright images peaked in April in the lowest red circle, spread around a massive galaxy in the cluster as the first Einstein Cross supernova. But there was more. Analyses revealed that a sixth bright supernova image was likely still on its way to Earth and likely to arrive within the next year. Earlier this month — right on schedule — this sixth bright image was recovered, in the middle red circle, as predicted. Studying image sequences like this help humanity to understand how matter is distributed in galaxies and clusters, how fast the universe expands, and how massive stars explode.

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