As January closes and in the coming days of February, early morning risers can spot the five naked-eye planets before dawn. Though some might claim to see six planets, in this seaside panoramic view all five celestial wanderers were found above the horizon along with a bright waning gibbous Moon on January 27. Nearly aligned along the plane of the ecliptic, but not along a line with the Sun, the five planets are spread well over 100 degrees across the sky. Just arriving on the predawn scene, fleeting Mercury stands above the southeastern horizon in the golden light of the approaching sunrise.
Similar in size to large, bright spiral galaxies in our neighborhood, IC 342 is a mere 10 million light-years distant in the long-necked, northern constellation Camelopardalis. A sprawling island universe, IC 342 would otherwise be a prominent galaxy in our night sky, but it is hidden from clear view and only glimpsed through the veil of stars, gas and dust clouds along the plane of our own Milky Way galaxy. Even though IC 342’s light is dimmed by intervening cosmic clouds, this deep telescopic image traces the galaxy’s obscuring dust, blue star clusters, and glowing pink star forming regions along spiral arms that wind far from the galaxy’s core. IC 342 may have undergone a recent burst of star formation activity and is close enough to have gravitationally influenced the evolution of the local group of galaxies and the Milky Way.
Giant elliptical galaxy M60 and spiral galaxy NGC 4647 do look like an odd couple in this sharp cosmic portrait from the Hubble Space Telescope. But they are found in a region of space where galaxies tend to gather, on the eastern side of the nearby Virgo Galaxy Cluster. About 54 million light-years distant, bright M60’s simpler egg-like shape is created by its randomly swarming older stars, while NGC 4647’s young blue stars, gas and dust are organized into winding arms rotating in a flattened disk. Spiral NGC 4647 is estimated to be more distant than M60, some 63 million light-years away. Also known as Arp 116, the pair of galaxies may be on the verge of a significant gravitational encounter, though. M60 (aka NGC 4649) is about 120,000 light-years across. The smaller NGC 4647 spans around 90,000 light-years, about the size of our own Milky Way.
Why would the sky look like a giant fan? Airglow. The featured intermittent green glow appeared to rise from a lake through the arch of our Milky Way Galaxy, as captured last summer next to Bryce Canyon in Utah, USA. The unusual pattern was created by atmospheric gravity waves, ripples of alternating air pressure that can grow with height as the air thins, in this case about 90 kilometers up. Unlike auroras powered by collisions with energetic charged particles and seen at high latitudes, airglow is due to chemiluminescence, the production of light in a chemical reaction. More typically seen near the horizon, airglow keeps the night sky from ever being completely dark.
It is a candidate for the brightest and most powerful explosion ever seen — what is it? The flaring spot of light was found by the All Sky Automated Survey for Supernovae (ASASSN) in June of last year and labelled ASASSN-15lh. Located about three billion light years distant, the source appears tremendously bright for anything so far away: roughly 200 times brighter than an average supernova, and temporarily 20 times brighter than all of the stars in our Milky Way Galaxy combined. Were light emitted by ASASSN-15lh at this rate in all directions at once, it would be the most powerful explosion yet recorded. No known stellar object was thought to create an explosion this powerful, although pushing the theoretical limits for the spin-down of highly-magnetized neutron star — a magnetar — gets close. Assuming the flare fades as expected later this year, astronomers are planning to use telescopes including Hubble to zoom in on the region to gain more clues. The above-featured artist’s illustration depicts a hypothetical night sky of a planet located across the host galaxy from the outburst.
The hydrogen in your body, present in every molecule of water, came from the Big Bang. There are no other appreciable sources of hydrogen in the universe. The carbon in your body was made by nuclear fusion in the interior of stars, as was the oxygen. Much of the iron in your body was made during supernovas of stars that occurred long ago and far away. The gold in your jewelry was likely made from neutron stars during collisions that may have been visible as short-duration gamma-ray bursts. Elements like phosphorus and copper are present in our bodies in only small amounts but are essential to the functioning of all known life. The featured periodic table is color coded to indicate humanity‘s best guess as to the nuclear origin of all known elements. The sites of nuclear creation of some elements, such as copper, are not really well known and are continuing topics of observational and computational research.
In the center of star-forming region 30 Doradus lies a huge cluster containing some of the largest, hottest, and most massive stars known. These stars, known collectively as star cluster R136, were captured in the featured image in visible light by the Wide Field Camera 3 in 2009 peering through the Hubble Space Telescope. Gas and dust clouds in 30 Doradus, also known as the Tarantula Nebula, have been sculpted into elongated shapes by powerful winds and ultraviolet radiation from these hot cluster stars. The 30 Doradus Nebula lies within a neighboring galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud and is located a mere 170,000 light-years away.
The Big Dipper is an easy to recognize, well-known asterism in northern skies, though many see the Plough or Wagon. Famous bright nebulae of the north can also be found along its familiar lines, highlighted in this carefully composed scene with telescopic insets framed in the wider-field skyview. All from Messier’s catalog, M101 and M51 are cosmic pinwheel and whirlpool on the left, spiral galaxies far beyond the Milky Way. To the right, M108, a distant edge-on spiral galaxy is seen close to our galaxy’s own owl-faced planetary nebula M97. Taken on January 16, the wider-field view seems to include an extra star along the Dipper’s handle, though. That’s Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10) now sweeping through northern nights.