Stars are forming in the Soul of the Queen of Aethopia. More specifically, a large star forming region called the Soul Nebula can be found in the direction of the constellation Cassiopeia, who Greek mythology credits as the vain wife of a King who long ago ruled lands surrounding the upper Nile river. The Soul Nebula houses several open clusters of stars, a large radio source known as W5, and huge evacuated bubbles formed by the winds of young massive stars. Located about 6,500 light years away, the Soul Nebula spans about 100 light years and is usually imaged next to its celestial neighbor the Heart Nebula (IC 1805). The featured image appears mostly red due to the emission of a specific color of light emitted by excited hydrogen gas.
Gaze across the frozen canyons of northern Pluto in this contrast enhanced color scene, imaged last July by the New Horizons spacecraft. Currently known as Lowell Regio, the region has been informally named for Percival Lowell, founder of the Lowell Observatory. Also famous for his speculation that there were canals on Mars, in 1906 Lowell started the search that ultimately led to Pluto’s discovery. Pluto’s North Pole itself is above and left of center in the the frame. The pale bluish floor of the broad canyon on the left is about 70 kilometers (45 miles) wide, running vertically toward the south. Higher elevations take on a yellowish hue. New Horizon’s measurements have determined that in addition to nitrogen ice, methane ice is abundant across northern Pluto’s Lowell Regio.
The Tarantula Nebula is more than a thousand light-years in diameter, a giant star forming region within nearby satellite galaxy the Large Magellanic Cloud, about 180 thousand light-years away. The largest, most violent star forming region known in the whole Local Group of galaxies, the cosmic arachnid sprawls across this spectacular composite view constructed with space- and ground-based image data. Within the Tarantula (NGC 2070), intense radiation, stellar winds and supernova shocks from the central young cluster of massive stars, cataloged as R136, energize the nebular glow and shape the spidery filaments. Around the Tarantula are other star forming regions with young star clusters, filaments, and blown-out bubble-shaped clouds In fact, the frame includes the site of the closest supernova in modern times, SN 1987A, at the lower right. The rich field of view spans about 1 degree or 2 full moons, in the southern constellation Dorado. But were the Tarantula Nebula closer, say 1,500 light-years distant like the local star forming Orion Nebula, it would take up half the sky.
Fans of planet Earth probably recognize its highest mountain, the Himalayan Mount Everest, on the left in this 3-panel skyscape of The World at Night. Shrouded in cloud Everest’s peak is at 8,848 meters (29,029 feet) elevation above sea level. In the middle panel, stars trail above volcanic Mauna Kea forming part of the island of Hawaii. Festooned with astronomical observatories, its summit lies a mere 4,168 meters above sea level. Still, measured from its base starting below the ocean’s surface, Mauna Kea is over 10,000 meters tall, making it Earth’s tallest mountain from base to summit. At right, beneath the arc of the Milky Way is the Andean mountain Chimborazo in Ecuador. The highest equatorial mountain, the Chimborazo volcano’s peak elevation is 6,268 meters above sea level. But rotating planet Earth is a flattened sphere (oblate spheroid) in shape, its equatorial diameter greater than its diameter measured pole to pole. Sitting nearly on top of Earth’s greatest equatorial bulge, Chimborazo’s peak is the farthest point on the planet’s surface from the center, over 2,000 meters farther from the center of the Earth than Everest’s peak. That makes Chimborazo’s summit the place on Earth’s surface closest to the stars.
Can you identify a familiar area in the northeast USA just from nighttime lights? It might be possible because many major cities are visible, including (right to left) New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond and Norfolk — Boston of the USA’s Northeast megalopolis is not pictured. The featured image was taken in 2012 from the International Space Station. In the foreground are two Russian cargo ships with prominent solar panels. This Northeast megalopolis of the USA contains almost 20 percent of the people of the USA but only about 2 percent of the land area. Also known also as the Northeast Corridor and part of the Eastern Seaboard, about 10 percent of the world’s largest companies are headquartered here. The near continuity of the lights seem to add credence to the 1960s-era prediction that the entire stretch is evolving into one continuous city.
Telescopes around the world are tracking a bright supernova that occurred in a nearby dusty galaxy. The powerful stellar explosion was first noted earlier this month. The nearby galaxy is the photogenic Centaurus A, visible with binoculars and known for impressive filaments of light-absorbing dust that cross its center. Cen A is featured here in a high-resolution archival Hubble Space Telescope image, with an inset image featuring the supernova taken from the ground only two days after discovery. Designated SN2016adj, the supernova is highlighted with crosshairs in the inset, appearing just to the left of a bright foreground star in our Milky Way Galaxy. This supernova is currently thought to be of Type IIb, a stellar-core-collapse supernova, and is of high interest because it occurred so nearby and because it is being seen through a known dust filament. Current and future observations of this supernova may give us new clues about the fates of massive stars and how some elements found on our Earth were formed.
What’s lighting up the Cigar Galaxy? M82, as this irregular galaxy is also known, was stirred up by a recent pass near large spiral galaxy M81. This doesn’t fully explain the source of the red-glowing outwardly expanding gas, however. Evidence indicates that this gas is being driven out by the combined emerging particle winds of many stars, together creating a galactic superwind. The featured photographic mosaic highlights a specific color of red light strongly emitted by ionized hydrogen gas, showing detailed filaments of this gas. The filaments extend for over 10,000 light years. The 12-million light-year distant Cigar Galaxy is the brightest galaxy in the sky in infrared light, and can be seen in visible light with a small telescope towards the constellation of the Great Bear (Ursa Major).
Want to take a relaxing interstellar vacation? Consider visiting Kepler-16b, a world in a binary star system. In fact Kepler-16b is the first discovered circumbinary planet. It was detected in a wide 229 day orbit around a close pair of cool, low-mass stars some 200 light-years away. The parent stars eclipse one another in their orbits, observed as a dimming of starlight. But Kepler-16b itself was discovered by following the additional very slight dimming produced during its transits. Like sci-fi planet Tatooine of Star Wars fame, two suns would set over its horizon. Still, Kepler 16b is probably not a Tatooine-like terrestrial desert world. Instead, Kepler 16b is thought to be a cold, uninhabitable planet with about the mass of Saturn and a gaseous surface … so plan to dress accordingly. Or, choose another Visions of the Future vacation destination.
Magnificent island universe NGC 2403 stands within the boundaries of the long-necked constellation Camelopardalis. Some 10 million light-years distant and about 50,000 light-years across, the spiral galaxy also seems to have more than its fair share of giant star forming HII regions, marked by the telltale reddish glow of atomic hydrogen gas. The giant HII regions are energized by clusters of hot, massive stars that explode as bright supernovae at the end of their short and furious lives. A member of the M81 group of galaxies, NGC 2403 closely resembles another galaxy with an abundance of star forming regions that lies within our own local galaxy group, M33 the Triangulum Galaxy. Spiky in appearance, bright stars in this colorful galaxy portrait of NGC 2403 are in the foreground, within our own Milky Way.
On February 17 at 5:45pm JST this H-IIA rocket blasted skyward from JAXA’s Tanegashima Space Center located off the southern coast of Japan, planet Earth. Onboard was the ASTRO-H X-ray astronomy satellite, now in orbit. Designed to explore the extreme cosmos from black holes to massive galaxy clusters, the satellite observatory is equipped with four cutting-edge X-ray telescopes and instruments sensitive to photon energies from 300 to 600,000 electron volts. By comparison, visible light photon energies are 2 to 3 electron volts. Following a tradition of renaming satellites after their successful launch, ASTRO-H has been newly dubbed “Hitomi”, inspired by an ancient legend of dragons. Hitomi means “the pupil of the eye”.