LL Orionis: When Cosmic Winds Collide


What created this great arc in space? This arcing, graceful structure is actually a bow shock about half a light-year across, created as the wind from young star LL Orionis collides with the Orion Nebula flow. Adrift in Orion’s stellar nursery and still in its formative years, variable star LL Orionis produces a wind more energetic than the wind from our own middle-aged sun. As the fast stellar wind runs into slow moving gas a shock front is formed, analogous to the bow wave of a boat moving through water or a plane traveling at supersonic speed. The slower gas is flowing away from the Orion Nebula‘s hot central star cluster, the Trapezium, located off the lower right hand edge of the picture. In three dimensions, LL Ori’s wrap-around shock front is shaped like a bowl that appears brightest when viewed along the “bottom” edge. The complex stellar nursery in Orion shows a myriad of similar fluid shapes associated with star formation, including the bow shock surrounding a faint star at the upper right. Part of a mosaic covering the Great Nebula in Orion, this composite color image was recorded in 1995 by the Hubble Space Telescope.

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Milky Way and Planets Near Opposition


In this early May night skyscape, a mountain road near Bursa, Turkey seems to lead toward bright planets Mars and Saturn and the center of our Milky Way Galaxy, a direction nearly opposite the Sun in planet Earth’s sky. The brightest celestial beacon on the scene, Mars, reaches its opposition tonight and Saturn in early June. Both will remain nearly opposite the Sun, up all night and close to Earth for the coming weeks, so the time is right for good telescopic viewing. Mars and Saturn form the tight celestial triangle with red giant star Antares just right of the Milky Way’s central bulge. But tonight the Moon is also at opposition. Easy to see near bright Mars and Saturn, the Full Moon’s light will wash out the central Milky Way’s fainter starlight though, even in dark mountain skies.

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3D Mercury Transit


On May 9, innermost planet Mercury crossed IN FRONT of the Sun. Though pictures project the event in only two dimensions, a remarkable three dimensional perspective on the transit is possible by free viewing this stereo pair. The images were made 23 minutes apart and rotated so that Mercury’s position shifts horizontally between the two. As a result, Mercury’s orbital motion produced an exaggerated parallax simulating binocular vision. Between the two exposures, the appropriately named planet’s speedy 47.4 kilometer per second orbital velocity actually carried it over 65,000 kilometers. Taken first, the left image is intended for the right eye, so a cross-eyed view is needed to see Mercury’s tiny silhouette suspended in the foreground. Try it. Merging the text below the images helps.

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The Surface of Europa


An enhanced-color view, this image covers a 350 by 750 kilometer swath across the surface of Jupiter’s tantalizing moon Europa. The close-up combines high-resolution image data with lower resolution color data from observations made in 1998 by the Galileo spacecraft. Smooth ice plains, long fractures, and jumbled blocks of chaos terrain are thought to hide a deep ocean of salty liquid water beneath. Though the ice-covered alien ocean world is outside the Solar System’s habitable zone, new studies show the potential chemistry driving its oxygen and hydrogen production, a key indicator of the energy available for life, could produce amounts comparable in scale to planet Earth. Hydrogen would be generated by chemical reactions of the salty water in contact with the rocky ocean floor. Oxygen and other compounds that react with hydrogen would come from Europa’s surface. There water ice molecules would be split apart by the intense flux of high-energy radiation from Jupiter and cycled into the Europan ocean from above.

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Halo from Atacama


Influenced by the strong Pacific El Nino, cloudy skies have more often come to Chile’s high Atacama Desert this season, despite its reputation as an astronomer’s paradise. Located in one of the driest, darkest places on planet Earth, domes of the region’s twin 6.5 meter Magellan telescopes of Carnegie Las Campanas Observatory were closed on May 13. Still, a first quarter Moon and bright stars shine through in this panoramic night skyscape, the lunar disk surrounded by a beautiful, bright halo. The angular radius of the halo is 22 degrees. Not determined by the brightness or phase of the Moon itself, the angle is set by the hexagonal geometry of atmospheric ice crystals that reflect and refract the moonlight. On that night, the brilliant star just inside the halo’s radius was really planet Jupiter. The brightest star flanking the halo to the far left is Canopus, with Arcturus on the halo’s right.

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The Orion Nebula in Visible and Infrared


The Great Nebula in Orion is a colorful place. Visible to the unaided eye, it appears as a small fuzzy patch in the constellation of Orion. Long exposure, multi-wavelength images like this, however, show the Orion Nebula to be a busy neighborhood of young stars, hot gas, and dark dust. This digital composite features not only three colors of visible light but four colors of infrared light taken by NASA‘s orbiting Spitzer Space Telescope as well. The power behind much of the Orion Nebula (M42) is the Trapezium – four of the brightest stars in the nebula. Many of the filamentary structures visible are actually shock waves – fronts where fast moving material encounters slow moving gas. The Orion Nebula spans about 40 light years and is located about 1500 light years away in the same spiral arm of our Galaxy as the Sun.

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Clouds of the Carina Nebula


What forms lurk in the mists of the Carina Nebula? The dark ominous figures are actually molecular clouds, knots of molecular gas and dust so thick they have become opaque. In comparison, however, these clouds are typically much less dense than Earth’s atmosphere. Featured here is a detailed image of the core of the Carina Nebula, a part where both dark and colorful clouds of gas and dust are particularly prominent. The image was captured last month from Siding Spring Observatory in Australia. Although the nebula is predominantly composed of hydrogen gas — here colored green, the image was assigned colors so that light emitted by trace amounts of sulfur and oxygen appear red and blue, respectively. The entire Carina Nebula, cataloged as NGC 3372, spans over 300 light years and lies about 7,500 light-years away in the constellation of Carina. Eta Carinae, the most energetic star in the nebula, was one of the brightest stars in the sky in the 1830s, but then faded dramatically.

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