The Aurora Borealis or northern lights are familiar visitors to night skies above the village of Reine in the Lofoten Islands, Norway, planet Earth. In this scene, captured from a mountaintop camp site, the auroral curtains do seem to create an eerie tension with the coastal lights though. A modern perspective on the world at night, the stunning image was chosen as the over all winner in The World at Night’s 2016 International Earth and Sky Photo Contest. Selections were made from over 900 entries highlighting the beauty of the night sky and its battle with light pollution.
Here lie familiar shapes in unfamiliar locations. On the left is an emission nebula cataloged as NGC 7000, famous partly because it resembles our fair planet’s continent of North America. The emission region to the right of the North America Nebula is IC 5070, also known for its suggestive outlines as the Pelican Nebula. Separated by a dark cloud of obscuring dust, the two bright nebulae are about 1,500 light-years away. At that distance, the 4 degree wide field of view spans 100 light-years. This spectacular cosmic portrait combines narrow band images to highlight bright ionization fronts with fine details of dark, dusty forms in silhouette. Emission from atomic hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen is captured in the narrow band image in scientifically assigned colors. These nebulae can be seen with binoculars from a dark location.
Why does star KIC 8462852 keep wavering? Nobody knows. A star somewhat similar to our Sun, KIC 8462852 was one of many distant stars being monitored by NASA’s robotic Kepler satellite to see if it had planets. Citizen scientists voluntarily co-inspecting the data along with computers found this unusual case where a star’s brightness dropped at unexpected times by as much as 20 percent for as long as months — but then recovered. Common reasons for dimming — such as eclipses by orbiting planets or stellar companions — don’t match the non-repetitive nature of the dimmings. A currently debated theory is dimming by a cloud of comets or the remnants of a shattered planet, but these would not explain data indicating that the star itself has become slightly dimmer over the past 125 years. Nevertheless, featured here is an artist’s illustration of a planet breaking up, drawn to depict NGC 2547-ID8, a different system that shows infrared evidence of such a collision. Recent observations of KIC 8462852 did not detect the infrared glow of a closely orbiting dust disk, but gave a hint that the system might have such a disk farther out. Future observations are encouraged and creative origin speculations are sure to continue.
What kind of cloud is this? A type of arcus cloud called a roll cloud. These rare long clouds may form near advancing cold fronts. In particular, a downdraft from an advancing storm front can cause moist warm air to rise, cool below its dew point, and so form a cloud. When this happens uniformly along an extended front, a roll cloud may form. Roll clouds may actually have air circulating along the long horizontal axis of the cloud. A roll cloud is not thought to be able to morph into a tornado. Unlike a similar shelf cloud, a roll cloud is completely detached from their parent cumulonimbus cloud. Pictured above, a roll cloud extends far into the distance in 2009 January above Las Olas Beach in Maldonado, Uruguay.
Named for the southern constellation toward which most of its galaxies can be found, the Fornax Cluster is one of the closest clusters of galaxies. About 62 million light-years away, it is almost 20 times more distant than our neighboring Andromeda Galaxy, and only about 10 percent farther than the better known and more populated Virgo Galaxy Cluster. Seen across this two degree wide field-of-view, almost every yellowish splotch on the image is an elliptical galaxy in the Fornax cluster. A standout barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365 is visible on the lower right as a prominent Fornax cluster member. The spectacular image was taken by the VLT Survey Telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory.
NGC 6888, also known as the Crescent Nebula, is a cosmic bubble about 25 light-years across, blown by winds from its central, bright, massive star. This sharp telescopic portrait uses narrow band image data that isolates light from hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the wind-blown nebula. The oxygen atoms produce the blue-green hue that seems to enshroud the detailed folds and filaments. Visible within the nebula, NGC 6888’s central star is classified as a Wolf-Rayet star (WR 136). The star is shedding its outer envelope in a strong stellar wind, ejecting the equivalent of the Sun’s mass every 10,000 years. The nebula’s complex structures are likely the result of this strong wind interacting with material ejected in an earlier phase. Burning fuel at a prodigious rate and near the end of its stellar life this star should ultimately go out with a bang in a spectacular supernova explosion. Found in the nebula rich constellation Cygnus, NGC 6888 is about 5,000 light-years away.
The night side of Pluto spans this shadowy scene. The spacebased view with the Sun behind the distant world was captured by New Horizons last July. The spacecraft was at a range of over 21,000 kilometers, about 19 minutes after its closest approach. A denizen of the Kuiper Belt in dramatic silhouette, the image also reveals Pluto’s tenuous, surprisingly complex layers of hazy atmosphere. The crescent twilight landscape near the top of the frame includes southern areas of nitrogen ice plains informally known as Sputnik Planum and rugged mountains of water-ice in the Norgay Montes.
While drifting through the cosmos, a magnificent interstellar dust cloud became sculpted by stellar winds and radiation to assume a recognizable shape. Fittingly named the Horsehead Nebula, it is embedded in the vast and complex Orion Nebula (M42). A potentially rewarding but difficult object to view personally with a small telescope, the above gorgeously detailed image was taken in 2013 in infrared light by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope in honor of the 23rd anniversary of Hubble‘s launch. The dark molecular cloud, roughly 1,500 light years distant, is cataloged as Barnard 33 and is seen above primarily because it is backlit by the nearby massive star Sigma Orionis. The Horsehead Nebula will slowly shift its apparent shape over the next few million years and will eventually be destroyed by the high energy starlight.
Why is Venus so different from Earth? To help find out, Japan launched the robotic Akatsuki spacecraft which entered orbit around Venus late last year after an unplanned five-year adventure around the inner Solar System. Even though Akatsuki has passed its original planned lifetime, the spacecraft and its instruments are operating so well that much of its original mission has been reinstated. In the featured image taken by Akatsuki late last month, Venus was captured in infrared light showing a surprising amount of atmospheric structure on its night side. The vertical orange terminator stripe between night and day is so wide because of light is so diffused by Venus’ thick atmosphere. Also known as the Venus Climate Orbiter, Akatsuki has cameras and instruments that will investigate unknowns about the planet, including whether volcanoes are still active, whether lightning occurs in the dense atmosphere, and why wind speeds greatly exceed the planet’s rotation speed.
What can this galaxy tell us about the expansion rate of the universe? Perhaps a lot because UGC 9391, featured, not only contains Cepheid variable stars (red circles) but also a recent Type Ia supernova (blue X). Both types of objects have standard brightnesses, with Cepheids typically being seen relatively nearby, while supernovas are seen much farther away. Therefore, this spiral is important because it allows a calibration between the near and distant parts of our universe. Unexpectedly, a recent analysis of new Hubble data from UGC 9391 and several similar galaxies has bolstered previous indications that Cepheids and supernovas are expanding with the universe slightly faster than expected from expansion measurements of the early universe. Given the multiple successes of early universe concordance cosmology, astrophysicists are now vigorously speculating about possible reasons for this discrepancy. Candidate explanations range from the sensational, such as the inclusion of unusual cosmological components types such as phantom energy and dark radiation, to the mundane, including statistical flukes and underestimated sources of systematic errors. Numerous future observations are being planned to help resolve the conundrum.