Halloween’s origin is ancient and astronomical. Since the fifth century BC, Halloween has been celebrated as a cross-quarter day, a day halfway between an equinox (equal day / equal night) and a solstice (minimum day / maximum night in the northern hemisphere). With a modern calendar however, even though Halloween occurs tomorrow, the real cross-quarter day will occur next week. Another cross-quarter day is Groundhog Day. Halloween’s modern celebration retains historic roots in dressing to scare away the spirits of the dead. Perhaps a fitting tribute to this ancient holiday is this view of the Ghost Head Nebula taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. Similar to the icon of a fictional ghost, NGC 2080 is actually a star forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way Galaxy. The Ghost Head Nebula spans about 50 light-years and is shown in representative colors.
Very faint but also very large on planet Earth’s sky, a giant Squid Nebula cataloged as Ou4, and Sh2-129 also known as the Flying Bat Nebula, are both caught in this cosmic scene toward the royal constellation Cepheus. Composed with almost 17 hours of narrowband image data, the telescopic field of view is 4 degrees or 8 Full Moons across. Discovered in 2011 by French astro-imager Nicolas Outters, the Squid Nebula’s alluring bipolar shape is distinguished here by the telltale blue-green emission from doubly ionized oxygen atoms. Though apparently completely surrounded by the reddish hydrogen emission region Sh2-129, the true distance and nature of the Squid Nebula have been difficult to determine. Still, a recent investigation suggests Ou4 really does lie within Sh2-129 some 2,300 light-years away. Consistent with that scenario, Ou4 would represent a spectacular outflow driven by HR8119, a triple system of hot, massive stars seen near the center of the nebula. The truly giant Squid Nebula would physically be nearly 50 light-years across.
What created these unusually long shadows on Saturn’s rings? The dark shadows — visible near the middle of the image — extend opposite the Sun and, given their length, stem from objects having heights up to a few kilometers. The long shadows were unexpected given that the usual thickness of Saturn’s A and B rings is only about 10 meters. After considering the choppy but elongated shapes apparent near the B-ring edge, however, a leading theory has emerged that some kilometer-sized moonlets exist there that have enough gravity to create even larger vertical deflections of nearby small ring particles. The resulting ring waves are called propellers, named for how they appear individually. It is these coherent groups of smaller ring particles that are hypothesized to be casting the long shadows. The featured image was taken by the robotic Cassini spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn. The image was captured in 2009, near Saturn’s equinox, when sunlight streamed directly over the ring plane and caused the longest shadows to be cast.
What’s happening near the south pole of Jupiter? Recent images sent back by NASA‘s robotic Juno spacecraft are showing an interesting conglomeration of swirling clouds and what appear to be white ovals. Juno arrived at Jupiter in July and is being placed into a wide, looping orbit that will bring it near the gas giant — and over its poles — about twice a month. The featured image is a composite taken by JunoCam and post-processed by a digitally savvy citizen scientist. White ovals have been observed elsewhere on Jupiter and are thought to be giant storm systems. They have been observed to last for years, while typically showing Category 5 wind speeds of around 350 kilometers per hour. Unlike Earthly cyclones and hurricanes where high winds circle regions of low pressure, white ovals on Jupiter show rotational directions indicating that they are anticylones — vortices centered on high pressure regions. Juno will continue to orbit Jupiter over thirty more times while recording optical, spectral, and gravitational data meant to help determine Jupiter’s structure and evolution.
What’s that in the sky? An aurora. A large coronal mass ejection occurred on our Sun five days before this 2012 image was taken, throwing a cloud of fast moving electrons, protons, and ions toward the Earth. Although most of this cloud passed above the Earth, some of it impacted our Earth’s magnetosphere and resulted in spectacular auroras being seen at high northern latitudes. Featured here is a particularly photogenic auroral corona captured above Grotfjord, Norway. To some, this shimmering green glow of recombining atmospheric oxygen might appear as a large eagle, but feel free to share what it looks like to you. Although now past Solar Maximum, our Sun continues to show occasional activity creating impressive auroras on Earth visible only last week.
Early one moonlit evening car lights left a wandering trail along the road to the Chilean Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory. Setting stars left the wandering trails in the sky. The serene view toward the mountainous horizon was captured in a telephoto timelapse image and video taken from nearby Cerro Pachon, home to Gemini South. Afforded by the mountaintop vantage point, the clear, long sight-line passes through layers of atmosphere. The changing atmospheric refraction shifts and distorts the otherwise steady apparent paths of the stars as they set. That effect also causes the distorted appearance of Sun and Moon as they rise or set near a distant horizon.
Framing a bright emission region this telescopic view looks out along the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy toward the nebula rich constellation Cygnus the Swan. Popularly called the Tulip Nebula, the glowing cloud of interstellar gas and dust is also found in the 1959 catalog by astronomer Stewart Sharpless as Sh2-101. About 8,000 light-years distant and 70 light-years across the complex and beautiful nebula blossoms at the center of the composite image. Red, green, and blue hues map emission from ionized sulfur, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms. Ultraviolet radiation from young, energetic stars at the edge of the Cygnus OB3 association, including O star HDE 227018, ionizes the atoms and powers the visible light emission from the Tulip Nebula. HDE 227018 is the bright star very near the blue arc at the center of the cosmic tulip.
Have you ever seen the Pleiades star cluster? Even if you have, you probably have never seen it as dusty as this. Perhaps the most famous star cluster on the sky, the bright stars of the Pleiades can be seen without binoculars even from the heart of a light-polluted city. With a long exposure from a dark location, though, the dust cloud surrounding the Pleiades star cluster becomes very evident. The featured image was a long duration exposure taken last month from Namibia and covers a sky area many times the size of the full moon. Also known as the Seven Sisters and M45, the Pleiades lies about 400 light years away toward the constellation of the Bull (Taurus). A common legend with a modern twist is that one of the brighter stars faded since the cluster was named, leaving only six stars visible to the unaided eye. The actual number of visible Pleiades stars, however, may be more or less than seven, depending on the darkness of the surrounding sky and the clarity of the observer’s eyesight.
What could cause a huge cylindrical mountain to rise from the surface of Venus? Such features that occur on Venus are known as coronas. Pictured here in the foreground is 500-kilometer wide Atete Corona found in a region of Venus known as the Galindo. The featured image was created by combining multiple radar maps of the region to form a computer-generated three-dimensional perspective. The series of dark rectangles that cross the image from top to bottom were created by the imaging procedure and are not real. The origin of massive coronas remains a topic of research although speculation holds they result from volcanism. Studying Venusian coronas help scientists better understand the inner structure of both Venus and Earth.
This dramatic image peers within M42, the Orion Nebula, the closest large star-forming region. Using data at infrared wavelengths from the Herschel Space Observatory, the false-color composite explores the natal cosmic cloud a mere 1,500 light-years distant. Cold, dense filaments of dust that would otherwise be dark at visible wavelengths are shown in reddish hues. Light-years long, the filaments weave together bright spots that correspond to regions of collapsing protostars. The brightest bluish area near the top of the frame is warmer dust heated by the hot Trapezium cluster stars that also power the nebula’s visible glow. Herschel data has recently indicated ultraviolet starlight from the hot newborn stars likely contributes to the creation of carbon-hydrogen molecules, basic building blocks of life. This Herschel image spans about 3 degrees on the sky. That’s about 80 light-years at the distance of the Orion Nebula.