Where do stars form? Many times, stars form in energetic regions where gas and dark dust are pushed around in chaotic mayhem. Pictured, bright massive stars near the center of W5, the Soul Nebula, are exploding and emitting ionizing light and energetic winds. The outward-moving light and gas push away and evaporate much surrounding gas and dust, but leave pillars of gas behind dense protective knots. Inside these knots, though, stars also form. The featured image highlights the inner sanctum of W5, an arena spanning about 1,000 light years that is rich in star forming pillars. The Soul Nebula, also cataloged as IC 1848, lies about 6,500 light years away toward the constellation of the Queen of Aethopia (Cassiopeia). Likely, in few hundred million years, only a cluster of the resulting stars will remain. Then, these stars will drift apart.
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Why is there a bridge between these two spiral galaxies? Made of gas and stars, the bridge provides strong evidence that these two immense star systems have passed close to each other and experienced violent tides induced by mutual gravity. Known together as Arp 240 but individually as NGC 5257 and NGC 5258, computer modelling and the ages of star clusters indicate that the two galaxies completed a first passage near each other only about 250 million years ago. Gravitational tides not only pulled away matter, they compress gas and so caused star formation in both galaxies and the unusual bridge. Galactic mergers are thought to be common, with Arp 240 representing a snapshot of a brief stage in this inevitable process. The Arp 240 pair are about 300 million light-years distant and can be seen with a small telescope toward the constellation of Virgo. Repeated close passages should ultimately result in a merger and with the emergence of a single combined galaxy.
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Could you survive a jump off the tallest cliff in the Solar System? Quite possibly. Verona Rupes on Uranus‘ moon Miranda is estimated to be 20 kilometers deep — ten times the depth of the Earth’s Grand Canyon. Given Miranda‘s low gravity, it would take about 12 minutes for a thrill-seeking adventurer to fall from the top, reaching the bottom at the speed of a racecar — about 200 kilometers per hour. Even so, the fall might be survivable given proper airbag protection. The featured image of Verona Rupes was captured by the passing Voyager 2 robotic spacecraft in 1986. How the giant cliff was created remains unknown, but is possibly related to a large impact or tectonic surface motion.
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Get out your red/blue glasses and check out this stereo scene from Taurus-Littrow valley on the Moon! The color anaglyph features a detailed 3D view of Apollo 17’s Lunar Rover in the foreground — behind it lies the Lunar Module and distant lunar hills. Because the world was going to be able to watch the Lunar Module’s ascent stage liftoff via the rover’s TV camera, this parking place was also known as the VIP Site. In December of 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spent about 75 hours on the Moon, while colleague Ronald Evans orbited overhead. The crew returned with 110 kilograms of rock and soil samples, more than from any of the other lunar landing sites. Cernan and Schmitt are still the last to walk (or drive) on the Moon.
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Scroll right and you can cruise along the icy rings of Saturn. This high resolution scan is a mosaic of images presented in natural color. The images were recorded in May 2007 over about 2.5 hours as the Cassini spacecraft passed above the unlit side of the rings. To help track your progress, major rings and gaps are labeled along with the distance from the center of the gas giant in kilometers. The alphabetical designation of Saturn’s rings is historically based on their order of discovery; rings A and B are the bright rings separated by the Cassini division. In order of increasing distance from Saturn, the seven main rings run D,C,B,A,F,G,E. (Faint, outer rings G and E are not imaged here.) Four days from now, on November 29, Cassini will make a close flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan and use the large moon’s gravity to nudge the spacecraft into a series of 20 daring, elliptical, ring-grazing orbits. Diving through the ring plane just 11,000 kilometers outside the F ring (far right) Cassini’s first ring-graze will be on December 4.
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Is there an ocean below Sputnik Planum on Pluto? The unusually smooth 1000-km wide golden expanse, visible in the featured image from New Horizons, appears segmented into convection cells. But how was this region created? One hypothesis now holds the answer to be a great impact that stirred up an underground ocean of salt water roughly 100-kilometers thick. The featured image of Sputnik Planum, part of the larger heart-shaped Tombaugh Regio, was taken last July and shows true details in exaggerated colors. Although the robotic New Horizons spacecraft is off on a new adventure, continued computer-modeling of this surprising surface feature on Pluto is likely to lead to more refined speculations about what lies beneath.
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How much mass do flocculent spirals hide? The featured true color image of flocculent spiral galaxy NGC 4414 was taken with the Hubble Space Telescope to help answer this question. The featured image was augmented with data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS). Flocculent spirals — galaxies without well-defined spiral arms — are a quite common form of galaxy, and NGC 4414 is one of the closest. Stars and gas near the visible edge of spiral galaxies orbit the center so fast that the gravity from a large amount of unseen dark matter must be present to hold them together. Understanding the matter and dark matter distribution of NGC 4414 helps humanity calibrate the rest of the galaxy and, by deduction, flocculent spirals in general. Further, calibrating the distance to NGC 4414 helps humanity calibrate the cosmological distance scale of the entire visible universe.
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The recognizable profile of the Pelican Nebula soars nearly 2,000 light-years away in the high flying constellation Cygnus, the Swan. Also known as IC 5070, this interstellar cloud of gas and dust is appropriately found just off the “east coast” of the North America Nebula (NGC 7000), another surprisingly familiar looking emission nebula in Cygnus. Both Pelican and North America nebulae are part of the same large and complex star forming region, almost as nearby as the better-known Orion Nebula. From our vantage point, dark dust clouds (upper left) help define the Pelican’s eye and long bill, while a bright front of ionized gas suggests the curved shape of the head and neck. This striking synthesized color view utilizes narrowband image data recording the emission of hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the cosmic cloud. The scene spans some 30 light-years at the estimated distance of the Pelican Nebula.
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A supermoon sets over the metropolis of Philadelphia in this twilight snapshot captured on November 14 at 6:21am Eastern Standard Time. Within hours of the Moon’s exact full phase, that time does correspond to a lunar perigee or the closest point in the Moon’s elliptical orbit around our fair planet. Slightly bigger and brighter at perigee, this Full Moon is still flattened and distorted in appearance by refraction in atmospheric layers along the sight-line near the horizon. Also like more ordinary Full Moons, it shines with the warm color of sunlight. Joined by buildings along the Philadelphia skyline, the perigee full moonlight is reflected in the waters of the mighty Cooper River.
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Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, this Soyuz rocket stands on the launch pad at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on November 14. Beyond it rises a supermoon, but fame for exceptional feats of speed, strength, and agility is not the reason November’s Full Moon was given this popular name. Instead, whenever a Full Moon shines near perigee, the closest point in its elliptical orbit around Earth, it appears larger and brighter than other more distant Full Moons, and so a supermoon is born. In fact, November’s supermoon was the second of three consecutive supermoons in 2016. It was also the closest and most superest Full Moon since 1948. Meanwhile, the mild mannered Soyuz rocket is scheduled to launch its Expedition 50/51 crew to the International Space Station today, November 17.
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