You wake up in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, Africa. You go outside your tent, set up your camera, and take long exposures of the land and sky. What might you see? Besides a lot of blowing dust and the occasional acacia tree, you might catch many sky wonders. Pictured in 2015 September, sky highlights include the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy, the Pleiades Star Cluster, Barnard’s Loop, and both the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, to name just a few. Although most of these faded in the morning light, they were quickly replaced by a partial eclipse of the Sun.
Jupiter is stranger than we knew. NASA’s Juno spacecraft has now completed its sixth swoop past Jupiter as it moves around its highly elliptical orbit. Pictured, Jupiter is seen from below where, surprisingly, the horizontal bands that cover most of the planet disappear into swirls and complex patterns. A line of white oval clouds is visible nearer to the equator. Recent results from Juno show that Jupiter‘s weather phenomena can extend deep below its cloud tops, and that Jupiter’s magnetic field varies greatly with location. Juno is scheduled to orbit Jupiter 37 times with each orbit taking about six weeks.
What’s happened in Hebes Chasma on Mars? Hebes Chasma is a depression just north of the enormous Valles Marineris canyon. Since the depression is unconnected to other surface features, it is unclear where the internal material went. Inside Hebes Chasma is Hebes Mensa, a 5 kilometer high mesa that appears to have undergone an unusual partial collapse — a collapse that might be providing clues. The featured image, taken by ESA’s robotic Mars Express spacecraft currently orbiting Mars, shows great details of the chasm and the unusual horseshoe shaped indentation in the central mesa. Material from the mesa appears to have flowed onto the floor of the chasm, while a possible dark layer appears to have pooled like ink on a downslope landing. A recent hypothesis holds that salty rock composes some lower layers in Hebes Chasma, with the salt dissolving in melted ice flows that drained through holes into an underground aquifer.
Big, beautiful spiral galaxy NGC 6744 is nearly 175,000 light-years across, larger than our own Milky Way. It lies some 30 million light-years distant in the southern constellation Pavo appearing as a faint, extended object in small telescopes. We see the disk of the nearby island universe tilted towards our line of sight. This remarkably distinct and detailed galaxy portrait covers an area about the angular size of the full moon. In it, the giant galaxy’s yellowish core is dominated by the light from old, cool stars. Beyond the core, spiral arms filled with young blue star clusters and pinkish star forming regions sweep past a smaller satellite galaxy at the lower left, reminiscent of the Milky Way’s satellite galaxy the Large Magellanic Cloud.
A cosmic snapshot from May 19, this colorful telescopic field of view spans about 1 degree or 2 full moons on the sky. Spiky in appearance, foreground Milky Way stars are scattered toward the royal constellation Cepheus while stars of open cluster NGC 6939 gather about 5 thousand light-years in the distance near the top of the frame. Face-on spiral galaxy NGC 6946 is toward the lower left nearly 22 million light-years away. The helpful red lines identify recently discovered supernova SN 2017eaw, the death explosion of a massive star nestled in the galaxy’s bluish spiral arms. In fact in the last 100 years, 10 supernovae have been discovered in NGC 6946. By comparison, the average rate of supernovae in our Milky Way is about 1 every 100 years or so. Of course, NGC 6946 is also known as The Fireworks Galaxy.
Is our Galaxy this thin? We believe so. Magnificent spiral galaxy NGC 4565 is viewed edge-on from planet Earth. Also known as the Needle Galaxy for its narrow profile, bright NGC 4565 is a stop on many telescopic tours of the northern sky, in the faint but well-groomed constellation Coma Berenices. This sharp, colorful image reveals the galaxy’s bulging central core cut by obscuring dust lanes that lace NGC 4565’s thin galactic plane. An assortment of other background galaxies is included in the pretty field of view, with neighboring galaxy NGC 4562 at the upper left. NGC 4565 itself lies about 40 million light-years distant and spans some 100,000 light-years. Easily spotted with small telescopes, sky enthusiasts consider NGC 4565 to be a prominent celestial masterpiece Messier missed.
What’s causing the unusual ray of white light extending upward from the central horizon? Dust orbiting the Sun. At certain times of the year, a band of sun-reflecting dust from the inner Solar System rises prominently before sunrise and is called zodiacal light. The dust originates mostly from faint Jupiter-family comets and slowly spirals into the Sun. Pictured, in front of the zodiacal light, is a spectacular view of Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River. Emitted from well behind the zodiacal light is a spectacular sky that includes many bright stars including Sirius, several blue star clusters including the Pleiades, and an assortment of red nebula including Barnard’s Loop in Orion. The 30-image composite was taken earlier this month in nearly complete darkness only six inches from the edge of a dangerous cliff.
The center of the Lagoon Nebula is a whirlwind of spectacular star formation. Visible on the lower left, at least two long funnel-shaped clouds, each roughly half a light-year long, have been formed by extreme stellar winds and intense energetic starlight. The tremendously bright nearby star, Hershel 36, lights the area. Vast walls of dust hide and redden other hot young stars. As energy from these stars pours into the cool dust and gas, large temperature differences in adjoining regions can be created generating shearing winds which may cause the funnels. This picture, spanning about 5 light years, was taken in 1995 by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. The Lagoon Nebula, also known as M8, lies about 5000 light years distant toward the constellation of Sagittarius.
Big, beautiful spiral galaxy M101 is one of the last entries in Charles Messier’s famous catalog, but definitely not one of the least. About 170,000 light-years across, this galaxy is enormous, almost twice the size of our own Milky Way galaxy. M101 was also one of the original spiral nebulae observed by Lord Rosse’s large 19th century telescope, the Leviathan of Parsontown. M101 shares this modern telescopic field of view with spiky foreground stars within the Milky Way, and more distant background galaxies. The colors of the Milky Way stars can also be found in the starlight from the large island universe. Its core is dominated by light from cool yellowish stars. Along its grand spiral arms are the blue colors of hotter, young stars mixed with obscuring dust lanes and pinkish star forming regions. Also known as the Pinwheel Galaxy, M101 lies within the boundaries of the northern constellation Ursa Major, about 25 million light-years away.
Named for the three astronomers instrumental in its discovery and identification, Wolf – Lundmark – Melotte (WLM) is a lonely dwarf galaxy. Seen toward the mostly southern constellation Cetus, about 3 million light-years from the Milky Way, it is one of the most remote members of our local galaxy group. In fact, it may never have interacted with any other local group galaxy. Still, telltale pinkish star forming regions and hot, young, bluish stars speckle the isolated island universe. Older, cool yellowish stars fade into the small galaxy’s halo, extending about 8,000 light-years across. This sharp portrait of WLM was captured by the 268-megapixel OmegaCAM widefield imager and survey telescope at ESO’s Paranal Observatory.