Point your telescope toward the high flying constellation Pegasus and you can find this expanse of Milky Way stars and distant galaxies. Dominated by NGC 7814, the pretty field of view would almost be covered by a full moon. NGC 7814 is sometimes called the Little Sombrero for its resemblance to the brighter more famous M104, the Sombrero Galaxy. Both Sombrero and Little Sombrero are spiral galaxies seen edge-on, and both have extensive halos and central bulges cut by a thin disk with thinner dust lanes in silhouette. In fact, NGC 7814 is some 40 million light-years away and an estimated 60,000 light-years across. That actually makes the Little Sombrero about the same physical size as its better known namesake, appearing smaller and fainter only because it is farther away. Very faint dwarf galaxies, potentially a satellites of NGC 7814, have been discovered in deep exposures of Little Sombrero.
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A long recognized naked-eye variable star, R Aquarii is actually an interacting binary star system, two stars that seem to have a close, symbiotic relationship. About 710 light years away, it consists of a cool red giant star and hot, dense white dwarf star in mutual orbit around their common center of mass. The binary system’s visible light is dominated by the red giant, itself a Mira-type long period variable star. But material in cool giant star’s extended envelope is pulled by gravity onto the surface of the smaller, denser white dwarf, eventually triggering a thermonuclear explosion and blasting material into space. Optical image data (red) shows the still expanding ring of debris originating from a blast that would have been seen in the early 1770s. The evolution of less understood energetic events producing high energy emission in the R Aquarii system has been monitored since 2000 using Chandra X-ray Observatory data (blue). The composite field of view is less that a light-year across at the estimated distance of R Aquarii.
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The beautiful Trifid Nebula, also known as Messier 20, lies about 5,000 light-years away, a colorful study in cosmic contrasts. It shares this nearly 1 degree wide field with open star cluster Messier 21 (top left). Trisected by dust lanes the Trifid itself is about 40 light-years across and a mere 300,000 years old. That makes it one of the youngest star forming regions in our sky, with newborn and embryonic stars embedded in its natal dust and gas clouds. Estimates of the distance to open star cluster M21 are similar to M20’s, but though they share this gorgeous telescopic skyscape there is no apparent connection between the two. M21’s stars are much older, about 8 million years old. M20 and M21 are easy to find with even a small telescope in the nebula rich constellation Sagittarius. In fact, this well-composed scene is a composite from two different telescopes. Using narrowband data it blends a high resolution image of M20 with a wider field image extending to M21.
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Distant galaxies and nearby nebulas highlight this deep image of the M81 Group of galaxies. First and foremost in this 80-exposure mosaic is the grand design spiral galaxy M81, the largest galaxy in the image, visible on the lower right. M81 is gravitationally interacting with M82 just above it, a large galaxy with an unusual halo of filamentary red-glowing gas. Around the image many other galaxies from the M81 Group of galaxies can be seen, as well as many foreground Milky Way stars. This whole galaxy menagerie is seen through the glow of an Integrated Flux Nebula (IFN), a vast and complex screen of diffuse gas and dust also in our Milky Way Galaxy. Details of the red and yellow IFN, digitally enhanced, were imaged by a new wide-field camera recently installed at the Teide Observatory in the Canary Islands of Spain.
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If you could stand on the surface of the newly discovered Earth-sized exoplanet TRAPPIST-1f, what would you see? Presently, no Earthling knows for sure, but the featured illustration depicts a reasoned guess based on observational data taken by NASA‘s Sun-orbiting Spitzer Space Telescope. In 2017, four more Earth-sized planets were found by Spitzer, including TRAPPIST-1f, in addition to three discovered in 2015 from the ground. From the planet’s surface, near the mild terminator between night and day, you might see water, ice, and rock on the ground, while water-based clouds might hover above. Past the clouds, the small central star TRAPPIST-1 would appear more red than our Sun, but angularly larger due to the close orbit. With seven known Earth-sized planets — many of which pass near each other — the TRAPPIST-1 system is not only a candidate to have life, but intercommunicating life — although a preliminary search has found no obvious transmissions.
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What created this gigantic hole? The vast emission nebula N44 in our neighboring galaxy the Large Magellanic Cloud has a large, 250 light-year hole and astronomers are trying to figure out why. One possibility is particle winds expelled by massive stars in the bubble‘s interior that are pushing out the glowing gas. This answer was found to be inconsistent with measured wind velocities, however. Another possibility is that the expanding shells of old supernovas have sculpted the unusual space cavern. An unexpected clue of hot X-ray emitting gas was recently been detected escaping the N44 superbubble. The featured image was taken in three very specific colors by the huge 8-meter Gemini South Telescope on Cerro Pachon in Chile.
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Before a solstice Sun rose on June 21, brilliant Venus and an old crescent Moon posed together over Budapest, Hungary for this predawn skyscape. In the foreground the view looks across the Danube river from Buda to Pest toward the dome and peaks of the Hungarian Parliament building. Low clouds are in silhouette against a twilight sky. But far enough above the eastern horizon to catch the sunlight shines another seasonal apparition on that solstice morning, noctilucent clouds. Seen near sunrise and sunset in summer months at high latitudes, the night-shining clouds are formed as water vapor in the cold upper atmosphere condenses on meteoric dust or volcanic ash near the edge of space.
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While yesterday’s solstice brought summer to planet Earth’s northern hemisphere, a northern summer solstice arrived for ringed planet Saturn nearly a month ago on May 24. Following the Saturnian seasons, its large moon Titan was captured in this Cassini spacecraft image from June 9. The near-infrared view finds bright methane clouds drifting through Titan’s northern summer skies as seen from a distance of about 507,000 kilometers. Below Titan’s clouds, dark hydrocarbon lakes sprawl near the large moon’s now illuminated north pole.
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What day is it? If the day — and time — are right, this sundial will tell you: SOLSTICE. Only then will our Sun be located just right for sunlight to stream through openings and spell out the term for the longest and shortest days of the year. But this will happen today (and again in December). The sundial was constructed by Jean Salins in 1980 and is situated at the Ecole Supérieure des Mines de Paris in Valbonne Sophia Antipolis of south-eastern France. On two other days of the year, watchers of this sundial might get to see it produce another word: EQUINOXE.
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Star cluster Westerlund 1 is home to some of the largest and most massive stars known. It is headlined by the star Westerlund 1-26, a red supergiant star so big that if placed in the center of our Solar System, it would extend out past the orbit of Jupiter. Additionally, the young star cluster is home to 3 other red supergiants, 6 yellow hypergiant stars, 24 Wolf-Rayet stars, and several even-more unusual stars that continue to be studied. Westerlund 1 is relatively close-by for a star cluster at a distance of 15,000 light years, giving astronomers a good laboratory to study the development of massive stars. The featured image of Westerlund 1 was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope toward the southern constellation of the Altar (Ara). Although presently classified as a “super” open cluster, Westerlund 1 may evolve into a low mass globular cluster over the next billion years.
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