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.
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.
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.
Saturn reached its 2017 opposition on June 16. Of course, opposition means opposite the Sun in Earth’s sky and near opposition Saturn is up all night, at its closest and brightest for the year. This remarkably sharp image of the ringed planet was taken only days before, on June 11, with a 1-meter telescope from the mountain top Pic du Midi observatory. North is at the top with the giant planet’s north polar storm and curious hexagon clearly seen bathed in sunlight. But Saturn’s spectacular ring system is also shown in stunning detail. The narrow Encke division is visible around the entire outer A ring, small ringlets can be traced within the fainter inner C ring, and Saturn’s southern hemisphere can be glimpsed through the wider Cassini division. Near opposition Saturn’s rings also appear exceptionally bright, known as the opposition surge or Seeliger Effect. Directly illuminated from Earth’s perspective, the ring’s icy particles cast no shadows and strongly backscatter sunlight creating the dramatic increase in brightness. Still, the best views of the ringed planet are currently from the Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft. Diving close, Cassini’s Grand Finale orbit number 9 is in progress.
A Full Moon rose as the Sun set on June 9, known to some as a Strawberry Moon. Close to the horizon and taking on the warm color of reflected sunlight filtered through a dense and dusty atmosphere, the fully illuminated lunar disk poses with the skyscrapers along the southern Manhattan skyline in this telephoto snapshot. The picture was taken from Eagle Rock Reservation, a park in West Orange, New Jersey, planet Earth. That’s about 13 miles from southern Manhattan and some 240,000 miles from the Moon. Foreground faces of the modern towers of steel and glass share the Moon’s warm color by reflecting the last rays of the setting Sun. The tallest, with the shining triangular facet, is New York City’s One World Trade center.
Mysterious and incredibly brief, red sprites are seen to occur high above large thunderstorms on planet Earth. While they have been recorded from low Earth orbit or high flying airplanes, these dancing, lightning-like events were captured in video frames from a mountain top perch in northern France. Taken during the night of May 28, the remarkably clear, unobstructed view looks toward a multicell storm system raging over the English Channel about 600 kilometers away. Lasting only a few milliseconds, the red sprite association with thunderstorms is known. Still, much remains a mystery about the fleeting apparitions including the nature of their relation to other upper atmospheric lightning phenomena such as blue jets or satellite detected terrestrial gamma flashes.
Can you see them? This famous Messier object M89, a seemingly simple elliptical galaxy, is surrounded by faint shells and plumes. The cause of the shells is currently unknown, but possibly tidal tails related to debris left over from absorbing numerous small galaxies in the past billion years. Alternatively the shells may be like ripples in a pond, where a recent collision with another large galaxy created density waves that ripple through this galactic giant. Regardless of the actual cause, the featured image highlights the increasing consensus that at least some elliptical galaxies have formed in the recent past, and that the outer halos of most large galaxies are not really smooth but have complexities induced by frequent interactions with — and accretions of — smaller nearby galaxies. The halo of our own Milky Way Galaxy is one example of such unexpected complexity. M89 is a member of the nearby Virgo cluster of galaxies which lies about 50 million light years distant.