Would you go to the end of the world to see a total eclipse of the Sun? If you did, would you be surprised to find someone else there already? In 2003, the Sun, the Moon, Antarctica, and two photographers all lined up in Antarctica during an unusual total solar eclipse. Even given the extreme location, a group of enthusiastic eclipse chasers ventured near the bottom of the world to experience the surreal momentary disappearance of the Sun behind the Moon. One of the treasures collected was the featured picture — a composite of four separate images digitally combined to realistically simulate how the adaptive human eye saw the eclipse. As the image was taken, both the Moon and the Sun peeked together over an Antarctic ridge. In the sudden darkness, the magnificent corona of the Sun became visible around the Moon. Quite by accident, another photographer was caught in one of the images checking his video camera. Visible to his left are an equipment bag and a collapsible chair. A more easily visible solar eclipse will occur in about three weeks and be visible from the USA.
Like salsa verde on your favorite burrito, a green aurora slathers up the sky in this June 25 snapshot from the International Space Station. About 400 kilometers (250 miles) above Earth, the orbiting station is itself within the upper realm of the auroral displays. Aurorae have the signature colors of excited molecules and atoms at the low densities found at extreme altitudes. Emission from atomic oxygen dominates this view. The tantalizing glow is green at lower altitudes, but rarer reddish bands extend above the space station’s horizon. The orbital scene was captured while passing over a point south and east of Australia, with stars above the horizon at the right belonging to the constellation Canis Major, Orion’s big dog. Sirius, alpha star of Canis Major, is the brightest star near the Earth’s limb.
On April 26 the Cassini spacecraft swooped toward Saturn on the first of its Grand Finale dives between Saturn and rings. In this long, thin, noodle mosaic, a rapid series of 137 low resolution images captured by Cassini’s wide-angle camera track its progress across the gas giant’s swirling cloud tops. The mosaic projection maps the arc along Saturn’s atmospheric curve on to a flat image plane. At top, the first mosaic panel is centered at 90 degrees north, about 72,400 kilometers above Saturn’s dark north polar vortex. As the mosaic progresses it narrows, the pixel scale shrinking from 8.7 kilometers to 1 kilometer per pixel. For the last panel, the spacecraft is 8,374 kilometers above a region 18 degrees north of Saturn’s equator. Frame orientation changes near the bottom as Cassini rotates to maneuver its large, dish-shaped, high-gain antenna forward, providing a shield before crossing Saturn’s ring plane.
These three bright nebulae are often featured on telescopic tours of the constellation Sagittarius and the crowded starfields of the central Milky Way. In fact, 18th century cosmic tourist Charles Messier cataloged two of them; M8, the large nebula above and left of center, and colorful M20 near the bottom of the frame. The third emission region includes NGC 6559, right of M8 and separated from the larger nebula by a dark dust lane. All three are stellar nurseries about five thousand light-years or so distant. Over a hundred light-years across the expansive M8 is also known as the Lagoon Nebula. M20’s popular moniker is the Trifid. Glowing hydrogen gas creates the dominant red color of the emission nebulae. In striking contrast, blue hues in the Trifid are due to dust reflected starlight. The colorful composite skyscape was recorded with two different telescopes to capture a widefield image of the area and individual close-ups at higher resolution.
You don’t have to be at Monument Valley to see the Milky Way arc across the sky like this — but it helps. Only at Monument Valley USA would you see a picturesque foreground that includes these iconic rock peaks called buttes. Buttes are composed of hard rock left behind after water has eroded away the surrounding soft rock. In the featured image taken in 2012, the closest butte on the left and the butte to its right are known as the Mittens, while Merrick Butte can be seen farther to the right. Green airglow fans up from the horizon. High overhead stretches a band of diffuse light that is the central disk of our spiral Milky Way Galaxy. The band of the Milky Way can be spotted by almost anyone on almost any clear night when far enough from a city and surrounding bright lights, but a sensitive digital camera is needed to capture these colors in a dark night sky.
Chasing solar eclipses can cause you to go to the most interesting places and meet the most interesting people. Almost. For example, chasing this eclipse brought this astrophotographer to Kenya in 2013. His contact, a member of the Maasai people, was to pick him up at the airport, show him part of southern Kenya, and even agreed to pose in traditional warrior garb on a hill as the hopefully spectacular eclipse set far in background. Unfortunately, this contact person died unexpectedly a week before the astrophotographer’s arrival, and so he never got to participate in the shoot, nor know that the resulting image went on to win an international award for astrophotography. Pictured in 2013 from Kenya, the Moon covers much of the Sun during a hybrid eclipse, a rare type of solar eclipse that appears as total from some Earth locations, but annular in others. During the annular part of the eclipse, the Moon was too far from the Earth to block the entire Sun. Next month a total solar eclipse will cross the USA.
Mercury had never been seen like this before. In 2008, the robotic MESSENGER spacecraft buzzed past Mercury for the second time and imaged terrain mapped previously only by comparatively crude radar. The featured image was recorded as MESSENGER looked back 90 minutes after passing, from an altitude of about 27,000 kilometers. Visible in the image, among many other newly imaged features, are unusually long rays that appear to run like meridians of longitude out from a young crater near the northern limb. MESSENGER entered orbit around Mercury in 2011 and finished its primary mission in 2012, but took detailed measurements until 2015, at which time it ran out of fuel and so was instructed to impact Mercury’s surface.
Bright sunlight glints and long dark shadows mark this image of the lunar surface. It was taken July 20, 1969 by Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first to walk on the Moon. Pictured is the mission’s lunar module, the Eagle, and spacesuited lunar module pilot Buzz Aldrin unfurling a long sheet of foil also known as the Solar Wind Composition Experiment. Exposed facing the Sun, the foil trapped particles streaming outward in the solar wind, catching a sample of material from the Sun itself. Along with moon rocks and lunar soil samples, the solar wind collector was returned for analysis in earthbound laboratories.
What created this unusual hill on Mars? Its history has become a topic of research, but its shape and two-tone structure makes it one of the more unusual hills that the robotic Curiosity rover on Mars has rolled near. Dubbed Ireson Hill, the mound rises about 5 meters high and spans about 15 meters across. Ireson Hill is located on the Bagnold Dune field on the slope of Mount Sharp in Gale Crater on Mars. The featured 41-image panorama has been horizontally compressed to include the entire hill. The image was taken on February 2 and released last week. Because Mars is moving behind the Sun as seen from the Earth, NASA will soon stop sending commands to its Martian orbiters and rovers until about August 1.
What’s wrong with this picture? If you figure it out, you may then realize where the image was taken. The oddity lies actually in one of the buildings — it leans. The Leaning Tower of Pisa has been an iconic legend since shortly after its construction began in the year 1173. Now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, folklore holds that Galileo used the leaning tower to dramatically demonstrate the gravitational principle that objects of different mass fall the same. Between the Leaning Tower of Pisa on the right and Pisa Cathedral and the Pisa Baptistery on the left, a full “Thunder” moon was visible last week when the image was taken. Using modern analyses, the tower has been successfully stabilized and, barring the unexpected, should hold its present tilt for the next 200 years.