Sixty years ago, on January 31, 1958, the First Explorer was successfully launched by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency on a Jupiter-C rocket. Inaugurating the era of space exploration for the United States, Explorer I was a thirty pound satellite that carried instruments to measure temperatures, and micrometeorite impacts, along with an experiment designed by James A. Van Allen to measure the density of electrons and ions in space. The measurements made by Van Allen’s experiment led to an unexpected and then startling discovery of two earth-encircling belts of high energy electrons and ions trapped in the magnetosphere. Now known as the Van Allen Radiation belts, the regions are located in the inner magnetosphere, beyond low Earth orbit. Explorer I ceased transmitting on February 28, 1958, but remained in orbit until March of 1970.
Will the spider ever catch the fly? Not if both are large emission nebulas toward the constellation of the Charioteer (Auriga). The spider-shaped gas cloud on the left is actually an emission nebula labelled IC 417, while the smaller fly-shaped cloud on the right is dubbed NGC 1931 and is both an emission nebula and a reflection nebula. About 10,000 light-years distant, both nebulas harbor young, open star clusters. For scale, the more compact NGC 1931 (Fly) is about 10 light-years across.
Staring toward the heavens, one of the many lagunas in the Atacama Desert salt flat calmly reflects a starry night sky near San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, planet Earth. Cosmic rifts of dust, star clouds, and nebulae of the central Milky Way galaxy are rising in the east, beyond a volcanic horizon. Caught in the six frame panorama serenely recorded in the early morning hours of January 15, planets Jupiter and Mars are close. Near the ecliptic, the bright planets are immersed in the Solar System’s visible band of Zodiacal light extending up and left from the galactic center. Above the horizon to the south (right) are the Large and Small clouds of Magellan, satellite galaxies of the Milky Way.
On sol 1943 of its journey of exploration across the surface of Mars, the Curiosity Rover recorded this selfie at the south rim of Vera Rubin Ridge. Of course a sol is a Martian solar day, about 40 minutes longer than an Earth day. Curiosity’s sol 1943 corresponds to Earth date January 23, 2018. Also composed as an interactive 360 degree VR, the mosaicked panorama combines 61 exposures taken by the car-sized rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI). Frames containing the imager’s arm have been edited out while the extended background used was taken by the rover’s Mastcam on sol 1903. At the top of the rover’s mast, sitting above the Mastcam, the laser-firing ChemCam housing blocks out the distant peak of Mount Sharp.
By chance, a collision of two galaxies has created a surprisingly recognizable shape on a cosmic scale, The Cartwheel Galaxy. The Cartwheel is part of a group of galaxies about 500 million light years away in the constellation Sculptor. Two smaller galaxies in the group are visible on the right. The Cartwheel Galaxy’s rim is an immense ring-like structure 150,000 light years in diameter composed of newly formed, extremely bright, massive stars. When galaxies collide they pass through each other, their individual stars rarely coming into contact. Still, the galaxies’ gravitational fields are seriously distorted by the collision. In fact, the ring-like shape is the result of the gravitational disruption caused by a small intruder galaxy passing through a large one, compressing the interstellar gas and dust and causing a a star formation wave to move out from the impact point like a ripple across the surface of a pond. In this case the large galaxy may have originally been a spiral, not unlike our own Milky Way, transformed into the wheel shape by the collision. But … what happened to the small intruder galaxy?
This telescopic close-up shows off the otherwise faint emission nebula IC 410. It also features two remarkable inhabitants of the cosmic pond of gas and dust below and left of center, the tadpoles of IC 410. Partly obscured by foreground dust, the nebula itself surrounds NGC 1893, a young galactic cluster of stars. Formed in the interstellar cloud a mere 4 million years ago, the intensely hot, bright cluster stars energize the glowing gas. Composed of denser cooler gas and dust, the tadpoles are around 10 light-years long and are likely sites of ongoing star formation. Sculpted by winds and radiation from the cluster stars, their heads are outlined by bright ridges of ionized gas while their tails trail away from the cluster’s central region. IC 410 lies some 10,000 light-years away, toward the nebula-rich constellation Auriga.
Why do some spiral galaxies have a ring around the center? Spiral galaxy NGC 1398 not only has a ring of pearly stars, gas and dust around its center, but a bar of stars and gas across its center, and spiral arms that appear like ribbons farther out. The featured image was taken with ESO‘s Very Large Telescope at the Paranal Observatory in Chile and resolves this grand spiral in impressive detail. NGC 1398 lies about 65 million light years distant, meaning the light we see today left this galaxy when dinosaurs were disappearing from the Earth. The photogenic galaxy is visible with a small telescope toward the constellation of the Furnace (Fornax). The ring near the center is likely an expanding density wave of star formation, caused either by a gravitational encounter with another galaxy, or by the galaxy’s own gravitational asymmetries.