What’s that rising from the clouds? The space shuttle. Sometimes, if you look out the window of an airplane at just the right time and place, you see something unusual — in this case a space shuttle launching to orbit. The featured image of Endeavour’s final launch in 2011 May was captured from a NASA shuttle training aircraft. Taken well above the clouds, the image can be matched with similar images of the same shuttle plume taken below the clouds. Hot glowing gasses expelled by the engines are visible near the rising shuttle, as well as a long smoke plume. A shadow of the plume appears on the cloud deck, indicating the direction of the Sun. The US Space Shuttle program concluded in 2011, and Endeavour can now be visited at the California Science Center. Planned for tomorrow, however, is a different launch — that of the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
Deep shadows create dramatic contrasts between light and dark in this high-resolution close-up of the martian surface. Recorded on January 24, 2014 by the HiRISE camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the scene spans about 1.5 kilometers. From 250 kilometers above the Red Planet the camera is looking down at a sand dune field in a southern highlands crater. Captured when the Sun was about 5 degrees above the local horizon, only the dune crests were caught in full sunlight. A long, cold winter is coming to the southern hemisphere and bright ridges of seasonal frost line the martian dunes.
From our vantage point in the Milky Way Galaxy, we see NGC 3344 face-on. Nearly 40,000 light-years across, the big, beautiful spiral galaxy is located just 20 million light-years away in the constellation of Leo Minor. This multi-color Hubble Space Telescope close-up of NGC 3344 includes remarkable details from near infrared to ultraviolet wavelengths. The frame extends some 15,000 light-years across the spiral’s central regions. From the core outward, the galaxy’s colors change from the yellowish light of old stars in the center to young blue star clusters and reddish star forming regions along the loose, fragmented spiral arms. Of course, the bright stars with a spiky appearance are in front of NGC 3344 and lie well within our own Milky Way.
Wandering through the constellation Sagittarius, bright planets Mars and Saturn appeared together in early morning skies over the last weeks. They are captured in this 3 degree wide field-of-view from March 31 in a close celestial triangle with large globular star cluster Messier 22. Of course M22 (bottom left) is about 10,000 light-years distant, a massive ball of over 100,000 stars much older than our Sun. Pale yellow and shining by reflected sunlight, Saturn (on top) is about 82 light-minutes away. Look carefully and you can spot large moon Titan as a pinpoint of light at about the 5 o’clock position in the glare of Saturn’s overexposed disk. Slightly brighter and redder Mars is 9 light-minutes distant. While both planets are moving on toward upcoming oppositions, by July Mars will become much brighter still, with good telescopic views near its 2018 opposition a mere 3.2 light-minutes from planet Earth.
Was this flash the farthest star yet seen? An unexpected flash of light noticed fortuitously on Hubble Space Telescope images may prove to be not only an unusual gravitational lensing event but also an image of a normal star 100 times farther away than any star previously imaged individually. The featured image shows the galaxy cluster on the left complete with many yellowish galaxies, while on the right is an expanded square where a source appeared in 2016 that was not evident in 2011. The spectrum and variability of this source are strangely unlike a supernova, but rather appear more consistent with a normal blue supergiant star magnified by about a factor of 2000 by a confluence of aligned gravitational lenses. Dubbed Icarus, the source is in a galaxy well behind the galaxy cluster and far across the universe — at redshift 1.5. If the lens interpretation is correct and Icarus is not an exploding star, further observations of it and other similarly magnified stars could give information about the stellar and dark matter content in the galaxy cluster and the universe.
One of the most spectacular solar sights is an explosive flare. In 2011 June, the Sun unleashed somewhat impressive, medium-sized solar flare as rotation carried active regions of sunpots toward the solar limb. That flare, though, was followed by an astounding gush of magnetized plasma — a monster filament seen erupting at the Sun’s edge in this extreme ultraviolet image from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Featured here is a time-lapse video of that hours-long event showing darker, cooler plasma raining down across a broad area of the Sun’s surface, arcing along otherwise invisible magnetic field lines. An associated coronal mass ejection, a massive cloud of high energy particles, was blasted in the general direction of the Earth,and made a glancing blow to Earth’s magnetosphere.
Ten thousand years ago, before the dawn of recorded human history, a new light would have suddenly have appeared in the night sky and faded after a few weeks. Today we know this light was from a supernova, or exploding star, and record the expanding debris cloud as the Veil Nebula, a supernova remnant. This sharp telescopic view is centered on a western segment of the Veil Nebula cataloged as NGC 6960 but less formally known as the Witch’s Broom Nebula. Blasted out in the cataclysmic explosion, the interstellar shock wave plows through space sweeping up and exciting interstellar material. Imaged with narrow band filters, the glowing filaments are like long ripples in a sheet seen almost edge on, remarkably well separated into atomic hydrogen (red) and oxygen (blue-green) gas. The complete supernova remnant lies about 1400 light-years away towards the constellation Cygnus. This Witch’s Broom actually spans about 35 light-years. The bright star in the frame is 52 Cygni, visible with the unaided eye from a dark location but unrelated to the ancient supernova remnant.
About 70 million light-years distant, gorgeous spiral galaxy NGC 289 is larger than our own Milky Way. Seen nearly face-on, its bright core and colorful central disk give way to remarkably faint, bluish spiral arms. The extensive arms sweep well over 100 thousand light-years from the galaxy’s center. At the lower right in this sharp, telescopic galaxy portrait the main spiral arm seems to encounter a small, fuzzy elliptical companion galaxy interacting with enormous NGC 289. Of course the spiky stars are in the foreground of the scene. They lie within the Milky Way toward the southern constellation Sculptor.
You may have heard of the Seven Sisters in the sky, but have you heard about the Seven Strong Men on the ground? Located just west of the Ural Mountains, the unusual Manpupuner rock formations are one of the Seven Wonders of Russia. How these ancient 40-meter high pillars formed is yet unknown. The persistent photographer of this featured image battled rough terrain and uncooperative weather to capture these rugged stone towers in winter at night, being finally successful in February of 2014. Utilizing the camera’s time delay feature, the photographer holds a flashlight in the foreground near one of the snow-covered pillars. High above, millions of stars shine down, while the band of our Milky Way Galaxy crosses diagonally down from the upper left.
While cruising around Saturn, be on the lookout for picturesque juxtapositions of moons, rings, and shadows. One quite picturesque arrangement occurred in 2005 and was captured by the then Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft. In the featured image, moons Tethys and Mimas are visible on either side of Saturn’s thin rings, which are seen nearly edge-on. Across the top of Saturn are dark shadows of the wide rings, exhibiting their impressive complexity. The violet-light image brings up the texture of the backdrop: Saturn’s clouds. Cassini orbited Saturn from 2004 until September of last year, when the robotic spacecraft was directed to dive into Saturn to keep it from contaminating any moons.