Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble …. maybe Macbeth should have consulted the Witch Head Nebula. A frighteningly shaped reflection nebula, this cosmic crone is about 800 light-years away though. Its malevolent visage seems to glare toward nearby bright star Rigel in Orion, just off the right edge of this frame. More formally known as IC 2118, the interstellar cloud of dust and gas is nearly 70 light-years across, its dust grains reflecting Rigel’s starlight. In this composite portrait, the nebula’s color is caused not only by the star’s intense bluish light but because the dust grains scatter blue light more efficiently than red. The same physical process causes Earth’s daytime sky to appear blue, although the scatterers in planet Earth’s atmosphere are molecules of nitrogen and oxygen.
First came the trees. In the town of Salamanca, Spain, the photographer noticed how distinctive a grove of oak trees looked after being pruned. Next came the galaxy. The photographer stayed up until 2 am, waiting until the Milky Way Galaxy rose above the level of a majestic looking oak. From this carefully chosen perspective, dust lanes in the galaxy appear to be natural continuations to branches of the tree. Last came the light. A flashlight was used on the far side of the tree to project a silhouette. By coincidence, other trees also appeared as similar silhouettes across the relatively bright horizon. The featured image was captured as a single 30-second frame earlier this month and processed to digitally enhance the Milky Way.
When we celebrate the start of 2019, on January 1 the New Horizons spacecraft will flyby Ultima Thule. A world of the Kuiper belt 6.5 billion kilometers from the Sun, the nickname Ultima Thule (catalog designation 2014 MU69) fittingly means “beyond the known world”. Following its 2015 flyby of Pluto, New Horizons was targeted for this journey, attempting the most distant flyby for a spacecraft from Earth by approaching Ultima Thule to within about 3500 kilometers. The tiny world itself is about 30 kilometers in size. This year, an observing campaign with Earth-based telescopes determined the shape of the object to be a contact binary or a close binary sytem as in this artist’s illustration. New Horizons will image close up its unexplored surface in the dim light of the distant Sun.
Barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365 is truly a majestic island universe some 200,000 light-years across. Located a mere 60 million light-years away toward the chemical constellation Fornax, NGC 1365 is a dominant member of the well-studied Fornax galaxy cluster. This impressively sharp color image shows intense star forming regions at the ends of the bar and along the spiral arms, and details of dust lanes cutting across the galaxy’s bright core. At the core lies a supermassive black hole. Astronomers think NGC 1365’s prominent bar plays a crucial role in the galaxy’s evolution, drawing gas and dust into a star-forming maelstrom and ultimately feeding material into the central black hole.
Why is the Lobster Nebula forming some of the most massive stars known? No one is yet sure. Cataloged as NGC 6357, the Lobster Nebula houses the open star cluster Pismis 24 near its center — a home to unusually bright and massive stars. The overall blue glow near the inner star forming region results from the emission of ionized hydrogen gas. The surrounding nebula, featured here, holds a complex tapestry of gas, dark dust, stars still forming, and newly born stars. The intricate patterns are caused by complex interactions between interstellar winds, radiation pressures, magnetic fields, and gravity. NGC 6357 spans about 400 light years and lies about 8,000 light years away toward the constellation of the Scorpion.
Majestic on a truly cosmic scale, M100 is appropriately known as a grand design spiral galaxy. It is a large galaxy of over 100 billion stars with well-defined spiral arms that is similar to our own Milky Way Galaxy. One of the brightest members of the Virgo Cluster of galaxies, M100 (alias NGC 4321) is 56 million light-years distant toward the constellation of Berenice’s Hair (Coma Berenices). This Hubble Space Telescope image of M100 was taken recently with the Wide Field Camera 3 and accentuates bright blue star clusters and intricate winding dust lanes which are hallmarks of this class of galaxies. Studies of variable stars in M100 have played an important role in determining the size and age of the Universe.
“Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow is that pretty!” Soon after that pronouncement, 50 years ago today, one of the most famous images ever taken was snapped from the orbit of the Moon. Now known as “Earthrise“, the iconic image shows the Earth rising above the limb of the Moon, as taken by the crew of Apollo 8. But the well-known Earthrise image was actually the second image taken of the Earth rising above the lunar limb — it was just the first in color. With modern digital technology, however, the real first Earthrise image — originally in black and white — has now been remastered to have the combined resolution and color of the first three images. Behold! The featured image is a close-up of the picture that Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders was talking about. Thanks to modern technology and human ingenuity, now we can all see it. (Historical note: A different historic black & white image of the Earth setting behind the lunar limb was taken by the robotic Lunar Orbiter 1 two years earlier.)
About 12 seconds into this video, something unusual happens. The Earth begins to rise. Never seen by humans before, the rise of the Earth over the limb of the Moon occurred 50 years ago tomorrow and surprised and amazed the crew of Apollo 8. The crew immediately scrambled to take still images of the stunning vista caused by Apollo 8‘s orbit around the Moon. The featured video is a modern reconstruction of the event as it would have looked were it recorded with a modern movie camera. The colorful orb of our Earth stood out as a familiar icon rising above a distant and unfamiliar moonscape, the whole scene the conceptual reverse of a more familiar moonrise as seen from Earth. To many, the scene also spoke about the unity of humanity: that big blue marble — that’s us — we all live there. The two-minute video is not time-lapse — this is the real speed of the Earth rising through the windows of Apollo 8. Seven months and three missions later, Apollo 11 astronauts would not only circle Earth’s moon, but land on it.
They say Orion always comes up sideways, and he does seem to on this cold December night. The bright stars of the familiar northern winter constellation lie just above the snowy tree tops surrounding a cozy cottage near the town of Ustupky in the Czech Republic. But Gemini’s meteors also seem to rain on the wintry landscape. The meteor streaks are captured in exposures made near last Friday’s peak of the annual Geminid meteor shower. They stream away from the shower’s radiant above the trees, near the two bright stars of the zodiacal constellation of the Twins. Comet Wirtanen, a visitor to planet Earth’s skies, is visible too. Look for its telltale greenish coma near the stars of the seven sisters.
This festively colored skyscape was captured in the early morning hours of December 17, following Comet Wirtanen’s closest approach to planet Earth. The comet was just visible to the eye. The lovely green color of its fluorescing cometary atmosphere or coma is brought out here only by adding digital exposures registered on the comet’s position below the Pleiades star cluster. The exposures also bring out blue starlight reflected by the dust clouds surrounding the young Pleiades stars. Gaze (toward the left) across dusty dark nebulae along the edge of the Perseus molecular cloud and you’ll travel to emission nebula NGC 1499, also known as the California nebula. Too faint for the eye, the cosmic cloud’s pronounced reddish glow is from electrons recombining with ionized hydrogen atoms. Around December 23rd, Comet Wirtanen should be easy to find with binoculars when it sweeps close to bright star Capella in the northern winter constellation Auriga, the Charioteer.