Is there a waterfall in Orion? No, but some of the dust in M43 appears similar to a waterfall on Earth. M43, part of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, is the often imaged but rarely mentioned neighbor of the more famous M42. M42, which includes many bright stars from the Trapezium cluster, lies above the featured scene. M43 is itself a star forming region and although laced with filaments of dark dust, is composed mostly of glowing hydrogen. The entire Orion field, located about 1600 light years away, is inundated with many intricate and picturesque filaments of dust. Opaque to visible light, dark dust is created in the outer atmosphere of massive cool stars and expelled by a strong outer wind of protons and electrons.
Your arm on Mars has unusual powers. For one thing it is nearly 2 meters long, has a scoop and grapple built into its hand, and has a camera built into its forearm. For another, it will soon deploy your ear — a sensitive seismometer that will listen for distant rumblings — onto the surface of Mars. Your SEISmomet-ear is the orange box in the foreground, while the gray dome behind it will be its protective cover. Your arm is attached to the InSight robotic lander that touched down on Mars two weeks ago. Somewhat unexpectedly, your ear has already heard something — slight vibrations caused by the Martian wind flowing over the solar panels. Light from the Sun is being collected by the solar panels, part of one being visible on the far right. Actually, at the present time, you have two arms operating on Mars, but they are separated by about 600 kilometers. That’s because your other active arm is connected to the Curiosity rover exploring a distant crater. Taken a week ago, rusty soil and rocks are visible in the featured image beyond Insight, as well as the orange sky of Mars.
Some night skies are serene and passive — others shimmer and flash. The later, in the form of auroras and meteors, haunted skies over the island of Kvaløya, near Tromsø Norway on 2009 December 13. This 30 second long exposure records a shimmering auroral glow gently lighting the wintery coastal scene. A study in contrasts, the image also captures the sudden flash of a fireball meteor from the excellent Geminid meteor shower of 2009. Streaking past familiar stars in the handle of the Big Dipper, the trail points back toward the constellation Gemini, off the top of the view. Both auroras and meteors occur in Earth’s upper atmosphere at altitudes of 100 kilometers or so, but aurora caused by energetic charged particles from the magnetosphere, while meteors are trails of cosmic dust. Nine years after this photograph was taken, toward the end of this week, the yearly 2018 Geminids meteor shower will peak again, although this time their flashes will compete with the din of a half-lit first-quarter moon during the first half of the night.
You can pack a lot of sky watching into 30 seconds on this tiny planet. Of course, the full spherical image timelapse video was recorded on planet Earth, from Grande Pines Observatory outside Pinehurst, North Carolina. It was shot in early September with a single camera and circular fisheye lens, digitally combining one 24-hour period with camera and lens pointed up with one taken with camera and lens pointed down. The resulting image data is processed and projected onto a flat frame centered on the nadir, the point directly below the camera. Watch as clouds pass, shadows creep, and the sky cycles from day to night when stars swirl around the horizon. Keep watching, though. In a second sequence the projected center is the south celestial pole, planet Earth’s axis of rotation below the tiny planet horizon. Holding the stars fixed, the horizon itself rotates as the tiny planet swings around the frame, hiding half the sky through day and night.
Coming close in mid-December, Comet 46P Wirtanen hangs in this starry sky over the bell tower of a Romanesque church. In the constructed vertical panorama, a series of digital exposures capture its greenish coma on December 3 from Sant Llorenc de la Muga, Girona, Catalonia, Spain, planet Earth. With an orbital period that is now about 5.4 years, the periodic comet’s perihelion, its closest approach, to the Sun will be on December 12. On December 16 it will be closest to Earth, passing at a distance of about 11.6 million kilometers or 39 light-seconds. That’s close for a comet, a mere 30 times the Earth-Moon distance. A good binocular target for comet watchers, Wirtanen could be visible to the unaided eye from a dark sky site. To spot it after dusk on December 16, look close on the sky to the Pleiades star cluster in Taurus.
Large spiral galaxy NGC 1055 at top left joins spiral Messier 77 (bottom right) in this cosmic view toward the aquatic constellation Cetus. The narrowed, dusty appearance of edge-on spiral NGC 1055 contrasts nicely with the face-on view of M77’s bright nucleus and spiral arms. Both over 100,000 light-years across, the pair are dominant members of a small galaxy group about 60 million light-years away. At that estimated distance, M77 is one of the most remote objects in Charles Messier’s catalog, and is separated from fellow island universe NGC 1055 by at least 500,000 light-years. The field of view is about the size of the full Moon on the sky and includes colorful foreground Milky Way stars along with more distant background galaxies. Taken on November 28, the sharp image also includes newly discovered supernova SN2018ivc, its location indicated in the arms of M77. The light from the explosion of one of M77’s massive stars was discovered by telescopes on planet Earth only a few days earlier on November 24.
What can you see in the night sky this season? The featured graphic gives a few highlights for Earth‘s northern hemisphere. Viewed as a clock face centered at the bottom, early (northern) winter sky events fan out toward the left, while late winter events are projected toward the right. Objects relatively close to Earth are illustrated, in general, as nearer to the cartoon figure with the telescope at the bottom center — although almost everything pictured can be seen without a telescope. As happens during any season, constellations appear the same year to year, and, as usual, the Geminids meteor shower will peak in mid-December. Also as usual, the International Space Station (ISS) can be seen, at times, as a bright spot drifting across the sky after sunset. Less usual, the Moon is expected to pass nearly in front of several planets in early January. A treat this winter is Comet 46P/Wirtanen, already bright, will pass only 36 lunar distances from the Earth in mid-December, potentially making it easily visible to the unaided eye.