How do distant asteroids differ from those near the Sun? To help find out, NASA sent the robotic New Horizons spacecraft past the classical Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, the farthest asteroid yet visited by a human spacecraft. Zooming past the 30-km long space rock on January 1, the featured image is the highest resolution picture of Ultima Thule’s surface beamed back so far. Utima Thuli does look different than imaged asteroids of the inner Solar System, as it shows unusual surface texture, relatively few obvious craters, and nearly spherical lobes. Its shape is hypothesized to have formed from the coalescence of early Solar System rubble in into two objects — Ultima and Thule — which then spiraled together and stuck. Research will continue into understanding the origin of different surface regions on Ultima Thule, whether it has a thin atmosphere, how it obtained its red color, and what this new knowledge of the ancient Solar System tells us about the formation of our Earth.
Why is there long red streak attached to this galaxy? The streak is made mostly of glowing hydrogen that has been systematically stripped away as the galaxy moved through the ambient hot gas in a cluster of galaxies. Specifically, the galaxy is spiral galaxy D100, and cluster is the Coma Cluster of galaxies. The red path connects to the center of D100 because the outer gas, gravitationally held less strongly, has already been stripped away by ram pressure. The extended gas tail is about 200,000 light-years long, contains about 400,000 times the mass of our Sun, and stars are forming within it. Galaxy D99, visible to D100’s lower left, appears red because it glows primarily from the light of old red stars — young blue stars can no longer form because D99 has been stripped of its star-forming gas. The featured false-color picture is a digitally enhanced composite of images from Earth-orbiting Hubble and the ground-based Subaru telescope. Studying remarkable systems like this bolsters our understanding of how galaxies evolve in clusters.
There is a road that connects the Northern to the Southern Cross but you have to be at the right place and time to see it. The road, as pictured here, is actually the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy; the right place, in this case, is dark Laguna Cejar in Salar de Atacama of Northern Chile; and the right time was in early October, just after sunset. Many sky wonders were captured then, including the bright Moon, inside the Milky Way arch; Venus, just above the Moon; Saturn and Mercury, just below the Moon; the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds satellite galaxies, on the far left; red airglow near the horizon on the image left; and the lights of small towns at several locations across the horizon. One might guess that composing this 30-image panorama would have been a serene experience, but for that one would have required earplugs to ignore the continued brays of wild donkeys.
Craters produced by ancient impacts on the airless Moon have long been a familiar sight. But only since the 1990s have observers began to regularly record and study optical flashes on the lunar surface, likely explosions resulting from impacting meteoroids. Of course, the flashes are difficult to see against a bright, sunlit lunar surface. But during the January 21 total eclipse many imagers serendipitously captured a meteoroid impact flash against the dim red Moon. Found while examining images taken shortly before the total eclipse phase began, the flash is indicated in the inset above, near the Moon’s darkened western limb. Estimates based on the flash duration recorded by the Moon Impact Detection and Analysis System (MIDAS) telescopes in southern Spain indicate the impactor’s mass was about 10 kilograms and created a crater between seven and ten meters in diameter.
Do you recognize this constellation? Through the icicles and past the mountains is Orion, one of the most identifiable star groupings on the sky and an icon familiar to humanity for over 30,000 years. Orion has looked pretty much the same during the past 50,000 years and should continue to look the same for many thousands of years into the future. Orion is quite prominent in the sky this time of year, a recurring sign of (modern) winter in Earth’s northern hemisphere and summer in the south. Pictured, Orion was captured recently above the Austrian Alps in a composite of seven images taken by the same camera in the same location during the same night. Below and slightly to the right of Orion’s three-star belt is the Orion Nebula, while the four bright stars surrounding the belt are, clockwise from the upper left, Betelgeuse, Bellatrix, Rigel, and Saiph.
Why would a bright full Moon suddenly become dark? Because it entered the shadow of the Earth. That’s what happened Sunday night as the Moon underwent a total lunar eclipse. Dubbed by some as a Super (because the Moon was angularly larger than usual, at least slightly) Blood (because the scattering of sunlight through the Earth’s atmosphere makes an eclipsed Moon appeared unusually red) Wolf (because January full moons are sometimes called Wolf Moons from the legend that wolves like to howl at the moon) Moon Eclipse, the shadowy spectacle was visible from the half of the Earth then facing the Moon, and was captured in numerous spectacular photographs. Featured, a notable image sequence was captured over the Cologne Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, in Cologne, Germany. The lunar eclipse sequence was composed from 68 different exposures captured over three hours during freezing temperatures — and later digitally combined and edited to remove a cyclist and a pedestrian. The next total lunar eclipse will occur in 2021.
The Moon slid through Earth’s shadow on January 31, 2018 in a total lunar eclipse. In this time-lapse sequence of that eclipse from Portal, Arizona, USA, the partial eclipse starts with the Moon high in the western sky. The eclipse total phase lasted about 76 minutes, but totality ended after the dark, reddened Moon set below the horizon. The upcoming total lunar eclipse, on the night of January 20/21, will be better placed for skygazers across the Americas, though. There, all 62 minutes of the total phase, when the Moon is completely immersed in Earth’s dark umbral shadow, will take place with the Moon above the horizon. Watch it if you can. The next total lunar eclipse visible from anywhere on planet Earth won’t take place until May 26, 2021, and then the total eclipse will last a mere 15 minutes.
Gocka’s, a family nickname for the mountain cabin, and a wooden sled from a generation past stand quietly under the stars. The single exposure image was taken on January 6 from Tanndalen Sweden to evoke a simple visual experience of the dark mountain skies. A pale band of starlight along the Milky Way sweeps through the scene. At the foot of Orion the Hunter, bright star Rigel shines just above the old kicksled’s handrail. Capella, alpha star of Auriga the celestial charioteer, is the brightest star at the top of the frame. In fact, the familiar stars of the winter hexagon and the Pleiades star cluster can all be found in this beautiful skyscape from a northern winter night.
Similar in size to large, bright spiral galaxies in our neighborhood, IC 342 is a mere 10 million light-years distant in the long-necked, northern constellation Camelopardalis. A sprawling island universe, IC 342 would otherwise be a prominent galaxy in our night sky, but it is hidden from clear view and only glimpsed through the veil of stars, gas and dust clouds along the plane of our own Milky Way galaxy. Even though IC 342’s light is dimmed and reddened by intervening cosmic clouds, this sharp telescopic image traces the galaxy’s own obscuring dust, young star clusters, and glowing pink star forming regions along spiral arms that wind far from the galaxy’s core. IC 342 may have undergone a recent burst of star formation activity and is close enough to have gravitationally influenced the evolution of the local group of galaxies and the Milky Way.
Is the heart and soul of our Galaxy located in Cassiopeia? Possibly not, but that is where two bright emission nebulas nicknamed Heart and Soul can be found. The Heart Nebula, officially dubbed IC 1805 and visible in the featured image on the bottom right, has a shape reminiscent of a classical heart symbol. The Soul Nebula is officially designated IC 1871 and is visible on the upper left. Both nebulas shine brightly in the red light of energized hydrogen. Also shown in this three-color montage is light emitted from sulfur, shown in yellow, and oxygen, shown in blue. Several young open clusters of stars are visible near the nebula centers. Light takes about 6,000 years to reach us from these nebulas, which together span roughly 300 light years. Studies of stars and clusters like those found in the Heart and Soul Nebulas have focused on how massive stars form and how they affect their environment.