On January 1, New Horizons swooped to within 3,500 kilometers of the Kuiper Belt world known as Ultima Thule. That’s about 3 times closer than its July 2015 closest approach to Pluto. The spacecraft’s unprecedented feat of navigational precision, supported by data from ground and space-based observing campaigns, was accomplished 6.6 billion kilometers (over 6 light-hours) from planet Earth. Six and a half minutes before closest approach to Ultima Thule it captured the nine frames used in this composite image. The most detailed picture possible of the farthest object ever explored, the image has a resolution of about 33 meters per pixel, revealing intriguing bright surface features and dark shadows near the terminator. A primitive Solar System object, Ultima Thule’s two lobes combine to span just 30 kilometers. The larger lobe, referred to as Ultima, is recently understood to be flattened like a fluffy pancake, while the smaller, Thule, has a shape that resembles a dented walnut.
How do clusters of galaxies form? Since our universe moves too slowly to watch, faster-moving computer simulations are created to help find out. A recent effort is TNG50 from IllustrisTNG, an upgrade of the famous Illustris Simulation. The first part of the featured video tracks cosmic gas (mostly hydrogen) as it evolves into galaxies and galaxy clusters from the early universe to today, with brighter colors marking faster moving gas. As the universe matures, gas falls into gravitational wells, galaxies forms, galaxies spin, galaxies collide and merge, all while black holes form in galaxy centers and expel surrounding gas at high speeds. The second half of the video switches to tracking stars, showing a galaxy cluster coming together complete with tidal tails and stellar streams. The outflow from black holes in TNG50 is surprisingly complex and details are being compared with our real universe. Studying how gas coalesced in the early universe helps humanity better understand how our Earth, Sun, and Solar System originally formed.
Can you find supernova 1987A? It isn’t hard — it occurred at the center of the expanding bullseye pattern. Although this stellar detonation was first seen in 1987, light from SN 1987A continued to bounce off clumps of interstellar dust and be reflected to us even many years later. Light echoes recorded between 1988 and 1992 by the Anglo Australian Telescope (AAT) in Australia are shown moving out from the position of the supernova in the featured time-lapse sequence. These images were composed by subtracting an LMC image taken before the supernova light arrived from later LMC images that included the supernova echo. Other prominent light echo sequences include those taken by the EROS2 and SuperMACHO sky monitoring projects. Studies of expanding light echo rings around other supernovas have enabled more accurate determinations of the location, date, and symmetry of these tremendous stellar explosions. Yesterday marked the 32nd anniversary of SN 1987A: the last recoded supernova in or around our Milky Way Galaxy, and the last to be visible to the unaided eye.
Magnificent spiral galaxy NGC 4565 is viewed edge-on from planet Earth. Also known as the Needle Galaxy for its narrow profile, bright NGC 4565 is a stop on many telescopic tours of the northern sky, in the faint but well-groomed constellation Coma Berenices. This sharp, colorful image reveals the galaxy’s bulging central core cut by obscuring dust lanes that lace NGC 4565’s thin galactic plane. An assortment of other background galaxies is included in the pretty field of view, with neighboring galaxy NGC 4562 at the upper right. NGC 4565 itself lies about 40 million light-years distant and spans some 100,000 light-years. Easily spotted with small telescopes, sky enthusiasts consider NGC 4565 to be a prominent celestial masterpiece Messier missed.
Centered in a well-composed celestial still life, pretty, blue vdB 9 is the 9th object in Sidney van den Bergh’s 1966 catalog of reflection nebulae. It shares this telescopic field of view, about twice the size of a full moon on the sky, with stars and dark, obscuring dust clouds in the northerly constellation Cassiopeia. Cosmic dust is preferentially reflecting blue starlight from embedded, hot star SU Cassiopeiae, giving vdB 9 the characteristic bluish tint associated with a classical reflection nebula. SU Cas is a Cepheid variable star, though even at its brightest it is just too faint to be seen with the unaided eye. Still Cepheids play an important role in determining distances in our galaxy and beyond. At the star’s well-known distance of 1,540 light-years, this cosmic canvas would be about 24 light-years across.
It isn’t every night that a comet passes a galaxy. Last Thursday, though, binocular comet C/2018 Y1 (Iwamoto) moved nearly in front of a spiral galaxy of approximately the same brightness: NGC 2903. Comet Iwamoto was discovered late last year and orbits the Sun in a long ellipse. It last visited the inner Solar System during the Middle Ages, around the year 648. The comet reached its closest point to the Sun — between Earth and Mars — on February 6, and its closest point to Earth a few days ago, on February 13. The featured time-lapse video condenses almost three hours into about ten seconds, and was captured last week from Switzerland. At that time Comet Iwamoto, sporting a green coma, was about 10 light minutes distant, while spiral galaxy NGC 2903 remained about 30 million light years away. Two satellites zip diagonally through the field about a third of the way through the video. Typically, a few comets each year become as bright as Comet Iwamoto.
Have you ever seen a dragon in the sky? Although real flying dragons don’t exist, a huge dragon-shaped aurora developed in the sky over Iceland earlier this month. The aurora was caused by a hole in the Sun’s corona that expelled charged particles into a solar wind that followed a changing interplanetary magnetic field to Earth’s magnetosphere. As some of those particles then struck Earth’s atmosphere, they excited atoms which subsequently emitted light: aurora. This iconic display was so enthralling that the photographer’s mother ran out to see it and was captured in the foreground. No sunspots have appeared on the Sun so far in February, making the multiple days of picturesque auroral activity this month somewhat surprising.
NGC 2359 is a helmet-shaped cosmic cloud with wing-like appendages popularly called Thor’s Helmet. Heroically sized even for a Norse god, Thor’s Helmet is about 30 light-years across. In fact, the helmet is more like an interstellar bubble, blown as a fast wind from the bright, massive star near the bubble’s center inflates a region within the surrounding molecular cloud. Known as a Wolf-Rayet star, the central star is an extremely hot giant thought to be in a brief, pre-supernova stage of evolution. NGC 2359 is located about 15,000 light-years away in the constellation Canis Major. The remarkably detailed image is a mixed cocktail of data from broadband and narrowband filters that captures natural looking stars and the glow of the nebula’s filamentary structures. It highlights a blue-green color from strong emission due to oxygen atoms in the glowing gas.
Opportunity had already reached Perseverance Valley by June of 2018. Its view is reconstructed in a colorized mosaic of images taken by the Mars Exploration Rover’s Navcam. In fact, Perseverance Valley is an appropriate name for the destination. Designed for a 90 day mission, Opportunity had traveled across Mars for over 5,000 sols (martian solar days) following a January 2004 landing in Eagle crater. Covering a total distance of over 45 kilometers (28 miles), its intrepid journey of exploration across the Martian landscape has come to a close here. On June 10, 2018, the last transmission from the solar-powered rover was received as a dust storm engulfed the Red Planet. Though the storm has subsided, eight months of attempts to contact Opportunity have not been successful and its trailblazing mission ended after almost 15 years of exploring the surface of Mars.
On Valentine’s Day in 1990, cruising four billion miles from the Sun, the Voyager 1 spacecraft looked back one last time to make this first ever Solar System family portrait. The complete portrait is a 60 frame mosaic made from a vantage point 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. In it, Voyager’s wide angle camera frames sweep through the inner Solar System at the left, linking up with gas giant Neptune, the Solar System’s outermost planet, at the far right. Positions for Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are indicated by letters, while the Sun is the bright spot near the center of the circle of frames. The inset frames for each of the planets are from Voyager’s narrow field camera. Unseen in the portrait are Mercury, too close to the Sun to be detected, and Mars, unfortunately hidden by sunlight scattered in the camera’s optical system. Closer to the Sun than Neptune at the time, small, faint Pluto’s position was not covered.