Animation: Spiral Disk around a Black Hole


What would it look like to orbit a black hole? Many black holes are surrounded by swirling pools of gas known as accretion disks. These disks can be extremely hot, and much of the orbiting gas will eventually fall through the black hole’s event horizon — where it will never been seen again. The featured animation is an artist’s rendering of the curious disk spiraling around the supermassive black hole at the center of spiral galaxy NGC 3147. Gas at the inner edge of this disk is so close to the black hole that it moves unusually fast — at 10 percent of the speed of light. Gas this fast shows relativistic beaming, making the side of the disk heading toward us appear significantly brighter than the side moving away. The animation is based on images of NGC 3147 made recently with the Hubble Space Telescope.

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Human as Spaceship


You are a spaceship soaring through the universe. So is your dog. We all carry with us trillions of microorganisms as we go through life. These multitudes of bacteria, fungi, and archaea have different DNA than you. Collectively called your microbiome, your shipmates outnumber your own cells. Your crew members form communities, help digest food, engage in battles against intruders, and sometimes commute on a liquid superhighway from one end of your body to the other. Much of what your microbiome does, however, remains unknown. You are the captain, but being nice to your crew may allow you to explore more of your local cosmos.

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1901 Photograph: The Orion Nebula


By the turn of the 20th century advances in photography contributed an important tool for astronomers. Improving photographic materials, long exposures, and new telescope designs produced astronomical images with details not visible at the telescopic eyepiece alone. Remarkably recognizable to astrophotographers today, this stunning image of the star forming Orion Nebula was captured in 1901 by American astronomer and telescope designer George Ritchey. The original glass photographic plate, sensitive to green and blue wavelengths, has been digitized and light-to-dark inverted to produce a positive image. His hand written notes indicate a 50 minute long exposure that ended at dawn and a reflecting telescope aperture of 24 inches masked to 18 inches to improve the sharpness of the recorded image. Ritchey’s plates from over a hundred years ago preserve astronomical data and can still be used for exploring astrophysical processes.

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The Elephant s Trunk Nebula in Cepheus


Like an illustration in a galactic Just So Story, the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula winds through the emission nebula and young star cluster complex IC 1396, in the high and far off constellation of Cepheus. Also known as vdB 142, the cosmic elephant’s trunk is over 20 light-years long. This colorful close-up view was recorded through narrow band filters that transmit the light from ionized hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen atoms in the region. The resulting composite highlights the bright swept-back ridges that outline pockets of cool interstellar dust and gas. Such embedded, dark, tendril-shaped clouds contain the raw material for star formation and hide protostars within. Nearly 3,000 light-years distant, the relatively faint IC 1396 complex covers a large region on the sky, spanning over 5 degrees. The dramatic scene spans a 1 degree wide field, about the size of 2 Full Moons.

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The Perseids and the Plough


Despite interfering moonlight, many denizens of planet Earth were able to watch this year’s Perseid meteor shower. This pastoral scene includes local skygazers admiring the shower’s brief, heavenly flashes in predawn hours near peak activity on August 13 from Nalati Grassland in Xinjiang, China. A composite, the image registers seven frames taken during a two hour span recording Perseid meteor streaks against a starry sky. Centered along the horizon is the Plough, the north’s most famous asterism, though some might see the familiar celestial kitchen utensil known as the Big Dipper. Perhaps the year’s most easily enjoyed meteor shower, Perseid meteors are produced as Earth itself sweeps through dust from periodic comet Swift-Tuttle. The dust particles are vaporized at altitudes of 100 kilometers or so as they plow through the atmosphere at 60 kilometers per second.

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Supernova Cannon Expels Pulsar J0002


What could shoot out a neutron star like a cannon ball? A supernova. About 10,000 years ago, the supernova that created the nebular remnant CTB 1 not only destroyed a massive star but blasted its newly formed neutron star core — a pulsar — out into the Milky Way Galaxy. The pulsar, spinning 8.7 times a second, was discovered using downloadable software Einstein@Home searching through data taken by NASA’s orbiting Fermi Gamma-Ray Observatory. Traveling over 1,000 kilometers per second, the pulsar PSR J0002+6216 (J0002 for short) has already left the supernova remnant CTB 1, and is even fast enough to leave our Galaxy. Pictured, the trail of the pulsar is visible extending to the lower left of the supernova remnant. The featured image is a combination of radio images from the VLA and DRAO radio observatories, as well as data archived from NASA’s orbiting IRAS infrared observatory. It is well known that supernovas can act as cannons, and even that pulsars can act as cannonballs — what is not known is how supernovas do it.

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Perseid Meteors over Slovakia


Tonight is a good night to see meteors. Comet dust will rain down on planet Earth, streaking through dark skies during the peak of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. The featured composite image was taken during last year’s Perseids from the Poloniny Dark Sky Park in Slovakia. The unusual building in the foreground is a planetarium on the grounds of Kolonica Observatory. Although the comet dust particles travel parallel to each other, the resulting shower meteors clearly seem to radiate from a single point on the sky in the eponymous constellation Perseus. The radiant effect is due to perspective, as the parallel tracks appear to converge at a distance, like train tracks. The Perseid Meteor Shower is expected to peak after midnight tonight, although unfortunately this year the sky will be brightened by a near full Moon.

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