Have you seen Orion lately? The next few months will be the best for seeing this familiar constellation as it rises continually earlier in the night. However, Orion’s stars and nebulas won’t look quite as colorful to the eye as they do in this fantastic camera image. In the featured image, Orion was captured by camera showing its full colors last month over a Brazilian copal tree from Brazil‘s Central-West Region. Here the cool red giant Betelgeuse takes on a strong orange hue as the brightest star on the far left. Otherwise, Orion’s hot blue stars are numerous, with supergiant Rigel balancing Betelgeuse at the upper right, Bellatrix at the upper left, and Saiph at the lower right. Lined up in Orion’s belt (bottom to top) are Alnitak, Alnilam, and Mintaka all about 1,500 light-years away, born of the constellation’s well studied interstellar clouds. And if a “star” toward the upper right Orion’s sword looks reddish and fuzzy to you, it should. It’s the stellar nursery known as the Great Nebula of Orion.
The center of our Milky Way galaxy can be found some 26,000 light-years away toward the constellation Sagittarius. Even on a dark night, you can’t really see it though. Gaze in that direction, and your sight-line is quickly obscured by intervening interstellar dust. In fact, dark dust clouds, glowing nebulae, and crowded starfieds are packed along the fertile galactic plane and central regions of our galaxy. This annotated view, a mosaic of dark sky images, highlights some favorites, particularly for small telescope or binocular equipped skygazers. The cropped version puts the direction to the galactic center on the far right. It identifies well-known Messier objects like the Lagoon nebula (M8), the Trifid (M20), star cloud M24, and some of E.E. Barnard’s dark markings on the sky. A full version extends the view to the right toward the constellation Scorpius, in all covering over 20 degrees across the center of the Milky Way.
An old Moon rose this morning, its waning sunlit crescent shining just above the eastern horizon before sunrise. But earthshine, light reflected from a bright planet Earth, lit the shadowed portion of the lunar disk and revealed most of a familiar lunar near side to early morning risers. In fact, a description of earthshine in terms of sunlight reflected by Earth’s oceans illuminating the Moon’s dark surface was written over 500 years ago by Leonardo da Vinci. One lunation ago this old Moon also rose above the eastern horizon. Its sunlit crescent and da Vinci glow were captured in stacked exposures from the Badain Jilin Desert of Inner Mongolia, China on August 29, 2019. This year marks the 500th anniversary of Leondardo da Vinci’s death.
The Pelican Nebula is slowly being transformed. IC 5070, the official designation, is divided from the larger North America Nebula by a molecular cloud filled with dark dust. The Pelican, however, receives much study because it is a particularly active mix of star formation and evolving gas clouds. The featured picture was produced in three specific colors — light emitted by sulfur, hydrogen, and oxygen — that can help us to better understand these interactions. The light from young energetic stars is slowly transforming the cold gas to hot gas, with the advancing boundary between the two, known as an ionization front, visible in bright orange on the right. Particularly dense tentacles of cold gas remain. Millions of years from now this nebula might no longer be known as the Pelican, as the balance and placement of stars and gas will surely leave something that appears completely different.
What are these strange shapes on Mars? Defrosting sand dunes. As spring dawned on the Northern Hemisphere of Mars, dunes of sand near the pole, as pictured here in late May by ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, began to thaw. The carbon dioxide and water ice actually sublime in the thin atmosphere directly to gas. Thinner regions of ice typically defrost first revealing sand whose darkness soaks in sunlight and accelerates the thaw. The process might even involve sandy jets exploding through the thinning ice. By summer, spots will expand to encompass the entire dunes. The Martian North Pole is ringed by many similar fields of barchan sand dunes, whose strange, smooth arcs are shaped by persistent Martian winds.
Today is an equinox, a date when day and night are equal. Tomorrow, and every day until the next equinox, the night will be longer than the day in Earth’s northern hemisphere, and the day will be longer than the night in Earth’s southern hemisphere. An equinox occurs midway between the two solstices, when the days and nights are the least equal. The featured picture is a composite of hourly images taken of the Sun above Bursa, Turkey on key days from solstice to equinox to solstice. The bottom Sun band was taken during the north’s winter solstice in 2007 December, when the Sun could not rise very high in the sky nor stay above the horizon very long. This lack of Sun caused winter. The top Sun band was taken during the northern summer solstice in 2008 June, when the Sun rose highest in the sky and stayed above the horizon for more than 12 hours. This abundance of Sun caused summer. The middle band was taken during an equinox in 2008 March, but it is the same sun band that Earthlings see today, the day of the most recent equinox.
Still bright in planet Earth’s night skies, good telescopic views of Saturn and its beautiful rings often make it a star at star parties. But this stunning view of Saturn’s rings and night side just isn’t possible from telescopes closer to the Sun than the outer planet. They can only bring Saturn’s day into view. In fact, this image of Saturn’s slender sunlit crescent with night’s shadow cast across its broad and complex ring system was captured by the Cassini spacecraft. A robot spacecraft from planet Earth, Cassini called Saturn orbit home for 13 years before it was directed to dive into the atmosphere of the gas giant on September 15, 2017. This magnificent mosaic is composed of frames recorded by Cassini’s wide-angle camera only two days before its grand final plunge. Saturn’s night will not be seen again until another spaceship from Earth calls.
Delicate in appearance, these filaments of shocked, glowing gas, are draped across planet Earth’s sky toward the constellation of Cygnus. They form the western part of the Veil Nebula. The Veil Nebula itself is a large supernova remnant, an expanding cloud born of the death explosion of a massive star. Light from the original supernova explosion likely reached Earth over 5,000 years ago. Blasted out in the cataclysmic event, the interstellar shock wave plows through space sweeping up and exciting interstellar material. The glowing filaments are really more like long ripples in a sheet seen almost edge on, remarkably well separated into atomic hydrogen (red) and oxygen (blue-green) gas. Also known as the Cygnus Loop, the Veil Nebula now spans nearly 3 degrees or about 6 times the diameter of the full Moon. While that translates to over 70 light-years at its estimated distance of 1,500 light-years, this telescopic image of the western portion spans about half that distance. Brighter parts of the western Veil are recognized as separate nebulae, including The Witch’s Broom (NGC 6960) along the top of this view and Pickering’s Triangle (NGC 6979) below and left.
What are those colorful rings around the Moon? A corona. Rings like this will sometimes appear when the Moon is seen through thin clouds. The effect is created by the quantum mechanical diffraction of light around individual, similarly-sized water droplets in an intervening but mostly-transparent cloud. Since light of different colors has different wavelengths, each color diffracts differently. Lunar Coronae are one of the few quantum mechanical color effects that can be easily seen with the unaided eye. The featured lunar corona was captured around full Moon above Turin, Italy in 2014. Similar coronae that form around the Sun are usually harder to see because of the Sun’s great brightness.
What energizes the Heart Nebula? First, the large emission nebula dubbed IC 1805 looks, in whole, like a human heart. The nebula glows brightly in red light emitted by its most prominent element: hydrogen. The red glow and the larger shape are all powered by a small group of stars near the nebula’s center. In the center of the Heart Nebula are young stars from the open star cluster Melotte 15 that are eroding away several picturesque dust pillars with their energetic light and winds. The open cluster of stars contains a few bright stars nearly 50 times the mass of our Sun, many dim stars only a fraction of the mass of our Sun, and an absent microquasar that was expelled millions of years ago. The Heart Nebula is located about 7,500 light years away toward the constellation of Cassiopeia. Coincidentally, a small meteor was captured in the foreground during imaging and is visible above the dust pillars. At the top right is the companion Fishhead Nebula.