M42: Inside the Orion Nebula

The Great Nebula in Orion, an immense, nearby starbirth region, is probably the most famous of all astronomical nebulas. Here, glowing gas surrounds hot young stars at the edge of an immense interstellar molecular cloud only 1500 light-years away. In the featured deep image in assigned colors highlighted by emission in oxygen and hydrogen, wisps and sheets of dust and gas are particularly evident. The Great Nebula in Orion can be found with the unaided eye near the easily identifiable belt of three stars in the popular constellation Orion. In addition to housing a bright open cluster of stars known as the Trapezium, the Orion Nebula contains many stellar nurseries. These nurseries contain much hydrogen gas, hot young stars, proplyds, and stellar jets spewing material at high speeds. Also known as M42, the Orion Nebula spans about 40 light years and is located in the same spiral arm of our Galaxy as the Sun.

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Curiosity Rover Finds a Clay Cache on Mars

Why is there clay on Mars? On Earth, clay can form at the bottom of a peaceful lake when specific minerals trap water. At the pictured site on Mars, the robotic rover Curiosity drilled into two rocks and found the highest concentration of clay yet. The clay cache is considered addition evidence that Gale Crater once held water in the distant past. Pictured, 57 images taken by Curiosity have been combined into a selfie. The images were taken by a camera at the end of its robotic arm. Many details of the car-sized rover are visible, including its rugged wheels, numerous scientific instruments, and a high mast that contains camera “eyes”, one of which can shoot out an infrared laser beam. Curiosity continues to roll around and up Mount Sharp — in the center of Gale Crater — in a search for new clues about the ancient history of Mars and whether or not the red planet once had conditions that could support life.

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The Space Station Crosses a Spotless Sun

Typically, the International Space Station is visible only at night. Slowly drifting across the night sky as it orbits the Earth, the International Space Station (ISS) can be seen as a bright spot about once a month from many locations. The ISS is then visible only just after sunset or just before sunrise because it shines by reflected sunlight — once the ISS enters the Earth’s shadow, it will drop out of sight. The only occasion when the ISS is visible during the day is when it passes right in front of the Sun. Then, it passes so quickly that only cameras taking short exposures can visually freeze the ISS’s silhouette onto the background Sun. The featured picture did exactly that — it is actually a series of images taken a month ago from Santa Fe, Argentina with perfect timing. This image series was later combined with a separate image highlighting the texture of the spotless Sun, and an image bringing up the Sun’s prominences around the edge. At an unusually low Solar Minimum, the Sun has gone without sunspots now for most of 2019.

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Ghost Aurora over Canada

What does this aurora look like to you? While braving the cold to watch the skies above northern Canada early one morning in 2013, a most unusual aurora appeared. The aurora definitely appeared to be shaped like something , but what? Two ghostly possibilities recorded by the astrophotographer were “witch” and “goddess of dawn”, but please feel free to suggest your own Halloween-enhanced impressions. Regardless of fantastical pareidolic interpretations, the pictured aurora had a typical green color and was surely caused by the scientifically commonplace action of high energy particles from space interacting with oxygen in Earth’s upper atmosphere. In the image foreground, at the bottom, is a frozen Alexandra Falls, while evergreen trees cross the middle.

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Gravity s Grin

Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, published over 100 years ago, predicted the phenomenon of gravitational lensing. And that’s what gives these distant galaxies such a whimsical appearance, seen through the looking glass of X-ray and optical image data from the Chandra and Hubble space telescopes. Nicknamed the Cheshire Cat galaxy group, the group’s two large elliptical galaxies are suggestively framed by arcs. The arcs are optical images of distant background galaxies lensed by the foreground group’s total distribution of gravitational mass. Of course, that gravitational mass is dominated by dark matter. The two large elliptical “eye” galaxies represent the brightest members of their own galaxy groups which are merging. Their relative collisional speed of nearly 1,350 kilometers/second heats gas to millions of degrees producing the X-ray glow shown in purple hues. Curiouser about galaxy group mergers? The Cheshire Cat group grins in the constellation Ursa Major, some 4.6 billion light-years away.

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The Ghosts of Cassiopeia

These bright rims and flowing shapes look ghostly on a cosmic scale. A telescopic view toward the constellation Cassiopeia, the colorful skyscape features swept-back, comet-shaped clouds IC 59 (left) and IC 63. About 600 light-years distant, the clouds aren’t actually ghosts. They are slowly disappearing though, under the influence of energetic radiation from hot,luminous star gamma Cas. Gamma Cas is physically located only 3 to 4 light-years from the nebulae, the bright star just above and left in the frame. Slightly closer to gamma Cas, IC 63 is dominated by red H-alpha light emitted as hydrogen atoms ionized by the star’s ultraviolet radiation recombine with electrons. Farther from the star, IC 59 shows proportionally less H-alpha emission but more of the characteristic blue tint of dust reflected star light. The field of view spans over 1 degree or 10 light-years at the estimated distance of gamma Cas and friends.

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Dark Seahorse in Cepheus

Light-years across, this suggestive shape known as the Seahorse Nebula appears in silhouette against a rich, luminous background of stars. Seen toward the royal northern constellation of Cepheus, the dusty, obscuring clouds are part of a Milky Way molecular cloud some 1,200 light-years distant. It is also listed as Barnard 150 (B150), one of 182 dark markings of the sky cataloged in the early 20th century by astronomer E. E. Barnard. Packs of low mass stars are forming within from collapsing cores only visible at long infrared wavelengths. Still, colorful stars in Cepheus add to the pretty, galactic skyscape.

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Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh

The painting Starry Night is one of the most famous icons of the night sky ever created. The scene was painted by Vincent van Gogh in southern France in 1889. The swirling style of Starry Night appears, to many, to make the night sky come alive. Although van Gogh frequently portrayed real settings in his paintings, art historians do not agree on precisely what stars and planets are being depicted in Starry Night. The style of Starry Night is post-impressionism, a popular painting style at the end of the nineteenth century. The original Starry Night painting hangs in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, New York, USA.

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Night Sky Reflections from the Worlds Largest Mirror

What’s being reflected in the world’s largest mirror? Stars, galaxies, and a planet. Many of these stars are confined to the grand arch that runs across the image, an arch that is the central plane of our home Milky Way Galaxy. Inside the arch is another galaxy — the neighboring Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC). Stars that are individually visible include Antares on the far left and Sirius on the far right. The planet Jupiter shines brightly just below Antares. The featured picture is composed of 15 vertical frames taken consecutively over ten minutes from the Uyuni Salt Flat in Bolivia. Uyuni Salt Flat (Salar de Uyuni) is the largest salt flat on Earth and is so large and so extraordinarily flat that, after a rain, it can become the world’s largest mirror — spanning 130 kilometers. This expansive mirror was captured in early April reflecting each of the galaxies, stars, and planet mentioned above.

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A Mercury Transit Music Video from SDO

What’s that small black dot moving across the Sun? Mercury. Possibly the clearest view of Mercury crossing in front of the Sun in 2016 May was from Earth orbit. The Solar Dynamics Observatory obtained an uninterrupted vista recording it not only in optical light but also in bands of ultraviolet light. Featured here is a composite movie of the crossing set to music. Although the event might prove successful scientifically for better determining components of Mercury’ ultra-thin atmosphere, the event surely proved successful culturally by involving people throughout the world in observing a rare astronomical phenomenon. Many spectacular images of this Mercury transit from around (and above) the globe were proudly displayed. The next transit of Mercury will take place in three weeks: on 2019 November 11.

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