Mars 2020 from 5,000 Feet


On Thursday this snapshot from a small plane 5,000 feet above Florida’s Space Coast caught a rocket’s trail rising into the blue morning sky. It was July’s third launch of a mission from planet Earth bound for Mars. The Atlas V rocket left Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from Space Launch Complex 41 at 7:50am EDT carrying NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover. The car-sized Perseverance is headed for a landing at Jezero Crater on the Red Planet in February 2021. On board the sophisticated rover is the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.

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The Red Planet Mars


Mars looks pretty sharp in this backyard telescope image captured on July 23 from Hoegaarden, Belgium, planet Earth. The Red Planet’s bright south polar cap is bathed in sunlight at the top of the inverted view, while the dark feature known as Syrtis Major extends toward the right (eastern) edge. Rising around midnight for now, the Red Planet is months away from its own opposition in early October. Telescopic views will improve even more as Earth, in its faster orbit, catches up to Mars, the ruddy disk growing larger and brighter still. The martian Jezero Crater is within the Syrtis Major region. That’s the landing site for NASA’s 2020 Mars Rover Perseverance, scheduled for launch today.

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The Giants of Summer


As Comet NEOWISE sweeps through northern summer skies, Jupiter and Saturn are shining brightly, near opposition. With Jupiter opposite the Sun on July 14 and Saturn on July 21, the giant planets are still near their closest to planet Earth in 2020. Sharing the constellation Sagittarius they are up all night, and offer their best and brightest views at the telescope. Both captured on July 22 from a balcony in Paris these two sharp telescopic images don’t disappoint, showing off what the giant planets are famous for, Saturn’s bright rings and Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. These giants of the Solar System are worth following during 2020. On December 21, skygazers can watch the once-in-20-year great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.

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Normally, Steamboat Point looks cool — but not this cool. Every day, the iconic peak of the Bighorn Mountains is an interesting sight, in particular from US Highway 14 in Wyoming. On some rare days, the rocky vertical ridges look even more incredible when seen in front of a distant lightning storm. Earlier this month, though, something even more unusual happened — the naked-eye Comet NEOWISE rose above it in the middle of the night. Just as a distant lightning storm was occurring in the background. Recognizing a rare opportunity, a determined astrophotographer spent a sleepless night capturing over 1400 images of this unusual triple conjunction. The featured image is among the best of them, with the foreground lit by the Moon off to the right. Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) is now headed back to the outer Solar System, destined to return only in about 6700 years.

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What would it look like to fly through the distant universe? To find out, a team of astronomers estimated the relative distances to over 5,000 galaxies in one of the most distant fields of galaxies ever imaged: the Hubble Ultra Deep Field (HUDF). Because it takes light a long time to cross the universe, most galaxies visible in the featured video are seen when the universe was only a fraction of its current age, were still forming, and have unusual shapes when compared to modern galaxies. No mature looking spiral galaxies such as our Milky Way or the Andromeda galaxy yet exist. Toward the end of the video the virtual observer flies past the farthest galaxies in the HUDF field, recorded to have a redshift past 8. This early class of low luminosity galaxies likely contained energetic stars emitting light that transformed much of the remaining normal matter in the universe from a cold gas to a hot ionized plasma.

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Tianwen 1 Mission to Mars


On July 23, this Long March 5 heavy-lift rocket rose into a blue morning sky from China’s Hainan Island Wenchang Satellite Launch Center. The rocket carried an orbiter, lander, and rover to ask Heavenly Questions on the ambitious Tianwen-1 mission to Mars. In fact Tianwen-1 was the second of three missions scheduled for a July departure to the Red Planet. The United Arab Emirates launched its Amal (Hope) Mars probe on July 19. NASA’s launch of its Mars Perseverance Rover from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, USA is scheduled for July 30. That is the last planned Mars launch for 2020 though. The minimum-energy launch window for an expedition to Mars is coming to a close in 2020 and will reopen in 2022.

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MAGIC NEOWISE


The multi-mirror, 17 meter-diameter MAGIC telescopes reflect this starry night sky from the Roque de los Muchachos European Northern Observatory on the Canary Island of La Palma. MAGIC stands for Major Atmospheric Gamma Imaging Cherenkov and the telescopes can see the brief flashes of optical light produced in particle air showers as high-energy gamma rays impact the Earth’s upper atmosphere. On July 20, two of the three telescopes in view were looking for gamma rays from the center of our Milky Way galaxy. In reflection they show the bright stars of Sagittarius and Scorpius near the galactic center to the southeast. Beyond the segmented-mirror arrays, above the northwest horizon and below the Big Dipper is Comet NEOWISE. NEOWISE stands for Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer. That’s the Earth-orbiting satellite used to discover the comet designated C/2020 F3, but you knew that.

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Fairytale NEOWISE


Comet dust falls through a twilight sky in this dream-like scene, but it’s not part of a fairytale movie. Still, Castle Neuschwanstein, nestled in the Bavarian Alps, did inspire Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. Captured on July 20, the bright streak above the castle towers is likely a Perseid meteor. Though it peaks near mid-August, the annual summer meteor shower is active now. The meteor trail over the fairytale castle can be traced back to the shower’s radiant in the heroic constellation Perseus off the top right of the frame. Perseid meteors are produced by dust from periodic Comet Swift-Tuttle. With its own broad dust tail now sweeping through northern skies the celestial apparition above the distant horizon is planet Earth’s current darling, Comet NEOWISE.

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What is creating the structure in Comet NEOWISE’s tails? Of the two tails evident, the blue ion tail on the left points directly away from the Sun and is pushed out by the flowing and charged solar wind. Structure in the ion tail comes from different rates of expelled blue-glowing ions from the comet’s nucleus, as well as the always complex and continually changing structure of our Sun’s wind. Most unusual for Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE), though, is the wavy structure of its dust tail. This dust tail is pushed out by sunlight, but curves as heavier dust particles are better able to resist this light pressure and continue along a solar orbit. Comet NEOWISE‘s impressive dust-tail striations are not fully understood, as yet, but likely related to rotating streams of sun-reflecting grit liberated by ice melting on its 5-kilometer wide nucleus. The featured 40-image conglomerate, digitally enhanced, was captured three days ago through the dark skies of the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia, China. Comet NEOWISE will make it closest pass to the Earth tomorrow as it moves out from the Sun. The comet, already fading but still visible to the unaided eye, should fade more rapidly as it recedes from the Earth.

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Iron in the Butterfly Nebula


Can stars, like caterpillars, transform themselves into butterflies? No, but in the case of the Butterfly Nebula — it sure looks like it. Though its wingspan covers over 3 light-years and its estimated surface temperature exceeds 200,000 degrees, C, the dying central star of NGC 6302, the featured planetary nebula, has become exceptionally hot, shining brightly in visible and ultraviolet light but hidden from direct view by a dense torus of dust. This sharp close-up was recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope and is reprocessed here to show off the remarkable details of the complex planetary nebula, highlighting in particular light emitted by iron, shown in red. NGC 6302 lies about 4,000 light-years away in the arachnologically correct constellation of the Scorpion (Scorpius). Planetary nebulas evolve from outer atmospheres of stars like our Sun, but usually fade in about 20,000 years.

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