Leaving planet Earth for a moment, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket arced into the early evening sky last Sunday at 7:27 pm EST. This 3 minute 20 second exposure traces the launch streak over Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Complex 39A. The rocket carried four astronauts en route to the International Space Station on the first flight of a NASA-certified commercial human spacecraft system. Dubbed Resilience, the astronauts’ Crew Dragon spacecraft successfully docked with the orbital outpost one day later, on Monday, November 16. At the conclusion of their six-month stay on the ISS, the Crew-1 astronauts will use their spacecraft return to Earth. Of course about 9 minutes after launch the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage returned to Earth, landing in the Atlantic Ocean on autonomous spaceport drone ship Just Read The Instructions.
Most star clusters are singularly impressive. Open clusters NGC 869 and NGC 884, however, could be considered doubly impressive. Also known as “h and chi Persei”, this unusual double cluster, shown above, is bright enough to be seen from a dark location without even binoculars. Although their discovery surely predates recorded history, the Greek astronomer Hipparchus notably cataloged the double cluster. The clusters are over 7,000 light years distant toward the constellation of Perseus, but are separated by only hundreds of light years. In addition to being physically close together, the clusters’ ages based on their individual stars are similar – evidence that both clusters were likely a product of the same star-forming region.
What’s creating these long glowing streaks in the sky? No one is sure. Known as Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancements (STEVEs), these luminous light-purple sky ribbons may resemble regular auroras, but recent research reveals significant differences. A STEVE‘s great length and unusual colors, when measured precisely, indicate that it may be related to a subauroral ion drift (SAID), a supersonic river of hot atmospheric ions thought previously to be invisible. Some STEVEs are now also thought to be accompanied by green picket fence structures, a series of sky slats that can appear outside of the main auroral oval that does not involve much glowing nitrogen. The featured wide-angle composite image shows a STEVE in a dark sky above Childs Lake, Manitoba, Canada in 2017, crossing in front of the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy.
The month was July, the place was the Greek island of Crete, and the sky was spectacular. Of course there were the usual stars like Polaris, Vega, and Antares — and that common asterism everyone knows: the Big Dipper. But this sky was just getting started. The band of the Milky Way Galaxy stunned as it arched across the night like a bridge made of stars and dust but dotted with red nebula like candy. The planets Saturn and Jupiter were so bright you wanted to stop people on the beach and point them out. The air glowed like a rainbow — but what really grabbed the glory was a comet. Just above the northern horizon, Comet NEOWISE spread its tails like nothing you had ever seen before or might ever see again. Staring in amazement, there was only one thing to do: take a picture.
Why is this galaxy so thin? Many disk galaxies are just as thin as NGC 5866, pictured here, but are not seen edge-on from our vantage point. One galaxy that is situated edge-on is our own Milky Way Galaxy. Classified as a lenticular galaxy, NGC 5866 has numerous and complex dust lanes appearing dark and red, while many of the bright stars in the disk give it a more blue underlying hue. The blue disk of young stars can be seen extending past the dust in the extremely thin galactic plane, while the bulge in the disk center appears tinged more orange from the older and redder stars that likely exist there. Although similar in mass to our Milky Way Galaxy, light takes about 60,000 years to cross NGC 5866, about 30 percent less than light takes to cross our own Galaxy. In general, many disk galaxies are very thin because the gas that formed them collided with itself as it rotated about the gravitational center. Galaxy NGC 5866 lies about 44 million light years distant toward the constellation of the Dragon (Draco).
Yesterday, early morning risers around planet Earth were treated to a waning Moon low in the east as the sky grew bright before dawn. From the Island of Ortigia, Syracuse, Sicily, Italy this simple snapshot found the slender sunlit crescent just before sunrise. Never wandering far from the Sun in Earth’s sky, inner planets Venus and Mercury shared the calm seaside view. Also in the frame, right of the line-up of Luna and planets, is bright star Spica, alpha star of the constellation Virgo and one of the 20 brightest stars in Earth’s night. Tomorrow the Moon will be New. The dark lunar disk means mostly dark nights for planet Earth in the coming week and a good chance to watch the annual Leonid Meteor Shower.
The Tarantula Nebula, also known as 30 Doradus, is more than a thousand light-years in diameter, a giant star forming region within nearby satellite galaxy the Large Magellanic Cloud. About 180 thousand light-years away, it’s the largest, most violent star forming region known in the whole Local Group of galaxies. The cosmic arachnid sprawls across the top of this spectacular view, composed with narrowband filter data centered on emission from ionized hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Within the Tarantula (NGC 2070), intense radiation, stellar winds and supernova shocks from the central young cluster of massive stars, cataloged as R136, energize the nebular glow and shape the spidery filaments. Around the Tarantula are other star forming regions with young star clusters, filaments, and blown-out bubble-shaped clouds. In fact, the frame includes the site of the closest supernova in modern times, SN 1987A, right of center. The rich field of view spans about 2 degrees or 4 full moons, in the southern constellation Dorado. But were the Tarantula Nebula closer, say 1,500 light-years distant like the local star forming Orion Nebula, it would take up half the sky.
With its closest approach to planet Earth scheduled for November 14, this Comet ATLAS (C/2020 M3) was discovered just this summer, another comet found by the NASA funded Asteroid Terrestrial-impact Last Alert System. It won’t get as bright as Comet NEOWISE but it can still be spotted using binoculars, as it currently sweeps through the familiar constellation of Orion. This telephoto field from November 8, blends exposures registered on the comet with exposures registered on Orion’s stars. It creates an effectively deep skyview that shows colors and details you can’t quite see though, even in binoculars. The comet’s telltale greenish coma is toward the upper left, above Orion’s three belt stars lined-up across the frame below center. You’ll also probably spot the Orion Nebula, and famous Horsehead Nebula in the stunning field of view. Of course one of Orion’s belt stars is nearly 2,000 light-years away. On November 14, this comet ATLAS will fly a mere 2.9 light-minutes from Earth.
What color is the Moon? It depends on the night. Outside of the Earth’s atmosphere, the dark Moon, which shines by reflected sunlight, appears a magnificently brown-tinged gray. Viewed from inside the Earth’s atmosphere, though, the moon can appear quite different. The featured image highlights a collection of apparent colors of the full moon documented by one astrophotographer over 10 years from different locations across Italy. A red or yellow colored moon usually indicates a moon seen near the horizon. There, some of the blue light has been scattered away by a long path through the Earth’s atmosphere, sometimes laden with fine dust. A blue-colored moon is more rare and can indicate a moon seen through an atmosphere carrying larger dust particles. What created the purple moon is unclear — it may be a combination of several effects. The last image captures the total lunar eclipse of 2018 July — where the moon, in Earth’s shadow, appeared a faint red — due to light refracted through air around the Earth. The next full moon will occur at the end of this month (moon-th) and is known in some cultures as the Beaver Moon.
This cosmic close-up looks deep inside the Soul Nebula. The dark and brooding dust clouds near the top, outlined by bright ridges of glowing gas, are cataloged as IC 1871. About 25 light-years across, the telescopic field of view spans only a small part of the much larger Heart and Soul nebulae. At an estimated distance of 6,500 light-years the star-forming complex lies within the Perseus spiral arm of our Milky Way Galaxy, seen in planet Earth’s skies toward the constellation Cassiopeia. An example of triggered star formation, the dense star-forming clouds in the Soul Nebula are themselves sculpted by the intense winds and radiation of the region’s massive young stars. In the featured image, stars have been digitally removed to highlight the commotion in the gas and dust.