How did the first stars form? To help find out, the SPHINX computer simulation of star formation in the very early universe was created, some results of which are shown in the featured video. Time since the Big Bang is shown in millions of years on the upper left. Even 100 million years after the Big Bang, matter was spread too uniformly across the cosmos for stars to be born. Besides background radiation, the universe was dark. Soon, slight matter clumps rich in hydrogen gas begin to coalesce into the first stars. In the time-lapse video, purple denotes gas, white denotes light, and gold shows radiation so energetic that it ionizes hydrogen, breaking it up into charged electrons and protons. The gold-colored regions also track the most massive stars that die with powerful supernovas. The inset circle highlights a central region that is becoming a galaxy. The simulation continues until the universe was about 550 million years old. To assess the accuracy of the SPHINX simulations and the assumptions that went into them, the results are not only being compared to current deep observations, but will also be compared with more direct observations of the early universe planned with NASA’s pending James Web Space Telescope.
Few cosmic vistas excite the imagination like the Orion Nebula. Also known as M42, the nebula’s glowing gas surrounds hot young stars at the edge of an immense interstellar molecular cloud only 1,500 light-years away. The Orion Nebula offers one of the best opportunities to study how stars are born partly because it is the nearest large star-forming region, but also because the nebula’s energetic stars have blown away obscuring gas and dust clouds that would otherwise block our view – providing an intimate look at a range of ongoing stages of starbirth and evolution. The featured image of the Orion Nebula is among the sharpest ever, constructed using data from the Hubble Space Telescope. The entire Orion Nebula spans about 40 light years and is located in the same spiral arm of our Galaxy as the Sun.
It may look like a paper Moon. Sailing past a canvas Sun. But those are not cardboard clouds. And it’s not make believe.�� The featured picture of an orange colored sky is real — a digital composite of two exposures of the solar eclipse that occurred earlier this month. The first exposure was taken with a regular telescope that captured an overexposed Sun and an underexposed Moon, while the second image was taken with a solar telescope that captured details of the chromosphere of the background Sun. The Sun’s canvas-like texture was brought up by imaging in a very specific shade of red emitted by hydrogen. Several prominences can be seen around the Sun’s edge. The image was captured just before sunset from Xilingol, Inner Mongolia, China. It’s also not make-believe to imagine that the Moon is made of dense rock, the Sun is made of hot gas, and clouds are made of floating droplets of water and ice.
What drives auroras on Saturn? To help find out, scientists have sorted through hundreds of infrared images of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft for other purposes, trying to find enough aurora images to correlate changes and make movies. Once made, some movies clearly show that Saturnian auroras can change not only with the angle of the Sun, but also as the planet rotates. Furthermore, some auroral changes appear related to waves in Saturn’s magnetosphere likely caused by Saturn’s moons. Pictured here, a false-colored image taken in 2007 shows Saturn in three bands of infrared light. The rings reflect relatively blue sunlight, while the planet itself glows in comparatively low energy red. A band of southern aurora in visible in green. In has recently been found that auroras heat Saturn’s upper atmosphere. Understanding Saturn’s auroras is a path toward a better understanding of Earth’s auroras.
These two panels, composed of video frames made with a safe solar telescope and hydrogen alpha filter, show remarkably sharp details on the solar disk and giant prominences along the Sun’s edge on June 6 (top) and June 18. Taken from Beijing, China, they also show a transit of the International Space Station and China’s new Tiangong Space Station in silhouette against the bright Sun. The International Space Station is near center in the bottom panel, crossing the solar disk left of bright active region AR2833 and below a large looping solar filament. The Chinese space station is below solar active region AR2827 and right of center in the top panel, seen as a smaller, combined “+” and “-” shape. The pictures of the transiting orbital outposts were taken with the same equipment and at the same pixel scale, with the International Space Station some 492 kilometers away. The Chinese space station was over 400 kilometers from the camera.
How far can you see? The Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light years away, is the most distant object easily seen by the unaided eye. Other denizens of the night sky, like stars, clusters, and nebulae, are typically hundreds to thousands of light-years distant. That’s far beyond the Solar System but well within our own Milky Way Galaxy. Also known as M31, the external galaxy poses directly above a chimney in this well-planned deep night skyscape from an old mine in southern Portugal. The image was captured in a single exposure tracking the sky, so the foreground is slightly blurred by the camera’s motion while Andromeda itself looms large. The galaxy’s brighter central region, normally all that’s visible to the naked-eye, can be seen extending to spiral arms with fainter outer reaches spanning over 4 full moons across the sky. Of course in only 5 billion years or so, the stars of Andromeda could span the entire night sky as the Andromeda Galaxy merges with the Milky Way.
Grand design spiral galaxy Messier 99 looks majestic on a truly cosmic scale. This recently processed full galaxy portrait stretches over 70,000 light-years across M99. The sharp view is a combination of ultraviolet, visible, and infrared image data from the Hubble Space Telescope. About 50 million light-years distant toward the well-groomed constellation Coma Bernices, the face-on spiral is a member of the nearby Virgo Galaxy Cluster. Also cataloged as NGC 4254, a close encounter with another Virgo cluster member has likely influenced the shape of its well-defined, blue spiral arms.
How do stars form? Most form in giant molecular clouds located in the central disk of a galaxy. The process is started, influenced, and limited by the stellar winds, jets, high energy starlight, and supernova explosions of previously existing stars. The featured video shows these complex interactions as computed by the STARFORGE simulation of a gas cloud 20,000 times the mass of our Sun. In the time-lapse visualization, lighter regions indicate denser gas, color encodes the gas speed (purple is slow, orange is fast), while dots indicate the positions of newly formed stars. As the video begins, a gas cloud spanning about 50 light years begins to condense under its own gravity. Within 2 million years, the first stars form, while newly formed massive stars are seen to expel impressive jets. The simulation is frozen after 4.3 million years, and the volume then rotated to gain a three-dimensional perspective. Much remains unknown about star formation, including the effect of the jets in limiting the masses of subsequently formed stars.
How are jets created during star formation? No one is sure, although recent images of the young star system HD 163296 are quite illuminating. The central star in the featured image is still forming but seen already surrounded by a rotating disk and an outward moving jet. The disk is shown in radio waves taken by the Atacama Large Millimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile, and show gaps likely created by the gravity of very-young planets. The jet, shown in visible light taken by the Very Large Telescope (VLT, also in Chile), expels fast-moving gas — mostly hydrogen — from the disk center. The system spans hundreds of times the Earth-Sun distance (au). Details of these new observations are being interpreted to bolster conjectures that the jets are generated and shaped, at least in part, by magnetic fields in the rotating disk. Future observations of HD 163296 and other similar star-forming systems may help fill in details.
Why does this galaxy have such a long tail? In this stunning vista, based on image data from the Hubble Legacy Archive, distant galaxies form a dramatic backdrop for disrupted spiral galaxy Arp 188, the Tadpole Galaxy. The cosmic tadpole is a mere 420 million light-years distant toward the northern constellation of the Dragon (Draco). Its eye-catching tail is about 280 thousand light-years long and features massive, bright blue star clusters. One story goes that a more compact intruder galaxy crossed in front of Arp 188 – from right to left in this view – and was slung around behind the Tadpole by their gravitational attraction. During the close encounter, tidal forces drew out the spiral galaxy’s stars, gas, and dust forming the spectacular tail. The intruder galaxy itself, estimated to lie about 300 thousand light-years behind the Tadpole, can be seen through foreground spiral arms at the upper right. Following its terrestrial namesake, the Tadpole Galaxy will likely lose its tail as it grows older, the tail’s star clusters forming smaller satellites of the large spiral galaxy.