Is our universe haunted? It might look that way on this dark matter map. The gravity of unseen dark matter is the leading explanation for why galaxies rotate so fast, why galaxies orbit clusters so fast, why gravitational lenses so strongly deflect light, and why visible matter is distributed as it is both in the local universe and on the cosmic microwave background. The featured image from the American Museum of Natural History‘s Hayden Planetarium Space Show Dark Universe highlights one example of how pervasive dark matter might haunt our universe. In this frame from a detailed computer simulation, complex filaments of dark matter, shown in black, are strewn about the universe like spider webs, while the relatively rare clumps of familiar baryonic matter are colored orange. These simulations are good statistical matches to astronomical observations. In what is perhaps a scarier turn of events, dark matter — although quite strange and in an unknown form — is no longer thought to be the strangest source of gravity in the universe. That honor now falls to dark energy, a more uniform source of repulsive gravity that seems to now dominate the expansion of the entire universe.
If you see this as a monster’s face, don’t panic. It’s only pareidolia, often experienced as the tendency to see faces in patterns of light and shadow. In fact, the startling visual scene is actually a 180 degree panorama of Northern Lights, digitally mirrored like inkblots on a folded piece of paper. Frames used to construct it were captured on a September night from the middle of a waterfall-crossing suspension bridge in Jamtland, Sweden. With geomagnetic storms triggered by recent solar activity, auroral displays could be very active at planet Earth’s high latitudes in the coming days. But if you see a monster’s face in your own neighborhood tomorrow night, it might just be Halloween.
Spooky shapes seem to haunt this dusty expanse, drifting through the night in the royal constellation Cepheus. Of course, the shapes are cosmic dust clouds visible in dimly reflected starlight. Far from your own neighborhood, they lurk above the plane of the Milky Way at the edge of the Cepheus Flare molecular cloud complex some 1,200 light-years away. Over 2 light-years across and brighter than most of the other ghostly apparitions, vdB 141 or Sh2-136 is also known as the Ghost Nebula, seen at the right of the starry field of view. Inside the nebula are the telltale signs of dense cores collapsing in the early stages of star formation. With the eerie hue of dust reflecting bluish light from hot young stars of NGC 7023, the Iris Nebula stands out against the dark just left of center. In the broad telescopic frame, these fertile interstellar dust fields stretch almost seven full moons across the sky.
As far as ghosts go, Mirach’s Ghost isn’t really that scary. Mirach’s Ghost is just a faint, fuzzy galaxy, well known to astronomers, that happens to be seen nearly along the line-of-sight to Mirach, a bright star. Centered in this star field, Mirach is also called Beta Andromedae. About 200 light-years distant, Mirach is a red giant star, cooler than the Sun but much larger and so intrinsically much brighter than our parent star. In most telescopic views, glare and diffraction spikes tend to hide things that lie near Mirach and make the faint, fuzzy galaxy look like a ghostly internal reflection of the almost overwhelming starlight. Still, appearing in this sharp image just above and to the right of Mirach, Mirach’s Ghost is cataloged as galaxy NGC 404 and is estimated to be some 10 million light-years away.
Do you see the bat? It haunts this cosmic close-up of the eastern Veil Nebula. The Veil Nebula itself is a large supernova remnant, the expanding debris cloud from the death explosion of a massive star. While the Veil is roughly circular in shape and covers nearly 3 degrees on the sky toward the constellation of the Swan (Cygnus), NGC 6995, known informally as the Bat Nebula, spans only 1/2 degree, about the apparent size of the Moon. That translates to 12 light-years at the Veil’s estimated distance, a reassuring 1,400 light-years from planet Earth. In the composite of image data recorded through narrow band filters, emission from hydrogen atoms in the remnant is shown in red with strong emission from oxygen atoms shown in hues of blue. Of course, in the western part of the Veil lies another seasonal apparition: the Witch’s Broom Nebula.
Observe the graceful twirl of our Solar System’s largest planet. Many interesting features of Jupiter’s enigmatic atmosphere, including dark belts and light zones, can be followed in detail. A careful inspection will reveal that different cloud layers rotate at slightly different speeds. The famous Great Red Spot is not visible at first — but soon rotates into view. Other smaller storm systems occasionally appear. As large as Jupiter is, it rotates in only 10 hours. Our small Earth, by comparison, takes 24 hours to complete a spin cycle. The featured high-resolution time-lapse video was captured over five nights earlier this month by a mid-sized telescope on an apartment balcony in Paris, France. Since hydrogen and helium gas are colorless, and those elements compose most of Jupiter’s expansive atmosphere, what trace elements create the observed colors of Jupiter’s clouds remains a topic of research.
Does the road to our galaxy’s center go through Monument Valley? It doesn’t have to, but if your road does — take a picture. In this case, the road is US Route 163 and iconic buttes on the Navajo National Reservation populate the horizon. The band of Milky Way Galaxy stretches down from the sky and appears to be a continuation of the road on Earth. Filaments of dust darken the Milky Way, in contrast to billions of bright stars and several colorful glowing gas clouds including the Lagoon and Trifid nebulas. The featured picture is a composite of images taken with the same camera and from the same location — Forest Gump Point in Utah, USA. The foreground was taken just after sunset in early September during the blue hour, while the background is a mosaic of four exposures captured a few hours later.
Halloween’s origin is ancient and astronomical. Since the fifth century BC, Halloween has been celebrated as a cross-quarter day, a day halfway between an equinox (equal day / equal night) and a solstice (minimum day / maximum night in the northern hemisphere). With a modern calendar however, even though Halloween occurs next week, the real cross-quarter day will occur the week after. Another cross-quarter day is Groundhog Day. Halloween’s modern celebration retains historic roots in dressing to scare away the spirits of the dead. Perhaps a fitting tribute to this ancient holiday is this view of the Ghost Head Nebula taken with the Hubble Space Telescope. Similar to the icon of a fictional ghost, NGC 2080 is actually a star forming region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our own Milky Way Galaxy. The Ghost Head Nebula (NGC 2080) spans about 50 light-years and is shown in representative colors.
Put on your red/blue glasses and float next to asteroid 101955 Bennu. Shaped like a spinning toy top with boulders littering its rough surface, the tiny Solar System world is about one Empire State Building (less than 500 meters) across. Frames used to construct this 3D anaglyph were taken by PolyCam on the OSIRIS_REx spacecraft on December 3, 2018 from a distance of about 80 kilometers. With a sample from the asteroid’s rocky surface on board, OSIRIS_REx departed Bennu’s vicinity this May and is now enroute to planet Earth. The robotic spacecraft is scheduled to return the sample to Earth in September 2023.
This pretty field of view spans over 2 degrees or 4 full moons on the sky, filled with stars toward the constellation Taurus, the Bull. Above and right of center in the frame you can spot the faint fuzzy reddish appearance of Messier 1 (M1), also known as the Crab Nebula. M1 is the first object in 18th century comet hunter Charles Messier’s famous catalog of things which are definitely not comets. Made from image data captured this October 11, there is a comet in the picture though. Below center and left lies the faint greenish coma and dusty tail of periodic comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko, also known as Rosetta’s comet. In the 21st century, it became the final resting place of robots from planet Earth. Rosetta’s comet is now returning to the inner solar system, sweeping toward its next perihelion or closest approach to the Sun, on November 2. Too faint to be seen by eye alone, the comet’s next perigee or closest approach to Earth will be November 12.