“Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow is that pretty!” Soon after that pronouncement, 50 years ago today, one of the most famous images ever taken was snapped from the orbit of the Moon. Now known as “Earthrise“, the iconic image shows the Earth rising above the limb of the Moon, as taken by the crew of Apollo 8. But the well-known Earthrise image was actually the second image taken of the Earth rising above the lunar limb — it was just the first in color. With modern digital technology, however, the real first Earthrise image — originally in black and white — has now been remastered to have the combined resolution and color of the first three images. Behold! The featured image is a close-up of the picture that Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders was talking about. Thanks to modern technology and human ingenuity, now we can all see it. (Historical note: A different historic black & white image of the Earth setting behind the lunar limb was taken by the robotic Lunar Orbiter 1 two years earlier.)
Large spiral galaxy NGC 4945 is seen nearly edge-on in this cosmic galaxy close-up. It’s almost the size of our Milky Way Galaxy. NGC 4945’s own dusty disk, young blue star clusters, and pink star forming regions stand out in the colorful telescopic frame. About 13 million light-years distant toward the expansive southern constellation Centaurus, NGC 4945 is only about six times farther away than Andromeda, the nearest large spiral galaxy to the Milky Way. Though this galaxy’s central region is largely hidden from view for optical telescopes, X-ray and infrared observations indicate significant high energy emission and star formation in the core of NGC 4945. Its obscured but active nucleus qualifies the gorgeous island universe as a Seyfert galaxy and home to a central supermassive black hole.
Beta Cygni is a single bright star to the naked eye. About 420 light-years away it marks the foot of the Northern Cross, famous asterism in the constellation Cygnus. But a view through the eyepiece of a small telescope will transform it into a beautiful double star, a treasure of the night sky in blue and gold. Beta Cygni is also known as Albireo, designated Albireo AB to indicate its two bright component stars. Their visually striking color difference is illustrated in this telescopic snapshot, along with their associated visible spectrum of starlight shown in insets to the right. Albireo A, top inset, shows the spectrum of a K-type giant star, cooler than the Sun and emitting most of its energy at yellow and red wavelengths. Below, Albireo B has the spectrum of a main sequence star much hotter than the Sun, emitting more energy in blue and violet. Albireo A is known to be a binary star, two stars together orbiting a common center of mass, though the two stars are too close together to be seen separately with a small telescope. Well-separated Albireo A and B most likely represent an optical double star and not a physical binary system because the two components have clearly different measured motions through space.
What will the huge Green Bank Telescope discover tonight? Pictured, the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope (GBT) on the lower right is the largest fully-pointable single-dish radio telescope in the world. With a central dish larger than a football field, the GBT is nestled in the hills of West Virginia, USA in a radio quiet zone where the use of cell phones, WiFi emitters, and even microwave ovens are limited. The GBT explores our universe not only during the night — but during the day, too, since the daytime sky is typically dark in radio waves. Taken in late January, the featured image was planned for months to get the setting location of Orion just right. The image is a composite of a foreground shot taken over a kilometer away from the GBT, and a background shot built up of long exposures during the previous night. The deep background image of Orion is fitting because the GBT is famous for, among many discoveries, mapping the unusual magnetic field in the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex.
What did the first quasars look like? The nearest quasars are now known to involve supermassive black holes in the centers of active galaxies. Gas and dust that falls toward a quasar glows brightly, sometimes outglowing the entire home galaxy. The quasars that formed in the first billion years of the universe are more mysterious, though. Featured, recent data has enabled an artist’s impression of an early-universe quasar as it might have been: centered on a massive black hole, surrounded by sheets of gas and an accretion disk, and expelling a powerful jet. Quasars are among the most distant objects we see and give humanity unique information about the early and intervening universe. The oldest quasars currently known are seen at just short of redshift 8 — only 700 million years after the Big Bang — when the universe was only a few percent of its current age.
Many spiral galaxies have bars across their centers. Even our own Milky Way Galaxy is thought to have a modest central bar. Prominently barred spiral galaxy NGC 6217, featured here, was captured in spectacular detail in this image taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys on the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope in 2009. Visible are dark filamentary dust lanes, young clusters of bright blue stars, red emission nebulas of glowing hydrogen gas, a long bar of stars across the center, and a bright active nucleus that likely houses a supermassive black hole. Light takes about 60 million years to reach us from NGC 6217, which spans about 30,000 light years across and can be found toward the constellation of the Little Bear (Ursa Minor).
Sometimes both heaven and Earth erupt. Colorful auroras erupted unexpectedly a few years ago, with green aurora appearing near the horizon and brilliant bands of red aurora blooming high overhead. A bright Moon lit the foreground of this picturesque scene, while familiar stars could be seen far in the distance. With planning, the careful astrophotographer shot this image mosaic in the field of White Dome Geyser in Yellowstone National Park in the western USA. Sure enough, just after midnight, White Dome erupted — spraying a stream of water and vapor many meters into the air. Geyser water is heated to steam by scalding magma several kilometers below, and rises through rock cracks to the surface. About half of all known geysers occur in Yellowstone National Park. Although the geomagnetic storm that caused the auroras subsided within a day, eruptions of White Dome Geyser continue about every 30 minutes.
The spiky stars in the foreground of this backyard telescopic frame are well within our own Milky Way Galaxy. But the two eye-catching galaxies lie far beyond the Milky Way, at a distance of over 300 million light-years. Their distorted appearance is due to gravitational tides as the pair engage in close encounters. Cataloged as Arp 273 (also as UGC 1810), the galaxies do look peculiar, but interacting galaxies are now understood to be common in the universe. Nearby, the large spiral Andromeda Galaxy is known to be some 2 million light-years away and approaching the Milky Way. The peculiar galaxies of Arp 273 may offer an analog of their far future encounter. Repeated galaxy encounters on a cosmic timescale can ultimately result in a merger into a single galaxy of stars. From our perspective, the bright cores of the Arp 273 galaxies are separated by only a little over 100,000 light-years.
Galactic or open star clusters are young. The swarms of stars are born together near the plane of the Milky Way, but their numbers steadily dwindle as cluster members are ejected by galactic tides and gravitational interactions. Caught in this telescopic frame over three degrees across are three good examples of galactic star clusters, seen toward the southern sky’s nautical constellation Puppis. Below and left, M46 is some 5,500 light-years in the distance. Right of center M47 is only 1,600 light-years away and NGC 2423 (top) is about 2500 light-years distant. Around 300 million years young M46 contains a few hundred stars in a region about 30 light-years across. Sharp eyes can spot a planetary nebula, NGC 2438, at about 11 o’clock against the M46 cluster stars. But that nebula’s central star is billions of years old, and NGC 2438 is likely a foreground object only by chance along the line of sight to youthful M46. Even younger, aged around 80 million years, M47 is a smaller and looser star cluster spanning about 10 light-years. Star cluster NGC 2423 is pushing about 750 million years in age though. NGC 2423 is known to harbor an extrasolar planet, detected orbiting one of its red giant stars.
Dark markings and bright nebulae in this telescopic southern sky view are telltale signs of young stars and active star formation. They lie a mere 650 light-years away, at the boundary of the local bubble and the Chamaeleon molecular cloud complex. Regions with young stars identified as dusty reflection nebulae from the 1946 Cederblad catalog include the C-shaped Ced 110 just above and left of center, and bluish Ced 111 below it. Also a standout in the frame, the orange tinted V-shape of the Chamaeleon Infrared Nebula (Cha IRN) was carved by material streaming from a newly formed low-mass star. The well-composed image spans 1.5 degrees. That’s about 17 light-years at the estimated distance of the nearby Chamaeleon I molecular cloud.