Why is a thin crescent moon never seen far from a horizon? Because the only geometry that gives a thin crescent lunar phase occurs when the Moon appears close to the Sun in the sky. The crescent is not caused by the shadow of the Earth, but by seeing only a small part of the Moon directly illuminated by the Sun. Moreover, the thickest part of the crescent always occurs in the direction of the Sun. In the evening, a thin crescent Moon will set shortly after the Sun and not be seen for the rest of the night. Alternatively, in the morning, a crescent Moon will rise shortly before the Sun after not being seen for most of the night. Pictured two weeks ago, a crescent moon was captured near the horizon, just before sunrise, far behind remnants of the ancient Temple of Poseidon in Greece.
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What’s causing that unusual ray of light extending from the horizon? Dust orbiting the Sun. At certain times of the year, a band of sun-reflecting dust from the inner Solar System appears prominently after sunset or before sunrise and is called zodiacal light. The dust was emitted mostly from faint Jupiter-family comets and slowly spirals into the Sun. The featured HDR image, acquired in mid-February from the Sierra Nevada National Park in Spain, captures the glowing band of zodiacal light going right in front of the bright evening planets Jupiter (upper) and Venus (lower). Emitted from well behind the zodiacal light is a dark night sky that prominently includes the Pleiades star cluster. Jupiter and Venus are slowly switching places in the evening sky, and just in the next few days nearing their closest angular approach.
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What would make a moon look like a walnut? A strange ridge that circles Saturn‘s moon Iapetus‘s equator, visible near the bottom of the featured image, makes it appear similar to a popular edible nut. The origin of the ridge remains unknown, though, with hypotheses including ice that welled up from below, a ring that crashed down from above, and structure left over from its formation perhaps 100 million years ago. Also strange is that about half of Iapetus is so dark that it can nearly disappear when viewed from Earth, while the rest is, reflectively, quite bright. Observations show that the degree of darkness of the terrain is strangely uniform, as if a dark coating was somehow recently applied to an ancient and highly cratered surface. Last, several large impact basins occur around Iapetus, with a 400-kilometer wide crater visible near the image center, surrounded by deep cliffs that drop sharply to the crater floor. The featured image was taken by the Saturn-orbiting Cassini spacecraft during a flyby of Iapetus at the end of 2004.
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On February 22, a young Moon shared the western sky at sunset with bright planets Venus and Jupiter along the ecliptic plane. The beautiful celestial conjunction was visible around planet Earth. But from some locations Jupiter hid for a while, occulted by the crescent lunar disk. The Solar System’s ruling gas giant was captured here just before it disappeared behind the the Moon’s dark edge, seen over the RÃo de la Plata at Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. In the serene river and skyscape Venus is not so shy, shining brightly closer to the horizon through the fading twilight. Next week Venus and Jupiter will appear even closer in your evening sky.
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Planetary nebula Jones-Emberson 1 is the death shroud of a dying Sun-like star. It lies some 1,600 light-years from Earth toward the sharp-eyed constellation Lynx. About 4 light-years across, the expanding remnant of the dying star’s atmosphere was shrugged off into interstellar space, as the star’s central supply of hydrogen and then helium for fusion was finally depleted after billions of years. Visible near the center of the planetary nebula is what remains of the stellar core, a blue-hot white dwarf star. Also known as PK 164 +31.1, the nebula is faint and very difficult to glimpse at a telescope’s eyepiece. But this deep broadband image combining 22 hours of exposure time does show it off in exceptional detail. Stars within our own Milky Way galaxy as well as background galaxies across the universe are scattered through the clear field of view. Ephemeral on the cosmic stage, Jones-Emberson 1 will fade away over the next few thousand years. Its hot, central white dwarf star will take billions of years to cool.
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Peculiar spiral galaxy Arp 78 is found within the boundaries of the head strong constellation Aries. Some 100 million light-years beyond the stars and nebulae of our Milky Way galaxy, the island universe is an enormous 200,000 light-years across. Also known as NGC 772, it sports a prominent, outer spiral arm in this detailed cosmic portrait. Tracking along sweeping dust lanes and lined with young blue star clusters, Arp 78’s overdeveloped spiral arm is pumped-up by galactic-scale gravitational tides. Interactions with its brightest companion galaxy, the more compact NGC 770 seen above and right of the larger spiral, are likely responsible. Embedded in faint star streams revealed in the deep telescopic exposure, NGC 770’s fuzzy, elliptical appearance contrasts nicely with spiky foreground Milky Way stars in matching yellowish hues.
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Our Sun is becoming a busy place. Only two years ago, the Sun was emerging from a solar minimum so quiet that months would go by without even a single sunspot. In contrast, already this year and well ahead of schedule, our Sun is unusually active, already nearing solar activity levels seen a decade ago during the last solar maximum. Our increasingly active Sun was captured two weeks ago sporting numerous interesting features. The image was recorded in a single color of light called Hydrogen Alpha, color-inverted, and false colored. Spicules carpet much of the Sun’s face. The brightening towards the Sun’s edges is caused by increased absorption of relatively cool solar gas and called limb darkening. Just outside the Sun’s disk, several scintillating prominences protrude, while prominences on the Sun’s face are known as filaments and show as light streaks. Magnetically tangled active regions are both dark and light and contain cool sunspots. As our Sun’s magnetic field winds toward solar maximum over the next few years, whether the Sun’s high activity will continue to increase is unknown.
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They are both falling. The water in Yosemite Falls, California, USA, is falling toward the Earth. Comet ZTF is falling toward the Sun. This double cosmic cascade was captured late last month as fading Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) had just passed its closest to planet Earth. The orange star just over the falls is Kochab. With the exception of a brief encounter with a black bear, the featured image was a well-planned composite of a moonlit-foreground and long-duration background exposures – all designed to reconstruct a deep version of an actual single sight. Although Comet ZTF is now fading as it glides back to the outer Solar System, its path is determined by gravity and so it can be considered to still be falling toward the Sun — but backwards.
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There is nothing like this ball of stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. This is surprising because, at first glance, this featured image by the Hubble Space Telescope suggests that star cluster NGC 1850‘s size and shape are reminiscent of the many ancient globular star clusters which roam our own Milky Way Galaxy’s halo. But NGC 1850’s stars are all too young, making it a type of star cluster with no known counterpart in the Milky Way. Moreover, NGC 1850 is also a double star cluster, with a second, compact cluster of stars visible here just to the right of the large cluster’s center. Stars in the large cluster are estimated to be 50 million years young, while stars in the compact cluster are younger still, with an age of about 4 million years. A mere 168,000 light-years distant, NGC 1850 is located near the outskirts of the Large Magellanic Cloud galaxy. The glowing gas filaments across the image left, like supernova remnants in our own galaxy, testify to violent stellar explosions and indicate that short-lived massive stars have recently been present in the region.
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Is this really the famous Pleiades star cluster? Known for its iconic blue stars, the Pleiades is shown here in infrared light where the surrounding dust outshines the stars. Here three infrared colors have been mapped into visual colors (R=24, G=12, B=4.6 microns). The base images were taken by NASA’s orbiting Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) spacecraft. Cataloged as M45 and nicknamed the Seven Sisters, the Pleiades star cluster is by chance situated in a passing dust cloud. The light and winds from the massive Pleiades stars preferentially repel smaller dust particles, causing the dust to become stratified into filaments, as seen. The featured image spans about 20 light years at the distance of the Pleiades, which lies about 450 light years distant toward the constellation of the Bull (Taurus).
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