Is this what will become of our Sun? Quite possibly. The first hint of our Sun‘s future was discovered inadvertently in 1764. At that time, Charles Messier was compiling a list of diffuse objects not to be confused with comets. The 27th object on Messier’s list, now known as M27 or the Dumbbell Nebula, is a planetary nebula, one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky and visible with binoculars toward the constellation of the Fox (Vulpecula). It takes light about 1000 years to reach us from M27, featured here in colors emitted by sulfur (red), hydrogen (green) and oxygen (blue). We now know that in about 6 billion years, our Sun will shed its outer gases into a planetary nebula like M27, while its remaining center will become an X-ray hot white dwarf star. Understanding the physics and significance of M27 was well beyond 18th century science, though. Even today, many things remain mysterious about planetary nebulas, including how their intricate shapes are created.
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What glows there? The answer depends: sea or sky? In the sea, the unusual blue glow is bioluminescence. Specifically, the glimmer arises from Noctiluca scintillans, single-celled plankton stimulated by the lapping waves. The plankton use their glow to startle and illuminate predators. This mid-February display on an island in the Maldives was so intense that the astrophotographer described it as a turquoise wonderland. In the sky, by contrast, are the more familiar glows of stars and nebulas. The white band rising from the artificially-illuminated green plants is created by billions of stars in the central disk of our Milky Way Galaxy. Also visible in the sky is the star cluster Omega Centauri, toward the left, and the famous Southern Cross asterism in the center. Red-glowing nebulas include the bright Carina Nebula, just right of center, and the expansive Gum Nebula on the upper right.
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This asteroid has a moon. The robot spacecraft Galileo on route to Jupiter in 1993 encountered and photographed two asteroids during its long interplanetary voyage. The second minor planet it photographed, 243 Ida, was unexpectedly discovered to have a moon. The tiny moon, Dactyl, is only about 1.6 kilometers across and seen as a small dot on the right of the sharpened featured image. In contrast, the potato-shaped Ida is much larger, measuring about 60 kilometers long and 25 km wide. Dactyl is the first moon of an asteroid ever discovered — now many asteroids are known to have moons. The names Ida and Dactyl are from Greek mythology.
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Gliding through the outer Solar System, in 1989 the Voyager 2 spacecraft looked toward the Sun to find this view of most distant planet Neptune and its moon Triton together in a crescent phase. The elegant image of ice-giant planet and largest moon was taken from behind just after Voyager’s closest approach. It could not have been taken from Earth because the most distant planet never shows a crescent phase to sunward eyes. Heading for the heliopause and beyond, the spacecraft’s parting vantage point also robs Neptune of its familiar blue hue.
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Galaxies of the Virgo Cluster are scattered across this nearly 4 degree wide telescopic field of view. About 50 million light-years distant, the Virgo Cluster is the closest large galaxy cluster to our own local galaxy group. Prominent here are Virgo’s bright elliptical galaxies Messier catalog, M87 at bottom center, and M84 and M86 (top to bottom) near top left. M84 and M86 are recognized as part of Markarian’s Chain, a visually striking line-up of galaxies on the left side of this frame. Near the middle of the chain lies an intriguing interacting pair of galaxies, NGC 4438 and NGC 4435, known to some as Markarian’s Eyes. Of course giant elliptical galaxy M87 dominates the Virgo cluster. It’s the home of a super massive black hole, the first black hole ever imaged by planet Earth’s Event Horizon Telescope.
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The Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543) is one of the best known planetary nebulae in the sky. Its more familiar outlines are seen in the brighter central region of the nebula in this impressive wide-angle view. But this wide and deep image combining data from two telescopes also reveals its extremely faint outer halo. At an estimated distance of 3,000 light-years, the faint outer halo is over 5 light-years across. Planetary nebulae have long been appreciated as a final phase in the life of a sun-like star. More recently, some planetary nebulae are found to have halos like this one, likely formed of material shrugged off during earlier episodes in the star’s evolution. While the planetary nebula phase is thought to last for around 10,000 years, astronomers estimate the age of the outer filamentary portions of this halo to be 50,000 to 90,000 years. Visible on the right, some 50 million light-years beyond the watchful planetary nebula, lies spiral galaxy NGC 6552.
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Sometimes we witness the Moon moving directly in front of — called occulting — one of the planets in our Solar System. Earlier this month that planet was Jupiter. Captured here was the moment when Jupiter re-appeared from behind the surface of our Moon. The Moon was in its third quarter, two days before the dark New Moon. Now, our Moon is continuously half lit by the Sun, but when in its third quarter, relatively little of that half can be seen from the Earth. Pictured, the Moon itself was aligned behind the famous Lick Observatory in California, USA, on the summit of Mount Hamilton. Coincidentally, Lick enabled the discovery of a moon of Jupiter: Amalthea, the last visually detected moon of Jupiter after Galileo‘s observations.
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Big storms are different on Jupiter. On Earth, huge hurricanes and colossal cyclones are centered on regions of low pressure, but on Jupiter, it is the high-pressure, anti-cyclone storms that are the largest. On Earth, large storms can last weeks, but on Jupiter they can last years. On Earth, large storms can be as large as a country, but on Jupiter, large storms can be as large as planet Earth. Both types of storms are known to exhibit lightning. The featured image of Jupiter’s clouds was composed from images and data captured by the robotic Juno spacecraft as it swooped close to the massive planet in August 2020.Â A swirling white oval is visible nearby, while numerous smaller cloud swirls extend into the distance.Â On Jupiter, light-colored clouds are usually higher up than dark clouds. Despite their differences, studying storm clouds on distant Jupiter provides insights into storms and other weather patterns on familiar Earth.Â
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A nearby star has exploded and humanity’s telescopes are turning to monitor it. The supernova, dubbed SN 2023ifx, was discovered by Japanese astronomer Koichi Itagaki three days ago and subsequently located on automated images from the Zwicky Transient Facility two days earlier. SN 2023ifx occurred in the photogenic Pinwheel Galaxy M101, which, being only about 21 million light years away, makes it the closest supernova seen in the past five years, the second closest in the past 10 years, and the second supernova found in M101 in the past 15 years. Rapid follow up observations already indicate that SN 2023ifx is a Type II supernova, an explosion that occurs after a massive star runs out of nuclear fuel and collapses. The featured image shows home spiral galaxy two days ago with the supernova highlighted, while the roll-over image shows the same galaxy a month before. SN 2023ifx will likely brighten and remain visible to telescopes for months. Studying such a close and young Type II supernova may yield new clues about massive stars and how they explode.
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Is this an alien? Probably not, but of all the animals on Earth, the tardigrade might be the best candidate. That’s because tardigrades are known to be able to go for decades without food or water, to survive temperatures from near absolute zero to well above the boiling point of water, to survive pressures from near zero to well above that on ocean floors, and to survive direct exposure to dangerous radiations. The far-ranging survivability of these extremophiles was tested in 2011 outside an orbiting space shuttle. Tardigrades are so durable partly because they can repair their own DNA and reduce their body water content to a few percent. Some of these miniature water-bears almost became extraterrestrials in 2011 when they were launched toward to the Martian moon Phobos, and again in 2021 when they were launched toward Earth’s own moon, but the former launch failed, and the latter landing crashed. Tardigrades are more common than humans across most of the Earth. Pictured here in a color-enhanced electron micrograph, a millimeter-long tardigrade crawls on moss.
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