The comet PanSTARRS, also known as the blue comet (C/2016 R2), really is near the lower left edge of this stunning, wide field view recorded on January 13. Spanning nearly 20 degrees on the sky, the cosmic landscape is explored by well-exposed and processed frames from a sensitive digital camera. It consists of colorful clouds and dusty dark nebulae otherwise too faint for your eye to see, though. At top right, the California Nebula (aka NGC 1499) does have a familiar shape. Its coastline is over 60 light-years long and lies some 1,500 light-years away. The nebula’s pronounced reddish glow is from hydrogen atoms ionized by luminous blue star Xi Persei just below it. Near bottom center, the famous Pleiades star cluster is some 400 light-years distant and around 15 light-years across. Its spectacular blue color is due to the reflection of starlight by interstellar dust. In between are hot stars of the Perseus OB2 association and dusty, dark nebulae along the edge of the nearby, massive Taurus and Perseus molecular clouds. Emission from unusually abundant ionized carbon monoxide (CO+) molecules fluorescing in sunlight is largely responsible for the telltale blue tint of the remarkable comet’s tail. The comet was about 17 light minutes from Earth.
One of our Solar System’s most tantalizing worlds, Enceladus is backlit by the Sun in this Cassini spacecraft image from November 1, 2009. The dramatic illumination reveals the plumes that continuously spew into space from the south pole of Saturn’s 500 kilometer diameter moon. Discovered by Cassini in 2005, the icy plumes are likely connected to an ocean beneath the ice shell of Enceladus. They supply material directly to Saturn’s outer, tenuous E ring and make the surface of Enceladus as reflective as snow. Across the scene, Saturn’s icy rings scatter sunlight toward Cassini’s cameras. Beyond the rings, the night side of 80 kilometer diameter moon Pandora is faintly lit by Saturnlight.
What’s that inside the Heart Nebula? First, the large emission nebula dubbed IC 1805 looks, in whole, like a human heart. It’s shape perhaps fitting of the Valentine’s Day, this heart glows brightly in red light emitted by its most prominent element: hydrogen. The red glow and the larger shape are all created by a small group of stars near the nebula’s center. In the heart of the Heart Nebula are young stars from the open star cluster Melotte 15 that are eroding away several picturesque dust pillars with their energetic light and winds. The open cluster of stars contains a few bright stars nearly 50 times the mass of our Sun, many dim stars only a fraction of the mass of our Sun, and an absent microquasar that was expelled millions of years ago. The Heart Nebula is located about 7,500 light years away toward the constellation of the mythological Queen of Aethiopia (Cassiopeia).
Last week, a car orbited the Earth. The car, created by humans and robots on the Earth, was launched by the SpaceX Company to demonstrate the ability of its Falcon Heavy Rocket to place spacecraft out in the Solar System. Purposely fashioned to be whimsical, the iconic car was thought a better demonstration object than concrete blocks. A mannequin clad in a spacesuit — dubbed the Starman — sits in the driver’s seat. The featured image is a frame from a video taken by one of three cameras mounted on the car. These cameras, connected to the car’s battery, are now out of power. The car, attached to a second stage booster, soon left Earth orbit and will orbit the Sun between Earth and the asteroid belt indefinitely — perhaps until billions of years from now when our Sun expands into a Red Giant. If ever recovered, what’s left of the car may become a unique window into technologies developed on Earth in the 20th and early 21st centuries.
What’s happened to the setting Sun? An eclipse! In early 2009, the Moon eclipsed part of the Sun as visible from parts of Africa, Australia, and Asia. In particular the featured image, taken from the Mall of Asia seawall, caught a partially eclipsed Sun setting over Manila Bay in the Philippines. Piers are visible in silhouette in the foreground. Eclipse chasers and well placed sky enthusiasts captured many other interesting and artistic images of the year’s only annular solar eclipse, including movies, eclipse shadow arrays, and rings of fire. On Thursday parts of the Sun again will become briefly blocked by the Moon, again visible to some as a partial eclipse of the Sun. Thursday’s eclipse, however, will only be visible from parts of southern South America and Antarctica.
Don’t panic. It’s just a spacesuited mannequin named Starman. As the sunlit crescent of planet Earth recedes in the background, Starman is comfortably seated at the wheel of a Tesla Roadster in this final image of the payload launched by a Falcon Heavy rocket on February 6. Internationally designated 2018-017A, roadster and Starman are headed for space beyond the orbit of Mars. The successful Falcon Heavy rocket has now become the most powerful rocket in operation and the roadster one of four electric cars launched from planet Earth. The other three were launched to the Moon by historically more powerful (but not reusable) Saturn V rockets. Still, Starman’s roadster is probably the only one that would be considered street legal.
On January 31, a leisurely lunar eclipse was enjoyed from all over the night side of planet Earth, the first of three consecutive total eclipses of the Moon. This dramatic time-lapse image followed the celestial performance for over three hours in a combined series of exposures from Hebei Province in Northern China. Fixed to a tripod, the camera records the Full Moon sliding through a clear night sky. Too bright just before and after the eclipse, the Moon’s bow tie-shaped trail grows narrow and red during the darker total eclipse phase that lasted an hour and 16 minutes. In the distant background are the colorful trails of stars in concentric arcs above and below the celestial equator.