Ingenuity: First Flight over Mars


What’s the best way to explore Mars? Perhaps there is no single best way, but a newly demonstrated method shows tremendous promise: flight. Powered flight has the promise to search vast regions and scout out particularly interesting areas for more detailed investigation. Yesterday, for the first time, powered flight was demonstrated on Mars by a small helicopter named Ingenuity. In the featured video, Ingenuity is first imaged by the Perseverance rover sitting quietly on the Martian surface. After a few seconds, Ingenuity‘s long rotors begin to spin, and a few seconds after that — history is made as Ingenuity actually takes off, hovers for a few seconds, and then lands safely. More tests of Ingenuity‘s unprecedented ability are planned over the next few months. Flight may help humanity better explore not only Mars, but Saturn‘s moon Titan over the next few decades.

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The Galactic Center in Infrared


What does the center of our galaxy look like? In visible light, the Milky Way’s center is hidden by clouds of obscuring dust and gas. But in this stunning vista, the Spitzer Space Telescope‘s infrared cameras, penetrate much of the dust revealing the stars of the crowded galactic center region. A mosaic of many smaller snapshots, the detailed, false-color image shows older, cool stars in bluish hues. Red and brown glowing dust clouds are associated with young, hot stars in stellar nurseries. The very center of the Milky Way has recently been found capable of forming newborn stars. The galactic center lies some 26,700 light-years away, toward the constellation Sagittarius. At that distance, this picture spans about 900 light-years.

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Rainbow Airglow over the Azores


Why would the sky glow like a giant repeating rainbow? Airglow. Now air glows all of the time, but it is usually hard to see. A disturbance however — like an approaching storm — may cause noticeable rippling in the Earth’s atmosphere. These gravity waves are oscillations in air analogous to those created when a rock is thrown in calm water. The long-duration exposure nearly along the vertical walls of airglow likely made the undulating structure particularly visible. OK, but where do the colors originate? The deep red glow likely originates from OH molecules about 87-kilometers high, excited by ultraviolet light from the Sun. The orange and green airglow is likely caused by sodium and oxygen atoms slightly higher up. The featured image was captured during a climb up Mount Pico in the Azores of Portugal. Ground lights originate from the island of Faial in the Atlantic Ocean. A spectacular sky is visible through this banded airglow, with the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy running up the image center, and M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, visible near the top left.

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Inside the Flame Nebula


The Flame Nebula is a stand out in optical images of the dusty, crowded star forming regions toward Orion’s belt and the easternmost belt star Alnitak, a mere 1,400 light-years away. Alnitak is the bright star at the right edge of this infrared image from the Spitzer Space Telescope. About 15 light-years across, the infrared view takes you inside the nebula’s glowing gas and obscuring dust clouds though. It reveals many stars of the recently formed, embedded cluster NGC 2024 concentrated near the center. The stars of NGC 2024 range in age from 200,000 years to 1.5 million years young. In fact, data indicate that the youngest stars are concentrated near the middle of the Flame Nebula cluster. That’s the opposite of the simplest models of star formation for a stellar nursery that predict star formation begins in the denser center of a molecular cloud core. The result requires a more complex model for star formation inside the Flame Nebula.

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The Doubly Warped World of Binary Black Holes


Light rays from accretion disks around a pair of orbiting supermassive black holes make their way through the warped space-time produced by extreme gravity in this stunning computer visualization. The simulated accretion disks have been given different false color schemes, red for the disk surrounding a 200-million-solar-mass black hole, and blue for the disk surrounding a 100-million-solar-mass black hole. That makes it easier to track the light sources, but the choice also reflects reality. Hotter gas gives off light closer to the blue end of the spectrum and material orbiting smaller black holes experiences stronger gravitational effects that produce higher temperatures. For these masses, both accretion disks would actually emit most of their light in the ultraviolet though. In the video, distorted secondary images of the blue black hole, which show the red black hole’s view of its partner, can be found within the tangled skein of the red disk warped by the gravity of the blue black hole in the foreground. Because we’re seeing red’s view of blue while also seeing blue directly, the images allow us to see both sides of blue at the same time. Red and blue light originating from both black holes can be seen in the innermost ring of light, called the photon ring, near their event horizons. Astronomers expect that in the not-too-distant future they��������ll be able to detect gravitational waves, ripples in space-time, produced when two supermassive black holes in a system much like the one simulated here spiral together and merge.

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The Galaxy, the Jet, and a Famous Black Hole


Bright elliptical galaxy Messier 87 (M87) is home to the supermassive black hole captured by planet Earth’s Event Horizon Telescope in the first ever image of a black hole. Giant of the Virgo galaxy cluster about 55 million light-years away, M87 is the large galaxy rendered in blue hues in this infrared image from the Spitzer Space telescope. Though M87 appears mostly featureless and cloud-like, the Spitzer image does record details of relativistic jets blasting from the galaxy’s central region. Shown in the inset at top right, the jets themselves span thousands of light-years. The brighter jet seen on the right is approaching and close to our line of sight. Opposite, the shock created by the otherwise unseen receding jet lights up a fainter arc of material. Inset at bottom right, the historic black hole image is shown in context, at the center of giant galaxy and relativistic jets. Completely unresolved in the Spitzer image, the supermassive black hole surrounded by infalling material is the source of enormous energy driving the relativistic jets from the center of active galaxy M87.

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The Pencil Nebula Supernova Shock Wave


This supernova shock wave plows through interstellar space at over 500,000 kilometers per hour. Near the middle and moving up in this sharply detailed color composite, thin, bright, braided filaments are actually long ripples in a cosmic sheet of glowing gas seen almost edge-on. Cataloged as NGC 2736, its elongated appearance suggests its popular name, the Pencil Nebula. The Pencil Nebula is about 5 light-years long and 800 light-years away, but represents only a small part of the Vela supernova remnant. The Vela remnant itself is around 100 light-years in diameter, the expanding debris cloud of a star that was seen to explode about 11,000 years ago. Initially, the shock wave was moving at millions of kilometers per hour but has slowed considerably, sweeping up surrounding interstellar material. In the featured narrow-band, wide field image, red and blue colors track, primarily, the characteristic glows of ionized hydrogen and oxygen atoms, respectively.

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Confirmed Muon Wobble Remains Unexplained


How fast do elementary particles wobble? A surprising answer to this seemingly inconsequential question came out of Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York, USA in 2001, and indicated that the Standard Model of Particle Physics, adopted widely in physics, is incomplete. Specifically, the muon, a particle with similarities to a heavy electron, has had its relatively large wobble under scrutiny in a series of experiments known as g-2 (gee-minus-two). The Brookhaven result galvanized other experimental groups around the world to confirm it, and pressured theorists to better understand it. Reporting in last week, the most sensitive muon wobble experiment yet, conducted at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) in Illinois and pictured here, agreed with the Brookhaven result. The unexpected wobble rate may indicate that an ever-present sea of virtual particles includes types not currently known. Alternatively, it may indicate that flaws exist in difficult theoretical prediction calculations. Future runs at Fermilab’s g-2 experiment will further increase precision and, possibly, the statistical difference between the universe we measure and the universe we understand.

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Alnitak and the Flame Nebula


What lights up the Flame Nebula? Fifteen hundred light years away towards the constellation of Orion lies a nebula which, from its glow and dark dust lanes, appears, on the left, like a billowing fire. But fire, the rapid acquisition of oxygen, is not what makes this Flame glow. Rather the bright star Alnitak, the easternmost star in the Belt of Orion visible on the far left, shines energetic light into the Flame that knocks electrons away from the great clouds of hydrogen gas that reside there. Much of the glow results when the electrons and ionized hydrogen recombine. The featured picture of the Flame Nebula (NGC 2024) was taken across three visible color bands with detail added by a long duration exposure taken in light emitted only by hydrogen. The Flame Nebula is part of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, a star-forming region that includes the famous Horsehead Nebula.

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When Black Holes Collide


What happens when two black holes collide? This extreme scenario occurs in the centers of many merging galaxies and multiple star systems. The featured video shows a computer animation of the final stages of such a merger, while highlighting the gravitational lensing effects that would appear on a background starfield. The black regions indicate the event horizons of the dynamic duo, while a surrounding ring of shifting background stars indicates the position of their combined Einstein ring. All background stars not only have images visible outside of this Einstein ring, but also have one or more companion images visible on the inside. Eventually the two black holes coalesce. The end stages of such a merger is now known to produce a strong blast of gravitational radiation, providing a new way to see our universe.

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