How does your favorite planet spin? Does it spin rapidly around a nearly vertical axis, or horizontally, or backwards? The featured video animates NASA images of all eight planets in our Solar System to show them spinning side-by-side for an easy comparison. In the time-lapse video, a day on Earth — one Earth rotation — takes just a few seconds. Jupiter rotates the fastest, while Venus spins not only the slowest (can you see it?), but backwards. The inner rocky planets, across the top, most certainly underwent dramatic spin-altering collisions during the early days of the Solar System. The reasons why planets spin and tilt as they do remains a topic of research with much insight gained from modern computer modeling and the recent discovery and analysis of hundreds of exoplanets: planets orbiting other stars.
Atlas, Daphnis, and Pan are small, inner, ring moons of Saturn. They are shown at the same scale in this montage of images by the Cassini spacecraft that made its grand final orbit of the ringed planet in September 2017. In fact, Daphnis was discovered in Cassini images from 2005. Atlas and Pan were first sighted in images from the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft. Flying saucer-shaped Atlas orbits near the outer edge of Saturn’s bright A Ring while Daphnis orbits inside the A Ring’s narrow Keeler Gap and Pan within the A Ring’s larger Encke Gap. The curious equatorial ridges of the small ring moons could be built up by the accumulation of ring material over time. Even diminutive Daphnis makes waves in the ring material as it glides along the edge of the Keeler Gap.
Pulsating RS Puppis, the brightest star in the image center, is some ten times more massive than our Sun and on average 15,000 times more luminous. In fact, RS Pup is a Cepheid variable star, a class of stars whose brightness is used to estimate distances to nearby galaxies as one of the first steps in establishing the cosmic distance scale. As RS Pup pulsates over a period of about 40 days, its regular changes in brightness are also seen along its surrounding nebula delayed in time, effectively a light echo. Using measurements of the time delay and angular size of the nebula, the known speed of light allows astronomers to geometrically determine the distance to RS Pup to be 6,500 light-years, with a remarkably small error of plus or minus 90 light-years. An impressive achievement for stellar astronomy, the echo-measured distance also more accurately establishes the true brightness of RS Pup, and by extension other Cepheid stars, improving the knowledge of distances to galaxies beyond the Milky Way.
Have you ever experienced a really dark night sky? One common and amazing feature is the glowing band of our Milky Way galaxy stretching from horizon to horizon. If you live in or near a big city, though, you might not know this because city lights reflecting off the Earth’s atmosphere could only allow you to see the Moon and a few stars. Today, however, being UNESCO‘s International Day of Light, the International Astronomical Union is asking people to Turn on the Night by trying to better understand, and in the future better reduce, light pollution. You can practice even now by going to the main APOD website at NASA and hovering your cursor over the Before image. The After picture that comes up is a panorama of four exposures taken with the same camera and from the same location, showing what happened recently in China when people in Kaihua County decided to turn down many of their lights. Visible in the Before picture are the stars Sirius (left of center) and Betelgeuse, while visible in the After picture are thousands of stars with the arching band of our Milky Way Galaxy. Humanity has lived for millennia under a dark night sky, and connecting to it has importance for both natural and cultural heritage.
How far away is spiral galaxy NGC 4921? It’s surpringly important to know. Although presently estimated to be about 300 million light years distant, a more precise determination could be coupled with its known recession speed to help humanity better calibrate the expansion rate of the entire visible universe. Toward this goal, several images were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in order to help identify key stellar distance markers known as Cepheid variable stars. Since NGC 4921 is a member of the Coma Cluster of Galaxies, refining its distance would also allow a better distance determination to one of the largest nearby clusters in the local universe. The magnificent spiral NGC 4921 has been informally dubbed anemic because of its low rate of star formation and low surface brightness. Visible in the featured image are, from the center, a bright nucleus, a bright central bar, a prominent ring of dark dust, blue clusters of recently formed stars, several smaller companion galaxies, unrelated galaxies in the far distant universe, and unrelated stars in our Milky Way Galaxy.
The colorful clouds surrounding the star system Rho Ophiuchi compose one of the closest star forming regions. Rho Ophiuchi itself is a binary star system visible in the blue reflection nebula just to the left of the image center. The star system, located only 400 light years away, is distinguished by its multi-colored surroundings, which include a red emission nebula and numerous light and dark brown dust lanes. Near the lower left of the Rho Ophiuchi molecular cloud system is the yellow star Antares, while a distant but coincidently-superposed globular cluster of stars, M4, is visible just to the right of Antares. Near the image top lies IC 4592, the Blue Horsehead nebula. The blue glow that surrounds the Blue Horsehead’s eye — and other stars around the image — is a reflection nebula composed of fine dust. On the featured image right is a geometrically angled reflection nebula cataloged as Sharpless 1. Here, the bright star near the dust vortex creates the light of surrounding reflection nebula. Although most of these features are visible through a small telescope pointed toward the constellations of Ophiuchus, Scorpius, and Sagittarius, the only way to see the intricate details of the dust swirls, as featured above, is to use a long exposure camera.
The Milky Way doesn’t look quite this colorful and bright to the eye, but a rocket launch does. So a separate deep exposure with a sensitive digital camera was used in this composite skyscape to bring out our galaxy’s central crowded starfields and cosmic dust clouds. In the scene from Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, a nine minute long exposure begun about 20 minutes after the Miky Way image recorded a rocket launch and landing. The Falcon 9 rocket, named for the Millennium Falcon of Star Wars fame, appropriately launched a Dragon resupply ship to the International Space Station in the early morning hours of May the 4th. The plume and flare at the peak of the launch arc mark the rocket’s first stage boost back burn. Two shorter diagonal streaks are the rocket engines bringing the Falcon 9 stage back to an offshore landing on autonomous drone ship Of course I Still Love You.