Messier 101


Big, beautiful spiral galaxy M101 is one of the last entries in Charles Messier’s famous catalog, but definitely not one of the least. About 170,000 light-years across, this galaxy is enormous, almost twice the size of our own Milky Way. M101 was also one of the original spiral nebulae observed by Lord Rosse’s large 19th century telescope, the Leviathan of Parsontown. Assembled from 51 exposures recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope in the 20th and 21st centuries, with additional data from ground based telescopes, this mosaic spans about 40,000 light-years across the central region of M101 in one of the highest definition spiral galaxy portraits ever released from Hubble. The sharp image shows stunning features of the galaxy’s face-on disk of stars and dust along with background galaxies, some visible right through M101 itself. Also known as the Pinwheel Galaxy, M101 lies within the boundaries of the northern constellation Ursa Major, about 25 million light-years away.

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Great Refractor and Lunar Eclipse


Rain clouds passed and the dome of the Lick Observatory’s 36 inch Great Refractor opened on November 19. The historic telescope was pointed toward a partially eclipsed Moon. Illuminated by dim red lighting to preserve an astronomer’s night vision, telescope controls, coordinate dials, and the refractor’s 57 foot long barrel were captured in this high dynamic range image. Visible beyond the foreshortened barrel and dome slit, growing brighter after its almost total eclipse phase, the lunar disk created a colorful halo through lingering clouds. From the open dome, the view of the clearing sky above includes the Pleiades star cluster about 5 degrees from Moon and Earth’s shadow.

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At the Shadow s Edge


Shaped like a cone tapering into space, the Earth’s dark central shadow or umbra has a circular cross-section. It’s wider than the Moon at the distance of the Moon’s orbit though. But during the lunar eclipse of November 18/19, part of the Moon remained just outside the umbral shadow. The successive pictures in this composite of 5 images from that almost total lunar eclipse were taken over a period of about 1.5 hours. The series is aligned to trace part of the cross-section’s circular arc, with the central image at maximum eclipse. It shows a bright, thin sliver of the lunar disk still beyond the shadow’s curved edge. Of course, even within the shadow the Moon’s surface is not completely dark, reflecting the reddish hues of filtered sunlight scattered into the shadow by Earth’s atmosphere.

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Pleiades: The Seven Sisters Star Cluster


Have you ever seen the Pleiades star cluster? Even if you have, you probably have never seen it as large and clear as this. Perhaps the most famous star cluster on the sky, the bright stars of the Pleiades can be seen without binoculars from even the depths of a light-polluted city. With a long exposure from a dark location, though, the dust cloud surrounding the Pleiades star cluster becomes very evident. The featured exposure, taken from Florida, USA, covers a sky area several times the size of the full moon. Also known as the Seven Sisters and M45, the Pleiades lies about 400 light years away toward the constellation of the Bull (Taurus). A common legend with a modern twist is that one of the brighter stars faded since the cluster was named, leaving only six of the sister stars visible to the unaided eye. The actual number of Pleiades stars visible, however, may be more or less than seven, depending on the darkness of the surrounding sky and the clarity of the observer’s eyesight.

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The Sun in X rays from NuSTAR


Why are the regions above sunspots so hot? Sunspots themselves are a bit cooler than the surrounding solar surface because the magnetic fields that create them reduce convective heating. It is therefore unusual that regions overhead — even much higher up in the Sun’s corona — can be hundreds of times hotter. To help find the cause, NASA directed the Earth-orbiting Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) satellite to point its very sensitive X-ray telescope at the Sun. Featured here is the Sun in ultraviolet light, shown in a red hue as taken by the orbiting Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO). Superimposed in false-colored green and blue is emission above sunspots detected by NuSTAR in different bands of high-energy X-rays, highlighting regions of extremely high temperature. Clues about the Sun’s atmospheric heating mechanisms come from NuSTAR images like this and shed light on solar nanoflares and microflares as brief bursts of energy that may drive the unusual heating.

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Lunar Eclipse over a Skyscraper


Why is the Moon on top of this building? Planning. It took the astrophotographer careful planning — including figuring out exactly where to place the camera and exactly when to take the shot — to create this striking superposition. The single image featured was taken in the early morning hours of November 19, near the peak of the partial lunar eclipse that was occurring as the Moon passed through the Earth’s shadow. At this time, almost the entire Moon — 99.1 percent of its area — was in the darkest part of the Earth’s shadow. The building is the Gran Torre Santiago building in Chile, the tallest building in South America. Although the entire eclipse lasted an impressive six hours, this image had to be taken within just a few seconds to get the alignment right — the Earth’s rotation soon moved the building out of alignment. The next Earth-Moon eclipse will be a total eclipse of the Sun that will occur on December 4 — but only be visible from the bottom of our world.

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Introducing Comet Leonard


Here comes Comet Leonard. Comet C/2021 A1 (Leonard) was discovered as a faint smudge in January 2021 when it was out past Mars — but its orbit will take the giant shedding ice-ball into the inner Solar System, passing near both Earth and Venus in December before it swoops around the Sun in early January 2022. Although comets are notoriously hard to predict, some estimations have Comet Leonard brightening to become visible to the unaided eye in December. Comet Leonard was captured just over a week ago already sporting a green-tinged coma and an extended dust tail. The featured picture was composed from 62 images taken through a moderate-sized telescope — one set of exposures tracking the comet, while another set tracking the background stars. The exposures were taken from the dark skies above the Eastern Sierra Mountains, near June Lake in California, USA. Soon after passing near the Earth in mid-December, the comet will shift from northern to southern skies.

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Light Pillar over Volcanic Etna


What happening above that volcano? Something very unusual — a volcanic light pillar. More typically, light pillars are caused by sunlight and so appear as a bright column that extends upward above a rising or setting Sun. Alternatively, other light pillars — some quite colorful — have been recorded above street and house lights. This light pillar, though, was illuminated by the red light emitted by the glowing magma of an erupting volcano. The volcano is Italy‘s Mount Etna, and the featured image was captured with a single shot a few hours after sunset in mid-June. Freezing temperatures above the volcano’s ash cloud created ice-crystals either in cirrus clouds high above the volcano — or in condensed water vapor expelled by Mount Etna. These ice crystals — mostly flat toward the ground but fluttering — then reflected away light from the volcano’s caldera.

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How to Identify that Light in the Sky


What is that light in the sky? Perhaps one of humanity’s more common questions, an answer may result from a few quick observations. For example — is it moving or blinking? If so, and if you live near a city, the answer is typically an airplane, since planes are so numerous and so few stars and satellites are bright enough to be seen over the din of artificial city lights. If not, and if you live far from a city, that bright light is likely a planet such as Venus or Mars — the former of which is constrained to appear near the horizon just before dawn or after dusk. Sometimes the low apparent motion of a distant airplane near the horizon makes it hard to tell from a bright planet, but even this can usually be discerned by the plane’s motion over a few minutes. Still unsure? The featured chart gives a sometimes-humorous but mostly-accurate assessment. Dedicated sky enthusiasts will likely note — and are encouraged to provide — polite corrections.

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Rosetta s Comet in Gemini


Returning along its 6.4 year orbit, periodic comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P) is caught in this telescopic frame from November 7. Sweeping past background stars in the constellation Gemini the comet’s dusty tail stretches toward the upper right to Upsilon Geminorum. Also known as Pollux, Beta Geminorum, Gemini’s brightest star, shines just off the upper left edge of the field-of-view. Churyumov-Gerasimenko reached its 2021 perihelion or closest approach to the Sun on November 2. At perigee, its closest approach to planet Earth on November 12, this comet was about 0.42 astronomical units away, though it remains too faint to be seen by eye alone. The well-studied comet was explored by robots from planet Earth during its last trip through the inner solar system. It’s now famous as the final resting place for the historic Rosetta spacecraft and Philae lander.

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