Are stars better appreciated for their art after they die? Actually, stars usually create their most artistic displays as they die. In the case of low-mass stars like our Sun and M2-9 pictured here, the stars transform themselves from normal stars to white dwarfs by casting off their outer gaseous envelopes. The expended gas frequently forms an impressive display called a planetary nebula that fades gradually over thousands of years. M2-9, a butterfly planetary nebula 2100 light-years away shown in representative colors, has wings that tell a strange but incomplete tale. In the center, two stars orbit inside a gaseous disk 10 times the orbit of Pluto. The expelled envelope of the dying star breaks out from the disk creating the bipolar appearance. Much remains unknown about the physical processes that cause and shape planetary nebulae.
Mars reappears just beyond the Moon’s dark limb in this stack of sharp video frames captured on September 6. Of course to reappear it had to disappear in the first place. It did that over an hour earlier when the sunlit southern edge of the waning gibbous Moon passed in front of the Red Planet as seen from Maceio, Brazil. The lunar occultation came as the Moon was near apogee, about 400,000 kilometers away. Mars was almost 180 times more distant. It was the fourth lunar occultation of Mars visible from planet Earth in 2020. Visible from some southern latitudes, the fifth lunar occultation of Mars in 2020 will take place on October 3 when the Moon and Mars are both nearly opposite the Sun in planet Earth’s sky.
A bright storm head with a long turbulent wake swims across Jupiter in these sharp telescopic images of the Solar System’s ruling gas giant. Captured on August 26, 28, and September 1 (left to right) the storm approximately doubles in length during that period. Stretching along the jetstream of the planet’s North Temperate Belt it travels eastward in successive frames, passing the Great Red Spot and whitish Oval BA, famous storms in Jupiter’s southern hemisphere. Galilean moons Callisto and Io are caught in the middle frame. In fact, telescopic skygazers following Jupiter in planet Earth’s night have reported dramatic fast moving storm outbreaks over the past few weeks in Jupiter’s North Temperate Belt.
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 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.
How do black holes like this form? The two black holes that spiraled together to produce the gravitational wave event GW190521 were not only the most massive black holes ever seen by LIGO and VIRGO so far, their masses — 66 and 85 solar masses — were unprecedented and unexpected. Lower mass black holes, below about 65 solar masses are known to form in supernova explosions. Conversely, higher mass black holes, above about 135 solar masses, are thought to be created by very massive stars imploding after they use up their weight-bearing nuclear-fusion-producing elements. How such intermediate mass black holes came to exist is yet unknown, although one hypothesis holds that they result from consecutive collisions of stars and black holes in dense star clusters. Featured is an illustration of the black holes just before collision, annotated with arrows indicating their spin axes. In the illustration, the spiral waves indicate the production of gravitational radiation, while the surrounding stars highlight the possibility that the merger occurred in a star cluster. Seen last year but emanating from an epoch when the universe was only about half its present age (z ~ 0.8), black hole merger GW190521 is the farthest yet detected, to within measurement errors.
Where do land and sky converge? On every horizon — but in this case the path on the ground leads to St Michael’s Mount (Cornish: Karrek Loos yn Koos), a small historic island in Cornwall, England. The Mount is usually surrounded by shallow water, but at low tide is spanned by a human-constructed causeway. The path on the sky, actually the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy, also appears to lead to St Michael’s Mount, but really lies far in the distance. The red nebula in the Milky Way, just above the castle, is the Lagoon Nebula, while bright Jupiter shines to the left, and a luminous meteor flashes to the right. The foreground and background images of this featured composite were taken on the same July night and from the same location. Although meteors are fleeting and the Milky Way disk shifts in the night as the Earth turns, Jupiter will remain prominent in the sunset sky into December.
This is the mess that is left when a star explodes. The Crab Nebula, the result of a supernova seen in 1054 AD, is filled with mysterious filaments. The filaments are not only tremendously complex, but appear to have less mass than expelled in the original supernova and a higher speed than expected from a free explosion. The featured image, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, is presentedi in three colors chosen for scientific interest. The Crab Nebula spans about 10 light-years. In the nebula‘s very center lies a pulsar: a neutron star as massive as the Sun but with only the size of a small town. The Crab Pulsar rotates about 30 times each second.
Illuminating planet Earth’s night, full moons can have many names. This year the last full moon of northern hemisphere summer was on September 2, known to some as the Full Corn Moon. A few days earlier on August 30 this almost full moon rose just before sunset though, shining through cloudy skies over Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Florida’s Space Coast. A well-timed snapshot caught the glare of rocket engines firing below the lunar disk, a Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage successfully returning to Cape Canaveral’s landing zone 1. About 9 minutes earlier, the same SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket had launched the SAOCOM 1B satellite toward polar orbit. The fourth launch for this reusable Falcon 9 first stage, it was the first launch to a polar orbit from Cape Canaveral since 1969.
Open star cluster NGC 7380 is still embedded in its natal cloud of interstellar gas and dust popularly known as the Wizard Nebula. Seen on the left, with foreground and background stars along the plane of our Milky Way galaxy it lies some 8,000 light-years distant, toward the constellation Cepheus. In apparent size on the sky, a full moon would cover the 4 million year young cluster and associated nebula, normally much too faint to be seen by eye. Made with telescope and camera firmly planted on Earth, the image reveals multi light-year sized shapes and structures of cosmic gas and dust within the Wizard though, in a color palette made popular in Hubble Space Telescope images. Recorded with narrowband filters, the visible wavelength light from the nebula’s hydrogen, oxygen, and sulfur atoms is transformed into green, blue, and red colors in the final digital composite.
M31, the Andromeda Galaxy, is the closest large spiral galaxy to our Milky Way. Some 2.5 million light-years distant it shines in Earth’s night sky as a small, faint, elongated cloud just visible to the unaided eye. Invisible to the eye though, its enormous halo of hot ionized gas is represented in purplish hues for this digital illustration of our neighboring galaxy above rocky terrain. Mapped by Hubble Space Telescope observations of the absorption of ultraviolet light against distant quasars, the extent and make-up of Andromeda’s gaseous halo has been recently determined by the AMIGA project. A reservoir of material for future star formation, Andromeda’s halo of diffuse plasma was measured to extend around 1.3 million light-years or more from the galaxy. That’s about half way to the Milky Way, likely putting it in contact with the diffuse gaseous halo of our own galaxy.