Sometimes Saturn disappears. It doesn’t really go away, though, it just disappears from view when our Moon moves in front. Such a Saturnian eclipse was visible along a small swath of Earth — from Brazil to Sri Lanka — near the end of last month. The featured color image is a digital fusion of the clearest images captured by successive videos of the event taken in red, green, and blue, and taken separately for Saturn and the comparative bright Moon. The exposures were taken from South Africa just before occultation — and also just before sunrise. When Saturn re-appeared on the other side of the Moon almost two hours later, the Sun had risen. This year, eclipses of Saturn by the Moon occur almost monthly, but, unfortunately, are visible only to those with the right location and with clear and dark skies.
What’s happening in the sky? The atmosphere over northern Norway appeared quite strange for about 30 minutes last Friday when colorful clouds, dots, and plumes suddenly appeared. The colors were actually created by the NASA-funded Auroral Zone Upwelling Rocket Experiment (AZURE) which dispersed gas tracers to probe winds in Earth’s upper atmosphere. AZURE’s tracers originated from two short-lived sounding rockets launched from the Andøya Space Center in Norway. The harmless gases, trimethylaluminum and a barium/strontium mixture, were released into the ionosphere at altitudes of 115 and 250 km. The vapor trails were observed dispersing from several ground stations. Mapping how AZURE’s vapors dispersed should increase humanity’s understanding of how the solar wind transfers energy to the Earth and powers aurora.
The famous Horsehead Nebula in Orion is not alone. A deep exposure shows that the dark familiar shaped indentation, visible just below center, is part of a vast complex of absorbing dust and glowing gas. To bring out details of the Horsehead’s pasture, an amateur astronomer used a backyard telescope in Austria to accumulate and artistically combine 7.5 hours of images in the light of Hydrogen (red), Oxygen (green), and Sulfur (blue). The resulting spectacular picture details an intricate tapestry of gaseous wisps and dust-laden filaments that were created and sculpted over eons by stellar winds and ancient supernovas. The Flame Nebula is visible just to the left of the Horsehead, while the bright star on the upper left is Alnilam, the central star in Orion’s Belt. The Horsehead Nebula lies 1,500 light years distant towards the constellation of Orion.
Put on your red/cyan glasses and float next to the jagged and double-lobed nucleus of Churyumov-Gerasimenko, also known as Comet 67P. The stereo anaglyph was created by combining two images from the Rosetta spacecraft’s narrow angle OSIRIS camera taken on July 25, 2015 from a distance of 184 kilometers. Numerous jets are emanating from the small solar system world’s active surface near its closest approach to the Sun. The larger lobe is around 4 kilometers in diameter, joined to a smaller, 2.5 kilometer diameter lobe by a narrow neck. Rosetta’s mission to the comet ended in September 2016 when the spacecraft was commanded to a controlled impact with the comet’s surface. Keep those 3D glasses on though. You can check out a new catalog of nearly 1400 stereo anaglyphs created from Rosetta image data on this website.
The striking spiral galaxy M104 is famous for its nearly edge-on profile featuring a broad ring of obscuring dust lanes. Seen in silhouette against an extensive central bulge of stars, the swath of cosmic dust lends a broad brimmed hat-like appearance to the galaxy suggesting a more popular moniker, The Sombrero Galaxy. Hubble Space Telescope data have been used to to create this sharp view of the well-known galaxy. The processing results in a natural color appearance and preserves details often lost in overwhelming glare of M104’s bright central bulge when viewed with smaller ground-based telescopes. Also known as NGC 4594, the Sombrero galaxy can be seen across the spectrum and is host to a central supermassive black hole. About 50,000 light-years across and 28 million light-years away, M104 is one of the largest galaxies at the southern edge of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster.
Messier 15 is a 13 billion year old relic of the early formative years of our galaxy, one of about 170 globular star clusters that still roam the halo of the Milky Way. About 200 light-years in diameter, it lies about 35,000 light years away toward the constellation Pegasus. But this realistic looking view of the ancient globular star cluster is not a photograph. Instead it’s an animated gif image constructed from remarkably precise individual measurements of star positions, brightness, and color. The astronomically rich data set used was made by the sky-scanning Gaia satellite which also determined parallax distances for 1.3 billion Milky Way stars. In the animated gif, twinkling stars are M15’s identified RR Lyrae stars. Plentiful in M15, RR Lyrae stars are evolved pulsating variable stars whose brightness and pulsation period, typically less than a day, are related.
NGC 1333 is seen in visible light as a reflection nebula, dominated by bluish hues characteristic of starlight reflected by interstellar dust. A mere 1,000 light-years distant toward the heroic constellation Perseus, it lies at the edge of a large, star-forming molecular cloud. This striking close-up spans about two full moons on the sky or just over 15 light-years at the estimated distance of NGC 1333. It shows details of the dusty region along with telltale hints of contrasty red emission from Herbig-Haro objects, jets and shocked glowing gas emanating from recently formed stars. In fact, NGC 1333 contains hundreds of stars less than a million years old, most still hidden from optical telescopes by the pervasive stardust. The chaotic environment may be similar to one in which our own Sun formed over 4.5 billion years ago.