Barred spiral galaxy NGC 2903 is only some 20 million light-years distant. Popular among amateur astronomers, it shines in the northern spring constellation Leo, near the top of the lion’s head. That part of the constellation is sometimes seen as a reversed question mark or sickle. One of the brighter galaxies visible from the northern hemisphere, NGC 2903 is surprisingly missing from Charles Messier’s catalog of lustrous celestial sights. This colorful image from a small ground-based telescope shows off the galaxy’s gorgeous spiral arms traced by young, blue star clusters and pinkish star forming regions. Included are intriguing details of NGC 2903’s bright core, a remarkable mix of old and young clusters with immense dust and gas clouds. In fact, NGC 2903 exhibits an exceptional rate of star formation activity near its center, also bright in radio, infrared, ultraviolet, and x-ray bands. Just a little smaller than our own Milky Way, NGC 2903 is about 80,000 light-years across.
Shadows play on the water and in the sky in this panoramic view of the April 4 total lunar eclipse over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Just within planet Earth’s shadow the Full Moon’s disk is still easy to spot at its brief total phase. The urban night skyscape was composed to cover the wide range of brightness visible to the eye. The shortest total lunar eclipse of the century, this eclipse was also the third in a string of four consecutive total lunar eclipses, a series known as a tetrad. Coming in nearly six month intervals, the previous two were last April 15 and October 8. The next and final eclipse in the tetrad will be on September 28. This 2014-2015 tetrad is one of 8 total lunar eclipse tetrads in the 21st century.
Last week the Full Moon was completely immersed in Earth’s dark umbral shadow, just briefly though. The total phase of the April 4, 2015 lunar eclipse lasted less than 5 minutes, the shortest total lunar eclipse of the century. In fact, sliding just within the Earth’s umbral shadow’s northern edge, the lunar north stayed relatively bright, while a beautiful range of blue and red hues emerged across the rest of the Moon’s Earth-facing hemisphere. The reddened light within the shadow that reaches the lunar surface is filtered through the lower atmosphere. Seen from a lunar perspective it comes from all the sunsets and sunrises around the edges of the silhouetted Earth. Close to the shadow’s edge, the bluer light is still filtered through Earth’s atmosphere, but originates as rays of sunlight pass through layers high in the upper stratosphere. That light is colored by ozone that absorbs red light and transmits bluer hues. In this sharp telescopic view of totality from Auckland, New Zealand, planet Earth, the Moon’s north pole has been rotated to the top of the frame.
The Virgo Cluster of Galaxies is the closest cluster of galaxies to our Milky Way Galaxy. The Virgo Cluster is so close that it spans more than 5 degrees on the sky – about 10 times the angle made by a full Moon. With its heart lying about 70 million light years distant, the Virgo Cluster is the nearest cluster of galaxies, contains over 2,000 galaxies, and has a noticeable gravitational pull on the galaxies of the Local Group of Galaxies surrounding our Milky Way Galaxy. The cluster contains not only galaxies filled with stars but also gas so hot it glows in X-rays. Motions of galaxies in and around clusters indicate that they contain more dark matter than any visible matter we can see. Pictured above, the heart of the Virgo Cluster includes bright Messier galaxies such as Markarian’s Eyes on the upper left, M86 just to the upper right of center, M84 on the far right, as well as spiral galaxy NGC 4388 at the bottom right.
Hot blue stars shine brightly in this beautiful, recently formed galactic or “open” star cluster. Open cluster NGC 3293 is located in the constellation Carina, lies at a distance of about 8000 light years, and has a particularly high abundance of these young bright stars. A study of NGC 3293 implies that the blue stars are only about 6 million years old, whereas the cluster’s dimmer, redder stars appear to be about 20 million years old. If true, star formation in this open cluster took at least 15 million years. Even this amount of time is short, however, when compared with the billions of years stars like our Sun live, and the over-ten billion year lifetimes of many galaxies and our universe. Pictured, NGC 3293 appears just in front of a dense dust lane and red glowing hydrogen gas emanating from the Carina Nebula.
Seen from ice moon Tethys, rings and shadows would display fantastic views of the Saturnian system. Haven’t dropped in on Tethys lately? Then this gorgeous ringscape from the Cassini spacecraft will have to do for now. Caught in sunlight just below and left of picture center in 2005, Tethys itself is about 1,000 kilometers in diameter and orbits not quite five saturn-radii from the center of the gas giant planet. At that distance (around 300,000 kilometers) it is well outside Saturn’s main bright rings, but Tethys is still one of five major moons that find themselves within the boundaries of the faint and tenuous outer E ring. Discovered in the 1980s, two very small moons Telesto and Calypso are locked in stable locations along Tethys’ orbit. Telesto precedes and Calypso follows Tethys as the trio circles Saturn.
Mysterious Hanny’s Voorwerp, Dutch for “Hanny’s Object”, is really enormous, about the size of the Milky Way Galaxy and glowing strongly in the greenish light produced by ionized oxygen atoms. It is thought to be a tidal tail of material left by an ancient galaxy merger, illuminated and ionized by the outburst of a quasar inhabiting the center of distant spiral galaxy IC 2497. Its exciting 2007 discovery by Dutch schoolteacher Hanny van Arkel while participating online in the Galaxy Zoo project has since inspired a search and discovery of eight more eerie green cosmic features. Imaged in these panels by the Hubble Space Telescope, all eight appear near galaxies with energetic cores. Far outside their associated galaxies, these objects are also likely echoes of quasar activity, illuminated only as light from a core quasar outburst reaches them and ultimately fading tens of thousands of years after the quasar outburst itself has faded away. Of course a galaxy merger like the impending merger of our own Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy, could also trigger the birth of a quasar that would illuminate our distant future version of Hanny’s Voorwerp.