What will become of our Sun? The first hint of our Sun‘s future was discovered inadvertently in 1764. At that time, Charles Messier was compiling a list of diffuse objects not to be confused with comets. The 27th object on Messier’s list, now known as M27 or the Dumbbell Nebula, is a planetary nebula, one of the brightest planetary nebulae on the sky — and visible toward the constellation of the Fox (Vulpecula) with binoculars. It takes light about 1000 years to reach us from M27, featured here in colors emitted by hydrogen and oxygen. We now know that in about 6 billion years, our Sun will shed its outer gases into a planetary nebula like M27, while its remaining center will become an X-ray hot white dwarf star. Understanding the physics and significance of M27 was well beyond 18th century science, though. Even today, many things remain mysterious about planetary nebulas, including how their intricate shapes are created.
Where’s the Moon? Somewhere in this image, the Earth’s Moon is hiding. The entire Moon is visible, in its completely full phase, in plain sight. Even the photographer’s keen eye couldn’t find it even though he knew exactly where to look — only the long exposure of his camera picked it up — barely. Although by now you might be congratulating yourself on finding it, why was it so difficult to see? For one reason, this photograph was taken during a total lunar eclipse, when the Earth’s shadow made the Moon much dimmer than a normal full Moon. For another, the image, taken in Colorado, USA, was captured just before sunrise. With the Moon on the exact opposite side of the sky from the Sun, this meant that the Sun was just below the horizon, but still slightly illuminating the sky. Last, as the Moon was only about two degrees above the horizon, the large volume of air between the camera and the horizon scattered a lot of light away from the background Moon. Twelve minutes after this image was acquired in 2012, the Sun peeked over the horizon and the Moon set.
On July 8th early morning risers saw Mercury near an old Moon low on the eastern horizon. On that date bright planet, faint glow of lunar night side, and sunlit crescent were captured in this predawn skyscape from Tenerife’s Teide National Park in the Canary Islands. Never far from the Sun in planet Earth’s sky, the fleeting inner planet shines near its brightest in the morning twilight scene. Mercury lies just below the zeta star of the constellation Taurus, Zeta Tauri, near the tip of the celestial bull’s horn. Of course the Moon’s ashen glow is earthshine, earthlight reflected from the Moon’s night side. A description of earthshine, in terms of sunlight reflected by Earth’s oceans illuminating the Moon’s dark surface, was written over 500 years ago by Leonardo da Vinci. Waiting for the coming dawn in the foreground are the Teide Observatory’s sentinels of the Sun, also known as (large domes left to right) the THEMIS, VTT, and GREGOR solar telescopes.
M82 is a starburst galaxy with a superwind. In fact, through ensuing supernova explosions and powerful winds from massive stars, the burst of star formation in M82 is driving a prodigious outflow. Evidence for the superwind from the galaxy’s central regions is clear in sharp telescopic snapshot. The composite image highlights emission from long outflow filaments of atomic hydrogen gas in reddish hues. Some of the gas in the superwind, enriched in heavy elements forged in the massive stars, will eventually escape into intergalactic space. Triggered by a close encounter with nearby large galaxy M81, the furious burst of star formation in M82 should last about 100 million years or so. Also known as the Cigar Galaxy for its elongated visual appearance, M82 is about 30,000 light-years across. It lies 12 million light-years away near the northern boundary of Ursa Major.
Aphelion for 2021 occurred on July 5th. That’s the point in Earth’s elliptical orbit when it is farthest from the Sun. Of course, the distance from the Sun doesn’t determine the seasons. Those are governed by the tilt of Earth’s axis of rotation, so July is still summer in the north and winter in the southern hemisphere. But it does mean that on July 5 the Sun was at its smallest apparent size when viewed from planet Earth. This composite neatly compares two pictures of the Sun, both taken with the same telescope and camera. The left half was captured close to the date of the 2021 perihelion (January 2), the closest point in Earth’s orbit. The right was recorded just before the aphelion in 2021. Otherwise difficult to notice, the change in the Sun’s apparent diameter between perihelion and aphelion amounts to a little over 3 percent.
What would it look like to fly into the Orion Nebula? The exciting dynamic visualization of the Orion Nebula is based on real astronomical data and adept movie rendering techniques. Up close and personal with a famous stellar nursery normally seen from 1,500 light-years away, the digitally modeled representation based is based on infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope. The perspective moves along a valley over a light-year wide, in the wall of the region’s giant molecular cloud. Orion’s valley ends in a cavity carved by the energetic winds and radiation of the massive central stars of the Trapezium star cluster. The entire Orion Nebula spans about 40 light years and is located in the same spiral arm of our Galaxy as the Sun.
How many moons does Saturn have? So far 82 have been confirmed, the smallest being only a fraction of a kilometer across. Six of its largest satellites can be seen here in a composite image with 13 short exposure of the bright planet, and 13 long exposures of the brightest of its faint moons, taken over two weeks last month. Larger than Earth’s Moon and even slightly larger than Mercury,Saturn’s largest moon Titan has a diameter of 5,150 kilometers and was captured making nearly a complete orbit around its ringed parent planet. Saturn’s first known natural satellite, Titan was discovered in 1655 by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens, in contrast with several newly discovered moons announced in 2019. The trail on the far right belongs to Iapetus, Saturn’s third largest moon. The radius of painted Iapetus’ orbit is so large that only a portion of it was captured here. Saturn leads Jupiter across the night sky this month, rising soon after sunset toward the southeast, and remaining visible until dawn.
Do you see the horse’s head? What you are seeing is not the famous Horsehead nebula toward Orion but rather a fainter nebula that only takes on a familiar form with deeper imaging. The main part of the here imaged molecular cloud complex is a reflection nebula cataloged as IC 4592. Reflection nebulas are actually made up of very fine dust that normally appears dark but can look quite blue when reflecting the visible light of energetic nearby stars. In this case, the source of much of the reflected light is a star at the eye of the horse. That star is part of Nu Scorpii, one of the brighter star systems toward the constellation of the Scorpion (Scorpius). A second reflection nebula dubbed IC 4601 is visible surrounding two stars to the right of the image center.
Wouldn’t it be fun if clouds were castles? Wouldn’t it be fun if the laundry on the bedroom chair was a superhero? Wouldn’t it be fun if rock mesas on Mars were interplanetary monuments to the human face? Clouds, though, are floating droplets of water and ice. Laundry is cotton, wool, or plastic, woven into garments. Famous Martian rock mesas known by names like the Face on Mars appear quite natural when seen more clearly on better images. Is reality boring? Nobody knows why some clouds make rain. Nobody knows if life ever developed on Mars. Nobody knows why the laundry on the bedroom chair smells like root beer. Scientific exploration can not only resolve mysteries, but uncover new knowledge, greater mysteries, and yet deeper questions. As humanity explores our universe, perhaps fun — through discovery — is just beginning.
You can’t walk along the Milky Way. Still, under a dark sky you can explore it. To the eye the pale luminous trail of light arcing through the sky on a dark, moonless night does appear to be a path through the heavens. The glowing celestial band is the faint, collective light of distant stars cut by swaths of obscuring interstellar dust clouds. It lies along the plane of our home galaxy, so named because it looks like a milky way. Since Galileo’s time, the Milky Way has been revealed to telescopic skygazers to be filled with congeries of innumerable stars and cosmic wonders.