Zodiacal Night

An intense band of zodiacal light is captured in this serene mountain and night skyscape from April 7. The panoramic view was recorded after three hours of hiking from a vantage looking west after sunset across the Pyrenees in southern France. At 2838 meters altitude, Mont Valier is the tallest peak near center. In the sky above, the familiar stars of Orion and the northern winter Milky Way are approaching the rugged western horizon. At the shoulder of Orion, Betelgeuse is one of three bright yellowish celestial beacons. It forms a triangle with fellow red giant star Aldebaran located below Betelgeuse and to the right, and the red planet Mars. Mars shines just under the band of the Milky Way, still immersed in the bright zodiacal light.

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Messier 106

Close to the Great Bear (Ursa Major) and surrounded by the stars of the Hunting Dogs (Canes Venatici), this celestial wonder was discovered in 1781 by the metric French astronomer Pierre Mechain. Later, it was added to the catalog of his friend and colleague Charles Messier as M106. Modern deep telescopic views reveal it to be an island universe – a spiral galaxy around 30 thousand light-years across located only about 21 million light-years beyond the stars of the Milky Way. Along with a bright central core, this stunning galaxy portrait, a composite of image data from amateur and professional telescopes, highlights youthful blue star clusters and reddish stellar nurseries tracing the galaxy’s spiral arms. It also shows off remarkable reddish jets of glowing hydrogen gas. In addition to small companion galaxy NGC 4248 at bottom right, background galaxies can be found scattered throughout the frame. M106, also known as NGC 4258, is a nearby example of the Seyfert class of active galaxies, seen across the spectrum from radio to X-rays. Active galaxies are powered by matter falling into a massive central black hole.

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3D Ingenuity

The multicolor, stereo imaging Mastcam-Z on the Perseverance rover zoomed in to captured this 3D close-up (get out your red/blue glasses) of the Mars Ingenuity helicopter on mission sol 45, April 5. That’s only a few sols before the technology demonstrating Ingenuity will attempt to fly in the thin martian atmosphere, making the first powered flight on another planet. The historic test flight is planned for no earlier than Sunday, April 11. Casting its shadow on the martian surface, Ingenuity is standing alone on four landing legs next to the rover’s wheel tracks. The experimental helicopter’s solar panel, charging batteries that keep it warm through the cold martian nights and power its flight, sits above its two 1.2 meter (4 foot) long counter-rotating blades.

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Threads of NGC 1947

Found in far southern skies, deep within the boundaries of the constellation Dorado, NGC 1947 is some 40 million light-years away. In silhouette against starlight, obscuring lanes of cosmic dust thread across the peculiar galaxy’s bright central regions. Unlike the rotation of stars, gas, and dust tracing the arms of spiral galaxies, the motions of dust and gas don’t follow the motions of stars in NGC 1947 though. Their more complicated disconnected motion suggest this galaxy’s visible threads of dust and gas may have come from a donor galaxy, accreted by NGC 1947 during the last 3 billion years or so of the peculiar galaxy’s evolution. With spiky foreground Milky Way stars and even more distant background galaxies scattered through the frame, this sharp Hubble image spans about 25,000 light-years near the center of NGC 1947.

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Mars and the Pleiades Beyond Vinegar Hill

Is this just a lonely tree on an empty hill? To start, perhaps, but look beyond. There, a busy universe may wait to be discovered. First, physically, to the left of the tree, is the planet Mars. The red planet, which is the new home to NASA’s Perseverance rover, remains visible this month at sunset above the western horizon. To the tree’s right is the Pleiades, a bright cluster of stars dominated by several bright blue stars. The featured picture is a composite of several separate foreground and background images taken within a few hours of each other, early last month, from the same location on Vinegar Hill in Milford, Nova Scotia, Canada. At that time, Mars was passing slowly, night after night, nearly in front of the distant Seven Sisters star cluster. The next time Mars will pass angularly as close to the Pleiades as it did in March will be in 2038.

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Veil Nebula: Wisps of an Exploded Star

Wisps like this are all that remain visible of a Milky Way star. About 7,000 years ago that star exploded in a supernova leaving the Veil Nebula. At the time, the expanding cloud was likely as bright as a crescent Moon, remaining visible for weeks to people living at the dawn of recorded history. Today, the resulting supernova remnant, also known as the Cygnus Loop, has faded and is now visible only through a small telescope directed toward the constellation of the Swan (Cygnus). The remaining Veil Nebula is physically huge, however, and even though it lies about 1,400 light-years distant, it covers over five times the size of the full Moon. The featured picture is a Hubble Space Telescope mosaic of six images together covering a span of only about two light years, a small part of the expansive supernova remnant. In images of the complete Veil Nebula, even studious readers might not be able to identify the featured filaments.

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In, Through, and Beyond Saturn’s Rings

Four moons are visible on the featured image — can you find them all? First — and farthest in the background — is Titan, the largest moon of Saturn and one of the larger moons in the Solar System. The dark feature across the top of this perpetually cloudy world is the north polar hood. The next most obvious moon is bright Dione, visible in the foreground, complete with craters and long ice cliffs. Jutting in from the left are several of Saturn’s expansive rings, including Saturn’s A ring featuring the dark Encke Gap. On the far right, just outside the rings, is Pandora, a moon only 80-kilometers across that helps shepherd Saturn’s F ring. The fourth moon? If you look closely inside Saturn’s rings, in the Encke Gap, you will find a speck that is actually Pan. Although one of Saturn’s smallest moons at 35-kilometers across, Pan is massive enough to help keep the Encke gap relatively free of ring particles. After more than a decade of exploration and discovery, the Cassini spacecraft ran low on fuel in 2017 and was directed to enter Saturn’s atmosphere, where it surely melted.

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Ingenuity on Sol 39

The Mars Ingenuity Helicopter, all four landing legs down, was captured here on sol 39 (March 30) slung beneath the belly of the Perseverance rover. The near ground level view is a mosaic of images from the WATSON camera on the rover’s SHERLOC robotic arm. Near the center of the frame the experimental helicopter is suspended just a few centimeters above the martian surface. Tracks from Perseverance extend beyond the rover’s wheels with the rim of Jezero crater visible about 2 kilometers in the distance. Ingenuity has a weight of 1.8 kilograms or 4 pounds on Earth. That corresponds to a weight of 0.68 kilograms or 1.5 pounds on Mars. With rotor blades spanning 1.2 meters it will attempt to make the first powered flight of an aircraft on another planet in the thin martian atmosphere, 1 percent as dense as Earth’s, no earlier than sol 48 (April 8).

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NGC 3521: Galaxy in a Bubble

Gorgeous spiral galaxy NGC 3521 is a mere 35 million light-years away, toward the constellation Leo. Relatively bright in planet Earth’s sky, NGC 3521 is easily visible in small telescopes but often overlooked by amateur imagers in favor of other Leo spiral galaxies, like M66 and M65. It’s hard to overlook in this colorful cosmic portrait, though. Spanning some 50,000 light-years the galaxy sports characteristic patchy, irregular spiral arms laced with dust, pink star forming regions, and clusters of young, blue stars. Remarkably, this deep image also finds NGC 3521 embedded in gigantic bubble-like shells. The shells are likely tidal debris, streams of stars torn from satellite galaxies that have undergone mergers with NGC 3521 in the distant past.

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Rocket Launch as Seen from the Space Station

Have you ever seen a rocket launch — from space? A close inspection of the featured time-lapse video will reveal a rocket rising to Earth orbit as seen from the International Space Station (ISS). The Russian Soyuz-FG rocket was launched in November 2018 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, carrying a Progress MS-10 (also 71P) module to bring needed supplies to the ISS. Highlights in the 90-second video (condensing about 15-minutes) include city lights and clouds visible on the Earth on the lower left, blue and gold bands of atmospheric airglow running diagonally across the center, and distant stars on the upper right that set behind the Earth. A lower stage can be seen falling back to Earth as the robotic supply ship fires its thrusters and begins to close on the ISS, a space laboratory that celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2018. Astronauts who live aboard the Earth-orbiting ISS conduct, among more practical duties, numerous science experiments that expand human knowledge and enable future commercial industry in low Earth orbit.

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