On January 6 the New Moon rose in silhouette with the Sun seen from northeastern Asia. Near maximum, the dramatic partial solar eclipse is captured in this telephoto view through hazy skies. In the foreground, the hill top Wanchun pavilion overlooking central Beijing’s popular Forbidden City hosts eclipse-watching early morning risers. This was the first of five, three solar and two lunar, eclipses for 2019. Next up is a total lunar eclipse during this month’s Full Perigee Moon. At night on January 21, that celestial shadow play will be visible from the hemisphere of planet Earth that includes the Americas, Europe, and western Africa.
The plane of our Milky Way Galaxy runs through this complex and beautiful skyscape. Seen toward colorful stars near the northwestern edge of the constellation Vela (the Sails), the 16 degree wide, 200 frame mosaic is centered on the glowing filaments of the Vela Supernova Remnant, the expanding debris cloud from the death explosion of a massive star. Light from the supernova explosion that created the Vela remnant reached Earth about 11,000 years ago. In addition to the shocked filaments of glowing gas, the cosmic catastrophe also left behind an incredibly dense, rotating stellar core, the Vela Pulsar. Some 800 light-years distant, the Vela remnant is likely embedded in a larger and older supernova remnant, the Gum Nebula. Objects identified in this broad mosaic include emission and reflection nebulae, star clusters, and the remarkable Pencil Nebula.
Named for a forgotten constellation, the Quadrantid Meteor Shower is an annual event for planet Earth’s northern hemisphere skygazers It usually peaks briefly in the cold, early morning hours of January 4. The shower’s radiant on the sky lies within the old, astronomically obsolete constellation Quadrans Muralis. That position is situated near the boundaries of the modern constellations Hercules, Bootes, and Draco. About 30 Quadrantid meteors can be counted in this skyscape composed of digital frames recorded in dark and moonless skies between 2:30am and local dawn. The shower’s radiant is rising just to the right of the Canary Island of Tenerife’s Teide volcano, and just below the familiar stars of the Big Dipper on the northern sky. A likely source of the dust stream that produces Quadrantid meteors was identified in 2003 as an asteroid. Look carefully and you can also spot a small, telltale greenish coma above the volcanic peak and near the top of the frame. That’s the 2018 Christmas visitor to planet Earth’s skies, Comet Wirtanen.
They may look like modern mechanical dinosaurs but they are enormous swiveling eyes that watch the sky. The High Energy Stereoscopic System (H.E.S.S.) Observatory is composed of four 12-meter reflecting-mirror telescopes surrounding a larger telescope housing a 28-meter mirror. They are designed to detect strange flickers of blue light — Cherenkov radiation –emitted when charged particles move slightly faster than the speed of light in air. This light is emitted when a gamma ray from a distant source strikes a molecule in Earth’s atmosphere and starts a charged-particle shower. H.E.S.S. is sensitive to some of the highest energy photons (TeV) crossing the universe. Operating since 2003 in Namibia, H.E.S.S. has searched for dark matter and has discovered over 50 sources emitting high energy radiation including supernova remnants and the centers of galaxies that contain supermassive black holes. Pictured last September, H.E.S.S. telescopes swivel and stare in time-lapse sequences shot in front of our Milky Way Galaxy and the Magellanic Clouds — as the occasional Earth-orbiting satellite zips by.
Why are these people shooting a powerful laser into the center of our Galaxy? Fortunately, this is not meant to be the first step in a Galactic war. Rather, astronomers at the Very Large Telescope (VLT) site in Chile are trying to measure the distortions of Earth’s ever changing atmosphere. Constant imaging of high-altitude atoms excited by the laser — which appear like an artificial star — allow astronomers to instantly measure atmospheric blurring. This information is fed back to a VLT telescope mirror which is then slightly deformed to minimize this blurring. In this case, a VLT was observing our Galaxy’s center, and so Earth’s atmospheric blurring in that direction was needed. As for inter-galaxy warfare, when viewed from our Galaxy’s center, no casualties are expected. In fact, the light from this powerful laser would combine with light from our Sun to together appear only as bright as a faint and distant star.
On January 3, the Chinese Chang’e-4 spacecraft made the first successful landing on the Moon’s farside. Taken by a camera on board the lander, this image is from the landing site inside Von Karman crater. It shows the desksized, six-wheeled Yutu 2 (Jade Rabbit 2) rover as it rolled down lander ramps and across the surface near local sunrise and the start of the two week long lunar day. Ripe for exploration, Von Karman crater itself is 186 kilometers in diameter. It lies within the Moon’s old and deep South Pole-Aitken impact basin with some of the most ancient and least understood lunar terrains. To bridge communications from the normally hidden hemisphere of the Moon, China launched a relay satellite, Queqiao, in May of 2018 in to an orbit beyond the lunar farside.
Ultima Thule is the most distant world explored by a spacecraft from Earth. In the dim light 6.5 billion kilometers from the Sun, the New Horizons spacecraft captured these two frames 38 minutes apart as it sped toward the Kuiper belt world on January 1 at 51,000 kilometers per hour. A contact binary, the two lobes of Ultima Thule rotate together once every 15 hours or so. Shown as a blinking gif, the rotation between the frames produces a tantalizing 3D perspective of the most primitive world ever seen. Dubbed separately by the science team Ultima and Thule, the larger lobe Ultima, is about 19 kilometers in diameter. Smaller Thule is 14 kilometers across.