The beautiful Trifid Nebula, also known as Messier 20, is easy to find with a small telescope in the nebula rich constellation Sagittarius. About 5,000 light-years away, the colorful study in cosmic contrasts shares this well-composed, nearly 1 degree wide field with open star cluster Messier 21 (right). Trisected by dust lanes the Trifid itself is about 40 light-years across and a mere 300,000 years old. That makes it one of the youngest star forming regions in our sky, with newborn and embryonic stars embedded in its natal dust and gas clouds. Estimates of the distance to open star cluster M21 are similar to M20’s, but though they share this gorgeous telescopic skyscape there is no apparent connection between the two. In fact, M21’s stars are much older, about 8 million years old.
Ancient sun daggers will not hurt you, but they may tell you the time.�� A sun dagger is a dagger-shaped gap in a shadow created by sunlight streaming through�� a crevice in a nearby rock. Starting over a thousand year ago, native people of the American southwest carved spiral petroglyphs into rocks that became illuminated by sun daggers in different ways as the Sun shifts in the sky. A type of sundial, where the end of the sundagger points in the spiral at high noon (for example) indicates a time of year, possibly illuminating a solstice or equinox.�� Sun daggers are thought to have been used by Sun Priests during lone vigils with prayers and offerings.�� Of the few known, the featured video discusses the historic Picture Rocks Sun Dagger near Tucson, Arizona, USA, likely created by a Hohokam Sun Priest around 1000 AD.��
Distorted galaxy NGC 2442 can be found in the southern constellation of the flying fish, (Piscis) Volans. Located about 50 million light-years away, the galaxy’s two spiral arms extending from a pronounced central bar have a hook-like appearance in wide-field images. But this mosaicked close-up, constructed from Hubble Space Telescope and European Southern Observatory data, follows the galaxy’s structure in amazing detail. Obscuring dust lanes, young blue star clusters and reddish star forming regions surround a core of yellowish light from an older population of stars. The sharp image data also reveal more distant background galaxies seen right through NGC 2442’s star clusters and nebulae. The image spans about 75,000 light-years at the estimated distance of NGC 2442.
Did the Earth part to show us this comet? Of course not, even if this image makes it seem that way. Pictured far in the background is Comet NEOWISE as it appeared about two weeks ago over northern Greece. Above the comet are many stars including the bright stars of the Big Dipper (also the Sorcerer, in Aztec mythology), an asterism that many people around the world used to find the naked-eye comet as it hovered in the northern sky over the past month. In the foreground is Vikos Gorge, the deepest gorge on Earth, relative to its width. The gorge was slowly created by erosion from the Voidomatis River over the past few million years. Capturing this image took a lot of planning, waiting, luck, braving high winds, and avoiding local wolves. Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) continues to fade and is now best visible through binoculars as it coasts back to the outer Solar System.
How different does sunset appear from Mars than from Earth? For comparison, two images of our common star were taken at sunset, one from Earth and one from Mars. These images were scaled to have same angular width and featured here side-by-side. A quick inspection will reveal that the Sun appears slightly smaller from Mars than from Earth. This makes sense since Mars is 50% further from the Sun than Earth. More striking, perhaps, is that the Martian sunset is noticeably bluer near the Sun than the typically orange colors near the setting Sun from Earth. The reason for the blue hues from Mars is not fully understood, but thought to be related to forward scattering properties of Martian dust. The terrestrial sunset was taken in 2012 March from Marseille, France, while the Martian sunset was captured in 2015 by NASA‘s robotic Curiosity rover from Gale crater on Mars. Last week a new rover and a helicopter — onboard Mars 2020 — launched for Mars.
Like an illustration in a galactic Just So Story, the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula winds through the emission nebula and young star cluster complex IC 1396, in the high and far off constellation of Cepheus. Also known as vdB 142, the cosmic elephant’s trunk is over 20 light-years long. This detailed close-up view was recorded through narrow band filters that transmit the light from ionized hydrogen and oxygen atoms in the region. The resulting composite highlights the bright swept-back ridges that outline pockets of cool interstellar dust and gas. Such embedded, dark, tendril-shaped clouds contain the raw material for star formation and hide protostars within. Nearly 3,000 light-years distant, the relatively faint IC 1396 complex covers a large region on the sky, spanning over 5 degrees. This dramatic scene spans a 1 degree wide field of view though, about the size of 2 Full Moons.
On Thursday this snapshot from a small plane 5,000 feet above Florida’s Space Coast caught a rocket’s trail rising into the blue morning sky. It was July’s third launch of a mission from planet Earth bound for Mars. The Atlas V rocket left Cape Canaveral Air Force Station from Space Launch Complex 41 at 7:50am EDT carrying NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance Rover. The car-sized Perseverance is headed for a landing at Jezero Crater on the Red Planet in February 2021. On board the sophisticated rover is the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter.
Mars looks pretty sharp in this backyard telescope image captured on July 23 from Hoegaarden, Belgium, planet Earth. The Red Planet’s bright south polar cap is bathed in sunlight at the top of the inverted view, while the dark feature known as Syrtis Major extends toward the right (eastern) edge. Rising around midnight for now, the Red Planet is months away from its own opposition in early October. Telescopic views will improve even more as Earth, in its faster orbit, catches up to Mars, the ruddy disk growing larger and brighter still. The martian Jezero Crater is within the Syrtis Major region. That’s the landing site for NASA’s 2020 Mars Rover Perseverance, scheduled for launch today.
As Comet NEOWISE sweeps through northern summer skies, Jupiter and Saturn are shining brightly, near opposition. With Jupiter opposite the Sun on July 14 and Saturn on July 21, the giant planets are still near their closest to planet Earth in 2020. Sharing the constellation Sagittarius they are up all night, and offer their best and brightest views at the telescope. Both captured on July 22 from a balcony in Paris these two sharp telescopic images don’t disappoint, showing off what the giant planets are famous for, Saturn’s bright rings and Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. These giants of the Solar System are worth following during 2020. On December 21, skygazers can watch the once-in-20-year great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn.
Normally, Steamboat Point looks cool — but not this cool. Every day, the iconic peak of the Bighorn Mountains is an interesting sight, in particular from US Highway 14 in Wyoming. On some rare days, the rocky vertical ridges look even more incredible when seen in front of a distant lightning storm. Earlier this month, though, something even more unusual happened — the naked-eye Comet NEOWISE rose above it in the middle of the night. Just as a distant lightning storm was occurring in the background. Recognizing a rare opportunity, a determined astrophotographer spent a sleepless night capturing over 1400 images of this unusual triple conjunction. The featured image is among the best of them, with the foreground lit by the Moon off to the right. Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) is now headed back to the outer Solar System, destined to return only in about 6700 years.