Does the Earth ever pass through a wind of meteors? Yes, and they are frequently visible as meteor showers. Almost all meteors are sand-sized debris that escaped from a Sun-orbiting comet or asteroid, debris that continues in an elongated orbit around the Sun. Circling the same Sun, our Earth can move through an orbiting debris stream, where it can appear, over time, as a meteor wind. The meteors that light up in Earth’s atmosphere, however, are usually destroyed. Their streaks, though, can all be traced back to a single point on the sky called the radiant. The featured image composite was taken over two days in late July near the ancient Berber village Zriba El Alia in Tunisia, during the peak of the Southern Delta Aquariids meteor shower. The radiant is to the right of the image. A few days ago our Earth experienced the peak of a more famous meteor wind — the Perseids.
The North America nebula on the sky can do what the North America continent on Earth cannot — form stars. Specifically, in analogy to the Earth-confined continent, the bright part that appears as Central America and Mexico is actually a hot bed of gas, dust, and newly formed stars known as the Cygnus Wall. The featured image shows the star forming wall lit and eroded by bright young stars, and partly hidden by the dark dust they have created. The part of the North America nebula (NGC 7000) shown spans about 15 light years and lies about 1,500 light years away toward the constellation of the Swan (Cygnus).
Over 4000 planets are now known to exist outside our Solar System. Known as exoplanets, this milestone was passed last month, as recorded by NASA’s Exoplanet Archive. The featured video highlights these exoplanets in sound and light, starting chronologically from the first confirmed detection in 1992 and continuing into 2019. The entire night sky is first shown compressed with the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy making a giant U. Exoplanets detected by slight jiggles in their parents-star’s colors (radial velocity) appear in pink, while those detected by slight dips in their parent star’s brightness (transit) are shown in purple. Further, those exoplanets imaged directly appear in orange, while those detected by gravitationally magnifying the light of a background star (microlensing) are shown in green. The faster a planet orbits its parent star, the higher the accompanying tone played. The retired Kepler satellite has discovered about half of these first 4000 exoplanets in just one region of the sky, while the TESS mission is on track to find even more, all over the sky, orbiting the brightest nearby stars. Finding exoplanets not only helps humanity to better understand the potential prevalence of life elsewhere in the universe, but also how our Earth and Solar System were formed.
Mimas, small 400 kilometer-diameter moon of Saturn, is host to 130 kilometer-diameter Herschel crater, one of the larger impact craters in the entire Solar System. The robotic Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn in 2010 recorded this startling view of small moon and big crater while making a 10,000-kilometer record close pass by the diminutive icy world. Shown in contrast-enhanced false color, the image data reveal more clearly that Herschel’s landscape is colored slightly differently from heavily cratered terrain nearby. The color difference could yield surface composition clues to the violent history of Mimas. Of course, an impact on Mimas any larger than the one that created the 130-kilometer Herschel might have destroyed the small moon of Saturn.
What it would look like to leave planet Earth? Such an event was recorded visually in great detail by the MESSENGER spacecraft as it swung back past the Earth in 2005 on its way in toward the planet Mercury. Earth can be seen rotating in this time-lapse video, as it recedes into the distance. The sunlit half of Earth is so bright that background stars are not visible. The robotic MESSENGER spacecraft is now in orbit around Mercury and has recently concluded the first complete map of the surface. On occasion, MESSENGER has continued to peer back at its home world. MESSENGER is one of the few things created on the Earth that will never return. At the end of its mission MESSENGER crashed into Mercury’s surface.
What’s that green streak in front of the Andromeda galaxy? A meteor. While photographing the Andromeda galaxy in 2016, near the peak of the Perseid Meteor Shower, a small pebble from deep space crossed right in front of our Milky Way Galaxy‘s far-distant companion. The small meteor took only a fraction of a second to pass through this 10-degree field. The meteor flared several times while braking violently upon entering Earth’s atmosphere. The green color was created, at least in part, by the meteor’s gas glowing as it vaporized. Although the exposure was timed to catch a Perseid meteor, the orientation of the imaged streak seems a better match to a meteor from the Southern Delta Aquariids, a meteor shower that peaked a few weeks earlier. Not coincidentally, the Perseid Meteor Shower peaks later this week, although this year the meteors will have to outshine a sky brightened by a nearly full moon.
Get out your red/blue glasses and float next to Phobos, grooved moon of Mars! Captured in 2004 by the High Resolution Stereo Camera on board ESA’s Mars Express spacecraft, the image data was recorded at a distance of about 200 kilometers from the martian moon. This tantalizing stereo anaglyph view shows the Mars-facing side of Phobos. It highlights the asteroid-like moon’s cratered and grooved surface. Up to hundreds of meters wide, the mysterious grooves may be related to the impact that created Stickney crater, the large crater at the left. Stickney crater is about 10 kilometers across, while Phobos itself is only around 27 kilometers across at its widest point.
What created the unusual halo around the Cat’s Eye nebula? No one is sure. What is sure is that the Cat’s Eye Nebula (NGC 6543) is one of the best known planetary nebulae on the sky. Although haunting symmetries are seen in the bright central region, this image was taken to feature its intricately structured outer halo, which spans over three light-years across. Planetary nebulae have long been appreciated as a final phase in the life of a Sun-like star. Only recently however, have some planetaries been found to have expansive halos, likely formed from material shrugged off during earlier puzzling episodes in the star’s evolution. While the planetary nebula phase is thought to last for around 10,000 years, astronomers estimate the age of the outer filamentary portions of the Cat’s Eye Nebula‘s halo to be 50,000 to 90,000 years.
Why does Saturn appear so big? It doesn’t — what is pictured are foreground clouds on Earth crossing in front of the Moon. The Moon shows a slight crescent phase with most of its surface visible by reflected Earthlight known as ashen glow. The Sun directly illuminates the brightly lit lunar crescent from the bottom, which means that the Sun must be below the horizon and so the image was taken before sunrise. This double take-inducing picture was captured on 2019 December 24, two days before the Moon slid in front of the Sun to create a solar eclipse. In the foreground, lights from small Guatemalan towns are visible behind the huge volcano Pacaya.
It’s stars versus dust in the Carina Nebula and the stars are winning. More precisely, the energetic light and winds from massive newly formed stars are evaporating and dispersing the dusty stellar nurseries in which they formed. Located in the Carina Nebula and known informally as Mystic Mountain, these pillar’s appearance is dominated by the dark dust even though it is composed mostly of clear hydrogen gas. Dust pillars such as these are actually much thinner than air and only appear as mountains due to relatively small amounts of opaque interstellar dust. About 7,500 light-years distant, the featured image was taken with the Hubble Space Telescope and highlights an interior region of Carina which spans about three light years. Within a few million years, the stars will likely win out completely and the entire dust mountain will evaporate.