What happening above that volcano? Something very unusual — a volcanic light pillar. More typically, light pillars are caused by sunlight and so appear as a bright column that extends upward above a rising or setting Sun. Alternatively, other light pillars — some quite colorful — have been recorded above street and house lights. This light pillar, though, was illuminated by the red light emitted by the glowing magma of an erupting volcano. The volcano is Italy‘s Mount Etna, and the featured image was captured with a single shot a few hours after sunset in mid-June. Freezing temperatures above the volcano’s ash cloud created ice-crystals either in cirrus clouds high above the volcano — or in condensed water vapor expelled by Mount Etna. These ice crystals — mostly flat toward the ground but fluttering — then reflected away light from the volcano’s caldera.
What is that light in the sky? Perhaps one of humanity’s more common questions, an answer may result from a few quick observations. For example — is it moving or blinking? If so, and if you live near a city, the answer is typically an airplane, since planes are so numerous and so few stars and satellites are bright enough to be seen over the din of artificial city lights. If not, and if you live far from a city, that bright light is likely a planet such as Venus or Mars — the former of which is constrained to appear near the horizon just before dawn or after dusk. Sometimes the low apparent motion of a distant airplane near the horizon makes it hard to tell from a bright planet, but even this can usually be discerned by the plane’s motion over a few minutes. Still unsure? The featured chart gives a sometimes-humorous but mostly-accurate assessment. Dedicated sky enthusiasts will likely note — and are encouraged to provide — polite corrections.
Returning along its 6.4 year orbit, periodic comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P) is caught in this telescopic frame from November 7. Sweeping past background stars in the constellation Gemini the comet’s dusty tail stretches toward the upper right to Upsilon Geminorum. Also known as Pollux, Beta Geminorum, Gemini’s brightest star, shines just off the upper left edge of the field-of-view. Churyumov-Gerasimenko reached its 2021 perihelion or closest approach to the Sun on November 2. At perigee, its closest approach to planet Earth on November 12, this comet was about 0.42 astronomical units away, though it remains too faint to be seen by eye alone. The well-studied comet was explored by robots from planet Earth during its last trip through the inner solar system. It’s now famous as the final resting place for the historic Rosetta spacecraft and Philae lander.
The small, northern constellation Triangulum harbors this magnificent face-on spiral galaxy, M33. Its popular names include the Pinwheel Galaxy or just the Triangulum Galaxy. M33 is over 50,000 light-years in diameter, third largest in the Local Group of galaxies after the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), and our own Milky Way. About 3 million light-years from the Milky Way, M33 is itself thought to be a satellite of the Andromeda Galaxy and astronomers in these two galaxies would likely have spectacular views of each other’s grand spiral star systems. As for the view from planet Earth, this sharp image shows off M33’s blue star clusters and pinkish star forming regions along the galaxy’s loosely wound spiral arms. In fact, the cavernous NGC 604 is the brightest star forming region, seen here at about the 4 o’clock position from the galaxy center. Like M31, M33’s population of well-measured variable stars have helped make this nearby spiral a cosmic yardstick for establishing the distance scale of the Universe.
NGC 1333 is seen in visible light as a reflection nebula, dominated by bluish hues characteristic of starlight reflected by interstellar dust. A mere 1,000 light-years distant toward the heroic constellation Perseus, it lies at the edge of a large, star-forming molecular cloud. This telescopic close-up spans about two full moons on the sky or just over 15 light-years at the estimated distance of NGC 1333. It shows details of the dusty region along with telltale hints of contrasty red emission from Herbig-Haro objects, jets and shocked glowing gas emanating from recently formed stars. In fact, NGC 1333 contains hundreds of stars less than a million years old, most still hidden from optical telescopes by the pervasive stardust. The chaotic environment may be similar to one in which our own Sun formed over 4.5 billion years ago.
Many think it is just a myth. Others think it is true but its cause isn’t known. Adventurers pride themselves on having seen it. It’s a green flash from the Sun. The truth is the green flash does exist and its cause is well understood. Just as the setting Sun disappears completely from view, a last glimmer appears startlingly green. The effect is typically visible only from locations with a low, distant horizon, and lasts just a few seconds. A green flash is also visible for a rising Sun, but takes better timing to spot. A dramatic green flash was caught on video last month as the Sun set beyond the Ligurian Sea from Tuscany, Italy. The second sequence in the featured video shows the green flash in real time, while the first is sped up and the last is in slow motion. The Sun itself does not turn partly green — the effect is caused by layers of the Earth’s atmosphere acting like a prism.
Why would you want to fake a universe? For one reason — to better understand our real universe. Many astronomical projects seeking to learn properties of our universe now start with a robotic telescope taking sequential images of the night sky. Next, sophisticated computer algorithms crunch these digital images to find stars and galaxies and measure their properties. To calibrate these algorithms, it is useful to test them on fake images from a fake universe to see if the algorithms can correctly deduce purposely imprinted properties. The featured mosaic of fake images was created to specifically mimic the images that have appeared on NASA‘s Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD). Only one image of the 225 images is real — can you find it? The accomplished deceptors have made available individual fake APOD images that can be displayed by accessing their ThisIsNotAnAPOD webpage or Twitter feed. More useful for calibrating and understanding our distant universe, however, are fake galaxies — a sampling of which can be seen at their ThisIsNotAGalaxy webpage.
Why, sometimes, does part of the Sun’s atmosphere leap into space? The reason lies in changing magnetic fields that thread through the Sun‘s surface. Regions of strong surface magnetism, known as active regions, are usually marked by dark sunspots. Active regions can channel charged gas along arching or sweeping magnetic fields — gas that sometimes falls back, sometimes escapes, and sometimes not only escapes but impacts our Earth. The featured one-hour time-lapse video — taken with a small telescope in France — captured an eruptive filament that appeared to leap off the Sun late last month. The filament is huge: for comparison, the size of the Earth is shown on the upper left. Just after the filament lifted off, the Sun emitted a powerful X-class flare while the surface rumbled with a tremendous solar tsunami. A result was a cloud of charged particles that rushed into our Solar System but mostly missed our Earth — this time. However, enough solar plasma did impact our Earth’s magnetosphere to create a few faint auroras.
To some it looks like a cat’s eye. To others, perhaps like a giant cosmic conch shell. It is actually one of brightest and most highly detailed planetary nebula known, composed of gas expelled in the brief yet glorious phase near the end of life of a Sun-like star. This nebula‘s dying central star may have produced the outer circular concentric shells by shrugging off outer layers in a series of regular convulsions. The formation of the beautiful, complex-yet-symmetric inner structures, however, is not well understood. The featured image is a composite of a digitally sharpened Hubble Space Telescope image with X-ray light captured by the orbiting Chandra Observatory. The exquisite floating space statue spans over half a light-year across. Of course, gazing into this Cat’s Eye, humanity may well be seeing the fate of our sun, destined to enter its own planetary nebula phase of evolution … in about 5 billion years.
On an August night two friends enjoyed this view after a day’s hike on the Plateau d’Emparis in the French Alps. At 2400 meters altitude the sky was clear. Light from a setting moon illuminates the foreground captured in the simple vertical panorama of images. Along the plane of our Milky Way galaxy stars of Cassiopeia and Perseus shine along the panorama’s left edge. But seen as a faint cloud with a brighter core, the Andromeda galaxy, stands directly above the two friends in the night. The nearest large spiral galaxy, Andromeda is about 2.5 million light-years beyond the stars of the Milky Way. Adding to the evening’s shared extragalactic perspective, the fainter fuzzy spot in the sky right between them is M33, also known as the Triangulum galaxy. Third largest in the local galaxy group, after Andromeda and Milky Way, the Triangulum galaxy is about 3 million light-years distant. On that night, the two friends stood about 3 light-nanoseconds apart.