Stars this volatile are quite rare. Captured in the midst of dust clouds and visible to the right and above center is massive G79.29+0.46, one of less than 100 luminous blue variable stars (LBVs) currently known in our Galaxy. LBVs expel shells of gas and may lose even the mass of Jupiter over 100 years. The star, itself bright and blue, is shrouded in dust and so not seen in visible light. The dying star appears green and surrounded by red shells, though, in this mapped-color infrared picture combining images from NASA’s Spitzer Space Observatory and NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer. G79.29+0.46 is located in the star-forming Cygnus X region of our Galaxy. Why G79.29+0.46 is so volatile, how long it will remain in the LBV phase, and when it will explode in a supernova is not known.
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.
A conjunction of comets is captured in this pretty star field from the morning of September 17. Discovered in July by a robotic sky survey searching for supernovae, comet C/2017 O1 ASASSN is at the lower left. The visible greenish glow of its coma is produced by the fluorescence of diatomic carbon molecules in sunlight. Nearing its closest approach to the Sun, the binocular comet was only about 7.2 light-minutes from Earth. In the same telescopic field of view is the long-tailed, outbound comet C/2015 ER61 PanSTARRS at the upper right, almost 14 light-minutes away. Many light-years distant, the starry background includes faint, dusty nebulae of the Milky Way. The well-known Pleiades star cluster lies just off the top right of the frame.
The Moon, three planets, and a bright star gathered near the ecliptic plane in the September 18 morning sky over Veszprem Castle, Hungary. In this twilight skyscape, Mercury and Mars still shine close to the eastern horizon, soon to disappear in the glare of the Sun. Regulus, alpha star of the constellation Leo, is the bright point next to a waning crescent Moon, with brilliant Venus near the top of the frame. The beautiful morning conjunction of Moon, planets, and bright star could generally be followed by early morning risers all around planet Earth. But remarkably, the Moon also occulted, or passed directly in front of, Regulus and each of the three planets within 24 hours, all on September 18 UT. Visible from different locations, timing and watching the lunar occultations was much more difficult though, and mostly required viewing in daytime skies.
Most photographs don’t adequately portray the magnificence of the Sun‘s corona. Seeing the corona first-hand during a total solar eclipse is unparalleled. The human eye can adapt to see coronal features and extent that average cameras usually cannot. Welcome, however, to the digital age. The featured picture is a combination of forty exposures from one thousandth of a second to two seconds that, together, were digitally combined and processed to highlight faint features of the total solar eclipse that occurred in August of 2017. Clearly visible are intricate layers and glowing caustics of an ever changing mixture of hot gas and magnetic fields in the Sun’s corona. Looping prominences appear bright pink just past the Sun’s limb. Faint details on the night side of the New Moon can even be made out, illuminated by sunlight reflected from the dayside of the Full Earth.
Why were the statues on Easter Island built? No one is sure. What is sure is that over 800 large stone statues exist there. The Easter Island statues, stand, on the average, over twice as tall as a person and have over 200 times as much mass. Few specifics are known about the history or meaning of the unusual rock sculptures, but many believe that they were created about 700 years ago in the images of local leaders of a lost civilization. Featured here, one of the ancient Moai sculptures was imaged in 2016 before the constellation of Orion, including the famous line of three belt stars and brilliant stars Betelgeuse (far left in red) and Rigel (upper center). The stone giant appears, however, to be inspecting the brightest star in the night sky (far right): Sirius.
One of the brightest galaxies in planet Earth’s sky is similar in size to our Milky Way Galaxy: big, beautiful M81. This grand spiral galaxy can be found toward the northern constellation of the Great Bear (Ursa Major). This superbly detailed view reveals M81’s bright yellow nucleus, blue spiral arms, and sweeping cosmic dust lanes with a scale comparable to the Milky Way. Hinting at a disorderly past, a remarkable dust lane actually runs straight through the disk, to the left of the galactic center, contrary to M81‘s other prominent spiral features. The errant dust lane may be the lingering result of a close encounter between M81 and its smaller companion galaxy, M82. Scrutiny of variable stars in M81 has yielded one of the best determined distances for an external galaxy — 11.8 million light-years.