Astronaut self-portraits can be particularly interesting. Visible in the above picture, working in from the outer borders, are the edges of the reflecting helmet of a space suit, modules of the International Space Station (ISS), the Earth, the arms of Expedition 15 astronaut Clay Anderson, and the digital camera used to snap the image. This picture was taken during the shuttle orbiter Endeavour’s mission to expand the space station last August. The large curvature of the Earth appearing in the visor reflection is not the true curvature of our spherical Earth, but rather an artifact of the curve of the space helmet. Earth’s horizon appears only slightly curved when viewed from the height of the ISS — approximately 400 kilometers. The next space shuttle mission to the space station is currently expected to take place next month and includes the installation of the scientific Columbus Laboratory.
Perhaps it’s time to go inside. Such thoughts might occur to people witnessing the approach of an impressive shelf cloud. Shelf clouds are typically seen leading thunderstorms, although they may precede any well defined front of relatively cold air. Shelf clouds differ from roll clouds because shelf clouds are attached to a larger cloud system lurking above. Similarly, shelf clouds differ from wall clouds because wall clouds typically trail storm systems. The above pictured shelf cloud was photographed toward the southwest during a trip crossing the prairies of Saskatchewan, Canada on the Trans-Canada Highway in 2001 August. A rising Sun illuminated the impressive cloud from the east as it advanced from the west.
What would it look like to fly past Mercury? Just such an adventure was experienced last week by the MESSENGER spacecraft during its first flyby of the strange moon-like world nearest the Sun. Pictured above is the limb of Mercury seen by MESSENGER upon approach, from about 1 1/2 Earth diameters away. Visible on the hot and barren planet are many craters, many appeared to be more shallow than similarly sized craters on the Moon. The comparatively high gravity of Mercury helps flatten tall structures like high crater walls. MESSENGER was able to take over 1,000 images of Mercury which will be beamed back to Earth for planetary geologists to study. The robotic MESSENGER spacecraft is scheduled to fly past Mercury twice more before firing its thrusters to enter orbit in 2011.
Comet McNaught was perhaps the most photogenic comet of our time. After making quite a show in the northern hemisphere in early January, the comet moved south and developed a long and unusual dust tail that dazzled southern hemisphere observers. In this image, Comet McNaught was captured one year ago above Chile. The bright comet dominates on the left while part of its magnificent tail spreads across the entire picture. From this vantage point in the Andes Mountains, one looks up toward Comet McNaught and a magnificent sky, across at a crescent moon, and down on clouds, atmospheric haze, and the city lights of Santiago. Comet McNaught has glided into the outer Solar System and is now only visible as a speck in a large telescope. The other spectacular comet of 2007, Comet Holmes, has also faded from easy view.
The tantalizing Pleiades star cluster seems to lie just beyond the trees above a dark castle tower in this dramatic view of The World at Night. Recorded earlier this month, the starry sky also features bright star Aldebaran below the Pleiades and a small, faint, fuzzy cloud otherwise known as Comet Holmes near picture center at the top of the field. Starry Night Castle might be an appropriate name for the medieval castle ruin in the foreground. But its traditional name is Mörby Castle, found north of Stockholm, near lake Skedviken in Norrtälje, Sweden.
The stellar explosions known as supernovae are among the most powerful events in the universe. Triggered by the collapsing core of a massive star or the nuclear demise of a white dwarf, supernovae occur in average spiral galaxies only about once every century. But the remarkable spiral galaxy NGC 2770 has lately produced more than its fair share. Two still bright supernovae and the location of a third, originally spotted in 1999 but now faded from view, are indicated in this image of the edge-on spiral. All three supernovae are now thought to be of the core-collapse variety, but the most recent of the trio, SN2008D, was first detected by the Swift satellite at more extreme energies as an X-ray flash (XRF) or possibly a low-energy version of a gamma-ray burst on January 9th. Located a mere 90 million light-years away in the northern constellation Lynx, NGC 2770 is now the closest galaxy known to host such a powerful supernova event.
This helmet-shaped cosmic cloud with wing-like appendages is popularly called Thor’s Helmet. Heroically sized even for a Norse god, Thor’s Helmet is about 30 light-years across. In fact, the helmet is actually more like an interstellar bubble, blown as a fast wind from the bright, massive star near the bubble’s center sweeps through a surrounding molecular cloud. Known as a Wolf-Rayet star, the central star is an extremely hot giant thought to be in a brief, pre-supernova stage of evolution. Cataloged as NGC 2359, the nebula is located about 15,000 light-years away in the constellation Canis Major. The sharp image captures striking details of the nebula’s filamentary structures and also records an almost emerald color from strong emission due to oxygen atoms in the glowing gas.
Two days ago, the MESSENGER spacecraft became only the second spacecraft in human history to swoop past Mercury. The last spacecraft to visit the Sun’s closest planet was Mariner 10 over 35 years ago. Mariner 10 was not able to photograph Mercury’s entire surface, and the images it did send back raised many questions. Therefore, much about planet Mercury remains unknown. This week’s flyby of MESSENGER was only the first of three flybys. Over the next few years MESSENGER will swing past twice more and finally enter Mercury’s orbit in 2011. MESSENGER is currently moving too fast to enter orbit around Mercury now. The above image was taken two days ago during MESSENGER’s flyby and shows part of Mercury’s surface that has never been imaged in detail before. Many more MESSENGER will hopefully help scientists better understand how Mercury’s surface was formed, and why it is so dense.
Are these two supernova shells related? To help find out, the 8-meter Gemini Telescope located high atop a mountain in Chile was pointed at the unusual, huge, double-lobed cloud dubbed DEM L316. The resulting image, shown above, yields tremendous detail. Inspection of the image as well as data taken by the orbiting Chandra X-Ray Observatory indicate how different the two supernova remnants are. In particular, the smaller shell appears to be the result of Type Ia supernova where a white dwarf exploded, while the larger shell appears to be the result of a Type II supernova where a massive normal star exploded. Since those two stellar types evolve on such different time scales, they likely did not form together and so are likely not physically associated. Considering also that no evidence exists that the shells are colliding, the two shells are now hypothesized to be superposed by chance. DEM L316 lies about 160,000 light years away in the neighboring Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) galaxy, spans about 140 light-years across, and appears toward the southern constellation of the Swordfish (Dorado).
What creates the colors of the Cocoon Nebula? The Cocoon Nebula, cataloged as IC 5146, is a strikingly beautiful nebula located about 4,000 light years away toward the constellation of the Swan (Cygnus). Inside the Cocoon Nebula is a newly developing open cluster of stars. Like other stellar nurseries, the Cocoon Nebula holds, at the same time, a bright red emission nebula, blue reflection nebulas, and dark absorption nebulas. Given different mixtures, these three processes create a host of colors in this image taken recently by the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope (CFHT) in Hawaii, USA. Speculation based on recent measurements holds that the massive star towards the left of the picture opened a hole in an existing molecular cloud through which much of the glowing material flows. The same star, which formed about 100,000 years ago, now provides the energy source for much of the emitted and reflected light from this nebula.
Ninety percent of the houses on Grenada were damaged by the destructive force of Hurricane Ivan. At its peak, Ivan was a Category 5 hurricane, the highest power category on the Saffir-Simpson Scale, and created sustained winds in excess of 200 kilometers per hour. Ivan was the largest hurricane to strike the US in 2004, and, so far, the 10th most powerful in recorded history. As it swirled in the Atlantic Ocean, the tremendous eye of Hurricane Ivan was photographed from above by the orbiting International Space Station. The name Ivan has now been retired from Atlantic Ocean use by the World Meteorological Organization. Note: Astronomy lectures by an APOD editor are now available as a free podcast.
This colorful view of the western sky at sunset features last Wednesday’s slender crescent Moon. Of course, when the Moon is in its crescent phase it can never be far from the Sun in the sky. Also always close to the Sun in Earth’s sky is innermost planet Mercury, seen here below and right of center against the bright orange glow along the horizon. Mercury is usually difficult to glimpse because of overwhelming sunlight, but increasingly better views of the small planet after sunset will be possible as it wanders farther east of the Sun in the coming days. On January 14th, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft will have a good view too, as it
Centered on North Star Polaris, this 4 degree wide field of view covers part of a complex of relatively unfamiliar, diffuse dust clouds soaring high above the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy. The combined light of the Milky Way stars are reflected by the dusty, galactic cirrus, the reflected starlight having the same blue tint characteristic of better known reflection nebulae. But this deep color image also records a faint reddish luminescence from the dust grains as they convert invisible stellar ultraviolet radiation to visible red light. Dubbed extended red emission, the dim cosmic glow is thought to be caused by complex organic molecules known as PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), common constituents of interstellar dust. On planet Earth, PAHs are widely encountered as the sooty products of combustion.
A mere 11 million light-years away, Centaurus A is a giant elliptical galaxy – the closest active galaxy to Earth. This remarkable composite view of the galaxy combines image data from the x-ray ( Chandra), optical(ESO), and radio(VLA) regimes. Centaurus A’s central region is a jumble of gas, dust, and stars in optical light, but both radio and x-ray telescopes trace a remarkable jet of high-energy particles streaming from the galaxy’s core. The cosmic particle accelerator’s power source is a black hole with about 10 million times the mass of the Sun coincident with the x-ray bright spot at the galaxy’s center. Blasting out from the active galactic nucleus toward the upper left, the energetic jet extends about 13,000 light-years. A shorter jet extends from the nucleus in the opposite direction. Other x-ray bright spots in the field are binary star systems with neutron stars or stellar mass black holes. Active galaxy Centaurus A is likely the result of a merger with a spiral galaxy some 100 million years ago.