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NGC 3132: The Eight Burst Nebula

NASA

It’s the dim star, not the bright one, near the center of NGC 3132 that created this odd but beautiful planetary nebula. Nicknamed the Eight-Burst Nebula and the Southern Ring Nebula, the glowing gas originated in the outer layers of a star like our Sun. In this representative color picture, the hot blue pool of light seen surrounding this binary system is energized by the hot surface of the faint star. Although photographed to explore unusual symmetries, it’s the asymmetries that help make this planetary nebula so intriguing. Neither the unusual shape of the surrounding cooler shell nor the structure and placements of the cool filamentary dust lanes running across NGC 3132 are well understood.

Moonless Meteors and the Milky Way

Petr Horlek

Have you watched the Perseid meteor shower? Though the annual shower’s predicted peak was last night, meteor activity should continue tonight (August 13/14), best enjoyed by just looking up in clear, dark skies after midnight. Of course, this year’s Perseid shower has the advantage of being active near the August 14 New Moon. Since the nearly New Moon doesn’t rise before the morning twilight many fainter meteors are easier to spot until then, with no interference from bright moonlight. The Perseid meteor shower last occurred near a New Moon in 2013. That’s when the exposures used to construct this image were made, under dark, moonless skies from Hvar Island off the coast of Croatia. The widefield composite includes 67 meteors streaming from the heroic constellation Perseus, the shower’s radiant, captured during 2013 August 8-14 against a background of faint zodiacal light and the Milky Way. The next moonless Perseid meteor shower will be in August 2018.

At the Edge of NGC 2174

NASA

This fantastic skyscape lies near the edge of NGC 2174 a star forming region about 6,400 light-years away in the nebula-rich constellation of Orion. It follows mountainous clouds of gas and dust carved by winds and radiation from the region’s newborn stars, now found scattered in open star clusters embedded around the center of NGC 2174, off the top of the frame. Though star formation continues within these dusty cosmic clouds they will likely be dispersed by the energetic newborn stars within a few million years. Recorded at infrared wavelengths by the Hubble Space Telescope, the interstellar scene spans about 6 light-years. The image celebrates the upcoming 24th anniversary of Hubble’s launch onboard the space shuttle orbiter Discovery on April 24, 1990.

Ares 3 Landing Site: The Martian Revisited

HiRISE

This close-up from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE camera shows weathered craters and windblown deposits in southern Acidalia Planitia. A striking shade of blue in standard HiRISE image colors, to the human eye the area would probably look grey or a little reddish. But human eyes have not gazed across this terrain, unless you count the eyes of NASA astronauts in the scifi novel The Martian by Andy Weir. The novel chronicles the adventures of Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded at the fictional Mars mission Ares 3 landing site corresponding to the coordinates of this cropped HiRISE frame. For scale Watney’s 6-meter-diameter habitat at the site would be about 1/10th the diameter of the large crater. Of course, the Ares 3 landing coordinates are only about 800 kilometers north of the (real life) Carl Sagan Memorial Station, the 1997 Pathfinder landing site.

M51: The Whirlpool Galaxy

Martin Pugh

Follow the handle of the Big Dipper away from the dipper’s bowl until you get to the handle’s last bright star. Then, just slide your telescope a little south and west and you might find this stunning pair of interacting galaxies, the 51st entry in Charles Messier famous catalog. Perhaps the original spiral nebula, the large galaxy with well defined spiral structure is also cataloged as NGC 5194. Its spiral arms and dust lanes clearly sweep in front of its companion galaxy (right), NGC 5195. The pair are about 31 million light-years distant and officially lie within the angular boundaries of the small constellation Canes Venatici. Though M51 looks faint and fuzzy to the eye, deep images like this one can reveal striking colors and the faint tidal debris around the smaller galaxy

The Infrared Visible Andromeda

Subaru Telescope

This remarkable synthetic color composite image was assembled from archives of visible light and infrared astronomy image data. The field of view spans the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), a massive spiral a mere 2.5 million light-years away. In fact, with over twice the diameter of our own Milky Way, Andromeda is the largest nearby galaxy. Andromeda’s population of bright young blue stars lie along its sweeping spiral arms, with the telltale reddish glow of star forming regions traced in space- and ground-based visible light data. But infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope, also blended directly into the detailed composite’s red and green color channels, highlight the the lumpy dust lanes warmed by the young stars as they wind even closer to the galaxy’s core. Otherwise invisible at optical wavelengths, the warm dust takes on orange hues. Two smaller companion galaxies, M110 (below) and M32 (above) are also included in the frame.

Infrared Trifid

J. Rho

The Trifid Nebula, also known as Messier 20, is easy to find with a small telescope, a well known stop in the nebula rich constellation Sagittarius. But where visible light pictures show the nebula divided into three parts by dark, obscuring dust lanes, this penetrating infrared image reveals filaments of glowing dust clouds and newborn stars. The spectacular false-color view is courtesy of the Spitzer Space Telescope. Astronomers have used the Spitzer infrared image data to count newborn and embryonic stars which otherwise can lie hidden in the natal dust and gas clouds of this intriguing stellar nursery. As seen here, the Trifid is about 30 light-years across and lies only 5,500 light-years away.

Comet PanSTARRS, Moon, and Venus

Amit Kamble,; Rollover Annotation: Judy Schmidt

It is the object to the left of the big tree that’s generating much recent excitement. If you look closely, there you can see Comet PanSTARRS, complete with two tails. During July, this comet has increased markedly in brightness and has just passed its closest approach to Earth. The statuesque tree in the center is a Norfolk Island Pine, and to either side of this tree are New Zealand Pohutukaw trees. Over the trees, far in the distance, are bright Venus and an even brighter crescent Moon. If you look even more closely, you can find Jupiter hidden in the branches of the pine. The featured image was taken a few days ago in Fergusson Park, New Zealand, looking over Tauranga Harbour Inlet. In the coming days and weeks, Comet C/2014 Q1 (PANSTARRS) will slowly move away from the Sun and the Earth, drift deep into southern skies, and fade.

The Missing Craters of Asteroid Itokawa

ISAS

Where are the craters on asteroid Itokawa? Missing – unexpectedly. The Japanese robot probe Hayabusa approached the Earth-crossing asteroid in 2005 and returned pictures showing a surface unlike any other Solar System body yet photographed – a surface possibly devoid of craters. The leading hypothesis for the lack of common circular indentations is that asteroid Itokawa is a rubble pile – a bunch of rocks and ice chunks only loosely held together by a small amount of gravity. If so, craters might not form so easily – or be filled in whenever the asteroid gets jiggled by a passing planet or struck by a massive meteor. Recent Earth-based observations of asteroid Itokawa have shown that one part of the interior even has a higher average interior density than the other part, another unexpected discovery. The Hayabusa mission returned soil samples from Itokawa which are also giving clues the ancient history of the unusual asteroid and our entire Solar System.

Carina Nebula Dust Pillar

NASA

This cosmic pillar of gas and dust is nearly two light-years wide. The structure lies within one of our galaxy’s largest star forming regions, the Carina Nebula, shining in southern skies at a distance of about 7,500 light-years. The pillar’s convoluted outlines are shaped by the winds and radiation of Carina’s young, hot, massive stars. But the interior of the cosmic pillar itself is home to stars in the process of formation. In fact, a penetrating infrared view shows the pillar is dominated by two, narrow, energetic jets blasting outward from a still hidden infant star. The above featured visible light image was made in 2009 using the Hubble Space Telescope’s Wide Field Camera 3.

Moon and Earth from Chang'e 5-T1

Chinese National Space Administration

Described at times as a big blue marble, from some vantage points Earth looks more like a small blue marble. Such was the case in this iconic image of the Earth and Moon system taken by the Chang'e 5-T1 mission last week. The Moon appears larger than the Earth because it was much closer to the spacecraft’s camera. Displaying much of a surface usually hidden from Earth, the Moon appears dark and gray when compared to the more reflective and colorful planet that it orbits. The robotic Chang'e 5-T1 spacecraft, predominantly on an engineering test mission, rounded the Moon last Tuesday returned to Earth on Friday.

Rosetta Approaches Comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko

European Space Agency

What does it look like to approach a comet? Early this month humanity received a new rendition as the robotic Rosetta spacecraft went right up to – and began orbiting – the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This approach turned out to be particularly fascinating because the comet nucleus first revealed itself to have an unexpected double structure, and later showed off an unusual and craggily surface. The above 101-frame time-lapse video details the approach of the spacecraft from August 1 through August 6. The icy comet’s core is the size of a mountain and rotates every 12.7 hours. Rosetta’s images and data may shed light on the origin of comets and the early history of our Solar System. Later this year, Rosetta is scheduled to release the Philae lander, which will attempt to land on Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko’s periphery and harpoon itself to the surface.
2014 August 11

Mount Sharp on the Horizon

NASA

Get out your red/blue glasses (red for the left eye) and look out over this expansive martian landscape. The panoramic stereo view is composed of images from the roving Curiosity’s Navcam taken at a rest stop during a 100 meter drive on Sol 548 (February 19). The 5.5 kilometer high peak of Mount Sharp, also known as Aeolis Mons, is on the horizon, its base a destination for Curiosity. In the foreground are rows of striated rocks along the Junda outcrop. Centered toward the south-southeast the scene spans 160 degrees. (Another Navcam image here looks back along Curiosity’s route at the end of the Sol’s drive on Mars.)