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Astronomy Picture of the Day

Spiral Aurora over Icelandic Divide
Image Credit & Copyright: Juan Carlos Casado (TWAN, StarryEarth)

Explanation: Admire the beauty but fear the beast. The beauty is the aurora overhead, here taking the form of great green spiral, seen between picturesque clouds with the bright Moon to the side and stars in the background. The beast is the wave of charged particles that creates the aurora but might, one day, impair civilization. In 1859, following notable auroras seen all across the globe, a pulse of charged particles from a coronal mass ejection (CME) associated with a solar flare impacted Earth’s magnetosphere so forcefully that they created the Carrington Event. A relatively direct path between the Sun and the Earth might have been cleared by a preceding CME. What is sure is that the Carrington Event compressed the Earth’s magnetic field so violently that currents were created in telegraph wires so great that many wires sparked and gave telegraph operators shocks. Were a Carrington-class event to impact the Earth today, speculation holds that damage might occur to global power grids and electronics on a scale never yet experienced. The featured aurora was imaged in 2016 over Thingvallavatn Lake in Iceland, a lake that partly fills a fault that divides Earth’s large Eurasian and North American tectonic plates.

Tomorrow’s picture: martian methane mystery

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Falcon Heavy Launch Close Up
Image Credit: SpaceX

Explanation: Twenty seven Merlin rocket engines are firing in this close-up of the launch of a Falcon Heavy rocket. Derived from three Falcon 9 first stage rockets with nine Merlin rocket engines each, the Falcon Heavy left NASA’s Kennedy Space Center launch pad 39A on April 11. This second launch of a Falcon Heavy rocket carried the Arabsat 6A communications satellite to space. In February of 2018, the first Falcon Heavy launch carried Starman and a Tesla Roadster. Designed to be reusable, both booster stages and the central core returned safely to planet Earth, the boosters to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station landing zones. The core stage landed off shore on autonomous spaceport drone ship Of Course I Still Love You.

Tomorrow’s picture: spiral aurora

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Milky Way in Northern Spring
Image Credit & Copyright: Taha Ghouchkanlu (TWAN)

Explanation: A postcard from planet Earth, this springtime night skyscape looks over Alandan lake in the Alborz mountains. Taken after local midnight on April 17, the central Milky Way is rising over the region’s southeast horizon. Its luminous track of stars and nebulae along the plane of our galaxy are reflected in the mirror-like lake. The brightest celestial beacon mingled with the diffuse galactic starlight is Jupiter. Slightly dimmer, Saturn is below and left just above the mountains. As spring brought leaves to the trees and the galactic center to the northern night the photographer found it also gave frogs their voices, heard like a melody across the calm water.

Tomorrow’s picture: 3 x 9

Astronomy Picture of the Day

The Leo Trio
Image Credit & Copyright: Markus Bauer

Explanation: This group is popular in the northern spring. Famous as the Leo Triplet, the three magnificent galaxies gather in one field of view. Crowd pleasers when imaged with even modest telescopes, they can be introduced individually as NGC 3628 (left), M66 (bottom right), and M65 (top). All three are large spiral galaxies but they tend to look dissimilar because their galactic disks are tilted at different angles to our line of sight. NGC 3628, also known as the Hamburger Galaxy, is temptingly seen edge-on, with obscuring dust lanes cutting across its puffy galactic plane. The disks of M66 and M65 are both inclined enough to show off their spiral structure. Gravitational interactions between galaxies in the group have left telltale signs, including the tidal tails and warped, inflated disk of NGC 3628 and the drawn out spiral arms of M66. This gorgeous view of the region spans almost two degrees (four full moons) on the sky. The field covers about a million light-years at the trio’s estimated distance of 30 million light-years. Of course the spiky foreground stars lie within our own Milky Way.

Tomorrow’s picture: pixels in space

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Messier 81
Image Credit & Copyright: Paolo De Salvatore (Zenit Observatory)

Explanation: One of the brightest galaxies in planet Earth’s sky is similar in size to our Milky Way Galaxy: big, beautiful Messier 81. Also known as NGC 3031 or Bode’s galaxy for its 18th century discoverer, this grand spiral can be found toward the northern constellation of Ursa Major, the Great Bear. The detailed telescopic view reveals M81’s bright yellow nucleus, blue spiral arms, pink starforming regions, and sweeping cosmic dust lanes. Some dust lanes actually run through the galactic disk (left of center), contrary to other prominent spiral features though. The errant dust lanes 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.

Tomorrow’s picture: pixels in space

Astronomy Picture of the Day

In the Vicinity of the Cone Nebula
Image Credit: Chilescope; Processing & Copyright: Utkarsh Mishra

Explanation: Strange shapes and textures can be found in neighborhood of the Cone Nebula. The unusual shapes originate from fine interstellar dust reacting in complex ways with the energetic light and hot gas being expelled by the young stars. The brightest star on the right of the featured picture is S Mon, while the region just below it has been nicknamed the Fox Fur Nebula for its color and structure. The blue glow directly surrounding S Mon results from reflection, where neighboring dust reflects light from the bright star. The red glow that encompasses the whole region results not only from dust reflection but also emission from hydrogen gas ionized by starlight. S Mon is part of a young open cluster of stars named NGC 2264, located about 2500 light years away toward the constellation of the Unicorn (Monoceros). Even though it points right at S Mon, details of the origin of the mysterious geometric Cone Nebula, visible on the far left, remain a mystery.

Tomorrow’s picture: open space

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Enhanced: The Dolphin Cloud on Jupiter
Image Credit: NASA, Juno, SwRI, MSSS; Processing: Gerald Eichstädt & Avi Solomon

Explanation: Do you see the dolphin-shaped cloud on Jupiter? The cloud was visible last year during perijove 16, the sixteenth time that NASA’s robotic spacecraft Juno passed near Jupiter since it arrived in mid-2016. During each perijove, Juno passes near a slightly different part of Jupiter’s cloud tops. The dolphin shape may be surprising but is not scientifically significant — clouds on Jupiter and Earth are constantly shifting and can temporarily mimic many familiar shapes. The cloud appears in Jupiter’s South Temperate Belt (STB), a band of dark and dropping clouds that rings the planet and also contains Oval BA, dubbed Red Spot Jr. The featured image was digitally processed to enhance color and contrast. Juno’s next swoop near Jupiter — perijove 20 — will occur on late May.

Tomorrow’s picture: larger than life