Astronomy Picture of the Day

Parker: Sounds of the Solar Wind
Video Credit: NASA, JHUAPL, Naval Research Lab, Parker Solar Probe; Processing: Avi Solomon

Explanation: What does the solar wind sound like? A wind of fast moving particles blows out from our Sun, and although space transmits sound poorly, particle impact and variable-field data from NASA’s near-Sun Parker Solar Probe is being translated into sound. The disarming audio track of the featured video recounts several of these reverberations, including spooky-sounding Langmuir Waves (heard first), hurricane-sounding Whistler Mode Waves (heard next), and hard-to-describe Dispersive Chirping Waves (heard last). Also impressive is the video’s time-lapse visual track which shows Parker’s view to the side of its sun shield, and where the planets Earth, Jupiter, Mercury and Venus appear in succession, interspersed with bursts of powerful cosmic rays impacting the imager. The nature of the solar wind near Mercury is surprisingly different from near the Earth, and much study is underway to better understand the differences.

Tomorrow’s picture: nearest star cluster

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Quadrantid Meteors through Orion
Image Credit & Copyright: Petr Horálek

Explanation: Why are these meteor trails nearly parallel? Because they were all shed by the same space rock and so can be traced back to the same direction on the sky: the radiant of the Quadrantid Meteor Shower. This direction used to be toward the old constellation of Quadrans Muralis, hence the name Quadrantids, but when the International Astronomical Union formulated its list of modern constellations in 1922, this constellation did not make the list. Even though the meteors are now considered to originate from the recognized constellation of Bootes, the old name stuck. Regardless of the designation, every January the Earth moves through a dust stream and bits of this dust glow as meteors as they heat up in Earth’s atmosphere. The featured image composite was taken on January 4 with a picturesque snowy Slovakian landscape in the foreground, and a deep-exposure sky prominently featuring the constellation Orion in the background. The red star Betelgeuse appears unusually dim — its fading over the past few months is being tracked by astronomers.

Tomorrow’s picture: sun sounds

Astronomy Picture of the Day

M1: The Incredible Expanding Crab Nebula
Video Credit & Copyright: Detlef Hartmann

Explanation: Are your eyes good enough to see the Crab Nebula expand? The Crab Nebula is cataloged as M1, the first on Charles Messier’s famous list of things which are not comets. In fact, the Crab is now known to be a supernova remnant, an expanding cloud of debris from the explosion of a massive star. The violent birth of the Crab was witnessed by astronomers in the year 1054. Roughly 10 light-years across today, the nebula is still expanding at a rate of over 1,000 kilometers per second. Over the past decade, its expansion has been documented in this stunning time-lapse movie. In each year from 2008 to 2017, an image was produced with the same telescope and camera from a remote observatory in Austria. Combined in the time-lapse movie, the 10 images represent 32 hours of total integration time. The sharp, processed frames even reveal the dynamic energetic emission within the incredible expanding Crab. The Crab Nebula lies about 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Taurus.

Tomorrow’s picture: meteors through orion

Astronomy Picture of the Day

An Almost Eclipse of the Moon
Image Credit & Copyright: Gyorgy Soponyai

Explanation: This composited series of images follows the Moon on January 10, the first Full Moon of 2020, in Hungarian skies. The lunar disk is in mid-eclipse at the center of the sequence though. It looks only slightly darker there as it passes through the light outer shadow or penumbra of planet Earth. In fact during this penumbral lunar eclipse the Moon almost crossed into the northern edge of Earth’s dark central shadow or umbra. Subtle and hard to see, this penumbral lunar eclipse was the first of four lunar eclipses in 2020, all of which will be penumbral lunar eclipses.

Tomorrow’s picture: cosmic crustacean

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Apollo 17: A Stereo View from Lunar Orbit
Gene Cernan, Apollo 17, NASA; Anaglyph by Patrick Vantuyne

Explanation: Get out your red/blue glasses and check out this awesome stereo view of another world. The scene was recorded by Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene Cernan on December 11, 1972, one orbit before descending to land on the Moon. The stereo anaglyph was assembled from two photographs (AS17-147-22465, AS17-147-22466) captured from his vantage point on board the Lunar Module Challenger as he and Dr. Harrison Schmitt flew over Apollo 17’s landing site in the Taurus-Littrow Valley. The broad, sunlit face of the mountain dubbed South Massif rises near the center of the frame, above the dark floor of Taurus-Littrow to its left. Beyond the mountains, toward the lunar limb, lies the Moon’s Mare Serenitatis. Piloted by Ron Evans, the Command Module America is visible in orbit in the foreground against the South Massif’s peak.

Tomorrow’s picture: and beyond

Astronomy Picture of the Day

NGC 247 and Friends
Image Credit & Copyright: AcquisitionEric Benson, ProcessingDietmar Hager

Explanation: About 70,000 light-years across, NGC 247 is a spiral galaxy smaller than our Milky Way. Measured to be only 11 million light-years distant it is nearby though. Tilted nearly edge-on as seen from our perspective, it dominates this telescopic field of view toward the southern constellation Cetus. The pronounced void on one side of the galaxy’s disk recalls for some its popular name, the Needle’s Eye galaxy. Many background galaxies are visible in this sharp galaxy portrait, including the remarkable string of four galaxies just below and left of NGC 247 known as Burbidge’s Chain. Burbidge’s Chain galaxies are about 300 million light-years distant. NGC 247 itself is part of the Sculptor Group of galaxies along with the shiny spiral NGC 253.

Tomorrow’s picture: in stereo

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Iridescent Clouds over Sweden
Image Credit & Copyright: Goran Strand

Explanation: Why would these clouds multi-colored? A relatively rare phenomenon in clouds known as iridescence can bring up unusual colors vividly or even a whole spectrum of colors simultaneously. These polar stratospheric clouds clouds, also known as nacreous and mother-of-pearl clouds, are formed of small water droplets of nearly uniform size. When the Sun is in the right position and, typically, hidden from direct view, these thin clouds can be seen significantly diffracting sunlight in a nearly coherent manner, with different colors being deflected by different amounts. Therefore, different colors will come to the observer from slightly different directions. Many clouds start with uniform regions that could show iridescence but quickly become too thick, too mixed, or too angularly far from the Sun to exhibit striking colors. The featured image and an accompanying video were taken late last year over Ostersund, Sweden.

Tomorrow’s picture: a stellar galaxy