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Astronomy Picture of the Day

Big Dipper over Pyramid Mountain
Image Credit & Copyright: Steve Cullen

Explanation: When did you first learn to identify this group of stars? Although they are familiar to many people around the world, different cultures have associated this asterism with different icons and folklore. Known in the USA as the Big Dipper, the stars are part of a constellation designated by the International Astronomical Union in 1922 as the Great Bear (Ursa Major). The recognized star names of these stars are (left to right) Alkaid, Mizar/Alcor, Alioth, Megrez, Phecda, Merak, and Dubhe. Of course, stars in any given constellation are unlikely to be physically related. But surprisingly, most of the Big Dipper stars do seem to be headed in the same direction as they plough through space, a property they share with other stars spread out over an even larger area across the sky. Their measured common motion suggests that they all belong to a loose, nearby star cluster, thought to be on average only about 75 light-years away and up to 30 light-years across. The cluster is more properly known as the Ursa Major Moving Group. The featured image captured the iconic stars recently above Pyramid Mountain in Alberta, Canada.

Tomorrow’s picture: open space

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Curiosity Rover Takes Selfie on Mars
Image Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, MSSS

Explanation: Yes, but have you ever taken a selfie on Mars? The Curiosity rover on Mars has. This selfie was compiled from many smaller images — which is why the mechanical arm holding the camera is not visible. (Although its shadow is!) Taken in mid-2015, the featured image shows not only the adventurous rover, but dark layered rocks, the light colored peak of Mount Sharp, and the rusting red sand that pervades Mars. If you look closely, you can even see that a small rock is stuck into one of Curiosity’s aging wheels. Now nearing the end of 2017, Curiosity continues to explore the layers of sedimentary rocks it has discovered on Vera Rubin Ridge in order to better understand, generally, the ancient geologic history of Mars and, specifically, why these types of rocks exist there.

Tomorrow’s picture: familiar stars

Astronomy Picture of the Day

NGC 7822: Stars and Dust Pillars in Infrared
Image Credit: WISE, IRSA, NASA; Processing & Copyright : Francesco Antonucci

Explanation: Young stars themselves are clearing out their nursery in NGC 7822. Within the nebula, bright edges and complex dust sculptures dominate this detailed skyscape taken in infrared light by NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite. NGC 7822 lies at the edge of a giant molecular cloud toward the northern constellation Cepheus, a glowing star forming region that lies about 3,000 light-years away. The atomic emission of light by the nebula’s gas is powered by energetic radiation from the hot stars, whose powerful winds and light also sculpt and erode the denser pillar shapes. Stars could still be forming inside the pillars by gravitational collapse, but as the pillars are eroded away, any forming stars will ultimately be cut off from their reservoir of star stuff. This field spans around 40 light-years at the estimated distance of NGC 7822.

Tomorrow’s picture: martian selfie

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Major Fireball Meteor
Image Credit & Copyright: Ollie Taylor

Explanation: The sky glows with soft pinkish colors of fading twilight in this serendipitous mountaintop vista. Taken in subfreezing temperatures, the thoughtfully composed photo shows snowy, rugged peaks seen from a mountain pass on November 14. Below lies the village of La Villa, Alta Badia in Italy’s Dolomite Alps. Above the nestled village lights, the constellation Ursa Major hangs over the northern horizon. But most stunning is the intense fireball meteor. It was captured during the camera’s exposure by chance as it flashed east to west across the northern horizon, under Ursa Major’s familiar Big Dipper asterism. In fact, sightings of this major fireball meteor were widely reported in European skies, the most reported fireball event ever for planet Earth’s American Meteor Society and the International Meteor Organization. The meteor’s measured track over Germany is consistent with its origin near the active radiant of November’s Taurid Meteor Shower. Taurid meteors are associated with dust from Encke’s comet.

Tomorrow’s picture: light-weekend

Astronomy Picture of the Day

The Tarantula Nebula
Image Credit & Copyright: Ignacio Diaz Bobillo

Explanation: The Tarantula Nebula is more than a thousand light-years in diameter, a giant star forming region within nearby satellite galaxy the Large Magellanic Cloud, about 180 thousand light-years away. The largest, most violent star forming region known in the whole Local Group of galaxies, the cosmic arachnid sprawls across this spectacular view composed with narrowband data centered on emission from ionized hydrogen and oxygen atoms. Within the Tarantula (NGC 2070), intense radiation, stellar winds and supernova shocks from the central young cluster of massive stars, cataloged as R136, energize the nebular glow and shape the spidery filaments. Around the Tarantula are other star forming regions with young star clusters, filaments, and blown-out bubble-shaped clouds. In fact, the frame includes the site of the closest supernova in modern times, SN 1987A, right of center. The rich field of view spans about 1 degree or 2 full moons, in the southern constellation Dorado. But were the Tarantula Nebula closer, say 1,500 light-years distant like the local star forming Orion Nebula, it would take up half the sky.

Tomorrow’s picture: November Night

Astronomy Picture of the Day

NGC 7789: Caroline’s Rose
Image Credit & Copyright: Guillaume Seigneure

Explanation: Found among the rich starfields of the Milky Way, star cluster NGC 7789 lies about 8,000 light-years away toward the constellation Cassiopeia. A late 18th century deep sky discovery of astronomer Caroline Lucretia Herschel, the cluster is also known as Caroline’s Rose. Its flowery visual appearance in small telescopes is created by the cluster’s nestled complex of stars and voids. Now estimated to be 1.6 billion years young, the galactic or open cluster of stars also shows its age. All the stars in the cluster were likely born at the same time, but the brighter and more massive ones have more rapidly exhausted the hydrogen fuel in their cores. These have evolved from main sequence stars like the Sun into the many red giant stars shown with a yellowish cast in this lovely color composite. Using measured color and brightness, astronomers can model the mass and hence the age of the cluster stars just starting to “turn off” the main sequence and become red giants. Over 50 light-years across, Caroline’s Rose spans about half a degree (the angular size of the Moon) near the center of the wide-field telescopic image.

Tomorrow’s picture: pixels in space

Astronomy Picture of the Day

The Pleiades Deep and Dusty
Image Credit & Copyright: Juan Carlos Casado (TWAN, Earth & Stars), Miquel Serra-Ricart & Daniel Padron, FECYT

Explanation: The well-known Pleiades star cluster is slowly destroying part of a passing cloud of gas and dust. The Pleiades is the brightest open cluster of stars on Earth’s sky and can be seen from almost any northerly location with the unaided eye. The passing young dust cloud is thought to be part of Gould’s Belt, an unusual ring of young star formation surrounding the Sun in the local Milky Way Galaxy. Over the past 100,000 years, part of Gould’s Belt is by chance moving right through the older Pleiades and is causing a strong reaction between stars and dust. Pressure from the stars’ light significantly repels the dust in the surrounding blue reflection nebula, with smaller dust particles being repelled more strongly. A short-term result is that parts of the dust cloud have become filamentary and stratified. The featured deep image also captured Comet C/2015 ER61 (PanSTARRS) on the lower left.

Tomorrow’s picture: open space