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Astronomy Picture of the Day

Glowing Elements in the Soul Nebula
Image Credit & Copyright: Jesús M.Vargas & Maritxu Poyal

Explanation: Stars are forming in the Soul of the Queen of Aethopia. More specifically, a large star forming region called the Soul Nebula (IC 1898) can be found in the direction of the constellation Cassiopeia, who Greek mythology credits as the vain wife of a King who long ago ruled lands surrounding the upper Nile river. The Soul Nebula houses several open clusters of stars, a large radio source known as W5, and huge evacuated bubbles formed by the winds of young massive stars. Located about 6,500 light years away, the Soul Nebula spans about 100 light years and is usually imaged next to its celestial neighbor the Heart Nebula (IC 1805). The featured image is a composite of three exposures in different colors: red as emitted by hydrogen gas, yellow as emitted by sulfur, and blue as emitted by oxygen.

Tomorrow’s picture: galaxy center

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Active Prominences on a Quiet Sun
Image Credit & Copyright: Alan Friedman (Averted Imagination)

Explanation: Why is the Sun so quiet? As the Sun enters into a period of time known as a Solar Minimum, it is, as expected, showing fewer sunspots and active regions than usual. The quietness is somewhat unsettling, though, as so far this year, most days show no sunspots at all. In contrast, from 2011 – 2015, during Solar Maximum, the Sun displayed spots just about every day. Maxima and minima occur on an 11-year cycle, with the last Solar Minimum being the most quiet in a century. Will this current Solar Minimum go even deeper? Even though the Sun’s activity affects the Earth and its surroundings, no one knows for sure what the Sun will do next, and the physics behind the processes remain an active topic of research. The featured image was taken three weeks ago and shows that our Sun is busy even on a quiet day. Prominences of hot plasma, some larger than the Earth, dance continually and are most easily visible over the edge.

Tomorrow’s picture: elements of soul

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Asperitas Clouds Over New Zealand
Image Credit & Copyright: Witta Priester

Explanation: What kind of clouds are these? Although their cause is presently unknown, such unusual atmospheric structures, as menacing as they might seem, do not appear to be harbingers of meteorological doom. Formally recognized as a distinct cloud type only last year, Asperitas clouds can be stunning in appearance, unusual in occurrence, and are relatively unstudied. Whereas most low cloud decks are flat bottomed, asperitas clouds appear to have significant vertical structure underneath. Speculation therefore holds that asperitas clouds might be related to lenticular clouds that form near mountains, or mammatus clouds associated with thunderstorms, or perhaps a foehn wind — a type of dry downward wind that flows off mountains. Such a wind called the Canterbury arch streams toward the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The featured image, taken above Hanmer Springs in Canterbury, New Zealand, in 2005, shows great detail partly because sunlight illuminates the undulating clouds from the side.

Tomorrow’s picture: our almost quiet sun

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Seeing Titan
Image Credit: VIMS Team, U. Arizona, ESA, NASA

Explanation: Shrouded in a thick atmosphere, Saturn’s largest moon Titan really is hard to see. Small particles suspended in the upper atmosphere cause an almost impenetrable haze, strongly scattering light at visible wavelengths and hiding Titan’s surface features from prying eyes. But Titan’s surface is better imaged at infrared wavelengths where scattering is weaker and atmospheric absorption is reduced. Arrayed around this centered visible light image of Titan are some of the clearest global infrared views of the tantalizing moon so far. In false color, the six panels present a consistent processing of 13 years of infrared image data from the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) on board the Cassini spacecraft. They offer a stunning comparison with Cassini’s visible light view.

Tomorrow’s picture: rippling cloud

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Perseid Fireball and Persistent Train
Image Credit & Copyright: Petr Horálek

Explanation: Before local midnight on August 12, this brilliant Perseid meteor flashed above the Poloniny Dark Sky Park, Slovakia, planet Earth. Streaking beside the summer Milky Way, its initial color is likely due to the shower meteor’s characteristically high speed. Moving at about 60 kilometers per second, Perseid meteors can excite green emission from oxygen atoms while passing through the thin atmosphere at high altitudes. Also characteristic of bright meteors, this Perseid left a lingering visible trail known as a persistent train, wafting in the upper atmosphere. Its development is followed in the inset frames, exposures separated by one minute and shown at the scale of the original image. Compared to the brief flash of the meteor, the wraith-like trail really is persistent. After an hour faint remnants of this one could still be traced, expanding to over 80 degrees on the sky.

Tomorrow’s picture: Seeing Titan

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Parker vs Perseid
Image Credit & Copyright: Derek Demeter (Emil Buehler Planetarium)

Explanation: The brief flash of a bright Perseid meteor streaks across the upper right in this composited series of exposures made early Sunday morning near the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower. Set up about two miles from Space Launch Complex 37 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, the photographer also captured the four minute long trail of a Delta IV Heavy rocket carrying the Parker Solar Probe into the dark morning sky. Perseid meteors aren’t slow. The grains of dust from periodic comet Swift-Tuttle vaporize as they plow through Earth’s upper atmosphere at about 60 kilometers per second (133,000 mph). On its way to seven gravity-assist flybys of Venus over its seven year mission, the Parker Solar Probe’s closest approach to the Sun will steadily decrease, finally reaching a distance of 6.1 million kilometers (3.8 million miles). That’s about 1/8 the distance between Mercury and the Sun, and within the solar corona, the Sun’s tenuous outer atmosphere. By then it will be traveling roughly 190 kilometers per second (430,000 mph) with respect to the Sun, a record for fastest spacecraft from planet Earth.

Tomorrow’s picture: a slow train

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Launch of the Parker Solar Probe
Image Credit & Copyright: John Kraus

Explanation: When is the best time to launch a probe to the Sun? The now historic answer — which is not a joke because this really happened this past weekend — was at night. Night, not only because NASA’s Parker Solar Probe‘s (PSP) launch window to its planned orbit occurred, in part, at night, but also because most PSP instruments will operate in the shadow of its shield — in effect creating its own perpetual night near the Sun. Before then, years will pass as the PSP sheds enough orbital energy to approach the Sun, swinging past Venus seven times. Eventually, the PSP is scheduled to pass dangerously close to the Sun, within 9 solar radii, the closest ever. This close, the temperature will be 1,400 degrees Celsius on the day side of the PSP’s Sun shield — hot enough to melt many forms of glass. On the night side, though, it will be near room temperature. A major goal of the PSP’s mission to the Sun is to increase humanity’s understanding of the Sun’s explosions that impact Earth’s satellites and power grids. Pictured is the night launch of the PSP aboard the United Launch AlliancesDelta IV Heavy rocket early Sunday morning.

Tomorrow’s picture: pixels in space