1901 Photograph: The Orion Nebula Image Credit: George Ritchey, Yerkes Observatory – Digitization Project: W. Cerny,
R. Kron, Y. Liang, J. Lin, M. Martinez, E. Medina, B. Moss, B. Ogonor, M. Ransom, J. Sanchez (Univ. of Chicago)
Explanation: By the turn of the 20th century advances in photography contributed an important tool for astronomers. Improving photographic materials, long exposures, and new telescope designs produced astronomical images with details not visible at the telescopic eyepiece alone. Remarkably recognizable to astrophotographers today, this stunning image of the star forming Orion Nebula was captured in 1901 by American astronomer and telescope designer George Ritchey. The original glass photographic plate, sensitive to green and blue wavelengths, has been digitized and light-to-dark inverted to produce a positive image. His hand written notes indicate a 50 minute long exposure that ended at dawn and a reflecting telescope aperture of 24 inches masked to 18 inches to improve the sharpness of the recorded image. Ritchey’s plates from over a hundred years ago preserve astronomical data and can still be used for exploring astrophysical processes.
Explanation: Despite interfering moonlight, many denizens of planet Earth were able to watch this year’s Perseid meteor shower. This pastoral scene includes local skygazers admiring the shower’s brief, heavenly flashes in predawn hours near peak activity on August 13 from Nalati Grassland in Xinjiang, China. A composite, the image registers seven frames taken during a two hour span recording Perseid meteor streaks against a starry sky. Centered along the horizon is the Plough, the north’s most famous asterism, though some might see the familiar celestial kitchen utensil known as the Big Dipper. Perhaps the year’s most easily enjoyed meteor shower, Perseid meteors are produced as Earth itself sweeps through dust from periodic comet Swift-Tuttle. The dust particles are vaporized at altitudes of 100 kilometers or so as they plow through the atmosphere at 60 kilometers per second.
Saturn Behind the Moon Image Credit: Peter Patonai (Astroscape Photography)
Explanation: What’s that next to the Moon? Saturn. In its monthly trip around the Earth — and hence Earth’s sky — our Moon passed nearly in front of Sun-orbiting Saturn earlier this week. Actually the Moon passed directly in front of Saturn from the viewpoints of a wide swath of Earth’s Southern Hemisphere. The featured image from Sydney, Australia captured the pair a few minutes before the eclipse. The image was a single shot lasting only 1/500th of a second, later processed to better highlight both the Moon and Saturn. Since Saturn is nearly opposite the Sun, it can be seen nearly the entire night, starting at sunset, toward the south and east. The gibbous Moon was also nearly opposite the Sun, and so also visible nearly the entire night — it will be full tomorrow night. The Moon will occult Saturn again during every lap it makes around the Earth this year.
Explanation: This dance is to the death. Along the way, as these two large galaxies duel, a cosmic bridge of stars, gas, and dust currently stretches over 75,000 light-years and joins them. The bridge itself is strong evidence that these two immense star systems have passed close to each other and experienced violent tides induced by mutual gravity. As further evidence, the face-on spiral galaxy on the right, also known as NGC 3808A, exhibits many young blue star clusters produced in a burst of star formation. The twisted edge-on spiral on the left (NGC 3808B) seems to be wrapped in the material bridging the galaxies and surrounded by a curious polar ring. Together, the system is known as Arp 87 and morphologically classified, technically, as peculiar. While such interactions are drawn out over billions of years, repeated close passages should ultimately result in the death of one galaxy in the sense that only one galaxy will eventually result. Although this scenario does look peculiar, galactic mergers are thought to be common, with Arp 87 representing a stage in this inevitable process. The Arp 87 pair are about 300 million light-years distant toward the constellation Leo. The prominent edge-on spiral galaxy at the far left appears to be a more distant background galaxy and not involved in the on-going merger.