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Astronomy Picture of the Day

Geminids and Friends
Image Credit & Copyright: Daniel López (El Cielo de Canarias)

Explanation: From a radiant in the constellation of the Twins, the annual Geminid meteor shower rained down on our fair planet this week. This beautiful skyscape collects about 70 of Gemini’s lovely shooting stars in a digital composition made from multiple exposures. The exposures were taken over a six hour period near the shower’s peak. The camera was tracking the dark predawn sky on December 14 from Teide National Park on the Canary Island Tenerife. Though Gemini lies off the top left of the frame, the Milky Way sweeps through the starry background. Sharing the sky below and left of center are recognizable stars and nebulosities of Orion. A yellowish Aldebaran and the Hyades are toward the right along with the Pleiades star cluster. Also a welcome visitor to this night sky, the faint green coma of Comet 46P Wirtanen, closest to Earth this weekend, lies below the Pleiades stars. Dust swept up from the orbit of active asteroid 3200 Phaethon, Gemini’s meteors enter Earth’s atmosphere traveling at about 35 kilometers per second.

Tomorrow’s picture: near miss

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Swimming on Jupiter
Image Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, SwRI, MSSS; Processing: Brian Swift, Sean Doran

Explanation: On October 29, the Juno spacecraft once again dove near the turbulent Jovian cloud tops. Its 16th orbital closest approach or perijove passage, brought Juno within 3,500 kilometers of the Solar System’s largest planetary atmosphere. These frames, recorded by JunoCam while the spacecraft cruised 20 – 50 thousand kilometers above the planet’s middle southern latitudes, seem to follow a swirling cloud shaped remarkably like a dolphin. Swimming along Jupiter’s darker South South Temperate Belt, this dolphin is itself planet-sized though, some thousands of kilometers across. Juno’s next perijove passage will be December 21.

Tomorrow’s picture: light-weekend

Astronomy Picture of the Day

3D Bennu
Image Credit: NASA, GSFC, U. Arizona – Stereo Image Copyright: Patrick Vantuyne

Explanation: Put on your red/blue glasses and float next to asteroid 101955 Bennu. Shaped like a spinning top toy with boulders littering its rough surface, the tiny Solar System world is about 1 Empire State Building (less than 500 meters) across. Frames used to construct this 3D anaglyph were taken by PolyCam on board the OSIRIS_REx spacecraft on December 3 from a distance of about 80 kilometers. Now settling in to explore Bennu from orbit, the OSIRIS-REx mission is expected to deliver samples of the asteroid to planet Earth in 2023. Samples of dust from another asteroid will streak through Earth’s atmosphere much sooner though, when the Geminid meteor shower peaks in predawn skies on December 14. The parent body for the annual Geminids is asteroid 3200 Phaethon.

Tomorrow’s picture: dolphins in space

Astronomy Picture of the Day

M43: Orion Falls
Image Credit & Copyright: Zhuoqun Wu, Chilescope Telescope 2

Explanation: Is there a waterfall in Orion? No, but some of the dust in M43 appears similar to a waterfall on Earth. M43, part of the Orion Molecular Cloud Complex, is the often imaged but rarely mentioned neighbor of the more famous M42. M42, which includes many bright stars from the Trapezium cluster, lies above the featured scene. M43 is itself a star forming region and although laced with filaments of dark dust, is composed mostly of glowing hydrogen. The entire Orion field, located about 1600 light years away, is inundated with many intricate and picturesque filaments of dust. Opaque to visible light, dark dust is created in the outer atmosphere of massive cool stars and expelled by a strong outer wind of protons and electrons.

Tomorrow’s picture: Bennu 3D

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Arp 188 and the Tadpole’s Tail
Image Credit: Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA; Processing: Faus Márquez (AAE)

Explanation: Why does this galaxy have such a long tail? In this stunning vista, based on image data from the Hubble Legacy Archive, distant galaxies form a dramatic backdrop for disrupted spiral galaxy Arp 188, the Tadpole Galaxy. The cosmic tadpole is a mere 420 million light-years distant toward the northern constellation of the Dragon (Draco). Its eye-catching tail is about 280 thousand light-years long and features massive, bright blue star clusters. One story goes that a more compact intruder galaxy crossed in front of Arp 188 – from right to left in this view – and was slung around behind the Tadpole by their gravitational attraction. During the close encounter, tidal forces drew out the spiral galaxy’s stars, gas, and dust forming the spectacular tail. The intruder galaxy itself, estimated to lie about 300 thousand light-years behind the, can be seen through foreground spiral arms at the upper right. Following its terrestrial namesake, the Tadpole Galaxy will likely lose its tail as it grows older, the tail’s star clusters forming smaller satellites of the large spiral galaxy.

Tomorrow’s picture: open space

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Sound and Light Captured by Mars InSight
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Explanation: Your arm on Mars has unusual powers. For one thing it is nearly 2 meters long, has a scoop and grapple built into its hand, and has a camera built into its forearm. For another, it will soon deploy your ear — a sensitive seismometer that will listen for distant rumblings — onto the surface of Mars. Your SEISmomet-ear is the orange box in the foreground, while the gray dome behind it will be its protective cover. Your arm is attached to the InSight robotic lander that touched down on Mars two weeks ago. Somewhat unexpectedly, your ear has already heard something — slight vibrations caused by the Martian wind flowing over the solar panels. Light from the Sun is being collected by the solar panels, part of one being visible on the far right. Actually, at the present time, you have two arms operating on Mars, but they are separated by about 600 kilometers. That’s because your other active arm is connected to the Curiosity rover exploring a distant crater. Taken a week ago, rusty soil and rocks are visible in the featured image beyond Insight, as well as the orange sky of Mars.

Tomorrow’s picture: a tad pole galaxy

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Aurora Shimmer, Meteor Flash
Image Credit & Copyright: Bjørnar G. Hansen

Explanation: Some night skies are serene and passive — others shimmer and flash. The later, in the form of auroras and meteors, haunted skies over the island of Kvaløya, near Tromsø Norway on 2009 December 13. This 30 second long exposure records a shimmering auroral glow gently lighting the wintery coastal scene. A study in contrasts, the image also captures the sudden flash of a fireball meteor from the excellent Geminid meteor shower of 2009. Streaking past familiar stars in the handle of the Big Dipper, the trail points back toward the constellation Gemini, off the top of the view. Both auroras and meteors occur in Earth’s upper atmosphere at altitudes of 100 kilometers or so, but aurora caused by energetic charged particles from the magnetosphere, while meteors are trails of cosmic dust. Nine years after this photograph was taken, toward the end of this week, the yearly 2018 Geminids meteor shower will peak again, although this time their flashes will compete with the din of a half-lit first-quarter moon during the first half of the night.

Tomorrow’s picture: hand over mars