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Astronomy Picture of the Day

A White Battle in the Black Sea
Image Credit: NASA, Aqua, MODIS

Explanation: Trillions have died in the Earth’s seas. Calcified shields of the dead already make up the white cliffs of Dover. The battle between ball-shaped light-colored single-celled plants — phytoplankton called coccolithophores — and even smaller, diamond-shaped viruses dubbed coccolithoviruses — has raged for tens of millions of years. To help fight this battle, the coccolithophores create their chalky armor by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This battle is so epic that coccolithophores actually remove a significant fraction of Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide, bolstering the breathability of air for animals including humans. Pictured in this 2012 image from NASA’s Aqua satellite, the Black Sea was turned light blue by coccolithophore blooms.

Tomorrow’s picture: comet needle

Astronomy Picture of the Day

The Holographic Principle
Image Credit: Caltech

Explanation: Is this picture worth a thousand words? According to the Holographic Principle, the most information you can get from this image is about 3 x 1065 bits for a normal sized computer monitor. The Holographic Principle, yet unproven, states that there is a maximum amount of information content held by regions adjacent to any surface. Therefore, counter-intuitively, the information content inside a room depends not on the volume of the room but on the area of the bounding walls. The principle derives from the idea that the Planck length, the length scale where quantum mechanics begins to dominate classical gravity, is one side of an area that can hold only about one bit of information. The limit was first postulated by physicist Gerard ‘t Hooft in 1993. It can arise from generalizations from seemingly distant speculation that the information held by a black hole is determined not by its enclosed volume but by the surface area of its event horizon. The term “holographic” arises from a hologram analogy where three-dimension images are created by projecting light though a flat screen. Beware, other people looking at the featured image may not claim to see 3 x 1065 bits — they might claim to see a teapot.

Tomorrow’s picture: ancient battle debris on Earth

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Between the Rings
Image Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

Explanation: On April 12, as the Sun was blocked by the disk of Saturn the Cassini spacecraft camera looked toward the inner Solar System and the gas giant’s backlit rings. At the top of the mosaicked view is the A ring with its broader Encke and narrower Keeler gaps visible. At the bottom is the F ring, bright due to the viewing geometry. The point of light between the rings is Earth, 1.4 billion kilometers in the distance. Look carefully and you can even spot Earth’s large moon, a pinprick of light to the planet’s left. Today Cassini makes its final close approach to Saturn’s own large moon Titan, using Titan’s gravity to swing into the spacecraft’s Grand Finale, the final set of orbits that will bring Cassini just inside Saturn’s rings.

Tomorrow’s picture: another dimension

Astronomy Picture of the Day

NGC 4302 and NGC 4298
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, M. Mutchler (STScI)

Explanation: Seen edge-on, spiral galaxy NGC 4302 (left) lies about 55 million light-years away in the well-groomed constellation Coma Berenices. A member of the large Virgo Galaxy Cluster, it spans some 87,000 light-years, a little smaller than our own Milky Way. Like the Milky Way, NGC 4302’s prominent dust lanes cut along the center of the galactic plane, obscuring and reddening the starlight from our perspective. Smaller companion galaxy NGC 4298 is also a dusty spiral. But tilted more nearly face-on to our view, NGC 4298 can show off dust lanes along spiral arms traced by the bluish light of young stars, as well as its bright yellowish core. In celebration of the 27th anniversary of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope on April 24, 1990, astronomers used the legendary telescope to take this gorgeous visible light portrait of the contrasting galaxy pair.

Tomorrow’s picture: light-weekend

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Asteroid 2014 JO25
Image Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, Goldstone Solar System Radar

Explanation: A day before its closest approach, asteroid 2014 JO25 was imaged by radar with the 70-meter antenna of NASA’s Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex in California. This grid of 30 radar images, top left to lower right, reveals the two-lobed shape of the asteroid that rotates about once every five hours. Its largest lobe is about 610 meters across. On the list of Potentially Hazardous Asteroids, this space rock made its close approach to our fair planet on April 19, flying safely past at a distance of 1.8 million kilometers. That’s over four times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. The asteroid was a faint and fast moving speck visible in backyard telescopes. Asteroid 2014 JO25 was discovered in May 2014 by the Catalina Sky Survey, a project of NASA’s Near-Earth Objects Observations Program in collaboration with the University of Arizona.

Tomorrow’s picture: pixels in space

Astronomy Picture of the Day

The Red Spider Planetary Nebula
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble, HLA; Reprocessing & Copyright: Jesús M.Vargas & Maritxu Poyal

Explanation: Oh what a tangled web a planetary nebula can weave. The Red Spider Planetary Nebula shows the complex structure that can result when a normal star ejects its outer gases and becomes a white dwarf star. Officially tagged NGC 6537, this two-lobed symmetric planetary nebula houses one of the hottest white dwarfs ever observed, probably as part of a binary star system. Internal winds emanating from the central stars, visible in the center, have been measured in excess of 1000 kilometers per second. These winds expand the nebula, flow along the nebula’s walls, and cause waves of hot gas and dust to collide. Atoms caught in these colliding shocks radiate light shown in the above representative-color picture by the Hubble Space Telescope. The Red Spider Nebula lies toward the constellation of the Archer (Sagittarius). Its distance is not well known but has been estimated by some to be about 4,000 light-years.

Tomorrow’s picture: open space

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Night Glows
Image Credit & Copyright: Taha Ghouchkanlu

Explanation: What glows in the night? This night, several unusual glows were evident — some near, but some far. The foreground surf glimmers blue with the light of bioluminescent plankton. Next out, Earth’s atmosphere dims the horizon and provides a few opaque clouds. Further out, the planet Venus glows bright near the image center. If you slightly avert your eyes, a diagonal beam of light will stand out crossing behind Venus. This band is zodiacal light, sunlight scattered by dust in our Solar System. Much further away are numerous single bright stars, most closer than 100 light years away. Furthest away, also rising diagonally and making a “V” with the zodiacal light, is the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy. Most of the billions of Milky Way stars and dark clouds are thousands of light years away. The featured image was taken last November on the Iranian coast of Gulf of Oman.

Tomorrow’s picture: open space