Category Archives: Whats Up

All the Whats Up in the Nights Sky events

Comet PanSTARRs and the Galaxies

Comet PanSTARRs, C/2017 T2, shared this stunning telescopic field of view with galaxies M81 and M82 on May 22/23. Of course, the galaxies were some 12 million light-years distant and the comet about 14 light-minutes away, seen in planet Earth’s sky toward the Big Dipper. A new visitor from the Oort Cloud, this Comet PanSTARRs was discovered in 2017 by the PanSTARRs survey telescope when the comet was over 1 light-hour from the Sun, almost as distant as the orbit of Saturn. With a beautiful coma and dust tail, this comet has been a solid northern hemisphere performer for telescope wielding comet watchers this May, following its closest approach to the Sun on May 4. In this deep image from dark California skies the outbound comet even seems to develop a short anti-tail as it leaves the inner Solar System. via NASA

Dragon over Central Park

Still bathed in sunlight the International Space Station (ISS) arced through this Manhattan evening sky on May 30. Moving left to right, its bright trail was captured in this composite image with a series of 5 second long exposures. Stars left short trails and lights were reflected in still waters looking toward the north across the Central Park reservoir. Chasing the ISS in low Earth orbit the Crew Dragon spacecraft dubbed Endeavour also left a trail through that urban night. Seen about 6 hours after its launch the spacecraft’s faint trail appears above the ISS, shown in the inset just as the two approached the bank of clouds at the right. Dragon Endeavour docked successfully with the ISS about nineteen hours after reaching orbit. via NASA

Portrait of NGC 3628

Sharp telescopic views of NGC 3628 show a puffy galactic disk divided by dark dust lanes. Of course, this deep portrait of the magnificent, edge-on spiral galaxy puts some astronomers in mind of its popular moniker, the Hamburger Galaxy. It also reveals a small galaxy nearby, likely a satellite of NGC 3628, and a faint but extensive tidal tail. The drawn out tail stretches for about 300,000 light-years, even beyond the right edge of the wide frame. NGC 3628 shares its neighborhood in the local universe with two other large spirals M65 and M66 in a grouping otherwise known as the Leo Triplet. Gravitational interactions with its cosmic neighbors are likely responsible for creating the tidal tail, as well as the extended flare and warp of this spiral’s disk. The tantalizing island universe itself is about 100,000 light-years across and 35 million light-years away in the northern springtime constellation Leo. via NASA

The Dance of Venus and Earth

Every time Venus passes the Earth, it shows the same face. This remarkable fact has been known for only about 50 years, ever since radio telescopes have been able to peer beneath Venus’ thick clouds and track its slowly rotating surface. This inferior conjunction — when Venus and Earth are the closest — occurs today. The featured animation shows the positions of the Sun, Venus and Earth between 2010-2023 based on NASA-downloaded data, while a mock yellow ‘arm’ has been fixed to the ground on Venus to indicate rotation. The reason for this unusual 1.6-year resonance is the gravitational influence that Earth has on Venus, which surprisingly dominates the Sun’s tidal effect. If Venus could be seen through the Sun’s glare today, it would show just a very slight sliver of a crescent. Although previously visible in the evening sky, starting tomorrow, Venus will appear in the morning sky — on the other side of the Sun as viewed from Earth. via NASA

Novel Coronavirus Attacks Humanity

Humanity is under attack. The attack is not from large tentacle-flailing aliens, but from invaders so small they can barely be seen, and so strange they are not even clearly alive. All over planet Earth, the human home world, DNA-based humans are being invaded by the RNA-based SARS-CoV2. The virus, which creates a disease known as COVID-19, specializes in reprogramming human cells into zombies that manufacture and release copies of itself. Pictured here is a high magnification image of a human cell covered by attacking novel coronavirus SARS-CoV2 (orange). Epic battles where two species square off in a fight to the death are not unusual on Earth, with several just involving humans typically ongoing at any time. Even so, most humans are predicted to survive. After several years, humanity expects to win this war — but only after millions of humans have died and trillions of coronaviruses have been destroyed. via NASA

The Lively Center of the Lagoon Nebula

The center of the Lagoon Nebula is a whirlwind of spectacular star formation. Visible near the image center, at least two long funnel-shaped clouds, each roughly half a light-year long, have been formed by extreme stellar winds and intense energetic starlight. A tremendously bright nearby star, Hershel 36, lights the area. Vast walls of dust hide and redden other hot young stars. As energy from these stars pours into the cool dust and gas, large temperature differences in adjoining regions can be created generating shearing winds which may cause the funnels. This picture, spanning about 15 light years, features two colors detected by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. The Lagoon Nebula, also known as >M8, lies about 5000 light years distant toward the constellation of the Archer Sagittarius. via NASA

Aurora over Sweden

It was bright and green and stretched across the sky. This striking aurora display was captured in 2016 just outside of Östersund, Sweden. Six photographic fields were merged to create the featured panorama spanning almost 180 degrees. Particularly striking aspects of this aurora include its sweeping arc-like shape and its stark definition. Lake Storsjön is seen in the foreground, while several familiar constellations and the star Polaris are visible through the aurora, far in the background. Coincidently, the aurora appears to avoid the Moon visible on the lower left. The aurora appeared a day after a large hole opened in the Sun’s corona allowing particularly energetic particles to flow out into the Solar System. The green color of the aurora is caused by oxygen atoms recombining with ambient electrons high in the Earth’s atmosphere. via NASA

Green Flashes: Sun, Moon, Venus, Mercury

Follow a sunset on a clear day against a distant horizon and you might glimpse green just as the Sun disappears from view. The green flash is caused by refraction of light rays traveling to the eye over a long path through the atmosphere. Shorter wavelengths refract more strongly than longer redder wavelengths and the separation of colors lends a green hue to the last visible vestige of the solar disk. It’s harder to see a green flash from the Moon, not to mention the diminutive disks of Venus and Mercury. But a telescope or telephoto lens and camera can help catch this tantalizing result of atmospheric refraction when the celestial bodies are near the horizon. From Sicily, the top panels were recorded on March 18, 2019 for the Sun and May 8, 2020 for the Moon. Also from the Mediterranean island, the bottom panels were shot during the twilight apparition of Venus and Mercury near the western horizon on May 24. via NASA

Mercury Meets Crescent Venus

That’s not a bright star and crescent Moon caught between branches of a eucalyptus tree. It’s Venus in a crescent phase and Mercury. Near the western horizon after sunset, the two inner planets closely shared this telescopic field of view on May 22, seen from a balcony in Civitavecchia, Italy. Venus, the very bright celestial beacon, is wandering lower into the evening twilight. It grows larger in apparent size and shows a thinner crescent as it heads toward its inferior conjunction, positioned between Earth and Sun on June 3. Mercury, in a fuller phase, is climbing in the western sky though, reaching its maximum angular distance from the Sun on June 4 Still, this remarkably close pairing with brilliant Venus made Mercury, usually lost in bright twilight skies, easier to spot from planet Earth. via NASA

Reflecting the International Space Station

Still bathed in sunlight, the International Space Station arced through the evening sky over lake Wulfsahl-Gusborn in northern Germany, just after sunset on March 25. The familiar constellation of Orion can be seen left of the trail of the orbital station’s bright passage. On the right, Venus is the brilliant evening star above the western horizon. With the camera fixed to a tripod, this scene was captured in a series of five exposures. How can you tell? The short time delay between the end of one exposure and the beginning of the next leaves small gaps in the ISS light trail. Look closely and you’ll also see that the sky that appears to be above the horizon is actually a reflection though. The final image has been vertically inverted and the night skyscape recorded in the mirror-like waters of the small lake. via NASA