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Firing Lasers to Tame the Sky

Why do stars twinkle? Our atmosphere is to blame as pockets of slightly off-temperature air, in constant motion, distort the light paths from distant astronomical objects. Atmospheric turbulence is a problem for astronomers because it blurs the images of the sources they want to study. The telescope featured in this image, located at ESO’s Paranal Observatory, is equipped with four lasers to combat this turbulence. The lasers are tuned to a color that excites atoms floating high in Earth’s atmosphere — sodium left by passing meteors. These glowing sodium spots act as artificial stars whose twinkling is immediately recorded and passed to a flexible mirror that deforms hundreds of times per second, counteracting atmospheric turbulence and resulting in crisper images. The de-twinkling of stars is a developing field of technology and allows, in some cases, Hubble-class images to be taken from the ground. This technique has also led to spin-off applications in human vision science, where it is used to obtain very sharp images of the retina. via NASA

Flashes of the Crab Pulsar

It somehow survived an explosion that would surely have destroyed our Sun. Now it is spins 30 times a second and is famous for the its rapid flashes. It is the Crab Pulsar, the rotating neutron star remnant of the supernova that created the Crab Nebula. A careful eye can spot the pulsar flashes in the featured time-lapse video, just above the image center. The video was created by adding together images taken only when the pulsar was flashing, as well as co-added images from other relative times. The Crab Pulsar flashes may have been first noted by an unknown woman attending a public observing night at the University of Chicago in 1957 — but who was not believed. The progenitor supernova explosion was seen by many in the year 1054 AD. The expanding Crab Nebula remains a picturesque expanding gas cloud that glows across the electromagnetic spectrum. The pulsar is now thought to have survived the supernova explosion because it is composed of extremely-dense quantum-degenerate matter. via NASA

WR32 and Interstellar Clouds in Carina

Stars can be like artists. With interstellar gas as a canvas, a massive and tumultuous Wolf-Rayet star has created the picturesque ruffled half-circular filaments called WR32, on the image left. Additionally, the winds and radiation from a small cluster of stars, NGC 3324, have sculpted a 35 light year cavity on the upper right, with its right side appearing as a recognizable face in profile. This region’s popular name is the Gabriela Mistral Nebula for the famous Chilean poet. Together, these interstellar clouds lie about 8,000 light-years away in the Great Carina Nebula, a complex stellar neighborhood harboring numerous clouds of gas and dust rich with imagination inspiring shapes. The featured telescopic view captures these nebulae’s characteristic emission from ionized sulfur, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms mapped to the red, green, and blue hues of the popular Hubble Palette. via NASA

Blue Straggler Stars in Globular Cluster M53

If our Sun were part of this star cluster, the night sky would glow like a jewel box of bright stars. This cluster, known as M53 and cataloged as NGC 5024, is one of about 250 globular clusters that survive in our Galaxy. Most of the stars in M53 are older and redder than our Sun, but some enigmatic stars appear to be bluer and younger. These young stars might contradict the hypothesis that all the stars in M53 formed at nearly the same time. These unusual stars are known as blue stragglers and are unusually common in M53. After much debate, blue stragglers are now thought to be stars rejuvenated by fresh matter falling in from a binary star companion. By analyzing pictures of globular clusters like the featured image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers use the abundance of stars like blue stragglers to help determine the age of the globular cluster and hence a limit on the age of the universe. M53, visible with a binoculars towards the constellation of Bernice’s Hair (Coma Berenices), contains over 250,000 stars and is one of the furthest globulars from the center of our Galaxy. via NASA

A Northern Winter Night

Snow blankets the ground in this serene forest and sky view. Assembled in a 360 degree panoramic projection, the mosaicked frames were captured at January’s end along a quiet country road near Siemiony, northeastern Poland, planet Earth. The night was cold and between trees reaching toward the sky shine the stars and nebulae of the northern winter Milky Way. Near zenith is bright star Capella, a mere 43 light-years above the tree tops. Alpha star of the constellation Auriga the Charioteer and part of the winter hexagon asterism, Capella is a well-studied double star system. Follow the Milky Way above and right of Capella and you might spot the familiar stars of Orion in the northern winter night. via NASA

Apollo 14 Heads for Home

Fifty years ago this Sunday (February 7, 1971), the crew of Apollo 14 left lunar orbit and headed for home. They watched this Earthrise from their command module Kittyhawk. With Earth’s sunlit crescent just peeking over the lunar horizon, the cratered terrain in the foreground is along the lunar farside. Of course, while orbiting the Moon, the crew could watch Earth rise and set, but from the lunar surface the Earth hung stationary in the sky over their landing site at Fra Mauro Base. Rock samples returned from Fra Mauro included a 20 pound rock nicknamed Big Bertha, determined to contain a likely fragment of a meteorite from planet Earth. Kept on board the Kittyhawk during the Apollo 14 mission was a cannister of 400-500 seeds that were later grown into Moon Trees. via NASA

Apollo 14: A View from Antares

Fifty years ago this Friday, Apollo 14’s Lunar Module Antares landed on the Moon. Toward the end of the stay astronaut Ed Mitchell snapped a series of photos of the lunar surface while looking out a window, assembled into this detailed mosaic by Apollo Lunar Surface Journal editor Eric Jones. The view looks across the Fra Mauro highlands to the northwest of the landing site after the Apollo 14 astronauts had completed their second and final walk on the Moon. Prominent in the foreground is their Modular Equipment Transporter, a two-wheeled, rickshaw-like device used to carry tools and samples. Near the horizon at top center is a 1.5 meter wide boulder dubbed Turtle rock. In the shallow crater below Turtle rock is the long white handle of a sampling instrument, thrown there javelin-style by Mitchell. Mitchell’s fellow moonwalker and first American in space, Alan Shepard, also used a makeshift six iron to hit two golf balls. One of Shepard’s golf balls is just visible as a white spot below Mitchell’s javelin. via NASA

Found on the Moon: Candidate for Oldest Known Earth Rock

Was the oldest known rock on Earth found on the Moon? Quite possibly. The story opens with the Apollo 14 lunar mission. Lunar sample 14321, a large rock found in Cone crater by astronaut Alan Shepard, when analyzed back on Earth, was found to have a fragment that was a much better match to Earth rocks than other Moon rocks. Even more surprising, that rock section has recently been dated back 4 billion years, making it older, to within measurement uncertainty, than any rock ever found on Earth. A leading hypothesis now holds that an ancient comet or asteroid impact launched Earth rocks into the Solar System, some of which fell back to the Moon, became mixed with heated lunar soil and other rocks, cooled, and re-fragmented. The video features an internal X-ray scan of 14321 showing multiple sections with markedly different chemistries. Moon rocks will continue to be studied to learn a more complete history of the Moon, the Earth, and the early Solar System. Friday marks the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 14 landing on the Moon. via NASA

A Colorful Quadrantid Meteor

Meteors can be colorful. While the human eye usually cannot discern many colors, cameras often can. Pictured is a Quadrantids meteor captured by camera over Missouri, USA, early this month that was not only impressively bright, but colorful. The radiant grit, likely cast off by asteroid 2003 EH1, blazed a path across Earth’s atmosphere. Colors in meteors usually originate from ionized elements released as the meteor disintegrates, with blue-green typically originating from magnesium, calcium radiating violet, and nickel glowing green. Red, however, typically originates from energized nitrogen and oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere. This bright meteoric fireball was gone in a flash — less than a second — but it left a wind-blown ionization trail that remained visible for several minutes. via NASA

Lunar Halo over Snowy Trees

Have you ever seen a halo around the Moon? This fairly common sight occurs when high thin clouds containing millions of tiny ice crystals cover much of the sky. Each ice crystal acts like a miniature lens. Because most of the crystals have a similar elongated hexagonal shape, light entering one crystal face and exiting through the opposing face refracts 22 degrees, which corresponds to the radius of the Moon Halo. A similar Sun Halo may be visible during the day. Exactly how ice-crystals form in clouds remains a topic of research. In the featured image taken last week from Östersund, Sweden, a complete lunar halo was captured over snowy trees and rabbit tracks. via NASA