Tag Archives: NASA

The Largest Rock in our Solar System

There, that dot on the right, that’s the largest rock known in our Solar System. It is larger than every known asteroid, moon, and comet nucleus. It is larger than any other local rocky planet. This rock is so large its gravity makes it into a large ball that holds heavy gases near its surface. (It used to be the largest known rock of any type until the recent discoveries of large dense planets orbiting other stars.) The Voyager 1 spacecraft took the featured picture — famously called Pale Blue Dot — of this giant space rock in 1990 from the outer Solar System. Today, this rock starts another orbit around its parent star, for roughly the 5 billionth time, spinning over 350 times during each trip. Happy Gregorian Calendar New Year to all inhabitants of this rock we call Earth. via NASA

Moon over Makemake

Makemake (sounds like MAH-kay MAH-kay), second brightest dwarf planet of the Kuiper belt, has a moon. Nicknamed MK2, Makemake’s moon reflects sunlight with a charcoal-dark surface, about 1,300 times fainter than its parent body. Still, in 2016 it was spotted in Hubble Space Telescope observations intended to search for faint companions with the same technique used to find the small satellites of Pluto. Just as for Pluto and its satellites, further observations of Makemake and orbiting moon will measure the system’s mass and density and allow a broader understanding of the distant worlds. About 160 kilometers (100 miles) across compared to Makemake’s 1,400 kilometer diameter, MK2’s relative size and contrast are shown in this artist’s vision. An imagined scene of an unexplored frontier of the Solar System, it looks back from a spacecraft’s vantage as the dim Sun shines along the Milky Way. Of course, the Sun is over 50 times farther from Makemake than it is from planet Earth. via NASA

Mars and the Star Clusters

At this year’s end Mars still shines brightly in planet Earth’s night as it wanders through the head-strong constellation Taurus. Its bright yellowish hue dominates this starry field of view that includes Taurus’ alpha star Aldebaran and the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters. While red giant Aldebaran appears to anchor the V-shape of the Hyades at the left of the frame, Aldebaran is not a member of the Hyades star cluster. The Hyades cluster is 151 light-years away making it the nearest established open star cluster, but Aldebaran lies at less than half that distance, along the same line-of-sight. At the right, some 400 light-years distant is the open star cluster cataloged as Messier 45, also known as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters. In Greek myth, the Pleiades were daughters of the astronomical titan Atlas and sea-nymph Pleione. via NASA

Horsehead and Flame

The Horsehead Nebula, famous celestial dark marking also known as Barnard 33, is notched against a background glow of emission nebulae in this sharp cosmic skyscape. About five light-years “tall” the Horsehead lies some 1,500 light-years away in the constellation of Orion. Within the region’s fertile molecular cloud complex, the expanse of obscuring dust has a recognizable shape only by chance from our perspective in the Milky Way though. Orion’s easternmost belt star, bright Alnitak, is to the left of center. Energetic ultraviolet light from Alnitak powers the glow of dusty NGC 2024, the Flame Nebula, just below it. Completing a study in cosmic contrasts, bluish reflection nebula NGC 2023 is below the Horsehead itself. This well-framed telescopic field spans about 3 full moons on the sky. via NASA

Messier 88

Charles Messier described the 88th entry in his 18th century catalog of Nebulae and Star Clusters as a spiral nebula without stars. Of course the gorgeous M88 is now understood to be a galaxy full of stars, gas, and dust, not unlike our own Milky Way. In fact, M88 is one of the brightest galaxies in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster some 50 million light-years away. M88’s beautiful spiral arms are easy to trace in this sharp cosmic portait. The arms are lined with young blue star clusters, pink star-forming regions, and obscuring dust lanes extending from a yellowish core dominated by an older population of stars. Spiral galaxy M88 spans over 100,000 light-years. via NASA

A Full Circle Rainbow over Norway

Have you ever seen an entire rainbow? From the ground, typically, only the top portion of a rainbow is visible because directions toward the ground have fewer raindrops. From the air, though, the entire 360-degree circle of a rainbow is more commonly visible. Pictured here, a full-circle rainbow was captured over the Lofoten Islands of Norway in September by a drone passing through a rain shower. An observer-dependent phenomenon primarily caused by the internal reflection of sunlight by raindrops, the rainbow has a full diameter of 84 degrees. The Sun is in the exact opposite direction from the rainbow’s center. As a bonus, a second rainbow that was more faint and color-reversed was visible outside the first. via NASA

NGC 6164: Dragons Egg Nebula and Halo

The star at the center created everything. Known as the Dragon’s Egg, this star — a rare, hot, luminous O-type star some 40 times as massive as the Sun — created not only the complex nebula (NGC 6164) that immediately surrounds it, but also the encompassing blue halo. Its name is derived, in part, from the region’s proximity to the picturesque NGC 6188, known as the fighting Dragons of Ara. In another three to four million years the massive star will likely end its life in a supernova explosion. Spanning around 4 light-years, the nebula itself has a bipolar symmetry making it similar in appearance to more common planetary nebulae – the gaseous shrouds surrounding dying sun-like stars. Also like many planetary nebulae, NGC 6164 has been found to have an extensive, faint halo, revealed in blue in this deep telescopic image of the region. Expanding into the surrounding interstellar medium, the material in the blue halo was likely expelled from an earlier active phase of the O-star. NGC 6164 lies 4,200 light-years away in the southern constellation of the Carpenter’s Square (Norma). via NASA

Geminids and the Mittens

Asteroid 3200 Phaethon’s annual gift to planet Earth always arrives in December. Otherwise known as the Geminid meteor shower, the source of the meteroid stream is dust shed along the orbit of the mysterious asteroid. Near the December 13/14 peak of the shower’s activity, geminid meteors are captured in this night skyscape, composited from 22 images of starry sky taken before the moon rose over Monument Valley in the American southwest. The bright stars near the position of the shower’s radiant are the constellation Gemini’s twin stars Castor (blue) and Pollux (yellow). As Earth sweeps through the dusty stream, the parallel meteor trails appear to radiate from a point on the sky in Gemini due to perspective, and so the yearly shower is named for the constellation. From the camera’s perspective, this view of three prominent buttes across Monument Valley also suggests appropriate names for two of them. The third one is called Merrick Butte. via NASA

Sun Halo at Sixty three Degrees North

Happy Solstice! Today is the December solstice, marking an astronomical beginning of summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the north. On its yearly trek through planet Earth’s skies, at this solstice the Sun reaches its southern most declination, 23.5 degrees south, at 21:48 UTC. About 4 days ago the Sun was near this seasonal southern limit and so only just above the horizon at local noon over Ostersund in central Sweden. This view looking over the far northern lakeside city finds the midday Sun with a beautiful solar ice halo. Naturally occurring atmospheric ice crystals can produce the tantalizing halo displays, refracting and reflecting the sunlight through their hexagonal geometry. Still, with the Sun low and near the horizon in the clear sky, likely sources of the ice crystals producing this intense halo are snow cannons. Operating at a local ski area, the snowmaking machines create a visible plume at the top of the nearby island Froson toward the right side of the panorama. via NASA

Thors Helmet

Thor not only has his own day (Thursday), but a helmet in the heavens. Popularly called Thor’s Helmet, NGC 2359 is a hat-shaped cosmic cloud with wing-like appendages. Heroically sized even for a Norse god, Thor’s Helmet is about 30 light-years across. In fact, the cosmic head-covering is more like an interstellar bubble, blown with a fast wind from the bright, massive star near the bubble’s center. Known as a Wolf-Rayet star, the central star is an extremely hot giant thought to be in a brief, pre-supernova stage of evolution. NGC 2359 is located about 15,000 light-years away toward the constellation of the Great Overdog. This remarkably sharp image is a mixed cocktail of data from narrowband filters, capturing not only natural looking stars but details of the nebula’s filamentary structures. The star in the center of Thor’s Helmet is expected to explode in a spectacular supernova sometime within the next few thousand years. via NASA