Tag Archives: NASA

The Horsehead Nebula

One of the most identifiable nebulae in the sky, the Horsehead Nebula in Orion, is part of a large, dark, molecular cloud. Also known as Barnard 33, the unusual shape was first discovered on a photographic plate in the late 1800s. The red glow originates from hydrogen gas predominantly behind the nebula, ionized by the nearby bright star Sigma Orionis. The darkness of the Horsehead is caused mostly by thick dust, although the lower part of the Horsehead’s neck casts a shadow to the left. Streams of gas leaving the nebula are funneled by a strong magnetic field. Bright spots in the Horsehead Nebula’s base are young stars just in the process of forming. Light takes about 1,500 years to reach us from the Horsehead Nebula. The featured image was taken with the large 3.6-m Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope in Hawaii, USA. via NASA

Fireball in the Arctic

Something very bright suddenly lit up the arctic — what was it? The original idea was to take a series of aurora images that could be made into a time-lapse video. But when night suddenly turned into day, the astrophotographer quickly realized that he was seeing something even more spectacular. Moving through the sky — in front of the Big Dipper no less — was a Geminid meteor so bright it could be called a fireball. The meteor brightened and flashed for several seconds as it went. By a stroke of good fortune, the aurora camera was able to capture the whole track. Taken the night after the Geminids Meteor Shower peaked, the astrophotographer’s location was near Lovozero Lake in Murmansk, Russia, just north of the Arctic Circle. via NASA

SpaceX Rocket Launch Plume over California

What’s happened to the sky? On Friday, the photogenic launch plume from a SpaceX rocket launch created quite a spectacle over parts of southern California and Arizona. Looking at times like a giant space fish, the impressive rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, California, was so bright because it was backlit by the setting Sun. Lifting off during a minuscule one-second launch window, the Falcon 9 Heavy rocket successfully delivered to low Earth orbit ten Iridium NEXT satellites that are part of a developing global communications network. The plume from the first stage is seen on the right, while the soaring upper stage rocket is seen at the apex of the plume toward the left. Several good videos of the launch were taken. The featured image was captured from Orange County, California, in a 2.5 second duration exposure. via NASA

Phaethon s Brood

Based on its well-measured orbit, 3200 Phaethon (sounds like FAY-eh-thon) is recognized as the source of the meteroid stream responsible for the annual Geminid meteor shower. Even though most meteor showers’ parents are comets, 3200 Phaethon is a known and closely tracked near-Earth asteroid with a 1.4 year orbital period. Rocky and sun-baked, its perihelion or closest approach to the Sun is well within the orbit of innermost planet Mercury. In this telescopic field of view, the asteroid’s rapid motion against faint background stars of the heroic constellation Perseus left a short trail during the two minute total exposure time. The parallel streaks of its meteoric children flashed much more quickly across the scene. The family portrait was recorded near the Geminid meteor shower’s very active peak on December 13. That was just before 3200 Phaethon’s historic December 16 closest approach to planet Earth. via NASA

Gemini s Meteors

From dark skies above Heilongjiang province in northeastern China, meteors rain down on a wintry landscape in this beautiful composited night scene. The 48 meteors are part of last week’s annual Geminid meteor shower. Despite temperatures of -28 degrees C, all were recorded in camera exposures made during the peak hour of the celestial spectacle. They stream away from the shower’s radiant high above the horizon near the two bright stars of the zodiacal constellation of the Twins. A very active shower, this year the December 13-14 peak of the Geminids arrived just before the December 16 closest approach of asteroid 3200 Phaethon to planet Earth. Mysterious 3200 Phaethon is the Geminid shower’s likely parent body. via NASA

The Kepler 90 Planetary System

Do other stars have planetary systems like our own? Yes — one such system is Kepler-90. Cataloged by the orbiting Kepler satellite, an eighth planet has now been discovered giving Kepler-90 the same number of known planets as our Solar System. Similarities between Kepler-90 and our system include a G-type star comparable to our Sun, rocky planets comparable to our Earth, and large planets comparable in size to Jupiter and Saturn. Differences include that all of the known Kepler-90 planets orbit relatively close in — closer than Earth’s orbit around the Sun — making them possibly too hot to harbor life. However, observations over longer time periods may discover cooler planets further out. Kepler-90 lies about 2,500 light years away, and at magnitude 14 is visible with a medium-sized telescope toward the constellation of the Dragon (Draco). Exoplanet-finding missions planned for launch in the next decade include TESS, JWST, WFIRST, and PLATO. via NASA

The Einstein Cross Gravitational Lens

Most galaxies have a single nucleus — does this galaxy have four? The strange answer leads astronomers to conclude that the nucleus of the surrounding galaxy is not even visible in this image. The central cloverleaf is rather light emitted from a background quasar. The gravitational field of the visible foreground galaxy breaks light from this distant quasar into four distinct images. The quasar must be properly aligned behind the center of a massive galaxy for a mirage like this to be evident. The general effect is known as gravitational lensing, and this specific case is known as the Einstein Cross. Stranger still, the images of the Einstein Cross vary in relative brightness, enhanced occasionally by the additional gravitational microlensing effect of specific stars in the foreground galaxy. via NASA

A Wintry Shower

Four Geminids flash through northern skies in this wintry night skyscape. The bright fireball and 3 fainter meteors were captured in a single 10 second exposure, near the peak of December’s Geminid meteor shower. Reflecting the fireball’s greenish light, a partially frozen Lake Edith in Alberta Canada’s Jasper National Park lies in the foreground, with the Canadian Rocky Mountains ranging along the northern horizon. Of course, the glacial lake is cold even in summer. But photographer Jack Fusco reports that he experienced -9 degree C temperatures that night while enjoying one of the most active meteor showers he’s ever seen. via NASA

Geminids of the North

Earth’s annual Geminid meteor shower did not disappoint as our fair planet plowed through dust from active asteroid 3200 Phaethon. Captured in this northern hemisphere nightscape, the meteors stream away from the shower’s radiant in Gemini. To create the image, 37 individual frames recording meteor streaks were taken over period of 8.5 hours during the night of December 12/13. In the final composite they were selected and registered against the starry sky above a radio telescope dish of MUSER, a solar-dedicated radio telescope array at astronomically-named Mingantu Station in Inner Mongolia, China, about 400 kilometers from Beijing. Sirius, alpha star of Canis Major, shines brightly just above the radio dish and the Milky Way stretches toward the zenith. Yellowish Betelgeuse is a standout in Orion to the right of the northen Milky Way. The shower’s radiant is at top left, high above the horizon near Castor and Pollux the twin stars of Gemini. The radiant effect is due to perspective as the parallel meteor tracks appear to converge in the distance. Gemini’s meteors enter Earth’s atmosphere traveling at about 22 kilometers per second. via NASA

Highlights of the Winter Sky

What’s up in the sky this winter? The featured graphic gives a few highlights for Earth’s northern hemisphere. Viewed as a clock face centered at the bottom, early winter sky events fan out toward the left, while late winter events are projected toward the right. Objects relatively close to Earth are illustrated, in general, as nearer to the cartoon figure with the telescope at the bottom center — although almost everything pictured can be seen without a telescope. Highlights of this winter’s sky include the Geminids meteor shower peaking this week, the constellation of Orion becoming notable in the evening sky, and many planets being visible before sunrise in February. As true in every season, the International Space Station (ISS) can be sometimes be found drifting across your sky if you know just when and where to look. via NASA