Astronomy Picture of the Day
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A different astronomy and space science related image is featured each day, along with a brief explanation.
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M16 Close Up

A star cluster around 2 million years young surrounded by natal clouds of dust and glowing gas, M16 is also known as The Eagle Nebula. This beautifully detailed image of the region adopts the colorful Hubble palette and includes cosmic sculptures made famous in Hubble Space Telescope close-ups of the starforming complex. Described as elephant trunks or Pillars of Creation, dense, dusty columns rising near the center are light-years in length but are gravitationally contracting to form stars. Energetic radiation from the cluster stars erodes material near the tips, eventually exposing the embedded new stars. Extending from the ridge of bright emission left of center is another dusty starforming column known as the Fairy of Eagle Nebula. M16 lies about 7,000 light-years away, an easy target for binoculars or small telescopes in a nebula rich part of the sky toward the split constellation Serpens Cauda (the tail of the snake).
Rosetta's Comet in View

Faint comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko (67P) sweeps past background stars in the constellation Taurus and even fainter distant galaxies in this telescopic frame from September 7. About 5 years ago, this comet's 4 kilometer spanning, double-lobed nucleus became the final resting place of robots from planet Earth, following the completion of the historic Rosetta mission to the comet. After wandering out beyond the orbit of Jupiter, Churyumov-Gerasimenko is now returning along its 6.4 year periodic orbit toward its next perihelion or closest approach to the Sun, on November 2. On November 12, the comet's perigee, its closest approach to Earth, will bring it within about 0.42 astronomical units. Telescopes should still be required to view it even at its brightest, predicted to be in late November and December. On September 7 Rosetta's comet was about 0.65 astronomical units away or about 5.4 light-minutes from our fair planet.
Saturn at Night

Still bright in planet Earth's night skies, good telescopic views of Saturn and its beautiful rings often make it a star at star parties. But this stunning view of Saturn's rings and night side just isn't possible from telescopes closer to the Sun than the outer planet. They can only bring Saturn's day into view. In fact, this image of Saturn's slender sunlit crescent with night's shadow cast across its broad and complex ring system was captured by the Cassini spacecraft. A robot spacecraft from planet Earth, Cassini called Saturn orbit home for 13 years before it was directed to dive into the atmosphere of the gas giant on September 15, 2017. This magnificent mosaic is composed of frames recorded by Cassini's wide-angle camera only two days before its grand final plunge. Saturn's night will not be seen again until another spaceship from Earth calls.
A Spiral Aurora over Iceland

What's happened to the sky? Aurora! Captured in 2015, this aurora was noted by Icelanders for its great brightness and quick development. The aurora resulted from a solar storm, with high energy particles bursting out from the Sun and through a crack in Earth's protective magnetosphere a few days later. Although a spiral pattern can be discerned, creative humans might imagine the complex glow as an atmospheric apparition of any number of common icons. In the foreground of the featured image is the Ölfusá River while the lights illuminate a bridge in Selfoss City. Just beyond the low clouds is a nearly full Moon. The liveliness of the Sun -- and likely the resulting auroras on Earth -- is slowly increasing as the Sun emerges from a Solar minimum, a historically quiet period in its 11-year cycle.
Night Sky Reflected

What's that in the mirror? In the featured image of the dark southern sky, the three brightest galaxies of the night are all relatively easy to identify. Starting from the left, these are the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), and part of the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy. All three are also seen reflected in a shallow pool of water. But what is seen in the mirror being positioned by the playful astrophotographer? Dust clouds near the center of our Milky Way -- and the planet Jupiter. The composite was carefully planned and composed from images captured from the same camera in the same location and during the same night in mid-2019 in Mostardas, south Brazil. The picture won first place in the Connecting to the Dark division of the International Dark-Sky Association's Capture the Dark contest for 2021.
Mars Panorama 360 from Curiosity

Which way up Mount Sharp? In early September, the robotic rover Curiosity continued its ascent up the central peak of Gale Crater, searching for more clues about ancient water and further evidence that Mars could once have been capable of supporting life. On this recent Martian morning, before exploratory drilling, the rolling rover took this 360-degree panorama, in part to help Curiosity's human team back on Earth access the landscape and chart possible future routes. In the horizontally-compressed featured image, an amazing vista across Mars was captured, complete with layered hills, red rocky ground, gray drifting sand, and a dusty atmosphere. The hill just left of center has been dubbed Maria Gordon Notch in honor of a famous Scottish geologist. The current plan is to direct Curiosity to approach, study, and pass just to the right of Gordon Notch on its exploratory trek.
Cyclone Paths on Planet Earth

Where on Earth do cyclones go? Known as hurricanes when in the Atlantic Ocean and typhoons when in the Pacific, the featured map shows the path of all major storms from 1985 through 2005. The map shows graphically that cyclones usually occur over water, which makes sense since evaporating warm water gives them energy. The map also shows that cyclones never cross -- and rarely approach -- the Earth's equator, since the Coriolis effect goes to zero there, and cyclones need the Coriolis force to circulate. The Coriolis force also causes cyclone paths to arc away from the equator. Although long-term trends remain a topic of research, evidence indicates that hurricanes have become, on the average, more powerful in the North Atlantic over the past 30 years, and their power is projected to keep increasing.
North America and the Pelican

Fans of our fair planet might recognize the outlines of these cosmic clouds. On the left, bright emission outlined by dark, obscuring dust lanes seems to trace a continental shape, lending the popular name North America Nebula to the emission region cataloged as NGC 7000. To the right, just off the North America Nebula's east coast, is IC 5070, whose avian profile suggests the Pelican Nebula. The two bright nebulae are about 1,500 light-years away, part of the same large and complex star forming region, almost as nearby as the better-known Orion Nebula. At that distance, the 3 degree wide field of view would span 80 light-years. This careful cosmic portrait uses narrow band images combined to highlight the bright ionization fronts and the characteristic glow from atomic hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen gas. These nebulae can be seen with binoculars from a dark location. Look northeast of bright star Deneb in the constellation Cygnus the Swan.
Video: Flash on Jupiter

There has been a flash on Jupiter. A few days ago, several groups monitoring our Solar System's largest planet noticed a two-second long burst of light. Such flashes have been seen before, with the most famous being a series of impactor strikes in 1994. Then, fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 struck Jupiter leaving dark patches that lasted for months. Since then, at least seven impacts have been recorded on Jupiter -- usually discovered by amateur astronomers. In the featured video, variations in the Earth's atmosphere cause Jupiter's image to shimmer when, suddenly, a bright flash appears just left of center. Io and its shadow are visible on the right. What hit Jupiter will likely never be known, but considering what we do know of the nearby Solar System, it was likely a piece of rocky and ice -- perhaps the size of a bus -- that broke off long-ago from a passing comet or asteroid.
Rubin's Galaxy

In this Hubble Space Telescope image the bright, spiky stars lie in the foreground toward the heroic northern constellation Perseus and well within our own Milky Way galaxy. In sharp focus beyond is UGC 2885, a giant spiral galaxy about 232 million light-years distant. Some 800,000 light-years across compared to the Milky Way's diameter of 100,000 light-years or so, it has around 1 trillion stars. That's about 10 times as many stars as the Milky Way. Part of an investigation to understand how galaxies can grow to such enormous sizes, UGC 2885 was also part of An Interesting Voyage and astronomer Vera Rubin's pioneering study of the rotation of spiral galaxies. Her work was the first to convincingly demonstrate the dominating presence of dark matter in our universe.
Rings and Seasons of Saturn

On Saturn, the rings tell you the season. On Earth, Wednesday marks an equinox, the time when the Earth's equator tilts directly toward the Sun. Since Saturn's grand rings orbit along the planet's equator, these rings appear most prominent -- from the direction of the Sun -- when the spin axis of Saturn points toward the Sun. Conversely, when Saturn's spin axis points to the side, an equinox occurs and the edge-on rings are hard to see from not only the Sun -- but Earth. In the featured montage, images of Saturn between the years of 2004 and 2015 have been superposed to show the giant planet passing from southern summer toward northern summer. Saturn was as close as it can get to planet Earth last month, and this month the ringed giant is still bright and visible throughout much of the night
Lynds Dark Nebula

Stars are forming in Lynds Dark Nebula (LDN) 1251. About 1,000 light-years away and drifting above the plane of our Milky Way galaxy, the dusty molecular cloud is part of a complex of dark nebulae mapped toward the Cepheus flare region. Across the spectrum, astronomical explorations of the obscuring interstellar clouds reveal energetic shocks and outflows associated with newborn stars, including the telltale reddish glow from scattered Herbig-Haro objects hiding in the image. Distant background galaxies also lurk on the scene, almost buried behind the dusty expanse. This alluring view spans over two full moons on the sky, or 17 light-years at the estimated distance of LDN 1251.
Sun Spot Hill

Is this giant orange ball about to roll down that tree-lined hill? No, because the giant orange ball is actually the Sun. Our Solar System's central star was captured rising beyond a hill on Earth twelve days ago complete with a delightfully detailed foreground. The Sun's disk showed five sunspots, quite a lot considering that during the solar minimum in solar activity of the past few years, most days showed no spots. A close look at the hill -- Sierra del Cid in Perter, Spain -- reveals not only silhouetted pine trees, but silhouetted people -- by coincidence three brothers of the photographer. The trees and brothers were about 3.5-kilometers away during the morning of the well-planned, single-exposure image. A dark filter muted the usually brilliant Sun and brought up great detail on the lower sunspots. Within a few minutes, the Sun rose far above the hill, while within a week, the sunspots rotated around the Sun, out of view. The captured scene, however, is now frozen in time for all to enjoy.
Equinox on a Spinning Earth

When does the line between night and day become vertical? Today. Today is an equinox on planet Earth, a time of year when day and night are most nearly equal. At an equinox, the Earth's terminator -- the dividing line between day and night -- becomes vertical and connects the north and south poles. The featured time-lapse video demonstrates this by displaying an entire year on planet Earth in twelve seconds. From geosynchronous orbit, the Meteosat 9 satellite recorded these infrared images of the Earth every day at the same local time. The video started at the September 2010 equinox with the terminator line being vertical. As the Earth revolved around the Sun, the terminator was seen to tilt in a way that provides less daily sunlight to the northern hemisphere, causing winter in the north. As the year progressed, the March 2011 equinox arrived halfway through the video, followed by the terminator tilting the other way, causing winter in the southern hemisphere -- and summer in the north. The captured year ends again with the September equinox, concluding another of billions of trips the Earth has taken -- and will take -- around the Sun.
Harvest Moon Trail

Famed in festival, story, and song the best known full moon is the Harvest Moon. For northern hemisphere dwellers that's a traditional name of the full moon nearest the September equinox. Seen from Saunderstown, Rhode Island, planet Earth, this Harvest Moon left a broad streak of warm hues as it rose through a twilight sky over the Newport Bridge. On September 20 its trail was captured in a single 22 minute exposure using a dense filter and a digital camera. Only two days later the September equinox marked a change of season and the beginning of autumn in the north. In fact, recognizing a season as the time between solstice and equinox, this Harvest Moon was the fourth full moon of the season, coming just before the astronomical end of northern summer.
Perseid Outburst at Westmeath Lookout

This year an outburst of Perseid meteors surprised skywatchers. The reliable meteor shower's peak was predicted for the night of August 12/13. But persistent visual observers in North America were deluged with a startling Perseid shower outburst a day later, with reports of multiple meteors per minute and sometimes per second in the early hours of August 14. The shower radiant is high in a dark night sky in this composite image. It painstakingly registers the trails of 282 Perseids captured during the stunning outburst activity between 0650 UT (02:50am EDT) and 0900 UT (05:00am EDT) on August 14 from Westmeath Lookout, Ontario. Of course the annual Perseid meteor shower is associated with planet Earth's passage through dusty debris from periodic comet 109P/Swift-Tuttle. The 2021 outburst could have been caused by an unanticipated encounter with the Perseid Filament, a denser ribbon of dust inside the broader debris zone.
The Bubble and the Star Cluster

To the eye, this cosmic composition nicely balances the Bubble Nebula at the right with open star cluster M52. The pair would be lopsided on other scales, though. Embedded in a complex of interstellar dust and gas and blown by the winds from a single, massive O-type star, the Bubble Nebula, also known as NGC 7635, is a mere 10 light-years wide. On the other hand, M52 is a rich open cluster of around a thousand stars. The cluster is about 25 light-years across. Seen toward the northern boundary of Cassiopeia, distance estimates for the Bubble Nebula and associated cloud complex are around 11,000 light-years, while star cluster M52 lies nearly 5,000 light-years away. The wide telescopic field of view spans about 1.5 degrees on the sky or three times the apparent size of a full Moon.
The Red Square Nebula

How did a round star create this square nebula? No one is quite sure. The round star, known as MWC 922 and possibly part of a multiple star system, appears at the center of the Red Square Nebula. The featured image combines infrared exposures from the Hale Telescope on Mt. Palomar in California, and the Keck-2 Telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawaii. A leading progenitor hypothesis for the square nebula is that the central star or stars somehow expelled cones of gas during a late developmental stage. For MWC 922, these cones happen to incorporate nearly right angles and be visible from the sides. Supporting evidence for the cone hypothesis includes radial spokes in the image that might run along the cone walls. Researchers speculate that the cones viewed from another angle would appear similar to the gigantic rings of supernova 1987A, possibly indicating that a star in MWC 922 might one day itself explode in a similar supernova.
Unwrapped: Five Decade Old Lunar Selfie

Here is one of the most famous pictures from the Moon -- but digitally reversed. Apollo 11 landed on the moon in 1969 and soon thereafter many pictures were taken, including an iconic picture of Buzz Aldrin taken by Neil Armstrong. The original image captured not only the magnificent desolation of an unfamiliar world, but Armstrong himself reflected in Aldrin's curved visor. Enter modern digital technology. In the featured image, the spherical distortion from Aldrin's helmet has been reversed. The result is the famous picture -- but now featuring Armstrong himself from Aldrin's perspective. Even so, since Armstrong took the picture, the image is effectively a five-decade old lunar selfie. The original visor reflection is shown on the left, while Earth hangs in the lunar sky on the upper right. A foil-wrapped leg of the Eagle lander is prominently visible. Preparations to return humans to the Moon in the next few years include the Artemis program, an international collaboration led by NASA.
Night of the Perseids

Have you ever experienced a meteor shower? To help capture the wonder, a video was taken during the peak of the recent Perseid meteor shower above the Indian Astronomical Observatory in Hanle, India, high up in the Himalayan mountains. Night descends as the video begins, with the central plane of our Milky Way Galaxy approaching from the left and Earth-orbiting satellites zipping by overhead. During the night, the flash of meteors that usually takes less than a second is artificially extended. The green glow of most meteors is typically caused by vaporizing nickel. As the video continues, Orion rises and meteors flare above the 2-meter Himalayan Chandra Telescope and the seven barrels of the High Energy Gamma Ray Telescope (Hagar). The 2 minute 30 second movie ends with the Sun rising, preceded by a false dawn of zodiacal light.