Very faint planetary nebula Abell 7 is some 1,800 light-years distant, just south of Orion in planet Earth’s skies in the constellation Lepus, The Hare. Surrounded by Milky Way stars and near the line-of-sight to distant background galaxies, its generally simple spherical shape, about 8 light-years in diameter, is outlined in this deep telescopic image. Within its confines are beautiful, more complex details enhanced by the use of narrowband filters. Emission from hydrogen is shown in reddish hues with oxygen emission mapped to green and blue colors, giving Abell 7 a natural appearance that would otherwise be much too faint to be appreciated by eye. A planetary nebula represents a very brief final phase in stellar evolution that our own Sun will experience 5 billion years hence, as the nebula’s central, once sun-like star shrugs off its outer layers. Abell 7 itself is estimated to be 20,000 years old. Its central star is seen here as a fading white dwarf some 10 billion years old.
Fifty years ago, on March 31, 1972, just days after the launch of Venera 8, the Soviet Union made an attempt to launch yet another Venera probe. While it was meant to fly to Venus, something went wrong and it got stuck in Earth orbit instead. It subsequently was post-designated Kosmos 482 by the Soviets. Half a century later, one object associated to this launch is still on orbit, but it won’t be for long anymore. This object is 1972-023E, the Kosmos 482 Descent Craft, ostensibly the landing module of the Venera in its approximately one-meter protective shell.
Cloudy skies plagued some sky watchers on Sunday as May’s Full Flower Moon slipped through Earth’s shadow in a total lunar eclipse. In skies above Chile’s Atacama desert this telephoto snapshot still captured an awesome spectacle though. Seen through thin high cirrus clouds just before totality began, a last sliver of sunlit crescent glistens like a hazy jewel atop the mostly shadowed lunar disk. This full moon was near perigee, the closest point in its elliptical orbit. It passed near the center of Earth’s dark umbral shadow during the 90 minute long total eclipse phase. Faintly suffused with sunlight scattered by the atmosphere, the umbral shadow itself gave the eclipsed moon a reddened appearance and the very dramatic popular moniker of a Blood Moon.
Astronomers turn detectives when trying to figure out the cause of startling sights like NGC 1316. Investigations indicate that NGC 1316 is an enormous elliptical galaxy that started, about 100 million years ago, to devour a smaller spiral galaxy neighbor, NGC 1317, just on the upper right. Supporting evidence includes the dark dust lanes characteristic of a spiral galaxy, and faint swirls and shells of stars and gas visible in this wide and deep image. One thing that >remains unexplained is the unusually small globular star clusters, seen as faint dots on the image. Most elliptical galaxies have more and brighter globular clusters than NGC 1316. Yet the observed globulars are too old to have been created by the recent spiral collision. One hypothesis is that these globulars survive from an even earlier galaxy that was subsumed into NGC 1316. Another surprising attribute of NGC 1316, also known as Fornax A, is its giant lobes of gas that glow brightly in radio waves.
There’s a black hole at the center of the Milky Way. Stars are observed to orbit a very massive and compact object there known as Sgr A* (say “sadge-ay-star”). But this just released radio image (inset) from planet Earth’s Event Horizon Telescope is the first direct evidence of the Milky Way’s central black hole. As predicted by Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, the four million solar mass black hole’s strong gravity is bending light and creating a shadow-like dark central region surrounded by a bright ring-like structure. Supporting observations made by space-based telescopes and ground-based observatories provide a wider view of the galactic center’s dynamic environment and an important context for the Event Horizon Telescope’s black hole image. The main panel image shows the X-ray data from Chandra and infrared data from Hubble. While the main panel is about 7 light-years across, the Event Horizon Telescope inset image itself spans a mere 10 light-minutes at the center of our galaxy, some 27,000 light-years away.
At simultaneous press conferences around the world, including at a National Science Foundation-sponsored press conference at the US National Press Club in Washington, D.C., astronomers have unveiled the first image of the supermassive black hole at the center of our own Milky Way galaxy. This result provides overwhelming evidence that the object is indeed a black hole and yields valuable clues about the workings of such giants, which are thought to reside at the center of most galaxies. The image was produced by a global research team called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration, using observations from a worldwide network of radio telescopes.
Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, published over 100 years ago, predicted the phenomenon of gravitational lensing. And that’s what gives these distant galaxies such a whimsical appearance, seen through the looking glass of X-ray and optical image data from the Chandra and Hubble space telescopes. Nicknamed the Cheshire Cat galaxy group, the group’s two large elliptical galaxies are suggestively framed by arcs. The arcs are optical images of distant background galaxies lensed by the foreground group’s total distribution of gravitational mass. Of course, that gravitational mass is dominated by dark matter. The two large elliptical “eye” galaxies represent the brightest members of their own galaxy groups which are merging. Their relative collisional speed of nearly 1,350 kilometers/second heats gas to millions of degrees producing the X-ray glow shown in purple hues. Curiouser about galaxy group mergers? The Cheshire Cat group grins in the constellation Ursa Major, some 4.6 billion light-years away.
What’s that passing in front of the Sun? It looks like a moon, but it can’t be Earth’s Moon, because it isn’t round. It’s the Martian moon Phobos. The featured video was taken from the surface of Mars a month ago by the Perseverance rover. Phobos, at 11.5 kilometers across, is 150 times smaller than Luna (our moon) in diameter, but also 50 times closer to its parent planet. In fact, Phobos is so close to Mars that it is expected to break up and crash into Mars within the next 50 million years. In the near term, the low orbit of Phobos results in more rapid solar eclipses than seen from Earth. The featured video is shown in real time – the transit really took about 40 seconds,as shown. The videographer – the robotic rover Perseverance (Percy) – continues to explore Jezero Crater on Mars, searching not only for clues to the watery history of the now dry world, but evidence of ancient microbial life.
Nebulas are perhaps as famous for being identified with familiar shapes as perhaps cats are for getting into trouble. Still, no known cat could have created the vast Cat’s Paw Nebula visible toward the constellation of the Scorpion (Scorpius. At 5,500 light years distant, Cat’s Paw is an emission nebula with a red color that originates from an abundance of ionized hydrogen atoms. Alternatively known as the Bear Claw Nebula and cataloged as NGC 6334, stars nearly ten times the mass of our Sun have been born there in only the past few million years. Pictured here is a deep field image of the Cat’s Paw Nebula in light emitted by hydrogen, oxygen, and sulfur.
Most galaxies don’t have any rings – why does this galaxy have two? To begin, the bright band near NGC 1512’s center is a nuclear ring, a ring that surrounds the galaxy center and glows brightly with recently formed stars. Most stars and accompanying gas and dust, however, orbit the galactic center in a ring much further out – here seen near the image edge. This ring is called, counter-intuitively, the inner ring. If you look closely, you will see this the inner ring connects ends of a diffuse central bar that runs horizontally across the galaxy. These ring structures are thought to be caused by NGC 1512’s own asymmetries in a drawn-out process called secular evolution. The gravity of these galaxy asymmetries, including the bar of stars, cause gas and dust to fall from the inner ring to the nuclear ring, enhancing this ring’s rate of star formation. Some spiral galaxies also have a third ring – an outer ring that circles the galaxy even further out.
This cosmic skyscape features glowing gas and dark dust clouds along side the young stars of NGC 3572. A beautiful emission nebula and star cluster it sails far southern skies within the nautical constellation Carina. Stars from NGC 3572 are toward top center in the telescopic frame that would measure about 100 light-years across at the cluster’s estimated distance of 9,000 light-years. The visible interstellar gas and dust is part of the star cluster’s natal molecular cloud. Dense streamers of material within the nebula, eroded by stellar winds and radiation, clearly trail away from the energetic young stars. They are likely sites of ongoing star formation with shapes reminiscent of the Tadpoles of IC 410 better known to northern skygazers. In the coming tens to hundreds of millions of years, gas and stars in the cluster will be dispersed though, by gravitational tides and by violent supernova explosions that end the short lives of the massive cluster stars.
Gorgeous spiral galaxy NGC 3521 is a mere 35 million light-years away, toward the northern springtime constellation Leo. Relatively bright in planet Earth’s sky, NGC 3521 is easily visible in small telescopes but often overlooked by amateur imagers in favor of other Leo spiral galaxies, like M66 and M65. It’s hard to overlook in this colorful cosmic portrait though. Spanning some 50,000 light-years the galaxy sports characteristic patchy, irregular spiral arms laced with dust, pink star forming regions, and clusters of young, blue stars. This deep image also finds NGC 3521 embedded in fainter, gigantic, bubble-like shells. The shells are likely tidal debris, streams of stars torn from satellite galaxies that have undergone mergers with NGC 3521 in the distant past.
That’s no comet. Below the Pleiades star cluster is actually a planet: Mercury. Long exposures of our Solar System’s innermost planet may reveal something unexpected: a tail. Mercury’s thin atmosphere contains small amounts of sodium that glow when excited by light from the Sun. Sunlight also liberates these atoms from Mercury’s surface and pushes them away. The yellow glow from sodium, in particular, is relatively bright. Pictured, Mercury and its sodium tail are visible in a deep image taken last week from La Palma, Spain through a filter that primarily transmits yellow light emitted by sodium. First predicted in the 1980s, Mercury’s tail was first discovered in 2001. Many tail details were revealed in multiple observations by NASA’s robotic MESSENGER spacecraft that orbited Mercury between 2011 and 2015. Tails, of course, are usually associated with comets.
What’s happened to the Sun? Two days ago, parts of South America were treated to a partial solar eclipse – where the Moon blocked out part of the Sun. The featured image shows an image of the partially eclipsed Sun through clouds as it was setting over Patagonia, Argentina. In the tilted image, Earth is toward the right. During the eclipse, the Moon moved partly between Earth and the Sun. Although a visually impressive sight, the slight dimming of surroundings during this partial eclipse was less noticeable than dimming created by a thick cloud. In about two weeks, all of South America and part of North America will experience a total lunar eclipse – where the Earth moves completely between the Moon and the Sun. In about two years, a total solar eclipse will cross North America.
A mere 600 light-years away, M44 is one of the closest star clusters to our solar system. Also known as the Praesepe or the Beehive cluster its stars are young though, about 600 million years old compared to our Sun’s 4.5 billion years. Based on similar ages and motion through space, M44 and the even closer Hyades star cluster in Taurus are thought to have been born together in the same large molecular cloud. An open cluster spanning some 15 light-years, M44 holds 1,000 stars or so and covers about 3 full moons (1.5 degrees) on the sky in the constellation Cancer. Visible to the unaided eye, M44 has been recognized since antiquity. Described as a faint cloud or celestial mist long before being included as the 44th entry in Charles Messier’s 18th century catalog, the cluster was not resolved into its individual stars until telescopes were available. A popular target for modern, binocular-equipped sky gazers, the cluster’s few yellowish tinted, cool, red giants are scattered through the field of its brighter hot blue main sequence stars in this telescopic group snapshot. Dramatic diffraction spikes highlighting the brighter cluster members were created with string crossed in front of the telescope’s objective lens.
Sharp telescopic views of NGC 3628 show a puffy galactic disk divided by dark dust lanes. Of course, this 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 (below), likely a satellite of NGC 3628, and a very faint but extensive tidal tail. The drawn out tail stretches for about 300,000 light-years, even beyond the upper left edge of the 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.
In one of the brightest parts of Milky Way lies a nebula where some of the oddest things occur. NGC 3372, known as the Great Nebula in Carina, is home to massive stars and changing nebulas. The Keyhole Nebula (NGC 3324), the bright structure just below the image center, houses several of these massive stars. The entire Carina Nebula, captured here, spans over 300 light years and lies about 7,500 light-years away in the constellation of Carina. Eta Carinae, the most energetic star in the nebula, was one of the brightest stars in the sky in the 1830s, but then faded dramatically. While Eta Carinae itself maybe on the verge of a supernova explosion, X-ray images indicate that much of the Great Nebula in Carina has been a veritable supernova factory.
What is that large dark spot on Jupiter? It’s the shadow of Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. When Jupiter’s moons cross between the Jovian giant and the Sun, they created shadows just like when the Earth’s moon crosses between the Earth and the Sun. Also like on Earth, if you were in a dark shadow on Jupiter, you would see a moon completely eclipse the Sun. Unlike on Earth, moon shadows occur most days on Jupiter – what’s more unusual is that a spacecraft was close enough to record one with a high-resolution image. That spacecraft, Juno, was passing so close to Jupiter in late February that nearby clouds and the dark eclipse shadow appear relatively large. Juno has made many discoveries about our Solar System’s largest planet, including, recently, rapidly expanding circular auroras.
A gorgeous spiral galaxy, Messier 104 is famous for its nearly edge-on profile featuring a broad ring of obscuring dust lanes. Seen in silhouette against an extensive central bulge of stars, the swath of cosmic dust lends a broad brimmed hat-like appearance to the galaxy suggesting a more popular moniker, the Sombrero Galaxy. This sharp view of the well-known galaxy was made from over 10 hours of Hubble Space Telescope image data, processed to bring out faint details often lost in the overwhelming glare of M104’s bright central bulge. Also known as NGC 4594, the Sombrero galaxy can be seen across the spectrum, and is host to a central supermassive black hole. About 50,000 light-years across and 28 million light-years away, M104 is one of the largest galaxies at the southern edge of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster. Still, the spiky foreground stars in this field of view lie well within our own Milky Way.