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  • Shadow of a Martian Robot

    What if you saw your shadow on Mars and it wasn’t human? Then you might be the Opportunity rover currently exploring Mars. Opportunity explored the red planet from 2004 to 2018, finding evidence of ancient water, and sending breathtaking images across the inner Solar System. Pictured here in 2004, Opportunity looks opposite the Sun into Endurance Crater and sees its own shadow. Two wheels are visible on the lower left and right, while the floor and walls of the unusual crater are visible in the background. Caught in a dust storm in 2018, last week NASA stopped try contact Opportunity and declare the ground-breaking mission, originally planned for only 92 days, complete.

  • NGC 2359: Thor’s Helmet

    NGC 2359 is a helmet-shaped cosmic cloud with wing-like appendages popularly called Thor’s Helmet. Heroically sized even for a Norse god, Thor’s Helmet is about 30 light-years across. In fact, the helmet is more like an interstellar bubble, blown as a fast wind from the bright, massive star near the bubble’s center inflates a region within the surrounding molecular cloud. 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 in the constellation Canis Major. The remarkably detailed image is a mixed cocktail of data from broadband and narrowband filters that captures natural looking stars and the glow of the nebula’s filamentary structures. It highlights a blue-green color from strong emission due to oxygen atoms in the glowing gas.

  • Opportunity at Perseverance Valley

    Opportunity had already reached Perseverance Valley by June of 2018. Its view is reconstructed in a colorized mosaic of images taken by the Mars Exploration Rover’s Navcam. In fact, Perseverance Valley is an appropriate name for the destination. Designed for a 90 day mission, Opportunity had traveled across Mars for over 5,000 sols (martian solar days) following a January 2004 landing in Eagle crater. Covering a total distance of over 45 kilometers (28 miles), its intrepid journey of exploration across the Martian landscape has come to a close here. On June 10, 2018, the last transmission from the solar-powered rover was received as a dust storm engulfed the Red Planet. Though the storm has subsided, eight months of attempts to contact Opportunity have not been successful and its trailblazing mission ended after almost 15 years of exploring the surface of Mars.

  • Solar System Family Portait

    On Valentine’s Day in 1990, cruising four billion miles from the Sun, the Voyager 1 spacecraft looked back one last time to make this first ever Solar System family portrait. The complete portrait is a 60 frame mosaic made from a vantage point 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. In it, Voyager’s wide angle camera frames sweep through the inner Solar System at the left, linking up with gas giant Neptune, the Solar System’s outermost planet, at the far right. Positions for Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are indicated by letters, while the Sun is the bright spot near the center of the circle of frames. The inset frames for each of the planets are from Voyager’s narrow field camera. Unseen in the portrait are Mercury, too close to the Sun to be detected, and Mars, unfortunately hidden by sunlight scattered in the camera’s optical system. Closer to the Sun than Neptune at the time, small, faint Pluto’s position was not covered.

  • The Helix Nebula in Hydrogen and Oxygen

    Is the Helix Nebula looking at you? No, not in any biological sense, but it does look quite like an eye. The Helix Nebula is so named because it also appears that you are looking down the axis of a helix. In actuality, it is now understood to have a surprisingly complex geometry, including radial filaments and extended outer loops. The Helix Nebula (aka NGC 7293) is one of brightest and closest examples of a planetary nebula, a gas cloud created at the end of the life of a Sun-like star. The remnant central stellar core, destined to become a white dwarf star, glows in light so energetic it causes the previously expelled gas to fluoresce. The featured picture, taken in the light emitted by oxygen (shown in blue) and hydrogen (shown in red), was created from 74 hours of exposure over three months from a small telescope in a backyard of suburban Melbourne, Australia. A close-up of the inner edge of the Helix Nebula shows complex gas knots of unknown origin.

  • Plane Crossing a Crescent Moon

    No, this is not a good way to get to the Moon. What is pictured is a chance superposition of an airplane and the Moon. The contrail would normally appear white, but the large volume of air toward the setting Sun preferentially knocks away blue light, giving the reflected trail a bright red hue. Far in the distance, well behind the plane, is a crescent Moon, also slightly reddened. Captured a month ago above Valais, Switzerland, the featured image was taken so soon after sunset that planes in the sky were still in sunlight, as were their contrails. Within minutes, unfortunately, the impromptu sky show ended. The plane crossed the Moon and moved out of sight. The Moon set. The contrail became unilluminated and then dispersed.

  • New Data: Ultima Thule Surprisingly Flat

    Ultima Thule is not the object humanity thought that it was last month. When the robotic New Horizons spacecraft zoomed past the distant asteroid Ultima Thule (officially 2014 MU69) in early January, early images showed two circular lobes that when most simply extrapolated to 3D were thought to be, roughly, spheres. However, analyses of newly beamed-back images — including many taken soon after closest approach — shows eclipsed stars re-appearing sooner than expected. The only explanation possible is that this 30-km long Kuiper belt object has a different 3D shape than believed only a few weeks ago. Specifically, as shown in the featured illustration, it now appears that the larger lobe — Ultima — is more similar to a fluffy pancake than a sphere, while the smaller lobe — Thule — resembles a dented walnut. The remaining uncertainty in the outlines are shown by the dashed blue lines. The new shape information indicates that gravity — which contracts more massive bodies into spheres — played perhaps less of a role in contouring the lobes of Ultima Thule than previously thought. The New Horizons spacecraft continued on to Ultima Thule after passing Pluto in mid-2015. New data and images are still being received.

  • Venus Unveiled

    What does Venus look like beneath its thick clouds? These clouds keep the planet’s surface hidden from even the powerful telescopic eyes of Earth-bound astronomers. In the early 1990s, though, using imaging radar, NASA’s Venus-orbiting Magellan spacecraft was able to lift the veil from the face of Venus and produced spectacular high resolution images of the planet’s surface. Colors used in this computer generated picture of Magellan radar data are based on color images from the surface of Venus transmitted by the Soviet Venera 13 and 14 landers. The bright area running roughly across the middle represents the largest highland region of Venus known as Aphrodite Terra. Venus, on the left, is about the same size as our Earth, shown to the right for comparison.

  • Comet Iwamoto and the Sombrero Galaxy

    Comet Iwamoto (C/2018 Y1), shows off a pretty, greenish coma at the upper left in this telescopic field of view. Taken on February 4 from the Mount John Observatory, University of Canterbury, the 30 minute long total exposure time shows the comet sweeping quickly across a background of stars and distant galaxies in the constellation Virgo. The long exposure and Iwamoto’s rapid motion relative to the stars and galaxies results in the noticeable blurred streak tracing the the comet’s bright inner coma. In fact, the streaked coma gives the comet a remarkably similar appearance to Messier 104 at lower right, popularly known as the Sombrero Galaxy. The comet, a visitor to the inner Solar System, is a mere 4 light-minutes away though, while majestic Messier 104, a spiral galaxy posing edge-on, is 30 million light-years distant. The first binocular comet of 2019, Iwamoto will pass closest to Earth on February 12. This comet’s highly elliptical orbit around the Sun stretches beyond the Kuiper belt with an estimated 1,371 year orbital period. That should bring it back to the inner Solar System in 3390 AD.

  • Moon, Four Planets, and Emu

    A luminous Milky Way falls toward the horizon in this deep skyscape, starting at the top of the frame from the stars of the Southern Cross and the dark Coalsack Nebula. Captured in the dark predawn of February 2nd from Central Victoria, Australia, planet Earth, the 26 day old waning crescent Moon still shines brightly near the horizon. The second and third brightest celestial beacons are Venus and Jupiter along the lower part of the Milky Way’s central bulge. Almost in line with the brighter planets and Moon, Saturn is the pinprick of light just visible below and right of the lunar glow. Australia’s first astronomers saw the elongated, bulging shape of the familiar Milky Way as a great celestial Emu. The Moon and planets could almost be the Emu’s eggs on this starry night.

  • Fox Fur, Unicorn, and Christmas Tree

    Clouds of glowing hydrogen gas fill this colorful skyscape in the faint but fanciful constellation Monoceros, the Unicorn. A star forming region cataloged as NGC 2264, the complex jumble of cosmic gas and dust is about 2,700 light-years distant and mixes reddish emission nebulae excited by energetic light from newborn stars with dark interstellar dust clouds. Where the otherwise obscuring dust clouds lie close to the hot, young stars they also reflect starlight, forming blue reflection nebulae. The telescopic image spans about 3/4 degree or nearly 1.5 full moons, covering 40 light-years at the distance of NGC 2264. Its cast of cosmic characters includes the the Fox Fur Nebula, whose dusty, convoluted pelt lies near the top, bright variable star S Monocerotis immersed in the blue-tinted haze near center, and the Cone Nebula pointing in from the right side of the frame. Of course, the stars of NGC 2264 are also known as the Christmas Tree star cluster. The triangular tree shape is seen on its side here. Traced by brighter stars it has its apex at the Cone Nebula. The tree’s broader base is centered near S Monocerotis.

  • Moon and Venus Appulse over a Tree

    What’s that bright spot near the Moon? Venus. About a week ago, Earth’s Moon appeared unusually close to the distant planet Venus, an angular coincidence known as an appulse. Similar to a conjunction, which is a coordinate term, an appulse refers more generally to when two celestial objects appear close together. This Moon and Venus appulse — once as close as 0.05 degrees — was captured rising during the early morning behind Koko crater on the island of O’ahu in Hawaii, USA. The Moon was in a crescent phase with its lower left reflecting direct sunlight, while the rest of the Moon is seen because of Earthshine, sunlight first reflected from the Earth. Some leaves and branches of a foreground kiawe tree are seen in silhouette in front of the bright crescent, while others, in front of a darker background, appear white because of forward scattering. Appulses involving the Moon typically occur several times a year: for example the Moon is expected to pass within 0.20 degrees of distant Saturn on March 1.

  • Perijove 16: Passing Jupiter

    Watch Juno zoom past Jupiter again. NASA’s robotic spacecraft Juno is continuing on its 53-day, highly-elongated orbits around our Solar System’s largest planet. The featured video is from perijove 16, the sixteenth time that Juno has passed near Jupiter since it arrived in mid-2016. Each perijove passes near a slightly different part of Jupiter’s cloud tops. This color-enhanced video has been digitally composed from 21 JunoCam still images, resulting in a 125-fold time-lapse. The video begins with Jupiter rising as Juno approaches from the north. As Juno reaches its closest view — from about 3,500 kilometers over Jupiter’s cloud tops — the spacecraft captures the great planet in tremendous detail. Juno passes light zones and dark belt of clouds that circle the planet, as well as numerous swirling circular storms, many of which are larger than hurricanes on Earth. As Juno moves away, the remarkable dolphin-shaped cloud is visible. After the perijove, Jupiter recedes into the distance, now displaying the unusual clouds that appear over Jupiter’s south. To get desired science data, Juno swoops so close to Jupiter that its instruments are exposed to very high levels of radiation.

  • An Airglow Fan from Lake to Sky

    Why would the sky look like a giant fan? Airglow. The featured intermittent green glow appeared to rise from a lake through the arch of our Milky Way Galaxy, as captured during 2015 next to Bryce Canyon in Utah, USA. The unusual pattern was created by atmospheric gravity waves, ripples of alternating air pressure that can grow with height as the air thins, in this case about 90 kilometers up. Unlike auroras powered by collisions with energetic charged particles and seen at high latitudes, airglow is due to chemiluminescence, the production of light in a chemical reaction. More typically seen near the horizon, airglow keeps the night sky from ever being completely dark. Follow APOD on: Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter

  • LDN 1622: Dark Nebula in Orion

    The silhouette of an intriguing dark nebula inhabits this cosmic scene. Lynds’ Dark Nebula (LDN) 1622 appears against a faint background of glowing hydrogen gas only easily seen in long telescopic exposures of the region. LDN 1622 lies near the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy, close on the sky to Barnard’s Loop, a large cloud surrounding the rich complex of emission nebulae found in the Belt and Sword of Orion. But the obscuring dust of LDN 1622 is thought to be much closer than Orion’s more famous nebulae, perhaps only 500 light-years away. At that distance, this 1 degree wide field of view would span less than 10 light-years. Its foreboding appearance lends this dark expanse a popular name, the Boogeyman Nebula.

  • Twin Galaxies in Virgo

    Spiral galaxy pair NGC 4567 and NGC 4568 share this sharp cosmic vista with lonely elliptical galaxy NGC 4564. All are members of the large Virgo Galaxy Cluster. With their classic spiral arms, dust lanes, and star clusters, the eye-catching spiral pair is also known as the Butterfly Galaxies or the Siamese Twins. Very close together, the galaxy twins don’t seem to be too distorted by gravitational tides. Their giant molecular clouds are known to be colliding though and are likely fueling the formation of massive star clusters. The galaxy twins are about 52 million light-years distant, while their bright cores appear separated by about 20,000 light-years. Of course, the spiky foreground stars lie within our own Milky Way.

  • Sharpless 308: Star Bubble

    Blown by fast winds from a hot, massive star, this cosmic bubble is huge. Cataloged as Sharpless 2-308 it lies some 5,200 light-years away toward the constellation of the Big Dog (Canis Major) and covers slightly more of the sky than a Full Moon. That corresponds to a diameter of 60 light-years at its estimated distance. The massive star that created the bubble, a Wolf-Rayet star, is the bright one near the center of the nebula. Wolf-Rayet stars have over 20 times the mass of the Sun and are thought to be in a brief, pre-supernova phase of massive star evolution. Fast winds from this Wolf-Rayet star create the bubble-shaped nebula as they sweep up slower moving material from an earlier phase of evolution. The windblown nebula has an age of about 70,000 years. Relatively faint emission captured in the expansive image is dominated by the glow of ionized oxygen atoms mapped to a blue hue. SH2-308 is also known as The Dolphin Nebula.

  • Wide Field View of Great American Eclipse

    Only in the fleeting darkness of a total solar eclipse is the light of the solar corona easily visible. Normally overwhelmed by the bright solar disk, the expansive corona, the sun’s outer atmosphere, is an alluring sight. But the subtle details and extreme ranges in the corona’s brightness, although discernible to the eye, are notoriously difficult to photograph. Pictured here, however, using over 120 images and meticulous digital processing, is a detailed wide-angle image of the Sun’s corona taken during the Great American Eclipse in 2017 August. Clearly visible are intricate layers and glowing caustics of an ever changing mixture of hot gas and magnetic fields. Hundreds of stars as faint as 11th magnitude are visible behind the Moon and Sun, with Mars appearing in red on the far right. The next total eclipse of the Sun will occur on July 2 and be visible during sunset from a thin swath across Chile and Argentina.

  • Ultima Thule from New Horizons

    How do distant asteroids differ from those near the Sun? To help find out, NASA sent the robotic New Horizons spacecraft past the classical Kuiper belt object 2014 MU69, nicknamed Ultima Thule, the farthest asteroid yet visited by a human spacecraft. Zooming past the 30-km long space rock on January 1, the featured image is the highest resolution picture of Ultima Thule’s surface beamed back so far. Utima Thuli does look different than imaged asteroids of the inner Solar System, as it shows unusual surface texture, relatively few obvious craters, and nearly spherical lobes. Its shape is hypothesized to have formed from the coalescence of early Solar System rubble in into two objects — Ultima and Thule — which then spiraled together and stuck. Research will continue into understanding the origin of different surface regions on Ultima Thule, whether it has a thin atmosphere, how it obtained its red color, and what this new knowledge of the ancient Solar System tells us about the formation of our Earth.

  • The Long Gas Tail of Spiral Galaxy D100

    Why is there long red streak attached to this galaxy? The streak is made mostly of glowing hydrogen that has been systematically stripped away as the galaxy moved through the ambient hot gas in a cluster of galaxies. Specifically, the galaxy is spiral galaxy D100, and cluster is the Coma Cluster of galaxies. The red path connects to the center of D100 because the outer gas, gravitationally held less strongly, has already been stripped away by ram pressure. The extended gas tail is about 200,000 light-years long, contains about 400,000 times the mass of our Sun, and stars are forming within it. Galaxy D99, visible to D100’s lower left, appears red because it glows primarily from the light of old red stars — young blue stars can no longer form because D99 has been stripped of its star-forming gas. The featured false-color picture is a digitally enhanced composite of images from Earth-orbiting Hubble and the ground-based Subaru telescope. Studying remarkable systems like this bolsters our understanding of how galaxies evolve in clusters.

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