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Astronomy Picture of the Dayoffline

  • 1901 Photograph: The Orion Nebula

    By the turn of the 20th century advances in photography contributed an important tool for astronomers. Improving photographic materials, long exposures, and new telescope designs produced astronomical images with details not visible at the telescopic eyepiece alone. Remarkably recognizable to astrophotographers today, this stunning image of the star forming Orion Nebula was captured in 1901 by American astronomer and telescope designer George Ritchey. The original glass photographic plate, sensitive to green and blue wavelengths, has been digitized and light-to-dark inverted to produce a positive image. His hand written notes indicate a 50 minute long exposure that ended at dawn and a reflecting telescope aperture of 24 inches masked to 18 inches to improve the sharpness of the recorded image. Ritchey’s plates from over a hundred years ago preserve astronomical data and can still be used for exploring astrophysical processes.

  • The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula in Cepheus

    Like an illustration in a galactic Just So Story, the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula winds through the emission nebula and young star cluster complex IC 1396, in the high and far off constellation of Cepheus. Also known as vdB 142, the cosmic elephant’s trunk is over 20 light-years long. This colorful close-up view was recorded through narrow band filters that transmit the light from ionized hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen atoms in the region. The resulting composite highlights the bright swept-back ridges that outline pockets of cool interstellar dust and gas. Such embedded, dark, tendril-shaped clouds contain the raw material for star formation and hide protostars within. Nearly 3,000 light-years distant, the relatively faint IC 1396 complex covers a large region on the sky, spanning over 5 degrees. The dramatic scene spans a 1 degree wide field, about the size of 2 Full Moons.

  • The Perseids and the Plough

    Despite interfering moonlight, many denizens of planet Earth were able to watch this year’s Perseid meteor shower. This pastoral scene includes local skygazers admiring the shower’s brief, heavenly flashes in predawn hours near peak activity on August 13 from Nalati Grassland in Xinjiang, China. A composite, the image registers seven frames taken during a two hour span recording Perseid meteor streaks against a starry sky. Centered along the horizon is the Plough, the north’s most famous asterism, though some might see the familiar celestial kitchen utensil known as the Big Dipper. Perhaps the year’s most easily enjoyed meteor shower, Perseid meteors are produced as Earth itself sweeps through dust from periodic comet Swift-Tuttle. The dust particles are vaporized at altitudes of 100 kilometers or so as they plow through the atmosphere at 60 kilometers per second.

  • Saturn Behind the Moon

    What’s that next to the Moon? Saturn. In its monthly trip around the Earth — and hence Earth’s sky — our Moon passed nearly in front of Sun-orbiting Saturn earlier this week. Actually the Moon passed directly in front of Saturn from the viewpoints of a wide swath of Earth’s Southern Hemisphere. The featured image from Sydney, Australia captured the pair a few minutes before the eclipse. The image was a single shot lasting only 1/500th of a second, later processed to better highlight both the Moon and Saturn. Since Saturn is nearly opposite the Sun, it can be seen nearly the entire night, starting at sunset, toward the south and east. The gibbous Moon was also nearly opposite the Sun, and so also visible nearly the entire night — it will be full tomorrow night. The Moon will occult Saturn again during every lap it makes around the Earth this year.

  • Supernova Cannon Expels Pulsar J0002

    What could shoot out a neutron star like a cannon ball? A supernova. About 10,000 years ago, the supernova that created the nebular remnant CTB 1 not only destroyed a massive star but blasted its newly formed neutron star core — a pulsar — out into the Milky Way Galaxy. The pulsar, spinning 8.7 times a second, was discovered using downloadable software Einstein@Home searching through data taken by NASA’s orbiting Fermi Gamma-Ray Observatory. Traveling over 1,000 kilometers per second, the pulsar PSR J0002+6216 (J0002 for short) has already left the supernova remnant CTB 1, and is even fast enough to leave our Galaxy. Pictured, the trail of the pulsar is visible extending to the lower left of the supernova remnant. The featured image is a combination of radio images from the VLA and DRAO radio observatories, as well as data archived from NASA’s orbiting IRAS infrared observatory. It is well known that supernovas can act as cannons, and even that pulsars can act as cannonballs — what is not known is how supernovas do it.

  • Perseid Meteors over Slovakia

    Tonight is a good night to see meteors. Comet dust will rain down on planet Earth, streaking through dark skies during the peak of the annual Perseid Meteor Shower. The featured composite image was taken during last year’s Perseids from the Poloniny Dark Sky Park in Slovakia. The unusual building in the foreground is a planetarium on the grounds of Kolonica Observatory. Although the comet dust particles travel parallel to each other, the resulting shower meteors clearly seem to radiate from a single point on the sky in the eponymous constellation Perseus. The radiant effect is due to perspective, as the parallel tracks appear to converge at a distance, like train tracks. The Perseid Meteor Shower is expected to peak after midnight tonight, although unfortunately this year the sky will be brightened by a near full Moon.

  • Arp 87: Merging Galaxies from Hubble

    This dance is to the death. Along the way, as these two large galaxies duel, a cosmic bridge of stars, gas, and dust currently stretches over 75,000 light-years and joins them. The bridge itself is strong evidence that these two immense star systems have passed close to each other and experienced violent tides induced by mutual gravity. As further evidence, the face-on spiral galaxy on the right, also known as NGC 3808A, exhibits many young blue star clusters produced in a burst of star formation. The twisted edge-on spiral on the left (NGC 3808B) seems to be wrapped in the material bridging the galaxies and surrounded by a curious polar ring. Together, the system is known as Arp 87 and morphologically classified, technically, as peculiar. While such interactions are drawn out over billions of years, repeated close passages should ultimately result in the death of one galaxy in the sense that only one galaxy will eventually result. Although this scenario does look peculiar, galactic mergers are thought to be common, with Arp 87 representing a stage in this inevitable process. The Arp 87 pair are about 300 million light-years distant toward the constellation Leo. The prominent edge-on spiral galaxy at the far left appears to be a more distant background galaxy and not involved in the on-going merger.

  • 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). Watch: Perseid Meteor Shower

  • Atlas at Dawn

    This single, 251-second long exposure follows the early flight of an Atlas V rocket on August 8, streaking eastward toward the dawn from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, planet Earth. The launch of the United Launch Alliance rocket was at 6:13am local time. Sunrise was not until 6:48am, but the rocket’s downrange plume at altitude is brightly lit by the Sun still just below the eastern horizon. Waters of the Indian River Lagoon in Palm Shores, Forida reflect subtle colors and warming glow of the otherwise calm, predawn sky. The mighty Atlas rocket carried a military communications satellite into Earth orbit. Of course, this weekend the streaks you see in clear skies before the dawn could be Perseid Meteors. Watch: Perseid Meteor Shower

  • Curiosity at Teal Ridge

    Part of a 360 degree panorama, this view looks out from the Mars rover Curiosity’s current location on the Red Planet dubbed Teal Ridge. The mosaicked scene was captured by the rover’s Mastcam on Earth calendar date June 18, 2019. That corresponds to Curiosity’s sol 2440, or 2,440th martian day on the surface. Since landing seven years ago on August 6, 2012 in Gale Crater, Curiosity has traveled some 21 kilometers (13 miles). On the right, the rover’s tracks lead back toward Vera Rubin Ridge with the Gale Crater rim visible in the distance. The robotic rover leaves wheel tracks about 3 meters (10 feet) apart. During its mission, Curiosity has had great successes exploring the history of water in the martian environment. In fact, NASA’s Mars 2020 rover is largely based on the Mars Curiosity rover design. Watch: Perseid Meteor Shower

  • Jupiter Engulfed and the Milky Way

    This is a good month to see Jupiter. To find our Solar System’s largest planet in your sky, look toward the southeast just after sunset — Jupiter should be the brightest object in that part of the sky. If you have a binoculars or a small telescope, you should be able to see Jupiter’s four brightest moons right nearby, and possibly some cloud bands. The featured image was taken about a month ago from the Persian Gulf. The image shows Jupiter just to the right of the nearly vertical band of the central disk of our Milky Way Galaxy. The unnamed rock formations appear in projection like the jaws of a giant monster ready to engulf the Jovian giant. When you see Jupiter, it may be interesting to know that NASA’s robotic Juno spacecraft is simultaneously visiting and studying the giant planet. Saturn is also visible this month, and although it is nearby to Jupiter, it is not as bright.

  • The Local Void in the Nearby Universe

    What does our region of the Universe look like? Since galaxies are so spread out over the sky, and since our Milky Way Galaxy blocks part of the distant sky, it has been hard to tell. A new map has been made, however, using large-scale galaxy motions to infer what massive objects must be gravitating in the nearby universe. The featured map, spanning over 600 million light years on a side, shows that our Milky Way Galaxy is on the edge of the Virgo Cluster of Galaxies, which is connected to the Great Attractor — an even larger grouping of galaxies. Also nearby are the massive Coma Cluster and the extensive Perseus-Pisces Supercluster. Conversely, we are also on the edge of huge region nearly empty of galaxies known as the Local Void. The repulsive push by the Local Void combined with the gravitational pull toward the elevated galaxy density on the other side of the sky explains part of the mysteriously high speed our Galaxy has relative to the cosmic microwave background — but not all. To explore the local universe yourself, as determined by Cosmicflows-3, you are invited to zoom in and spin around this interactive 3D visualization.

  • A Total Solar Eclipse Reflected

    If you saw a total solar eclipse, would you do a double-take? One astrophotographer did just that — but it took a lake and a bit of planning. Realizing that the eclipse would be low on the horizon, he looked for a suitable place along the thin swath of South America that would see, for a few minutes, the Moon completely block the Sun, both directly and in reflection. The day before totality, he visited a lake called La Cuesta Del Viento (The Slope of the Wind) and, despite its name, found so little wind that the lake looked like a mirror. Perfect. Returning the day of the eclipse, though, there was a strong breeze churning up the water — enough to ruin the eclipse reflection shot. Despair. But wait! Strangely, about an hour before totality, the wind died down. This calmness may have been related to the eclipse itself, because eclipsed ground heats the air less and reduces the amount rising warm air — which can dampen and even change the wind direction. The eclipse came, his tripod and camera were ready, and so was the lake. The featured image of this double-eclipse came from a single exposure lasting just one fifteenth of a second. Soon after totality, the winds returned and the water again became choppy. No matter — this double-image of the 2019 July total solar eclipse had been captured forever.

  • Rumors of a Dark Universe

    Twenty-one years ago results were first presented indicating that most of the energy in our universe is not in stars or galaxies but is tied to space itself. In the language of cosmologists, a large cosmological constant — dark energy — was directly implied by new distant supernova observations. Suggestions of a cosmological constant were not new — they have existed since the advent of modern relativistic cosmology. Such claims were not usually popular with astronomers, though, because dark energy was so unlike known universe components, because dark energy’s abundance appeared limited by other observations, and because less-strange cosmologies without a signficant amount of dark energy had previously done well in explaining the data. What was exceptional here was the seemingly direct and reliable method of the observations and the good reputations of the scientists conducting the investigations. Over the two decades, independent teams of astronomers have continued to accumulate data that appears to confirm the existence of dark energy and the unsettling result of a presently accelerating universe. In 2011, the team leaders were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work. The featured picture of a supernova that occurred in 1994 on the outskirts of a spiral galaxy was taken by one of these collaborations. News: APOD is now available via Facebook in Hindi.

  • Mimas in Saturnlight

    Peering from the shadows, the Saturn-facing hemisphere of Mimas lies in near darkness alongside a dramatic sunlit crescent. The mosaic was captured near the Cassini spacecraft’s final close approach on January 30, 2017. Cassini’s camera was pointed in a nearly sunward direction only 45,000 kilometers from Mimas. The result is one of the highest resolution views of the icy, crater-pocked, 400 kilometer diameter moon. An enhanced version better reveals the Saturn-facing hemisphere of the synchronously rotating moon lit by sunlight reflected from Saturn itself. To see it, slide your cursor over the image (or follow this link). Other Cassini images of Mimas include the small moon’s large and ominous Herschel Crater.

  • Chamaeleon II Dark Cloud

    A small constellation hiding near the south celestial pole, The Chamaeleon boasts no bright stars. Stars are forming within its constellation boundaries though, in a complex of dark, dusty molecular clouds. Some 500 light-years distant, the Chamaeleon II dark nebula inhabits this view where the cosmic dust clouds standout mostly in silhouette against the starry southern sky. The telescopic frame is about the angular size of a Full Moon and so spans about 5 light-years at the dark cloud’s estimated distance. Scattered near center a telltale reddish glow from identified Herbig-Haro objects is seen in the sharp image, jets of shocked glowing gas emanating from recently formed stars.

  • Elements in the Aftermath

    Massive stars spend their brief lives furiously burning nuclear fuel. Through fusion at extreme temperatures and densities surrounding the stellar core, nuclei of light elements ike Hydrogen and Helium are combined to heavier elements like Carbon, Oxygen, etc. in a progression which ends with Iron. So a supernova explosion, a massive star’s inevitable and spectacular demise, blasts back into space debris enriched in heavier elements to be incorporated into other stars and planets and people). This detailed false-color x-ray image from the orbiting Chandra Observatory shows such a hot, expanding stellar debris cloud about 36 light-years across. Cataloged as G292.0+1.8, this young supernova remnant is about 20,000 light-years distant toward the southern constellation Centaurus. Light from the inital supernova explosion reached Earth an estimated 1,600 years ago. Bluish colors highlight filaments of the mulitmillion degree gas which are exceptionally rich in Oxygen, Neon, and Magnesium. This enriching supernova also produced a pulsar in its aftermath, a rotating neutron star remnant of the collapsed stellar core. The stunning image was released as part of the 20th anniversary celebration of the Chandra X-ray Observatory.

  • IC 1795: The Fishhead Nebula

    To some, this nebula looks like the head of a fish. However, this colorful cosmic portrait really features glowing gas and obscuring dust clouds in IC 1795, a star forming region in the northern constellation Cassiopeia. The nebula’s colors were created by adopting the Hubble color palette for mapping narrow emission from oxygen, hydrogen, and sulfur atoms to blue, green and red colors, and further blending the data with images of the region recorded through broadband filters. Not far on the sky from the famous Double Star Cluster in Perseus, IC 1795 is itself located next to IC 1805, the Heart Nebula, as part of a complex of star forming regions that lie at the edge of a large molecular cloud. Located just over 6,000 light-years away, the larger star forming complex sprawls along the Perseus spiral arm of our Milky Way Galaxy. At that distance, this picture would span about 70 light-years across IC 1795. Astrophysicists: Browse 2,000+ codes in the Astrophysics Source Code Library

  • Star Forming Region NGC 3582 without Stars

    What’s happening in the Statue of Liberty nebula? Bright stars and interesting molecules are forming and being liberated. The complex nebula resides in the star forming region called RCW 57, and besides the iconic monument, to some looks like a flying superhero or a weeping angel. By digitally removing the stars, this image showcases dense knots of dark interstellar dust, fields of glowing hydrogen gas ionized by these stars, and great loops of gas expelled by dying stars. A detailed study of NGC 3576, also known as NGC 3582 and NGC 3584, uncovered at least 33 massive stars in the end stages of formation, and the clear presence of the complex carbon molecules known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). PAHs are thought to be created in the cooling gas of star forming regions, and their development in the Sun’s formation nebula five billion years ago may have been an important step in the development of life on Earth. Follow APOD in English on: Instagram, Facebook, Reddit, or Twitter

  • Lightning over the Volcano of Water

    Have you ever watched a lightning storm in awe? Join the crowd. Details of what causes lightning are still being researched, but it is known that inside some clouds, internal updrafts cause collisions between ice and snow that slowly separate charges between cloud tops and bottoms The rapid electrical discharges that are lightning soon result. Lightning usually takes a jagged course, rapidly heating a thin column of air to about three times the surface temperature of the Sun. The resulting shock wave starts supersonically and decays into the loud sound known as thunder. On average, around the world, about 6,000 lightning bolts occur between clouds and the Earth every minute. Pictured earlier this month in a two-image composite, lightning stems from communication antennas near the top of Volcรกn de Agua (Volcano of Water) in Guatemala.

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