Astronomy Picture of the Day for April 15 – A Possibly Titanic Mirage

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Discover the cosmos!Each day a different image or photograph of our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.

2012 April 15
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Fata Morgana: A Possibly Titanic Mirage
Image Credit & Copyright: Mila Zinkova

 

 Explanation: Did this mirage help sink the Titanic? The optical phenomenon called Fata Morgana can make strange shapes or a false wall of water appear above a watery horizon. When conditions are right, light reflecting off of cold water will be bent by an unusual layer of warm air above to arrive at the observer from several different angles. A conceptually comparable mirage can make a setting Sun appear strangely distorted or a distant pavement appear wet. One hundred years ago today, such a Fata Morgana mirage might have obscured real icebergs from the clear view of crew onboard the Titanic. Additional evidence for this distortion hypothesis arises from the nearby vessel SS Californian which reported sightings consistent with Fata Morgana mirages. The above Fata Morgana mirage was taken off the US Pacific coast in 2008.

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Astronomy Picture of the Day for April 12 – A Beautiful Trifid

Astronomy Picture of the Day

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A Beautiful Trifid
Image Credit & Copyright: R Jay Gabany Explanation: The beautiful Trifid Nebula is a cosmic study in colorful contrasts. Also known as M20, it lies about 5,000 light-years away toward the nebula rich constellation Sagittarius. A star forming region in the plane of our galaxy, the Trifid illustrates three different types of astronomical nebulae; red emission nebulae dominated by light emitted by hydrogen atoms, blue reflection nebulae produced by dust reflecting starlight, and dark nebulae where dense dust clouds appear in silhouette. The bright red emission region, roughly separated into three parts by obscuring, dark dust lanes, lends the Trifid its popular name. In this well met scene, the red emission is also juxtaposed with the telltale blue haze of reflection nebulae. Pillars and jets sculpted by newborn stars, below and left of the emission nebula’s center, appear in Hubble Space Telescope close-up images of the region. The Trifid Nebula is about 40 light-years across.

Astronomy Picture of the Day for April 9th

Astronomy Picture of the Day

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2012 April 9
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Blue Straggler Stars in Globular Cluster M53
Image Credit: ESA/Hubble, NASA 

Explanation: If our Sun were part of M53, the night sky would glow like a jewel box of bright stars. M53, also known as NGC 5024, is one of about 250 globular clusters that survive in our Galaxy. Most of the stars in M53 are older and redder than our Sun, but some enigmatic stars appear to be bluer and younger. These young stars might contradict the hypothesis that all the stars in M53 formed at nearly the same time. These unusual stars are known as blue stragglers and are unusually common in M53. After much debate, blue stragglers are now thought to be stars rejuvenated by fresh matter falling in from a binary star companion. By analyzing pictures of globular clusters like the above image taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers use the abundance of stars like blue stragglers to help determine the age of the globular cluster and hence a limit on the age of the universe. M53, visible with a binoculars towards the constellation of Bernice’s Hair (Coma Berenices), contains over 250,000 stars and is one of the furthest globulars from the center of our Galaxy.

Astronomy Picture of the Day for March 28th

Astronomy Picture of the Day

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2012 March 28
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Earthshine and Venus Over Sierra de Guadarrama
Image Credit: Daniel Fernández (DANIKXT)  

 

Explanation: What just above that ridge? The Moon. Specifically, the Earth’s Moon was caught just above the horizon in a young crescent phase. The familiar Moon might look a bit odd as the exposure shows significant Earthshine — the illumination of the part of the Moon hidden from direct sunlight by the sun-reflecting Earth. Also captured in the image is the bright planet Venus on the right. Venus and Jupiter passed only three degrees from each other last week during a photogenic planetary conjunction. The above image was taken two days ago near Madrid, Spain. The foreground horizon silhouette includes some of the Seven Peaks of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountain range. Just a few minutes after this picture was taken, the Moon set.

Astronomy Picture of the Day for March 21

Astronomy Picture of the Day

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2012 March 21
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Aurora Over Iceland
Image Credit & Copyright: Daniel Lopez (El Cielo de Canarias)  

 

Explanation: If you see a sky like this — photograph it. Three nights ago in Iceland, an adventurous photographer (pictured) chanced across a sky full of aurora and did just that. Afterwards, by stitching together five smaller photographs, the entire aurora-lit sky was recreated in this 180-degree panorama taken from Vatnajökull glacier. Auroras are sparked by energetic particles from the Sun impacting the magnetic environment around the Earth. Resultant energetic particles such as electrons and protons rain down near the Earth’s poles and impact the air. The impacted air molecules obtain excited electrons, and when electrons in oxygen molecules fall back to their ground state, they emit green light. Auroras are known to have many shapes and colors.

Astronomy Picture of the Day for Mar. 7 – The Witch Head Nebula

Astronomy Picture of the Day

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IC 2118: The Witch Head Nebula
Image Credit & Copyright: Gimmi Ratto & Davide Bardini (Collecting Photons) 

Explanation: Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble — maybe Macbeth should have consulted the Witch Head Nebula. This suggestively shaped reflection nebula is associated with the bright star Rigel in the constellation Orion. More formally known as IC 2118, the Witch Head Nebula glows primarily by light reflected from bright star Rigel, located just below the lower edge of the above image. Fine dust in the nebula reflects the light. The blue color is caused not only by Rigel’s blue color but because the dust grains reflect blue light more efficiently than red. The same physical process causes Earth’s daytime sky to appear blue, although the scatterers in Earth’s atmosphere are molecules of nitrogen and oxygen. The nebula lies about 1000 light-years away.

Astronomy Picture of the Day for Feb. 23 – A Zodiacal Skyscape

Astronomy Picture of the Day

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2012 February 23
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A Zodiacal Skyscape
Image Credit & Copyright: Jack Fusco 

Explanation: Venus and Jupiter are this month’s two brightest planets. Shortly after sunset on February 20, they dominate the sky above the western horizon and this snowy landscape. In clear and transparent skies over Cherry Springs State Park, Pennsylvania, USA, they are also seen immersed in Zodiacal light. The extended, diffuse, triangular glow is sunlight scattered by dust along the plane of the ecliptic. Brighter near the horizon, the Zodiacal glow angles upward, first to Venus and then to Jupiter hugging the ecliptic as they orbit the Sun. Fading even further, the glow stretches toward the lovely Pleides star cluster near the top of the frame. Following their appearance in this Zodiacal skyscape, the coming days will see Venus and Jupiter sharing the early evening sky with a young crescent Moon. The two bright planets are even headed for a close pairing or conjunction, separated by about 3 degrees on March 13.

Astronomy Picture of the Day for February 11

Astronomy Picture of the Day

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2012 January 17
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IC 2118: The Witch Head Nebula
Image Credit & Copyright: Gimmi Ratto & Davide Bardini (Collecting Photons) 

 

Explanation: Double, double toil and trouble; Fire burn, and cauldron bubble — maybe Macbeth should have consulted the Witch Head Nebula. This suggestively shaped reflection nebula is associated with the bright star Rigel in the constellation Orion. More formally known as IC 2118, the Witch Head Nebula glows primarily by light reflected from bright star Rigel, located just below the lower edge of the above image. Fine dust in the nebula reflects the light. The blue color is caused not only by Rigel’s blue color but because the dust grains reflect blue light more efficiently than red. The same physical process causes Earth’s daytime sky to appear blue, although the scatterers in Earth’s atmosphere are molecules of nitrogen and oxygen. The nebula lies about 1000 light-years away.

Astronomy Picture of the Day for Thursday, Feb. 9th

Astronomy Picture of the Day

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Nobels for a Strange Universe
Image Credit: High-Z Supernova Search Team, HST, NASA

 

Explanation: Thirteen 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 is directly implied by new distant supernova observations. Suggestions of a cosmological constant (lambda) were not new — they have existed since the advent of modern relativistic cosmology. Such claims were not usually popular with astronomers, though, because lambda is so unlike known universe components, because lambda’s value appeared limited by other observations, and because less-strange cosmologies without lambda had previously done well in explaining the data. What is noteworthy here is the seemingly direct and reliable method of the observations and the good reputations of the scientists conducting the investigations. Over the past thirteen years, 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. This year, the team leaders were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work. The above picture of a supernova that occurred in 1994 on the outskirts of a spiral galaxy was taken by one of these collaborations.

Astronomy Picture of the Day for February 8

Astronomy Picture of the Day

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2012 February 8
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Enceladus Backlit by Saturn
Image Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA; Color Composite: Gordan Ugarkovic 

Explanation: This moon is shining by the light of its planet. Specifically, a large portion of Enceladus pictured above is illuminated primarily by sunlight first reflected from the planet Saturn. The result is that the normally snow-white moon appears in the gold color of Saturn’s cloud tops. As most of the illumination comes from the image left, a labyrinth of ridges throws notable shadows just to the right of the image center, while the kilometer-deep canyon Labtayt Sulci is visible just below. The bright thin crescent on the far right is the only part of Enceladus directly lit by the Sun. The above image was taken last year by the robotic Cassini spacecraft during a close pass by by the enigmatic moon. Inspection of the lower part of this digitally sharpened image reveals plumes of ice crystals thought to originate in a below-surface sea.