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Astronomy Picture of the Day, December 2012: Chapter II.

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NGC 604: Giant Stellar Nursery
Image Credit: Hubble Legacy Archive, ESA, NASA; Processing - Donald Waid
Explanation: Stars are sometimes born in the midst of chaos. About 3 million years ago in the nearby galaxy M33, a large cloud of gas spawned dense internal knots which gravitationally collapsed to form stars. NGC 604 was so large, however, it could form enough stars to make a globular cluster. Many young stars from this cloud are visible in the above image from the Hubble Space Telescope, along with what is left of the initial gas cloud. Some stars were so massive they have already evolved and exploded in a supernova. The brightest stars that are left emit light so energetic that they create one of the largest clouds of ionized hydrogen gas known, comparable to the Tarantula Nebula in our Milky Way's close neighbor, the Large Magellanic Cloud
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Milky Way Over Quiver Tree Forest
Image Credit & Copyright: Florian Breuer
Explanation: In front of a famous background of stars and galaxies lies some of Earth's more unusual trees. Known as quiver trees, they are actually succulent aloe plants that can grow to tree-like proportions. The quiver tree name is derived from the historical usefulness of their hollowed branches as dart holders. Occurring primarily in southern Africa, the trees pictured in the above 16-exposure composite are in Quiver Tree Forest located in southern Namibia. Some of the tallest quiver trees in the park are estimated to be about 300 years old. Behind the trees is light from the small town of Keetmanshoop, Namibia. Far in the distance, arching across the background, is the majestic central band of our Milky Way Galaxy. Even further in the distance, visible on the image left, are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, smaller satellite galaxies of the Milky Way that are prominent in the skies of Earth's southern hemisphere.
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Apollo 17: A Stereo View from Lunar Orbit
Image Credit: Gene Cernan, Apollo 17, NASA; Anaglyph by Patrick Vantuyne
Explanation: Get out your red/blue glasses and check out this awesome stereo view of another world. The scene was recorded by Apollo 17 mission commander Eugene Cernan on December 11, 1972, one orbit before descending to land on the Moon. The stereo anaglyph was assembled from two photographs (AS17-147-22465, AS17-147-22466) captured from his vantage point on board the Lunar Module Challenger as he and Dr. Harrison Schmitt flew over Apollo 17's landing site in the Taurus-Littrow Valley. The broad, sunlit face of the mountain dubbed South Massif rises near the center of the frame, above the dark floor of Taurus-Littrow to its left. Beyond the mountains, toward the lunar limb, lies the Moon's Mare Serenitatis. Piloted by Ron Evans, the Command Module America is visible in orbit in the foreground against the South Massif's peak.
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Umbra World
Image Credit & Copyright: Dennis L. Mammana (TWAN)
Explanation: On the morning of November 14, sky gazers from around the world gathered on this little planet to stand in the dark umbral shadow of the Moon. Of course, the Moon cast the shadow during last month's total solar eclipse, and the little planet is actually a beach on Green Island off the coast of Queensland, Australia. The picture itself, the first little planet projection of a total solar eclipse, is a digitally warped and stitched wrap-around of 8 images covering 360x180 degrees. To make it, the intrepid photographer had to remember to shoot both toward and away(!) from the eclipse during the excitement of totality. Near this little planet's horizon, the eclipsed Sun is just above center, surrounded by the glowing solar corona. Venus can be spotted in the shadow-darkened sky toward the top of the frame. At bottom right, bright star Sirius shines at the tip of an alarmingly tall tree.
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When Gemini Sends Stars to Paranal
Image Credit & Copyright: Stéphane Guisard (Los Cielos de America), TWAN
Explanation: From a radiant point in the constellation of the Twins, the annual Geminid meteor shower rained down on planet Earth this week. Recorded near the shower's peak in the early hours of December 14, this skyscape captures Gemini's lovely shooting stars in a careful composite of 30 exposures, each 20 seconds long, from the dark of the Chilean Atacama Desert over ESO's Paranal Observatory. In the foreground Paranal's four Very Large Telescopes, four Auxillary Telescopes, and the VLT Survey telescope are all open and observing. The skies above are shared with bright Jupiter (left), Orion, (top left), and the faint light of the Milky Way. Dust swept up from the orbit of active asteroid 3200 Phaethon, Gemini's meteors enter the atmosphere traveling at about 22 kilometers per second. 
 
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MWC 922: The Red Square Nebula
Image Credit & Copyright: Peter Tuthill (Sydney U.) & James Lloyd (Cornell)
Explanation: What could cause a nebula to appear square? No one is quite sure. The hot star system known as MWC 922, however, appears to be embedded in a nebula with just such a shape. The above 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.
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NGC 922: Collisional Ring Galaxy
Image Credit: NASA, ESA; Acknowledgement: Nick Rose
Explanation: Why does this galaxy have so many big black holes? No one is sure. What is sure is that NGC 922 is a ring galaxy created by the collision of a large and small galaxy about 300 million years ago. Like a rock thrown into a pond, the ancient collision sent ripples of high density gas out from the impact point near the center that partly condensed into stars. Pictured above is NGC 922 with its beautifully complex ring along the left side, as imaged recently by the Hubble Space Telescope. Observations of NGC 922 with the Chandra X-ray Observatory, however, show several glowing X-ray knots that are likely large black holes. The high number of massive black holes was somewhat surprising as the gas composition in NGC 922 -- rich in heavy elements -- should have discouraged almost anything so massive from forming. Research is sure to continue. NGC 922 spans about 75,000 light years, lies about 150 million light years away, and can be seen with a small telescope toward the constellation of the furnace (Fornax).
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A Sun Pillar Over Sweden
Image Credit & Copyright: Göran Strand
Explanation: Have you ever seen a sun pillar? When the air is cold and the Sun is rising or setting, falling ice crystals can reflect sunlight and create an unusual column of light. Ice sometimes forms flat, six-sided shaped crystals as it falls from high-level clouds. Air resistance causes these crystals to lie nearly flat much of the time as they flutter to the ground. Sunlight reflects off crystals that are properly aligned, creating the sun-pillar effect. In the above picture taken last week, a sun-pillar reflects light from a Sun setting over Östersund, Sweden.
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NGC 5189: An Unusually Complex Planetary Nebula
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
Explanation: Why is this nebula so complex? When a star like our Sun is dying, it will cast off its outer layers, usually into a simple overall shape. Sometimes this shape is a sphere, sometimes a double lobe, and sometimes a ring or a helix. In the case of planetary nebula NGC 5189, however, no such simple structure has emerged. To help find out why, the Earth-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope recently observed NGC 5189 in great detail. Previous findings indicated the existence of multiple epochs of material outflow, including a recent one that created a bright but distorted torus running horizontally across image center. Results appear consistent with a hypothesis that the dying star is part of a binary star system with a precessing symmetry axis. Given this new data, though, research is sure to continue. NGC 5189 spans about three light years and lies about 3,000 light years away toward the southern constellation of the Fly (Musca).
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M33: Triangulum Galaxy
Image Credit & Copyright: Robert Gendler, Subaru Telescope (NAOJ)
Image data: Subaru Telescope, Robert Gendler, Brigham Young University Obs., Johannes Schedler
Explanation: The small, northern constellation Triangulum harbors this magnificent face-on spiral galaxy, M33. Its popular names include the Pinwheel Galaxy or just the Triangulum Galaxy. M33 is over 50,000 light-years in diameter, third largest in the Local Group of galaxies after the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), and our own Milky Way. About 3 million light-years from the Milky Way, M33 is itself thought to be a satellite of the Andromeda Galaxy and astronomers in these two galaxies would likely have spectacular views of each other's grand spiral star systems. As for the view from planet Earth, this sharp composite image, a 25 panel mosaic, nicely shows off M33's blue star clusters and pinkish star forming regions that trace the galaxy's loosely wound spiral arms. In fact, the cavernous NGC 604 is the brightest star forming region, seen here at about the 1 o'clock position from the galaxy center. Like M31, M33's population of well-measured variable stars have helped make this nearby spiral a cosmic yardstick for establishing the distance scale of the Universe.

 
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