Explanation: Welcome to the December solstice, a day the world does not end ... even according to the Mayan Calendar. To celebrate, consider this dramatic picture of Orion rising over El Castillo, the central pyramid at Chichén Itzá, one of the great Mayan centers on the Yucatán peninsula. Also known as the Temple of Kukulkan it stands 30 meters tall and 55 meters wide at the base. Built up as a series of square terraces by the pre-Columbian civilization between the 9th and 12th century, the structure can be used as a calendar and is noted for astronomical alignments. In fact, the Mayans were accomplished astronomers and mathematicians, accurately using the cyclic motions of the stars, Sun, Moon, and planets to measure time and construct calendars. Peering through clouds in this night skyscape, stars in the modern constellation Orion the Hunter represented a turtle in the Mayan sky. Tak sáamal.
Explanation: Splendors seldom seen are revealed in this glorious picture from Saturn's shadow. Imaged by Cassini on October 17, 2012 during its 174th orbit, the ringed planet's night side is viewed from a perspective 19 degrees below the ring plane at a distance of about 800,000 kilometers with the Sun almost directly behind the planet. A 60 frame mosaic, images made with infrared, red, and violet filters were combined to create an enhanced, false-color view. Strongly backlit, the rings look bright away from the planet but dark in silhouette against the gas giant. Above center, they reflect a faint, eerie light on the cloud tops while Saturn casts its own dark shadow on the rings. A similar Cassini image from 2006 also featured planet Earth as a pale blue dot in the distance. Instead, this scene includes icy moons Enceladus (closer to the rings) and Tethys below the rings on the left.
Comet Hale-Bopp Over Val Parola Pass Image Credit & Copyright: A. Dimai, (Col Druscie Obs.), AAC
Explanation: Recognized since antiquity and depicted on the shield of Achilles according to Homer, stars of the Hyades cluster form the head of the constellation Taurus the Bull. Their general V-shape is anchored by Aldebaran, the eye of the Bull and by far the constellation's brightest star. Yellowish in appearance, red giant Aldebaran is not a Hyades cluster member, though. Modern astronomy puts the Hyades cluster 151 light-years away making it the nearest established open star cluster, while Aldebaran lies at less than half that distance, along the same line-of-sight. Along with colorful Hyades stars, this stellar holiday portrait locates Aldebaran just below center, as well as another open star cluster in Taurus, NGC 1647 at the left, some 2,000 light-years or more in the background. Just slide your cursor over the image to identify the stars. The central Hyades stars are spread out over about 15 light-years. Formed some 800 million years ago, the Hyades star cluster may share a common origin with M44 (Praesepe), a naked-eye open star cluster in Cancer, based on M44's motion through space and remarkably similar age.
Explanation: In this evocative night skyscape a starry band of the Milky Way climbs over Yosemite Valley, Sierra Nevada Range, planet Earth. Jupiter is the brightest celestial beacon on the wintry scene, though. Standing nearly opposite the Sun in the constellation Taurus, the wandering planet joins yellowish Aldebaran and the Hyades star cluster. Below, Orion always comes up sideways over a fence of mountains. And from there the twin stars of Gemini rise just across the Milky Way. As this peaceful winter night began, they followed Auriga the charioteer, its alpha star Capella near the top of the frame.
Explanation: Fantastic shapes lurk in clouds of glowing hydrogen gas in NGC 6188, about 4,000 light-years away. The emission nebula is found near the edge of a large molecular cloud unseen at visible wavelengths, in the southern constellation Ara. Massive, young stars of the embedded Ara OB1 association were formed in that region only a few million years ago, sculpting the dark shapes and powering the nebular glow with stellar winds and intense ultraviolet radiation. The recent star formation itself was likely triggered by winds and supernova explosions, from previous generations of massive stars, that swept up and compressed the molecular gas. Joining NGC 6188 on this cosmic canvas is rare emission nebula NGC 6164, also created by one of the region's massive O-type stars. Similar in appearance to many planetary nebulae, NGC 6164's striking, symmetric gaseous shroud and faint halo surround its bright central star at the lower right. The field of view spans about two full Moons, corresponding to 70 light years at the estimated distance of NGC 6188.
along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.
Explanation: Like a ship plowing through cosmic seas, runaway star Zeta Ophiuchi produces the arcing interstellar bow wave or bow shock seen in this stunning infrared portrait. In the false-color view, bluish Zeta Oph, a star about 20 times more massive than the Sun, lies near the center of the frame, moving toward the left at 24 kilometers per second. Its strong stellar wind precedes it, compressing and heating the dusty interstellar material and shaping the curved shock front. Around it are clouds of relatively undisturbed material. What set this star in motion? Zeta Oph was likely once a member of a binary star system, its companion star was more massive and hence shorter lived. When the companion exploded as a supernova catastrophically losing mass, Zeta Oph was flung out of the system. About 460 light-years away, Zeta Oph is 65,000 times more luminous than the Sun and would be one of the brighter stars in the sky if it weren't surrounded by obscuring dust. The image spans about 1.5 degrees or 12 light-years at the estimated distance of Zeta Ophiuchi.
Explanation: What do Saturn's rings look like from the dark side? From Earth, we usually see Saturn's rings from the same side of the ring plane that the Sun illuminates them -- one might call this the bright side. Geometrically, in the above picture taken in August by the robot Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn, the Sun is behind the camera but on the other side of the ring plane. Such a vantage point gives a breathtaking views of the most splendid ring system in the Solar System. Strangely, the rings have similarities to a photographic negative of a front view. For example, the dark band in the middle is actually the normally bright B-ring. The ring brightness as recorded from different angles indicates ring thickness and particle density of ring particles. At the top left of the frame is Saturn's moon Tethys, which although harder to find, contains much more mass than the entire ring system.
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