November 17, 2012

Dying Star Creates Fantasy-like Sculpture of Gas and Dust

In this detailed view from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, the so-called Cat's Eye Nebula looks like the penetrating eye of the disembodied sorcerer Sauron from the film adaptation of "The Lord of the Rings."

The nebula, formally cataloged NGC 6543, is every bit as inscrutable as the J.R.R. Tolkien phantom character. Though the Cat's Eye Nebula was one of the first planetary nebulae to be discovered, it is one of the most complex such nebulae seen in space. A planetary nebula forms when Sun-like stars gently eject their outer gaseous layers that form bright nebulae with amazing and confounding shapes.

In 1994, Hubble first revealed NGC 6543's surprisingly intricate structures, including concentric gas shells, jets of high-speed gas, and unusual shock-induced knots of gas.

As if the Cat's Eye itself isn't spectacular enough, this new image taken with Hubble's Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS) reveals the full beauty of a bull's eye pattern of eleven or even more concentric rings, or shells, around the Cat's Eye. Each 'ring' is actually the edge of a spherical bubble seen projected onto the sky — that's why it appears bright along its outer edge.

Observations suggest the star ejected its mass in a series of pulses at 1,500-year intervals. These convulsions created dust shells, each of which contain as much mass as all of the planets in our solar system combined (still only one percent of the Sun's mass). These concentric shells make a layered, onion-skin structure around the dying star. The view from Hubble is like seeing an onion cut in half, where each skin layer is discernible.

Until recently, it was thought that such shells around planetary nebulae were a rare phenomenon. However, Romano Corradi (Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes, Spain) and collaborators, in a paper published in the European journal Astronomy and Astrophysics in April 2004, have instead shown that the formation of these rings is likely to be the rule rather than the exception.

The bull's-eye patterns seen around planetary nebulae come as a surprise to astronomers because they had no expectation that episodes of mass loss at the end of stellar lives would repeat every 1,500 years. Several explanations have been proposed, including cycles of magnetic activity somewhat similar to our own Sun's sunspot cycle, the action of companion stars orbiting around the dying star, and stellar pulsations. Another school of thought is that the material is ejected smoothly from the star, and the rings are created later on due to formation of waves in the outflowing material. It will take further observations and more theoretical studies to decide between these and other possible explanations.

Approximately 1,000 years ago the pattern of mass loss suddenly changed, and the Cat's Eye Nebula started forming inside the dusty shells. It has been expanding ever since, as discernible in comparing Hubble images taken in 1994, 1997, 2000, and 2002. The puzzle is what caused this dramatic change? Many aspects of the process that leads a star to lose its gaseous envelope are still poorly known, and the study of planetary nebulae is one of the few ways to recover information about these last few thousand years in the life of a Sun-like star.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, HEIC, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
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November 16, 2012

Aurora over Akaa

Aurora Akaa

Akaa, Finland
September 20, 2012

Image Credit & Copyright: Tom Eklund

Sakurajima Volcano with Lightning

Sakurajima Volcano Lightning

Why does a volcanic eruption sometimes create lightning? In this picture, the Sakurajima volcano in southern Japan was caught erupting early January 2010. Magma bubbles so hot they glow shoot away as liquid rock bursts through the Earth's surface from below. This image is particularly notable, however, for the lightning bolts caught near the volcano's summit. Why lightning occurs even in common thunderstorms remains a topic of research, and the cause of volcanic lightning is even less clear. Surely, lightning bolts help quench areas of opposite but separated electric charges. One hypothesis holds that catapulting magma bubbles or volcanic ash are themselves electrically charged, and by their motion create these separated areas. Other volcanic lightning episodes may be facilitated by charge-inducing collisions in volcanic dust. Lightning is usually occurring somewhere on Earth, typically over 40 times each second.

Image Credit & Copyright: Martin Rietze
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November 15, 2012

Milky Way over the Bungle Bungles

Which part of this picture do you find more interesting -- the land or the sky? Advocates for the land might cite the beauty of the ancient domes of the Bungle Bungle Range in Western Australia. These picturesque domes appear as huge layered beehives and are made of sandstones and conglomerates deposited over 350 million years ago. Advocates for the sky might laud the beauty of the Milky Way central band shown arching from horizon to horizon. The photogenic Milky Way band formed over 10 billion years ago and now includes many well-known nebulae and bright stars. Fortunately, you don't have to decide and can enjoy both together in this beautiful 8-frame panorama taken from the dark skies of Purnululu National Park about two months ago.

Image Credit & Copyright: Mike Salway
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November 14, 2012

Do you see what they see?

Only two sets of people can fly around the entire world in one night. One is rumored to reside at the North Pole; the others live on the International Space Station (ISS). And for all of them, the night-lit view of the planet is simply extraordinary.

While orbiting over the Gulf of Mexico on November 24, 2011, Expedition 30 astronauts captured this digital photograph of Florida, Georgia, and the Southeastern U.S. coast. The region is very popular with tourists escaping cold northern winters or visiting retired family members who settle in the warmer climate.

The image is part of a time series taken between 07:30 and 07:59 Universal Time (2:30 to 2:59 a.m. U.S. Eastern Time), as the ISS passed from the tropical Pacific Ocean to the Canadian Maritimes. (A link to the movie is just below the image above.) The series starts when the ISS was near the equator; then passes over Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, and the Yucatan Peninsula; across the Gulf of Mexico (with Cuba on the right); over the Sunshine State; and up the U.S. East Coast over the North Atlantic Ocean. The video ends with ISS just east of Newfoundland. A collection of similar time-lapse ISS flight paths can be viewed by visiting the Crew Earth Observations Videos page.

If you happened to be flying a reindeer-harnessed sleigh through the sky on December 24th and 25th, the view might look pretty similar to what the ISS crew witnessed. You can follow such a holiday flight by visiting the NORAD tracking page, where satellites, fighter jets, and radar stations provide airborne reconnaissance for the jolly sleigh-rider in the red suit—who has special clearance one night per year.

Image Credit: NASA
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Red and Purple Aurora over Southern Coast of Australia

Red Purple Aurora

Victoria, Australia
January 22, 2012

Image Credit & Copyright: Alex Cherney

Aurora over Tromsø

Tromsø, Norway
November 14, 2012

Image Credit & Copyright: Ole C. Salomonsen

Three Arches above Utah

Milky Way Galaxy - Arches National Park

How many arches can you count in this image? If you count both spans of the Double Arch in the Arches National Park in Utah, USA, then two. But since this image was taken during a clear dark night, it caught a photogenic third arch far in the distance - that of the overreaching Milky Way Galaxy. Because we are situated in the midst of the spiral Milky Way Galaxy, the band of the central disk appears all around us. The sandstone arches of the Double Arch were formed from the erosion of falling water. The larger arch rises over 30 meters above the surrounding salt bed and spans close to 50 meters across. The dark silhouettes across the image bottom are sandstone monoliths left over from silt-filled crevices in an evaporated 300 million year old salty sea. A dim flow created by light pollution from Moab, Utah can also be seen in the distance.

Image Credit & Copyright: Brad Goldpaint
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November 13, 2012

Looking Back at an Eclipsed Earth

Here is what the Earth looks like during a solar eclipse. The shadow of the Moon can be seen darkening part of Earth. This shadow moved across the Earth at nearly 2000 kilometers per hour. Only observers near the center of the dark circle see a total solar eclipse - others see a partial eclipse where only part of the Sun appears blocked by the Moon. This spectacular picture of the 1999 August 11 solar eclipse was one of the last ever taken from the Mir space station. The two bright spots that appear on the upper left are thought to be Jupiter and Saturn. Mir was deorbited in a controlled re-entry in 2001.

Image Credit: Mir 27 Crew; Copyright: CNES
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Lightning over Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania, USA
November 12, 2012

Image Credit & Copyright: Ron Shawley

November 12, 2012

Waterfall, Moonbow, and Aurora from Iceland

Waterfall Aurora Iceland

The longer you look at this image, the more you see. Perhaps your eye is first drawn to the picturesque waterfall called Skogarfoss visible on the image right. Just as prevalent, however, in this Icelandic visual extravaganza, is the colorful arc of light on the left. This chromatic bow is not a rainbow, since the water drops did not originate in rainfall nor are they reflecting light from the Sun. Rather, the drops have drifted off from the waterfall and are now illuminated by the nearlyfull Moon. High above are the faint green streaks of aurora. The scene, captured in October 2011, also shows a beautiful starscape far in the background, including the Big Dipper, part of the constellation of the Great Bear (Ursa Major).

Image Credit & Copyright: Stephane Vetter
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November 11, 2012

The Helix Nebula

This colour-composite image of the Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) was created from images obtained using the the Wide Field Imager (WFI), an astronomical camera attached to the 2.2-metre Max-Planck Society/ESO telescope at the La Silla observatory in Chile. The blue-green glow in the centre of the Helix comes from oxygen atoms shining under effects of the intense ultraviolet radiation of the 120 000 degree Celsius central star and the hot gas. Further out from the star and beyond the ring of knots, the red colour from hydrogen and nitrogen is more prominent. A careful look at the central part of this object reveals not only the knots, but also many remote galaxies seen right through the thinly spread glowing gas.

This image was created from images through blue, green and red filters and the total exposure times were 12 minutes, 9 minutes and 7 minutes respectively.

Image Credit: ESO
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Aurora over Fort Nelson

Fort Nelson, British Columbia, Canada
September 3, 2011

Image Credit & Copyright: Steve Milner