March 5, 2016

Hubble image of variable star RS Puppis

Hubble image of variable star RS Puppis

The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has observed the variable star RS Puppis over a period of five weeks, showing the star growing brighter and dimmer as it pulsates. These pulsations have created a stunning example of a phenomenon known as a light echo, where light appears to reverberate through the murky environment around the star.

For most of its life, a star is pretty stable, slowly consuming the fuel at its core to keep it shining brightly.

However, once most of the hydrogen that stars use as fuel has been consumed, some stars evolve into very different beasts — pulsating stars. They become unstable, expanding and shrinking over a number of days or weeks and growing brighter and dimmer as they do so.

A new and spectacular Hubble image shows RS Puppis, a type of variable star known as a Cepheid variable. As variable stars go, Cepheids have comparatively long periods. RS Puppis, for example, varies in brightness by almost a factor of five every 40 or so days.

RS Puppis is unusual as it is shrouded by a nebula — thick, dark clouds of gas and dust. Hubble observed this star and its murky environment over a period of five weeks in 2010, capturing snapshots at different stages in its cycle and enabling scientists to create a time-lapse video of this ethereal object.

The apparent motion shown in these Hubble observations is an example of a phenomenon known as a light echo. The dusty environment around RS Puppis enables this effect to be shown with stunning clarity. As the star expands and brightens, we see some of the light after it is reflected from progressively more distant shells of dust and gas surrounding the star, creating the illusion of gas moving outwards. This reflected light has further to travel, and so arrives at the Earth after light that travels straight from star to telescope. This is analogous to sound bouncing off surrounding objects, causing the listener to hear an audible echo.

While this effect is certainly striking in itself, there is another important scientific reason to observe Cepheids like RS Puppis. The period of their pulsations is known to be directly connected to their intrinsic brightness, a property that allows astronomers to use them as cosmic distance markers. A few years ago, astronomers used the light echo around RS Puppis to measure its distance from us, obtaining the most accurate measurement of a Cepheid's distance. Studying stars like RS Puppis helps us to measure and understand the vast scale of the Universe.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
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Calbuco Volcano Eruption

Calbuco Volcano Eruption

Puerto Varas, Chile
April 22, 2015

Video Credit & Copyright: Martin Heck

The Small Magellanic Cloud Galaxy

Small Magellanic Cloud

The Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC) is a dwarf galaxy near the Milky Way. It is classified as a dwarf irregular galaxy. It has a diameter of about 7,000 light-years, contains several hundred million stars, and has a total mass of approximately 7 billion times the mass of the Sun. The SMC contains a central bar structure and it is speculated that it was once a barred spiral galaxy that was disrupted by the Milky Way to become somewhat irregular. At a distance of about 200,000 light-years, it is one of the Milky Way's nearest neighbors. It is also one of the most distant objects that can be seen with the naked eye.

With a mean declination of approximately −73 degrees, it can only be viewed from the Southern Hemisphere and the lower latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere. It is located mostly in the constellation of Tucana and also partly in Hydrus and appears as a hazy, light patch in the night sky about 3 degrees across, looking like a detached piece of the Milky Way. Since it has a very low surface brightness, it is best viewed from a dark site away from city lights. It forms a pair with the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), which lies a further 20 degrees to the east, and like the LMC is a member of the Local Group.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble and Digitized Sky Survey 2, Davide De Martin
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March 4, 2016

N 164 Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud Galaxy

N 164 Nebula in the Large Magellanic Cloud

N 164, a bright nebula, the glow of which is caused by hot stars inside it. The heating of the gas by these stars increases the pressure and causes such nebulae to expand, pushing outwards against their surroundings. A careful look at this nebula reveals locations where the expansion is encountering resistance by denser clouds of gas, producing bright, thin rims. The sky field measures 3.6 x 3.5 arcmin. North is up and East is left.

Image Credit: ESO
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The Hoag's Object Galaxy

Hoag's Object

A nearly perfect ring of hot, blue stars pinwheels about the yellow nucleus of an unusual galaxy known as Hoag's Object. This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope captures a face-on view of the galaxy's ring of stars, revealing more detail than any existing photo of this object.

A nearly perfect ring of hot, blue stars pinwheels about the yellow nucleus of an unusual galaxy known as Hoag's Object. This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope captures a face-on view of the galaxy's ring of stars, revealing more detail than any existing photo of this object.

The entire galaxy is about 120, 000 light-years wide, which is slightly larger than our Milky Way Galaxy. The blue ring, which is dominated by clusters of young, massive stars, contrasts sharply with the yellow nucleus of mostly older stars. What appears to be a 'gap' separating the two stellar populations may actually contain some star clusters that are almost too faint to see. Curiously, an object that bears an uncanny resemblance to Hoag's Object can be seen in the gap at the one o'clock position. The object is probably a background ring galaxy.

Image Credit: NASA/ESA and The Hubble Heritage Team STScI/AURA)
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Surface of Mars in Super Resolution

Surface of Mars

The Twin Peaks are modest-size hills to the southwest of the Mars Pathfinder landing site. They were discovered on the first panoramas taken by the IMP camera on the 4th of July, 1997 and subsequently identified in Viking Orbiter images taken over 20 years ago. The peaks are approximately 30-35 meters (-100 feet) tall. North Twin is approximately 860 meters (2800 feet) from the lander, and South Twin is about a kilometer away (3300 feet). The scene includes bouldery ridges and swales or "hummocks" of flood debris that range from a few tens of meters away from the lander to the distance of the South Twin Peak.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL
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March 3, 2016

GN-z11: The farthest galaxy ever seen in the Universe

GN-z11: The farthest galaxy ever seen in the Universe

By pushing NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to its limits, an international team of astronomers has shattered the cosmic distance record by measuring the farthest galaxy ever seen in the universe. This surprisingly bright infant galaxy, named GN-z11, is seen as it was 13.4 billion years in the past, just 400 million years after the Big Bang. GN-z11 is located in the direction of the constellation of Ursa Major.

“We’ve taken a major step back in time, beyond what we’d ever expected to be able to do with Hubble. We see GN-z11 at a time when the universe was only three percent of its current age,” explained principal investigator Pascal Oesch of Yale University. The team includes scientists from Yale University, the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), and the University of California.

Astronomers are closing in on the first galaxies that formed in the universe. The new Hubble observations take astronomers into a realm that was once thought to be only reachable with NASA’s upcoming James Webb Space Telescope.

GN-z11: The farthest galaxy ever seen in the Universe

This measurement provides strong evidence that some unusual and unexpectedly bright galaxies found earlier in Hubble images are really at extraordinary distances. Previously, the team had estimated GN-z11’s distance by determining its color through imaging with Hubble and NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Now, for the first time for a galaxy at such an extreme distance, the team used Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3 to precisely measure the distance to GN-z11 spectroscopically by splitting the light into its component colors.

Astronomers measure large distances by determining the “redshift” of a galaxy. This phenomenon is a result of the expansion of the universe; every distant object in the universe appears to be receding from us because its light is stretched to longer, redder wavelengths as it travels through expanding space to reach our telescopes. The greater the redshift, the farther the galaxy.

"Our spectroscopic observations reveal the galaxy to be even farther away than we had originally thought, right at the distance limit of what Hubble can observe," said Gabriel Brammer of STScI, second author of the study.

Before astronomers determined the distance for GN-z11, the most distant galaxy measured spectroscopically had a redshift of 8.68 (13.2 billion years in the past). Now, the team has confirmed GN-z11 to be at a redshift of 11.1, nearly 200 million years closer to the Big Bang. “This is an extraordinary accomplishment for Hubble. It managed to beat all the previous distance records held for years by much larger ground-based telescopes,” said investigator Pieter van Dokkum of Yale University. “This new record will likely stand until the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.”

The combination of Hubble’s and Spitzer’s imaging reveals that GN-z11 is 25 times smaller than the Milky Way and has just one percent of our galaxy’s mass in stars. However, the newborn GN-z11 is growing fast, forming stars at a rate about 20 times greater than our galaxy does today. This makes an extremely remote galaxy bright enough for astronomers to find and perform detailed observations with both Hubble and Spitzer.

The results reveal surprising new clues about the nature of the very early universe. “It’s amazing that a galaxy so massive existed only 200 million to 300 million years after the very first stars started to form. It takes really fast growth, producing stars at a huge rate, to have formed a galaxy that is a billion solar masses so soon,” explained investigator Garth Illingworth of the University of California, Santa Cruz.

These findings provide a tantalizing preview of the observations that the James Webb Space Telescope will perform after it is launched into space in 2018. “Hubble and Spitzer are already reaching into Webb territory,” Oesch said.

“This new discovery shows that the Webb telescope will surely find many such young galaxies reaching back to when the first galaxies were forming,” added Illingworth.

This discovery also has important consequences for NASA’s planned Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which will have the ability to find thousands of such bright, very distant galaxies.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Feild, G. Bacon (STScI)
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An aurora, sometimes referred to as a polar light, is a natural light display in the sky, predominantly seen in the high latitude (Arctic and Antarctic) regions. Auroras are produced when the magnetosphere is sufficiently disturbed by the solar wind that the trajectories of charged particles in both solar wind and magnetospheric plasma, mainly in the form of electrons and protons, precipitate them into the upper atmosphere (thermosphere/exosphere), where their energy is lost. The resulting ionization and excitation of atmospheric constituents emits light of varying colour and complexity. The form of the aurora, occurring within bands around both polar regions, is also dependent on the amount of acceleration imparted to the precipitating particles. Precipitating protons generally produce optical emissions as incident hydrogen atoms after gaining electrons from the atmosphere. Proton auroras are usually observed at lower latitudes.

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March 2, 2016

Cloud shadows on Indian Ocean seen from International Space Station

Cloud shadows on Indian Ocean seen from International Space Station

ISS, Orbit of the Earth
June 2014

Image Credit: NASA/ESA

Aurora over Lomaas River

Aurora over Lomaas River

Lomaas River, Skånland, Norway

Image Credit & Copyright: Arild Heitmann

Jupiter's moon Callisto


Bright scars on a darker surface testify to a long history of impacts on Jupiter's moon Callisto in this image of Callisto from NASA's Galileo spacecraft.

The picture, taken in May 2001, is the only complete global color image of Callisto obtained by Galileo, which has been orbiting Jupiter since December 1995. Of Jupiter's four largest moons, Callisto orbits farthest from the giant planet.

Callisto's surface is uniformly cratered but is not uniform in color or brightness. Scientists believe the brighter areas are mainly ice and the darker areas are highly eroded, ice-poor material.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL/DLR
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March 1, 2016

Villarrica Volcano Eruption

Villarrica Volcano Eruption

Villarrica, Chile
March 3, 2015

Image Credit: Ariel Marinkovic

M31: The Andromeda Galaxy

Andromeda Galaxy

At approximately 2.5 million light-years away, the Andromeda Galaxy, or M31, is our Milky Way's largest galactic neighbor. The entire galaxy spans 260,000 light-years across - a distance so large, it took 11 different image segments stitched together to produce this view of the galaxy next door.

The bands of blue-white making up the galaxy's striking rings are neighborhoods that harbor hot, young, massive stars. Dark blue-grey lanes of cooler dust show up starkly against these bright rings, tracing the regions where star formation is currently taking place in dense cloudy cocoons. Eventually, these dusty lanes will be blown away by strong stellar winds, as the forming stars ignite nuclear fusion in their cores. Meanwhile, the central orange-white ball reveals a congregation of cooler, old stars that formed long ago.

When observed in visible light, Andromeda's rings look more like spiral arms. The ultraviolet view shows that these arms more closely resemble the ring-like structure previously observed in infrared wavelengths with NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. Astronomers using Spitzer interpreted these rings as evidence that the galaxy was involved in a direct collision with its neighbor, M32, more than 200 million years ago.

Andromeda is so bright and close to us that it is one of only ten galaxies that can be spotted from Earth with the naked eye. This view is two-color composite, where blue represents far-ultraviolet light, and orange is near-ultraviolet light.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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The star cluster Westerlund 2

star cluster Westerlund 2

Westerlund 2 is a giant cluster of about 3000 stars located 20 000 light-years away in the constellation Carina.

Hubble's near-infrared imaging camera pierces through the dusty veil enshrouding the stellar nursery, giving astronomers a clear view of the dense concentration of stars in the central cluster.

Image Credit: NASA, ESA, the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), A. Nota (ESA/STScI), and the Westerlund 2 Science Team
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February 29, 2016

White Sea Urchin & Reef Urchin

White Sea Urchin & Reef Urchin

Sea urchins or urchins, archaically called sea hedgehogs, are small, spiny, globular animals that, with their close kin, such as sand dollars, constitute the class Echinoidea of the echinoderm phylum. About 950 species of echinoids inhabit all oceans from the intertidal to 5000 m deep. The shell, or "test", of sea urchins is round and spiny, typically from 3 to 10 cm (1.2 to 3.9 in) across. Common colors include black and dull shades of green, olive, brown, purple, blue, and red. Sea urchins move slowly, and feed on mostly algae. Sea otters, starfish, wolf eels, triggerfish, and other predators hunt and feed on sea urchins. Their roe is a delicacy in many cuisines. The name "urchin" is an old word for hedgehog, which sea urchins resemble.

Tripneustes ventricosus

Tripneustes ventricosus, commonly called the West Indian sea egg or white sea urchin, is a species of sea urchin. It is common in the Caribbean Sea, the Bahamas andFlorida and may be found at depths of less than 10 metres (33 ft).

The test of the West Indian sea egg is dark in colour, usually black, dark purple or reddish brown, with white spines 1 to 2 centimetres (0.4 to 0.8 inches) long. The test can reach 10 to 15 centimetres (3.9 to 5.9 in) in diameter. It is often covered with pieces of seagrass, fragments of shell and other debris in a manner similar to the closely relatedTripneustes gratilla. These decorations are held in place by tube feet among the spines and are believed to provide protection from the intense sunlight that penetrates the shallow water.

Echinometra viridis

Echinometra viridis, the reef urchin, is a species of sea urchin in the family Echinometridae. It is found on reefs in very shallow parts of the western Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea.

The reef urchin has an elliptical reddish brown test (shell) covered with medium length spines. These are greenish in colour with paler bases and darker, often violet, tips. This urchin grows to a diameter of 5 centimetres (2.0 in) with the longest spines being 3 centimetres (1.2 in). It looks very similar to the rock-boring urchin Echinometra lucunter, but the dark tips and the greater length of the spines are distinctive.

Image Credit & Copyright: Nick Hobgood
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A Cosmic Flame

Flame Nebula

Sparkling at the edge of a giant cloud of gas and dust, the Flame Nebula, also referred to as NGC 2024, is in fact the hideout of a cluster of young, blue, massive stars, whose light sets the gas ablaze. Located 1,300 light-years away towards the constellation of Orion, the nebula owes its typical colour to the glow of hydrogen atoms, heated by the stars. The latter are obscured by a dark, forked dusty structure in the centre of the image and are only revealed by infrared observations.

This image is based on data acquired with the 1.5-metre Danish telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile, combining three exposures in the filters B (40 seconds), V (80 seconds) and R (40 seconds).

Image Credit: ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/R. Gendler, J.-E. Ovaldsen, C. Thöne and C. Féron
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Smoke without fire: a different view of the Cigar Galaxy

Messier 82 (M 82) - Cigar Galaxy

This image shows the most detailed view ever of the core of Messier 82 (M 82), also known as the Cigar Galaxy. Rich with dust, young stars and glowing gas, M 82 is both unusually bright and relatively close to Earth. The starburst galaxy is located around 12 million light-years away in the constellation of Ursa Major (The Great Bear).

This is not the first time Hubble has imaged the Cigar Galaxy. Previous images show a galaxy ablaze with stars. Yet this image looks quite unlike them, and is dominated instead by glowing gas and dust, with the stars almost invisible. Why such a difference?

The new image is more detailed than previous Hubble observations – in fact, it is the most detailed image ever made of this galaxy. But the reason it looks so dramatically different is down to the choices astronomers make when designing their observations. Hubble’s cameras do not see in colour: they are sensitive to a broad range of wavelengths which they image only in greyscale. Colour pictures can be constructed by passing the light through different coloured filters and combining the resulting images, but the choice of filters makes a big difference to the end result.

Using filters which allow through relatively broad bands of colours, similar to those our eyes see, results in natural-looking colours and bright stars, as starlight shines brightly across the spectrum.

Using filters transparent only to the wavelengths emitted by specific chemical elements, as in this image, isolates the light from glowing gas clouds, while blocking out much of the starlight. This explains why the stars appear faint in this image, and why the dust lanes are sharply silhouetted against the brightly glowing gas clouds.

The image shows the light emitted by sulphur (shown in red), visible and ultraviolet light from oxygen (shown green and blue, respectively), and light from hydrogen (cyan).

The field of view is approximately 2.7 by 2.7 arcminutes.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
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Lightning Strikes over the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle Volcano

Lightning Strikes over the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle Volcano

Puyehue-Cordón Caulle, Chile
June 6, 2011

Image Credit & Copyright: Francisco Negroni

February 28, 2016

Supernova Remnant: The Cygnus Loop Nebula

Supernova Remnant: The Cygnus Loop Nebula

Wispy tendrils of hot dust and gas glow brightly in this ultraviolet image of the Cygnus Loop nebula, taken by NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer. The nebula lies about 1,500 light-years away, and is a supernova remnant, left over from a massive stellar explosion that occurred between 5,000 to 8,000 years ago. The Cygnus Loop extends over three times the size of the full moon in the night sky, and is tucked next to one of the "swan's wings" in the constellation of Cygnus.

The filaments of gas and dust visible here in ultraviolet light were heated by the shockwave from the supernova, which is still spreading outward from the original explosion. The original supernova would have been bright enough to be seen clearly from Earth with the naked eye.

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
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IC 4499: A globular cluster’s age revisited

globular cluster IC 4499

This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image shows the globular cluster IC 4499.

Globular clusters are big balls of old stars that orbit around their host galaxy. It has long been believed that all the stars within a globular cluster form at the about same time, a property which can be used to determine the cluster's age. For more massive globulars however, detailed observations have shown that this is not entirely true — there is evidence that they instead consist of multiple populations of stars born at different times. One of the driving forces behind this behaviour is thought to be gravity: more massive globulars manage to grab more gas and dust, which can then be transformed into new stars.

IC 4499 is a somewhat special case. Its mass lies somewhere between low-mass globulars, which show a single generation build-up, and the more complex and massive globulars which can contain more than one generation of stars. By studying objects like IC 4499 astronomers can therefore explore how mass affects a cluster's contents. Astronomers found no sign of multiple generations of stars in IC 4499 — supporting the idea that less massive clusters in general only consist of a single stellar generation.

Hubble observations of IC 4499 have also helped to pinpoint the cluster's age: observations of this cluster from the 1990s suggested a puzzlingly young age when compared to other globular clusters within the Milky Way. However, since those first estimates new Hubble data been obtained, and it has been found to be much more likely that IC 4499 is actually roughly the same age as other Milky Way clusters at approximately 12 billion years old.

Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA
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Saturn's Rings

Saturn's Rings

Specially designed Cassini orbits place Earth and Cassini on opposite sides of Saturn's rings, a geometry known as occultation. Cassini conducted the first radio occultation observation of Saturn's rings on May 3, 2005.

Three simultaneous radio signals of 0.94, 3.6, and 13 centimeter wavelength (Ka-, X-, and S-bands) were sent from Cassini through the rings to Earth. The observed change of each signal as Cassini moved behind the rings provided a profile of the distribution of ring material as a function of distance from Saturn, or an optical depth profile.

This simulated image was constructed from the measured optical depth profiles. It depicts the observed ring structure at about 10 kilometers (6 miles) in resolution. Color is used to represent information about ring particle sizes in different regions based on the measured effects of the three radio signals.

Purple color indicates regions where there is a lack of particles of size less than 5 centimeters (about 2 inches). Green and blue shades indicate regions where there are particles smaller than 5 centimeters (2 inches) and 1 centimeter (less than one third of one inch). The saturated broad white band near the middle of ring B is the densest region of ring B, over which two of the three radio signals were blocked at 10-kilometer (6-mile) resolution, preventing accurate color representation over this band. From other evidence in the radio observations, all ring regions appear to be populated by a broad range particle size distribution that extends to boulder sizes (several to many meters across).

Image Credit: NASA/JPL
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