Credit: NASA, ESA, Amy Simon-Miller (Goddard Space Flight Center), N. Chanover (NMSU), G. Orton (JPL)
Explanation: These detailed Hubble Space Telescope close-ups feature Jupiter's ancient swirling storm system known as the Great Red Spot. They also follow the progress of two newer storm systems that have grown to take on a similar reddish hue: the smaller "Red Spot Jr." (bottom), and smaller still, a "baby red spot". Red Spot Jr. was seen to form in 2006, while the smaller spot was just identified earlier this year. For scale, the Great Red Spot has almost twice the diameter of planet Earth. Moving horizontally from left to right past the Great Red Spot, Red Spot Jr. clearly went below the larger storm, but the smaller spot was pulled in. Emerging on the right, the baby spot's stretched and now paler shape is indicated by the arrow in the frame from July 8. It is expected that the baby red spot will be pulled back and merge, becoming part of the giant storm system.
Credit: G. Neukum (FU Berlin) et al., Mars Express, DLR, ESA
Explanation: What created this great cliff on Mars? Did giant waterfalls once plummet through its grooves? With a four-kilometer drop, this high cliff surrounding Echus Chasma, near an impressive impact crater, was carved by either water or lava. A leading hypothesis is that Echus Chasma, at 100-kilometers long and 10-kilometers wide, was once one of the largest water sources on Mars. If true, water once held in Echus Chasma likely ran over the Martian surface to carve the impressive Kasei Valles, which extends over 3,000 kilometers to the north. Even if initially carved by water, lava appears to have later flowed in the valley, leaving an extraordinarily smooth floor. Echus Chasma lies north of tremendous Valles Marineris, the largest canyon in the Solar System. The above image was taken by the robotic Mars Express spacecraft currently orbiting Mars.
Credit: Matt Harding & Melissa Nixon
Explanation: What are these humans doing? Dancing. Many humans on Earth exhibit periods of happiness, and one method of displaying happiness is dancing. Happiness and dancing transcend political boundaries and occur in practically every human society. Above, Matt Harding traveled through many nations on Earth, started dancing, and filmed the result. The video is perhaps a dramatic example that humans from all over planet Earth feel a common bond as part of a single species. Happiness is frequently contagious -- few people are able to watch the above video without smiling.
Credit & Copyright: Gemini Observatory, GMOS-South, NSF
Explanation: What will become of these galaxies? Spiral galaxies NGC 5426 and NGC 5427 are passing dangerously close to each other, but each is likely to survive this collision. Most frequently when galaxies collide, a large galaxy eats a much smaller galaxy. In this case, however, the two galaxies are quite similar, each being a sprawling spiral with expansive arms and a compact core. As the galaxies advance over the next tens of millions of years, their component stars are unlikely to collide, although new stars will form in the bunching of gas caused by gravitational tides. Close inspection of the above image taken by the 8-meter Gemini-South Telescope in Chile shows a bridge of material momentarily connecting the two giants. Known collectively as Arp 271, the interacting pair spans about 130,000 light years and lies about 90 million light-years away toward the constellation of Virgo. Quite possibly, our Milky Way Galaxy will undergo a similar collision with the neighboring Andromeda Galaxy in about five billion years.
Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA
Explanation: Soft hues, partially lit orbs, a thin trace of the ring, and slight shadows highlight this understated view of the majestic surroundings of the giant planet Saturn. Looking nearly back toward the Sun, the robot Cassini spacecraft now orbiting Saturn captured crescent phases of Saturn and its moon Rhea in color a few years ago. As striking as the above image is, it is but a single frame from a recently released 60-frame silent movie where Rhea can be seen gliding in front of its parent world. Since Cassini was nearly in the plane of Saturn's rings, the normally impressive rings are visible here only as a thin line across the image center. Although Cassini has now concluded its primary mission, its past successes and opportunistic location have prompted NASA to start a two-year Equinox Mission, further exploring not only Saturn's enigmatic moons Titan and Enceladus, but Saturn herself as her grand rings tilt right at the Sun in August 2009.
Credit & Copyright: Johannes Schedler (Panther Observatory)
Explanation: Young star cluster M16 is surrounded by natal clouds of cosmic dust and glowing gas also known as The Eagle Nebula. This beautifully detailed image of the region includes fantastic shapes made famous in well-known Hubble Space Telescope close-ups of the starforming complex. Described as elephant trunks or Pillars of Creation, dense, dusty columns rising near the center are light-years in length but are gravitationally contracting to form stars. Energetic radiation from the cluster stars erodes material near the tips, eventually exposing the embedded new stars. Extending from the upper left edge of the nebula is another dusty starforming column known as the Fairy of Eagle Nebula. M16 and the Eagle Nebula lie about 7,000 light-years away, an easy target for binoculars or small telescopes in a nebula rich part of the sky toward the split constellation Serpens Cauda (the tail of the snake).
Credit & Copyright: Tunç Tezel (TWAN)
Explanation: A brilliant Jupiter shares the sky with the Full Moon tonight. Since Jupiter is near opposition, literally opposite the Sun in planet Earth's sky, Jupiter will rise near sunset just like the Full Moon. Of course, opposition is also the point of closest approach, with Jupiter shining at its brightest and offering the best views for skygazers. Recorded late last month, this moving skyscape features Jupiter above the southeastern horizon and the marbled streets of the ancient port city of Ephesus, located in modern day Turkey. At the left is a temple dedicated to the Roman emperor Hadrian. The beautiful night sky also includes the arc of the northern summer Milky Way. Lights on the horizon are from the nearby town of Selçuk. Clicking on the image will download the scene as a panorama.
Credit & Copyright: Dietmar Hager
Explanation: A careful look at the full field of view for this sharp image reveals a surprising number of galaxies both near and far toward the constellation Ursa Major. The most striking is clearly NGC 3718, the warped spiral galaxy right of center. NGC 3718's faint spiral arms look twisted and extended, its bright central region crossed by obscuring dust lanes. A mere 150 thousand light-years to the left is another large spiral galaxy, NGC 3729. The two are likely interacting gravitationally, accounting for the peculiar appearance of NGC 3718. While this galaxy pair lies about 52 million light-years away, the remarkable Hickson Group 56 can also be seen clustered just below NGC 3718. Hickson Group 56 consists of five interacting galaxies and lies over 400 million light-years away.
Credit: R. Hurt (SSC-Caltech), JPL-Caltech, NASA
Explanation: Recently discovered Makemake is one of the largest objects known in the outer Solar System. Pronounced MAH-kay MAH-kay, this Kuiper belt object is only slightly smaller than Pluto, orbits the Sun only slightly further out than Pluto, and appears only slightly dimmer than Pluto. Makemake, however, has an orbit much more tilted to the ecliptic plane of the planets than Pluto. Designated 2005 FY9 soon after its discovery by a team led by Mike Brown (Caltech) in 2005, the outer Solar System orb was recently renamed Makemake for the creator of humanity in the Rapa Nui mythology of Easter Island. Additionally, Makemake has been recently classified as a dwarf planet under the new subcategory plutoid, making Makemake the third cataloged plutoid after Pluto and Eris. Makemake is known to be a world somewhat red in appearance, with spectra indicating it is likely covered with frozen methane. Since no images of Makemake's surface yet exist, an artist's illustration originally meant to depict Sedna has been boldly co-opted above to now illustrate Makemake. A hypothetical moon is visualized above nearly in the direction of our distant Sun.
Credit & Copyright: Fred Vanderhaven
Explanation: This beautiful cosmic cloud is a popular stop on telescopic tours of the constellation Sagittarius. Eighteenth century cosmic tourist Charles Messier cataloged the bright nebula as M8, while modern day astronomers recognize the Lagoon Nebula as an active stellar nursery about 5,000 light-years distant, in the direction of the center of our Milky Way Galaxy. Striking details can be traced through this remarkable picture, processed to remove stars and hence better reveal the Lagoon's range of filaments of glowing hydrogen gas, dark dust clouds, and the bright, turbulent hourglass region near the image center. This color composite view was recorded under dark skies near Sydney, Australia. At the Lagoon's estimated distance, the picture spans about 50 light-years.
Credit & Copyright: Richard Bosman
Explanation: Does Mars always appear the same? No. As both Earth and Mars orbit the Sun, the apparent angular size of Mars changes as viewed from the Earth. Pictured above from Enschede, Holland, Mars was captured in 2007 and 2008 with 30 separate images, all taken with the same magnification. When Earth and Mars are on opposite sides of the Sun, Mars appears relatively small. Conversely, when Earth and Mars are near each other, Mars looms large and bright. The largest Mars has appeared in recent history was the opposition of August 2003. Since Mars is always more distant from the Sun than the Earth, Mars never shows a crescent phase to Earthlings. Visible also in the above images are the north polar cap of Mars, dark and light soil, clouds, and, in the early images, a global dust storm. The next opposition, when Earth again passes near to Mars, will occur in early 2010.
Credit: Dan Duriscoe, U.S. National Park Service
Explanation: This eerie glow over Death Valley is in danger. Scrolling right will show a spectacular view from one of the darkest places left in the continental USA: Death Valley, California. The above 360-degree full-sky panorama is a composite of 30 images taken two years ago in Racetrack Playa. The image has been digitally processed and increasingly stretched at high altitudes to make it rectangular. In the foreground on the image right is an unusually placed rock that was pushed by high winds onto Racetrack Playa after a slick rain. In the background is a majestic night sky, featuring thousands of stars and many constellations. The arch across the middle is the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy. Light pollution is threatening dark skies like this all across the US and the world, and therefore the International Dark-Sky Association and the US National Parks Service are suggesting methods that can protect them.
Credit & Copyright: Don Goldman, Sierra Remote Observatories
Explanation: Big, beautiful spiral galaxy NGC 7331 is often touted as an analog to our own Milky Way. About 50 million light-years distant in the northern constellation Pegasus, NGC 7331 was recognized early on as a spiral nebula and is actually one of the brighter galaxies not included in Charles Messier's famous 18th century catalog. Since the galaxy's disk is inclined to our line-of-sight, long telescopic exposures often result in an image that evokes a strong sense of depth. The effect is further enhanced in this well-framed view by the galaxies that lie beyond this gorgeous island universe. The background galaxies are about one tenth the apparent size of NGC 7331 and so lie roughly ten times farther away. Their strikingly close alignment on the sky with NGC 7331 occurs just by chance. The visual grouping of galaxies is also known as the Deer Lick Group.
Illustration Credit: R. Hurt (SSC), JPL-Caltech, NASA
Explanation: A major discovery was lurking in the data. By accident, while preparing a talk on the Galaxy's spiral arms for a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, Tom Dame (Harvard-Smithsonian CfA) found it - a new spiral arm in the Milky Way. The arm is labeled in this illustration as the Far 3kpc Arm, located at a distance of 3 kpc (kiloparsecs) or about 10,000 light-years from the galactic center, on the opposite side from the Sun. Along with the Near 3kpc Arm whose presence was known since the mid 1950s, the counterpart inner arms now establish that the galaxy has a simple symmetry. The arms are defined by shocked interstellar gas flowing along both sides of the Milky Way's central bar. Dame and his collaborator Patrick Thaddeus recorded the presence of both inner spiral arms in their radio data tracking emission from carbon monoxide molecules along the galactic plane. How much star formation goes on in the counterpart arms? Despite this depiction of stars and star forming regions along the arms, the last attempt to search for star formation in the Near 3kpc Arm was in 1980 and didn't turn up any. The discovery of the Far 3kpc Arm has renewed interest in this and other questions about the center of the Milky Way.
Image Credit: Courtesy of Science/AAAS
Explanation: The sprawling Caloris basin on Mercury is one of the solar system's largest impact basins. Created during the early history of the solar system by the impact of a large asteroid-sized body, the basin spans about 1,500 kilometers and is seen in yellowish hues in this enhanced color mosaic. The image data is from the January 14th flyby of the MESSENGER spacecraft, captured with the MDIS instrument. Orange splotches around the basin's perimeter are now thought to be volcanic vents, new evidence that Mercury's smooth plains are indeed lava flows. Other discoveries at Mercury by NASA's MESSENGER mission include evidence that Mercury, like planet Earth, has a global magnetic field generated by a dynamo process in its large core, and that Mercury's surface has contracted significantly as its core cooled.
Credit & Copyright: Dmitrii Zagorodnov
Explanation: On July 5th, wandering planets, bright stars, and a young crescent Moon graced western skies after sunset. Arrayed along the solar system's ecliptic plane, the three celestial beacons forming this skyscape's eye-catching line-up with the Moon are Saturn (upper left), then Mars, and finally Regulus, alpha star of the constellation Leo. Of course planet Earth itself lies in the foreground, a scene dominated by the city lights of Santa Barbara, California. The smoky haze hanging over the city is from threatening wild fires still burning along the hill at the right. On Thursday evening, Saturn and Mars can be seen in a much closer pairing or conjunction, separated by only about 3/4 degree on the sky.
Credit & Copyright: Günter Kerschhuber (Gahberg Observatory)
Explanation: The Virgo Cluster of Galaxies is the closest cluster of galaxies to our Milky Way Galaxy. The Virgo Cluster is so close that it spans more than 5 degrees on the sky - about 10 times the angle made by a full Moon. With its heart lying about 70 million light years distant, the Virgo Cluster is the nearest cluster of galaxies, contains over 2,000 galaxies, and has a noticeable gravitational pull on the galaxies of the Local Group of Galaxies surrounding our Milky Way Galaxy. The cluster contains not only galaxies filled with stars but also gas so hot it glows in X-rays. Motions of galaxies in and around clusters indicate that they contain more dark matter than any visible matter we can see. Pictured above, the heart of the Virgo Cluster includes bright Messier galaxies such as Markarian's Eyes on the upper left, M86 just to the upper right of center, M84 on the far right, as well as spiral galaxy NGC 4388 at the bottom right.
Credit & Copyright: Yuri Beletsky (ESO)
Explanation: This breathtaking patch of sky would be above you were you to stand at the South Pole of the Earth. On the upper left of this image are the four stars that mark the boundaries of the famous Southern Cross. At the top of this constellation, also known as The Crux, is the orange star Gamma Crucis. The band of stars, dust, and gas crossing the middle of the photograph is part our Milky Way Galaxy. Just below the Southern Cross on the far left is the dark Coal Sack Nebula, and the bright nebula on the far right is the Carina Nebula. The Southern Cross is such a famous constellation that it is depicted on the national flag of Australia.
Credit: Gene Cernan, Apollo 17, NASA; Anaglyph by Erik van Meijgaarden
Explanation: Get out your red/blue glasses and check out this stereo scene from Taurus-Littrow valley on the Moon! The color anaglyph features a detailed 3D view of Apollo 17's Lunar Rover in the foreground -- behind it lies the Lunar Module and distant lunar hills. Because the world was going to be able to watch the Lunar Module's ascent stage liftoff via the rover's TV camera, this parking place was also known as the VIP Site. In December of 1972, Apollo 17 astronauts Eugene Cernan and Harrison Schmitt spent about 75 hours on the Moon, while colleague Ronald Evans orbited overhead. The crew returned with 110 kilograms of rock and soil samples, more than from any of the other lunar landing sites. Cernan and Schmitt are still the last to walk (or drive) on the Moon.
Credit & Copyright: Antti Kemppainen
Explanation: Sometimes the sky itself is the best show in town. In January 2007, people from Perth, Australia gathered on a local beach to watch a sky light up with delights near and far. Nearby, fireworks exploded as part of Australia Day celebrations. On the far right, lightning from a thunderstorm flashed in the distance. Near the image center, though, seen through clouds, was the most unusual sight of all: Comet McNaught. The photogenic comet was so bright that it even remained visible though the din of Earthly flashes. Comet McNaught has now returned to the outer Solar System and is now only visible with a large telescope. The above image is actually a three photograph panorama digitally processed to reduce red reflections from the exploding firework.