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NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

At sunset on December 6 a Rocket Lab Electron rocket was launched from a rotating planet. With multiple small satellites on board it departed on a mission to low Earth orbit dubbed Running Out of Fingers from Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand's north island. The fiery trace of the Electron's graceful launch arc is toward the south in this southern sea and skyscape. Drifting vapor trails and rocket exhaust plumes catch the sunlight even as the sky grows dark though, the setting Sun still shinning at altitude along the rocket's trajectory. Fixed to a tripod, the camera's perspective nearly aligns the peak of the rocket arc with the South Celestial Pole, but no bright star marks that location in the southern hemisphere's evening sky. Still, it's easy to find at the center of the star trail arcs in the timelapse composite.

Photo by Brendan Gully

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

Why would clouds form a hexagon on Saturn? Nobody is sure. Originally discovered during the Voyager flybys of Saturn in the 1980s, nobody has ever seen anything like it anywhere else in the Solar System. Acquiring its first sunlit views of far northern Saturn in late 2012, the Cassini spacecraft's wide-angle camera recorded this stunning, false-color image of the ringed planet's north pole. The composite of near-infrared image data results in red hues for low clouds and green for high ones, giving the Saturnian cloudscape a vivid appearance. This and similar images show the stability of the hexagon even 20+ years after Voyager. Movies of Saturn's North Pole show the cloud structure maintaining its hexagonal structure while rotating. Unlike individual clouds appearing like a hexagon on Earth, the Saturn cloud pattern appears to have six well defined sides of nearly equal length. Four Earths could fit inside the hexagon. Beyond the cloud tops at the upper right, arcs of the planet's eye-catching rings appear bright blue.

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

A sensitive video camera on a summit of the Vosges mountains in France captured these surprising fireworks above a distant horizon on June 26. Generated over intense thunderstorms, this one about 260 kilometers away, the brief and mysterious flashes have come to be known as red sprites. The transient luminous events are caused by electrical breakdown at altitudes of 50 to 100 kilometers. That puts them in the mesophere, the coldest layer of planet Earth's atmosphere. The glow beneath the sprites is from more familiar lighting though, below the storm clouds. But on the right, the video frames have captured another summertime apparition from the mesophere. The silvery veins of light are polar mesospheric clouds. Also known as noctilucent or night shining clouds, the icy clouds still reflect the sunlight when the Sun is below the horizon.

Photo by Stephane Vetter

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

Stars are forming in Lynds Dark Nebula (LDN) 1251. About 1,000 light-years away and drifting above the plane of our Milky Way galaxy, the dusty molecular cloud is part of a complex of dark nebulae mapped toward the Cepheus flare region. Across the spectrum, astronomical explorations of the obscuring interstellar clouds reveal energetic shocks and outflows associated with newborn stars, including the telltale reddish glow from scattered Herbig-Haro objects seen in this sharp image. Distant background galaxies also lurk on the scene, buried behind the dusty expanse. This alluring view imaged with a backyard telescope and broadband filters spans about two full moons on the sky, or 17 light-years at the estimated distance of LDN 1251.

Photo by Ara Jerahian

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