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NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

Do magnetic fields always flow along spiral arms? Our face-on view of the Whirlpool Galaxy (M51) allows a spectacularly clear view of the spiral wave pattern in a disk-shaped galaxy. When observed with a radio telescope, the magnetic field appears to trace the arms' curvature. However, with NASA’s flying Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) observatory, the magnetic field at the outer edge of M51's disk appears to weave across the arms instead. Magnetic fields are inferred by grains of dust aligning in one direction and acting like polaroid glasses on infrared light. In the featured image, the field orientations determined from this polarized light are algorithmically connected, creating streamlines. Possibly the gravitational tug of the companion galaxy, at the top of the frame, on the dusty gas of the reddish star-forming regions, visible in the Hubble Space Telescope image, enhances turbulence -- stirring the dust and lines to produce the unexpected field pattern of the outer arms.

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

Why does a cloudy moon sometimes appear colorful? The effect, called a lunar corona, is created by the quantum mechanical diffraction of light around individual, similarly-sized water droplets in an intervening but mostly-transparent cloud. Since light of different colors has different wavelengths, each color diffracts differently. Lunar Coronae are one of the few quantum mechanical color effects that can be easily seen with the unaided eye. Solar coronae are also sometimes evident. The featured composite image was captured a few days before the close Great Conjunction between Saturn and Jupiter last month. In the foreground, the Italian village of Pieve di Cadore is visible in front of the Sfornioi Mountains. New: APOD is now available in Taiwanese from National Central University

Photo by Alessandra Masi

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

What powers this unusual nebula? CTB-1 is the expanding gas shell that was left when a massive star toward the constellation of Cassiopeia exploded about 10,000 years ago. The star likely detonated when it ran out of elements, near its core, that could create stabilizing pressure with nuclear fusion. The resulting supernova remnant, nicknamed the Medulla Nebula for its brain-like shape, still glows in visible light by the heat generated by its collision with confining interstellar gas. Why the nebula also glows in X-ray light, though, remains a mystery. One hypothesis holds that an energetic pulsar was co-created that powers the nebula with a fast outwardly moving wind. Following this lead, a pulsar has recently been found in radio waves that appears to have been expelled by the supernova explosion at over 1000 kilometers per second. Although the Medulla Nebula appears as large as a full moon, it is so faint that it took 130-hours of exposure with two small telescopes in New Mexico, USA, to create the featured image.

Photo by Russell Croman

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

The jets emanating from Centaurus A are over a million light years long. These jets of streaming plasma, expelled by a giant black hole in the center of this spiral galaxy, light up this composite image of Cen A. Exactly how the central black hole expels infalling matter remains unknown. After clearing the galaxy, however, the jets inflate large radio bubbles that likely glow for millions of years. If energized by a passing gas cloud, the radio bubbles can even light up again after billions of years. X-ray light is depicted in the featured composite image in blue, while microwave light is colored orange. The base of the jet in radio light shows details of the innermost light year of the central jet.

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

This fantastic skyscape lies near the edge of NGC 2174 a star forming region about 6,400 light-years away in the nebula-rich constellation of Orion. It follows mountainous clouds of gas and dust carved by winds and radiation from the region's newborn stars, now found scattered in open star clusters embedded around the center of NGC 2174, off the top of the frame. Though star formation continues within these dusty cosmic clouds they will likely be dispersed by the energetic newborn stars within a few million years. Recorded at infrared wavelengths by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014, the interstellar scene spans about 6 light-years. Scheduled for launch in 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope is optimized for exploring the Universe at infrared wavelengths.

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

This shadowy landscape of majestic mountains and icy plains stretches toward the horizon on a small, distant world. It was captured from a range of about 18,000 kilometers when New Horizons looked back toward Pluto, 15 minutes after the spacecraft's closest approach on July 14, 2015. The dramatic, low-angle, near-twilight scene follows rugged mountains formally known as Norgay Montes from foreground left, and Hillary Montes along the horizon, giving way to smooth Sputnik Planum at right. Layers of Pluto's tenuous atmosphere are also revealed in the backlit view. With a strangely familiar appearance, the frigid terrain likely includes ices of nitrogen and carbon monoxide with water-ice mountains rising up to 3,500 meters (11,000 feet). That's comparable in height to the majestic mountains of planet Earth. The Plutonian landscape is 380 kilometers (230 miles) across.

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

Like salsa verde on your favorite burrito, a green aurora slathers up the sky in this 2017 June 25 snapshot from the International Space Station. About 400 kilometers (250 miles) above Earth, the orbiting station is itself within the upper realm of the auroral displays. Aurorae have the signature colors of excited molecules and atoms at the low densities found at extreme altitudes. Emission from atomic oxygen dominates this view. The tantalizing glow is green at lower altitudes, but rarer reddish bands extend above the space station's horizon. The orbital scene was captured while passing over a point south and east of Australia, with stars above the horizon at the right belonging to the constellation Canis Major, Orion's big dog. Sirius, alpha star of Canis Major, is the brightest star near the Earth's limb.

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

What are these two giant arches across the sky? Perhaps the more familiar one, on the left, is the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy. This grand disk of stars and nebulas here appears to encircle much of the southern sky. Visible below the stellar arch is the rusty-orange planet Mars and the extended Andromeda galaxy. For a few minutes during this cold arctic night, a second giant arch appeared to the right, encircling part of the northern sky: an aurora. Auroras are much closer than stars as they are composed of glowing air high in Earth's atmosphere. Visible outside the green auroral arch is the group of stars popularly known as the Big Dipper. The featured digital composite of 18 images was captured in mid-December over the Lofoten Islands in Norway. APOD Year in Review (2020): RJN's Night Sky Network Lecture

Photo by Giulio Cobianchi

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

The night sky is filled with stories. Cultures throughout history have projected some of their most enduring legends onto the stars above. Generations of people see these stellar constellations, hear the associated stories, and pass them down. Featured here is the perhaps unfamiliar constellation of the Old Man, long recognized by the Tupi peoples native to regions of South America now known as Brazil. The Old Man, in more modern vernacular, may be composed of the Hyades star cluster as his head and the belt of Orion as part of one leg. Tupi folklore relates that the other leg was cut off by his unhappy wife, causing it to end at the orange star now known as Betelgeuse. The Pleiades star cluster, on the far left, can be interpreted as a head feather. In the featured image, the hobbled Old Man is mirrored by a person posing in the foreground. Folklore of the night sky is important for many reasons, including that it records cultural heritage and documents the universality of human intelligence and imagination. APOD in world languages: Arabic, Catalan, Chinese (Beijing), Chinese (Taiwan), Croatian, Czech, Dutch, Farsi, French, German, Hebrew, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Montenegrin, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Slovenian, Spanish, Taiwanese, Turkish, Turkish, and Ukrainian APOD online webinar January 12: Free registration, hosted by Amateur Astronomers Association of New York.

Photo by Rodrigo Guerra

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

What will the Moon phase be on your birthday this year? It is hard to predict because the Moon's appearance changes nightly. As the Moon orbits the Earth, the half illuminated by the Sun first becomes increasingly visible, then decreasingly visible. The featured video animates images taken by NASA's Moon-orbiting Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to show all 12 lunations that appear this year, 2021. A single lunation describes one full cycle of our Moon, including all of its phases. A full lunation takes about 29.5 days, just under a month (moon-th). As each lunation progresses, sunlight reflects from the Moon at different angles, and so illuminates different features differently. During all of this, of course, the Moon always keeps the same face toward the Earth. What is less apparent night-to-night is that the Moon's apparent size changes slightly, and that a slight wobble called a libration occurs as the Moon progresses along its elliptical orbit. APOD online webinar January 12: Free registration, hosted by Amateur Astronomers Association of New York.

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

In the center of nearby star-forming region lies a huge cluster containing some of the largest, hottest, and most massive stars known. These stars, known collectively as star cluster R136, part of the Tarantula Nebula, were captured in the featured image in visible light in 2009 through the Hubble Space Telescope. Gas and dust clouds in the Tarantula Nebula, have been sculpted into elongated shapes by powerful winds and ultraviolet radiation from these hot cluster stars. The Tarantula Nebula lies within a neighboring galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud and is located a mere 170,000 light-years away.

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

Like Earth's moon, Saturn's largest moon Titan is locked in synchronous rotation. This mosaic of images recorded by the Cassini spacecraft in May of 2012 shows its anti-Saturn side, the side always facing away from the ringed gas giant. The only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere, Titan is the only solar system world besides Earth known to have standing bodies of liquid on its surface and an earthlike cycle of liquid rain and evaporation. Its high altitude layer of atmospheric haze is evident in the Cassini view of the 5,000 kilometer diameter moon over Saturn's rings and cloud tops. Near center is the dark dune-filled region known as Shangri-La. The Cassini-delivered Huygens probe rests below and left of center, after the most distant landing for a spacecraft from Earth.

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

Barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365 is truly a majestic island universe some 200,000 light-years across. Located a mere 60 million light-years away toward the chemical constellation Fornax, NGC 1365 is a dominant member of the well-studied Fornax Cluster of galaxies. This impressively sharp color image shows the intense, reddish star forming regions near the ends of central bar and along the spiral arms, with details of the obscuring dust lanes cutting across the galaxy's bright core. At the core lies a supermassive black hole. Astronomers think NGC 1365's prominent bar plays a crucial role in the galaxy's evolution, drawing gas and dust into a star-forming maelstrom and ultimately feeding material into the central black hole.

Photo by island universe

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

Along a narrow path crossing southern South America through Chile and Argentina, the final New Moon of 2020 moved in front of the Sun on December 14 in the year's only total solar eclipse. Within about 2 days of perigee, the closest point in its elliptical orbit, the New Moon's surface is faintly lit by earthshine in this dramatic composite view. The image is a processed composite of 55 calibrated exposures ranging from 1/640 to 3 seconds. Covering a large range in brightness during totality, it reveals the dim lunar surface and faint background stars, along with planet-sized prominences at the Sun's edge, an enormous coronal mass ejection, and sweeping coronal structures normally hidden in the Sun's glare. Look closely for an ill-fated sungrazing Kreutz family comet (C/2020 X3 SOHO) approaching from the lower left, at about the 7 o'clock position. In 2021 eclipse chasers will see an annular solar eclipse coming up on June 10. They'll have to wait until December 4 for the only total solar eclipse in 2021 though. That eclipse will be total along a narrow path crossing the southernmost continent of Antarctica.

Photo by Miloslav Druckmuller

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

Why are these sand dunes on Mars striped? No one is sure. The featured image shows striped dunes in Kunowsky Crater on Mars, photographed recently with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE Camera. Many Martian dunes are known to be covered unevenly with carbon dioxide (dry ice) frost, creating patterns of light and dark areas. Carbon dioxide doesn’t melt, but sublimates, turning directly into a gas. Carbon dioxide is also a greenhouse material even as a solid, so it can trap heat under the ice and sublimate from the bottom up, causing geyser-like eruptions. During Martian spring, these eruptions can cause a pattern of dark defrosting spots, where the darker sand is exposed. The featured image, though, was taken during Martian autumn, when the weather is getting colder – making these stripes particularly puzzling. One hypothesis is that they are caused by cracks in the ice that form from weaker eruptions or thermal stress as part of the day-night cycle, but research continues. Watching these dunes and others through more Martian seasons may give us more clues to solve this mystery.

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

What is the Small Magellanic Cloud? It has turned out to be a galaxy. People who have wondered about this little fuzzy patch in the southern sky included Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan and his crew, who had plenty of time to study the unfamiliar night sky of the south during the first circumnavigation of planet Earth in the early 1500s. As a result, two celestial wonders easily visible for southern hemisphere skygazers are now known in Western culture as the Clouds of Magellan. Within the past 100 years, research has shown that these cosmic clouds are dwarf irregular galaxies, satellites of our larger spiral Milky Way Galaxy. The Small Magellanic Cloud actually spans 15,000 light-years or so and contains several hundred million stars. About 210,000 light-years away in the constellation of the Tucan (Tucana), it is more distant than other known Milky Way satellite galaxies, including the Sagittarius Dwarf galaxy and the Large Magellanic Cloud. This sharp image also includes the foreground globular star cluster 47 Tucanae on the right.

Photo by José Mtanous

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

What causes sprite lightning? Mysterious bursts of light in the sky that momentarily resemble gigantic jellyfish have been recorded for over 30 years, but apart from a general association with positive cloud-to-ground lightning, their root cause remains unknown. Some thunderstorms have them -- most don't. Recently, however, high speed videos are better detailing how sprites actually develop. The featured video, captured in mid-2019, is fast enough -- at about 100,000 frames per second -- to time-resolve several sprite "bombs" dropping and developing into the multi-pronged streamers that appear on still images. Unfortunately, the visual clues provided by videos like these do not fully resolve the sprite origins mystery. High speed vidoes do indicate to some researchers, though, that sprites are more likely to occur when plasma irregularities exist in the upper atmosphere. Astrophysicists: Browse 2,300+ codes in the Astrophysics Source Code Library

Video by Thomas Ashcraft

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

All of the other aurora watchers had gone home. By 3:30 am in Iceland, on a quiet September night, much of that night's auroras had died down. Suddenly, unexpectedly, a new burst of particles streamed down from space, lighting up the Earth's atmosphere once again. This time, surprisingly, pareidoliacally, the night lit up with an amazing shape reminiscent of a giant phoenix. With camera equipment at the ready, two quick sky images were taken, followed immediately by a third of the land. The mountain in the background is Helgafell, while the small foreground river is called Kaldá, both located about 30 kilometers north of Iceland's capital Reykjavík. Seasoned skywatchers will note that just above the mountain, toward the left, is the constellation of Orion, while the Pleiades star cluster is also visible just above the frame center. The 2016 aurora, which lasted only a minute and was soon gone forever -- would possibly be dismissed as an fanciful fable -- were it not captured in the featured, digitally-composed, image mosaic. Almost Hyperspace: Random APOD Generator

Photo by Hallgrimur P. Helgason Rollover Annotation: Judy Schmidt

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

In the mid 19th century, one of the first photographic technologies used to record the lunar surface was the wet-plate collodion process, notably employed by British astronomer Warren De la Rue. To capture an image, a thick, transparent mixture was used to coat a glass plate, sensitized with silver nitrate, exposed at the telescope, and then developed to create a negative image on the plate. To maintain photographic sensitivity, the entire process, from coating to exposure to developing, had to be completed before the plate dried, in a span of about 10 to 15 minutes. This modern version of a wet-plate collodion image celebrates lunar photography's early days, reproducing the process using modern chemicals to coat a glass plate from a 21st century hardware store. Captured last November 28 with an 8x10 view camera and backyard telescope, it faithfully records large craters, bright rays, and dark, smooth mare of the waxing gibbous Moon. Subsequently digitized, the image on the plate was 8.5 centimeters in diameter and exposed while tracking for 2 minutes. The wet plate's effective photographic sensitivity was about ISO 1. In your smart phone, the camera sensor probably has a photographic sensitivity range of ISO 100 to 6400 (and needs to be kept dry ...).

Photo by wet-plate collodion

NASA Astronomy Picture of the Day:

The South Celestial Pole is easy to spot in star trail images of the southern sky. The extension of Earth's axis of rotation to the south, it's at the center of all the southern star trail arcs. In this starry panorama streching about 60 degrees across deep southern skies the South Celestial Pole is somewhere near the middle though, flanked by bright galaxies and southern celestial gems. Across the top of the frame are the stars and nebulae along the plane of our own Milky Way Galaxy. Gamma Crucis, a yellowish giant star heads the Southern Cross near top center, with the dark expanse of the Coalsack nebula tucked under the cross arm on the left. Eta Carinae and the reddish glow of the Great Carina Nebula shine along the galactic plane near the right edge. At the bottom are the Large and Small Magellanic clouds, external galaxies in their own right and satellites of the mighty Milky Way. A line from Gamma Crucis through the blue star at the bottom of the southern cross, Alpha Crucis, points toward the South Celestial Pole, but where exactly is it? Just look for south pole star Sigma Octantis. Analog to Polaris the north pole star, Sigma Octantis is little over one degree fom the the South Celestial pole.

Photo by Petr Horalek

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