Holy Horsehead, Batman! You’ve probably seen photos of the famous Horsehead nebula in Orion many times before, but NOTHING like this!
Astronomers have used NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to photograph the iconic Horsehead Nebula in a new, infrared light to mark the 23rd anniversary of the famous observatory’s launch aboard the space shuttle Discovery on April 24, 1990.
Looking like an apparition rising from whitecaps of interstellar foam, the iconic Horsehead Nebula has graced astronomy books ever since its discovery more than a century ago. The nebula is a favorite target for amateur and professional astronomers. It is shadowy in optical light. It appears transparent and ethereal when seen at infrared wavelengths. The rich tapestry of the Horsehead Nebula pops out against the backdrop of Milky Way stars and distant galaxies that easily are visible in infrared light.
The nebula is part of the Orion Molecular Cloud, located about 1,500 light-years away in the constellation Orion. It is one of the nearest and most easily-photographed regions in which massive stars are being formed.
A rain of ionized water molecules falls into Saturn’s upper atmosphere from its rings, researchers from England’s University of Leicester have found. Using images from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft and more recent near-infrared observations from the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, it has been found that dark bands seen across Saturn are actually the “rain shadows” of particles from the rings interacting with the planet’s atmosphere, effectively cooling it and reducing heat emissions in those areas.
“Saturn is the first planet to show significant interaction between its atmosphere and ring system,” said James O’Donoghue, the paper’s lead author and a postgraduate researcher at Leicester. “The main effect of ring rain is that it acts to ‘quench’ the ionosphere of Saturn. In other words, this rain severely reduces the electron densities in regions in which it falls.”
According to research by NASA astronomers using the next-generation optics of the 10-meter Keck II telescope, Jupiter’s ice-encrusted moon Europa has hydrogen peroxide (aka H2O2) across much of the surface of its leading hemisphere, a compound that could potentially provide energy for life if it has found its way into the moon’s subsurface ocean.
“Europa has the liquid water and elements, and we think that compounds like peroxide might be an important part of the energy requirement,” said JPL scientist Kevin Hand, the paper’s lead author. “The availability of oxidants like peroxide on Earth was a critical part of the rise of complex, multicellular life.”
Every once in a while an astronomy book comes out that combines stunning high-definition images from the world’s most advanced telescopes, comprehensive descriptions of cosmic objects that are both approachable and easy to understand (but not overly simplistic) and a gorgeous layout that makes every page spread visually exciting and enjoyable.
This is one of those books.
Every now and then a new gem of a color-composite appears in the Flickr photostream of Gordan Ugarkovic, and this one is the latest to materialize.
This is a view of Mercury as seen by NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft during a flyby in October 2008. The image is a composite of twenty separate frames acquired with MESSENGER’s narrow-angle camera from distances ranging from 18,900 to 17,700 kilometers and colorized with color data from the spacecraft’s wide-angle camera. (North is to the right.)
Click the image for a closer look, and for an even bigger planet-sized version click here. Beautiful!
If you’re still looking for that last-minute gift for the astronomy fan in your life (and let’s be honest; that may very well be yourself — I won’t tell) may I suggest this little gem: The Star Book: How to Understand Astronomy published by David & Charles.
The latest book by amateur astronomer and astrophotographer Peter Grego, The Star Book is 157 pages of astronomy goodness, jam-packed with everything from star charts for all major 88 constellations (for both northern and southern sky gazers) to the latest photos and information about all sorts of cosmic objects — nebulae, galaxies, planets, meteors, etc. — as well as a brief history about the study of astronomy throughout the ages.
A convenient color-coding system helps to navigate through the book, dividing it up into sections for topics like sky visibility for northern winter, northern summer, southern summer, deep-sky objects, etc., and the layout itself is bold, attractive and easy to scan through for important information. Its relatively compact size (this isn’t some heavyweight coffee-table tome) means you can easily toss it into a backpack and take it out skywatching, but it’s big enough so you won’t be squinting at charts in the dark, either.
Gorgeous photographs from NASA abound, but there’s also many wonderful images from amateur astrophotographers as well, like Nick Howes, Peter Vasey, and Peter Grego himself. British astrophysicist Sir Arnold Wolfendale, emeritus professor at Durham University, provides a glowing foreword.
“If you can see it in the sky then there’s something in this book to tell you more,” Sir Wolfendale writes.
Who says Mercury’s too hot to be really cool? Even three times closer to the Sun than we are, lacking atmosphere and with scorching daytime temperatures of 425 ºC (800 ºF), Mercury still has places more than cold enough to hide ice. This is the most recent announcement from the MESSENGER mission team: (very nearly) confirmed ice on the first rock from the Sun!