Curiosity Surveys Lower Mount Sharp on Mars

If you could stand on Mars — what might you see? If you were the Curiosity rover, then just last month you would have contemplated the featured image — a breathtaking panorama of the lower portion of Mount Sharp. The colors have been adjusted to mimic lighting familiar to Earthlings. Surveyed here was a rocky plain before increasingly high rolling hills. The rounded hills in the middle distance, called the Sulfate Unit, are Curiosity’s highest currently planned destination. One reason these hills are interesting is because sulfates are an energy source for some micro-organisms. The immediate path forward, though, was toward the southeast on the left part of the image. via NASA http://ift.tt/2hosYXb

M31: The Andromeda Galaxy

What is the nearest major galaxy to our own Milky Way Galaxy? Andromeda. In fact, our Galaxy is thought to look much like Andromeda. Together these two galaxies dominate the Local Group of galaxies. The diffuse light from Andromeda is caused by the hundreds of billions of stars that compose it. The several distinct stars that surround Andromeda’s image are actually stars in our Galaxy that are well in front of the background object. Andromeda is frequently referred to as M31 since it is the 31st object on Messier’s list of diffuse sky objects. M31 is so distant it takes about two million years for light to reach us from there. Although visible without aid, the featured image of M31 is a digital mosaic of several frames taken with a small telescope. Much about M31 remains unknown, including exactly how many billions of years it will before it collides with our home galaxy. via NASA http://ift.tt/2htoT8X

Once Upon a Solstice Eve

Once upon a solstice eve a little prince gazed across a frozen little planet at the edge of a large galaxy. The little planet was planet Earth of course, seen in this horizon to horizon, nadir to zenith projection, a digitally stitched mosaic from the shores of the Sec reservoir in the Czech Republic. So the large galaxy must be the Milky Way, and the brightest beacon on the planet’s horizon Venus, visible around the globe as this season’s brilliant evening star. Celestial treasures in surrounding dark skies include the Pleiades star cluster, and the North America nebula found along a dusty galactic rift. Embracing Venus, Zodiacal light traces a faint band across the night, but the more colorful pillars of light shine above streets a little closer to home. via NASA http://ift.tt/2ik6RWz

Sharpless 308: Star Bubble

Blown by fast winds from a hot, massive star, this cosmic bubble is huge. Cataloged as Sharpless 2-308 it lies some 5,200 light-years away toward the constellation of the Big Dog (Canis Major) and covers slightly more of the sky than a full moon. That corresponds to a diameter of 60 light-years at its estimated distance. The massive star that created the bubble, a Wolf-Rayet star, is the bright one near the center of the nebula. Wolf-Rayet stars have over 20 times the mass of the Sun and are thought to be in a brief, pre-supernova phase of massive star evolution. Fast winds from this Wolf-Rayet star create the bubble-shaped nebula as they sweep up slower moving material from an earlier phase of evolution. The windblown nebula has an age of about 70,000 years. Relatively faint emission captured in the expansive image is dominated by the glow of ionized oxygen atoms mapped to a blue hue. via NASA http://ift.tt/2gXLXYn

Sharpless 308: Star Bubble

Blown by fast winds from a hot, massive star, this cosmic bubble is huge. Cataloged as Sharpless 2-308 it lies some 5,200 light-years away toward the constellation of the Big Dog (Canis Major) and covers slightly more of the sky than a full moon. That corresponds to a diameter of 60 light-years at its estimated distance. The massive star that created the bubble, a Wolf-Rayet star, is the bright one near the center of the nebula. Wolf-Rayet stars have over 20 times the mass of the Sun and are thought to be in a brief, pre-supernova phase of massive star evolution. Fast winds from this Wolf-Rayet star create the bubble-shaped nebula as they sweep up slower moving material from an earlier phase of evolution. The windblown nebula has an age of about 70,000 years. Relatively faint emission captured in the expansive image is dominated by the glow of ionized oxygen atoms mapped to a blue hue. via NASA http://ift.tt/2gXLXYn

Supermoon over Spanish Castle

No, this castle was not built with the Moon attached. To create the spectacular juxtaposition, careful planning and a bit of good weather was needed. Pictured, the last supermoon of 2016 was captured last week rising directly beyond one of the towers of Bellver Castle in Palma de Mallorca on the Balearic Islands of Spain. The supermoon was the last full moon of 2016 and known to some as the Oak Moon. Bellver Castle was built in the early 1300s and has served as a home — but occasional as a prison — to numerous kings and queens. The Moon was built about 4.5 billion years ago, possibly resulting from a great collision with a Mars-sized celestial body and Earth. The next supermoon, defined as when the moon appears slightly larger and brighter than usual, will occur on 2017 December 3 and be visible not only behind castles but all over the Earth. via NASA http://ift.tt/2hA2eqg

Southern Jupiter from Perijove 3

Southern Jupiter looms some 37,000 kilometers away in this JunoCam image from December 11. The image data was captured near Juno’s third perijove or closest approach to Jupiter, the spacecraft still in its 53 day long looping orbit. With the south polar region on the left, the large whitish oval toward the right is massive, counterclockwise rotating storm system. Smaller than the more famous Great Red Spot, the oval storm is only about half the diameter of planet Earth, one of a string of white ovals currently in the southern hemisphere of the Solar System’s, ruling gas giant. via NASA http://ift.tt/2hZSClv

Meteors over Four Girl Mountains

On some nights it rains meteors. Peaking over the next two nights, asteroid dust is expected to rain down on Earth during the annual Geminids meteor shower. This year, unfortunately, fainter Geminids will be harder to see because of the brightness of the Long Nights Full Moon, which occurs Wednesday. Pictured, an image from this year’s Perseids meteor shower in August captured multiple streaks over Four Girls Mountain in central China. The bright Pleaides open star cluster appears toward the upper right, while numerous emission nebulas are visible in red, many superposed on the diagonal band of the Milky Way. via NASA http://ift.tt/2gHbmsn

Over Saturns Turbulent North Pole

The Cassini spacecraft’s Grand Finale at Saturn has begun. The Grand Finale will allow Cassini to explore Saturn and some of Saturn’s moons and rings in unprecedented detail. The first phase started two weeks ago when a close flyby of Titan changed Cassini’s orbit into one that passes near Saturn’s poles and just outside of Saturn’s outermost F-ring. Featured here is an image taken during the first of Cassini’s 20 week-long F-ring orbits around Saturn. Visible are the central polar vortex on the upper left, a hexagonal cloud boundary through the image center, and numerous light-colored turbulent storm systems. In 2017 April, Cassini will again use the gravity of Titan to begin a new series of 22 Proximal orbits — trajectories that will take Cassini inside of Saturn’s rings for the first time. Cassini’s new science adventure is scheduled to end on 2017 September 17, though, when the robotic spacecraft will be directed into a dramatic mission-ending dive into Saturn’s atmosphere. via NASA http://ift.tt/2hlvVLX

The Lunar X

The striking X appearing in this lunarscape is easily visible in binoculars or a small telescope. Yet, not too many have seen it. The catch is this lunar X is fleeting, only apparent in the hours before the Moon’s first quarter phase. At the terminator, or shadow line between lunar day and night, the X illusion is produced by a configuration of the craters Blanchinus, La Caille and Purbach. Near the Moon’s first quarter phase, an astronaut standing close to the craters’ position would see the slowly rising Sun very near the horizon. Temporarily, the crater walls would be in sunlight while the crater floors were still in darkness. Seen from planet Earth, contrasting sections of bright walls against the dark floors by chance look remarkably like an X. This sharp image of the Lunar X was captured at approximately 16:45 UT on December 6, 2016. For extra credit, sweep your gaze along the lunar terminator and you can also spot the Lunar V. via NASA http://ift.tt/2hg43Ja