M78 and Orion Dust Reflections

In the vast Orion Molecular Cloud complex, several bright blue nebulas are particularly apparent. Pictured here are two of the most prominent reflection nebulas – dust clouds lit by the reflecting light of bright embedded stars. The more famous nebula is M78, in the image center, cataloged over 200 years ago. To its left is the lesser known NGC 2071. Astronomers continue to study these reflection nebulas to better understand how interior stars form. The Orion complex lies about 1500 light-years distant, contains the Orion and Horsehead nebulas, and covers much of the constellation of Orion. via NASA http://ift.tt/2jV5RbE

SpaceX Falcon 9 to Orbit

Birds don’t fly this high. Airplanes don’t go this fast. The Statue of Liberty weighs less. No species other than human can even comprehend what is going on, nor could any human just a millennium ago. The launch of a rocket bound for space is an event that inspires awe and challenges description. Pictured here, a SpaceX Falcon 9 V rocket lifted off through a cloud deck from Cape Canaveral, Florida last July to deliver cargo and supplies to the International Space Station. From a standing start, the 300,000+ kilogram rocket ship lifted its Dragon Capsule up to circle the Earth, where the outside air is too thin to breathe. Rockets bound for space are now launched from somewhere on Earth about once a week. via NASA http://ift.tt/2j0QDO9

The Elephant’s Trunk Nebula in Cepheus

Like an illustration in a galactic Just So Story, the Elephant’s Trunk Nebula winds through the emission nebula and young star cluster complex IC 1396, in the high and far off constellation of Cepheus. Also known as vdB 142, the cosmic elephant’s trunk is over 20 light-years long. This colorful close-up view includes image data from a narrow band filter that transmits the light from ionized hydrogen atoms in the region. The resulting composite highlights the bright swept-back ridges that outline pockets of cool interstellar dust and gas. Such embedded, dark, tendril-shaped clouds contain the raw material for star formation and hide protostars within. Nearly 3,000 light-years distant, the relatively faint IC 1396 complex covers a large region on the sky, spanning over 5 degrees. This dramatic scene spans a 1 degree wide field, about the size of 2 Full Moons. via NASA http://ift.tt/2k4rLFU

When Mars met Neptune

On January 1, a Mars-assisted viewing opportunity allowed binocular-equipped skygazers to cross an ice giant off their life list. Remarkably, the line-of-sight to the bright Red Planet could guide you to within 0.02 degrees of a faint, pale Neptune in Earth’s night skies. Taken within 3 hours of their closest conjunction, these panels capture the odd couple’s appearance in skies over Brisbane, Australia. A wide field view includes the new year’s slender crescent moon near the western horizon and Venus as the brilliant evening star. Mars and Neptune are indicated at the upper right. The two inset magnified views were taken with the same telephoto lens and so do show the Mars-Neptune conjunction and the apparent size of the crescent moon at the same scale. This week Neptune hangs out near Venus on the western sky. via NASA http://ift.tt/2jf5EQr

Edge On NGC 891

Large spiral galaxy NGC 891 spans about 100 thousand light-years and is seen almost exactly edge-on from our perspective. In fact, about 30 million light-years distant in the constellation Andromeda, NGC 891 looks a lot like our Milky Way. At first glance, it has a flat, thin, galactic disk of stars and a central bulge cut along the middle by regions of dark obscuring dust. But remarkably apparent in NGC 891’s edge-on presentation are filaments of dust that extend hundreds of light-years above and below the center line. The dust has likely been blown out of the disk by supernova explosions or intense star formation activity. Fainter galaxies can also be seen near the edge-on disk in this deep portrait of NGC 891. (Editor’s Note: The NGC 891 image used in today’s APOD posting has been replaced and the credit corrected to indicate the author of the original work.) via NASA http://ift.tt/2jbfsv2

Sentinels of a Northern Sky

Who guards the north? The featured picture was taken last March in Finnish Lapland where weather can include sub-freezing temperatures and driving snow. Surreal landscapes sometimes result, where white alien-looking sentinels seem to patrol the landscape. In actuality though, the aliens are snow-covered trees, and the red hut they seem to be guarding is an outhouse. Far in the distance, behind this uncommon Earthly vista, is a beautiful night sky which includes a green aurora, bright stars, and streaks of orbiting satellites. Of course, in the spring, the trees thaw and Lapland looks much different. via NASA http://ift.tt/2iAz7AY

In the Center of Spiral Galaxy NGC 5033

What’s happening in the center of spiral NGC 5033? Many things — some circular, some energetic, and some not well understood. NGC 5033 is known as a Seyfert galaxy because of the great activity seen in its nucleus. Bright stars, dark dust, and interstellar gas all swirl quickly around a galactic center that appears slightly offset from a supermassive black hole. This offset is thought to be the result of NGC 5033 merging with another galaxy sometime in the past billion years. The featured image was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2005. NGC 5033 spans about 100,000 light years and is so far away that we see it only as it existed about 40 million years ago. via NASA http://ift.tt/2iVpWxX

IC 4406: A Seemingly Square Nebula

How can a round star make a square nebula? This conundrum comes to light when studying planetary nebulae like IC 4406. Evidence indicates that IC 4406 is likely a hollow cylinder, with its square appearance the result of our vantage point in viewing the cylinder from the side. Were IC 4406 viewed from the top, it would likely look similar to the Ring Nebula. This representative-color picture is a composite made by combining images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2001 and 2002. Hot gas flows out the ends of the cylinder, while filaments of dark dust and molecular gas lace the bounding walls. The star primarily responsible for this interstellar sculpture can be found in the planetary nebula’s center. In a few million years, the only thing left visible in IC 4406 will be a fading white dwarf star. via NASA http://ift.tt/2jqCTkd

Clouds of Andromeda

The beautiful Andromeda Galaxy is often imaged by planet Earth-based astronomers. Also known as M31, the nearest large spiral galaxy is a familiar sight with dark dust lanes, bright yellowish core, and spiral arms traced by blue starlight. A mosaic of well-exposed broad and narrow-band image data, this colorful, premier portrait of our neighboring island universe offers strikingly unfamiliar features though, faint reddish clouds of glowing ionized hydrogen gas in the same wide field of view. Still, the ionized hydrogen clouds likely lie in the foreground of the scene, well within our Milky Way Galaxy. They could be associated with the pervasive, dusty interstellar cirrus clouds scattered hundreds of light-years above our own galactic plane. If they were located at the 2.5 million light-year distance of the Andromeda Galaxy they would be enormous, since the Andromeda Galaxy itself is 200,000 or so light-years across. via NASA http://ift.tt/2ia5kyQ

Pandora Close up at Saturn

What do the craters of Saturn’s small moon Pandora look like up close? To help find out, NASA sent the robotic Cassini spacecraft, now orbiting Saturn, past the unusual moon two weeks ago. The highest resolution image of Pandora ever taken was then captured from about 40,000 kilometers out and is featured here. Structures as small as 300 meters can be discerned on 80-kilometer wide Pandora. Craters on Pandora appear to be covered over by some sort of material, providing a more smooth appearance than sponge-like Hyperion, another small moon of Saturn. Curious grooves and ridges also appear to cross the surface of the small moon. Pandora is partly interesting because, along with its companion moon Prometheus, it helps shepherd the particles of Saturn’s F ring into a distinct ring. via NASA http://ift.tt/2j09Gs7