Four Quasar Images Surround a Galaxy Lens

An odd thing about the group of lights near the center is that four of them are the same distant quasar. This is because the foreground galaxy — in the center of the quasar images and the featured image — is acting like a choppy gravitational lens. A perhaps even odder thing is that by watching these background quasars flicker, you can estimate the expansion rate of the universe. That is because the flicker timing increases as the expansion rate increases. But to some astronomers, the oddest thing of all is that these multiply imaged quasars indicate a universe that is expanding a bit faster than has been estimated by different methods that apply to the early universe. And that is because … well, no one is sure why. Reasons might include an unexpected distribution of dark matter, some unexpected effect of gravity, or something completely different. Perhaps future observations and analyses of this and similarly lensed quasar images will remove these oddities. via NASA http://ift.tt/2lqQwNC

Daphnis and the Rings of Saturn

What’s happening to the rings of Saturn? Nothing much, just a little moon making waves. The moon is 8-kilometer Daphnis and it is making waves in the Keeler Gap of Saturn’s rings using just its gravity — as it bobs up and down, in and out. The featured image is a wide-field version of a previously released image taken last month by the robotic Cassini spacecraft during one of its new Grand Finale orbits. Daphnis can be seen on the far right, sporting ridges likely accumulated from ring particles. Daphnis was discovered in Cassini images in 2005 and raised mounds of ring particles so high in 2009 — during Saturn’s equinox when the ring plane pointed directly at the Sun — that they cast notable shadows. via NASA http://ift.tt/2lLhtzc

Almost Three Tails for Comet Encke

How can a comet have three tails? Normally, a comet has two tails: an ion tail of charged particles emitted by the comet and pushed out by the wind from the Sun, and a dust tail of small debris that orbits behind the comet but is also pushed out, to some degree, by the solar wind. Frequently a comet will appear to have only one tail because the other tail is not easily visible from the Earth. In the featured unusual image, Comet 2P/Encke appears to have three tails because the ion tail split just near to the time when the image was taken. The complex solar wind is occasionally turbulent and sometimes creates unusual structure in an ion tail. On rare occasions even ion-tail disconnection events have been recorded. An image of the Comet Encke taken two days later gives a perhaps less perplexing perspective. via NASA http://ift.tt/2m0u7dZ

The Tulip and Cygnus X-1

Framing a bright emission region, this telescopic view looks out along the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy toward the nebula rich constellation Cygnus the Swan. Popularly called the Tulip Nebula, the reddish glowing cloud of interstellar gas and dust is also found in the 1959 catalog by astronomer Stewart Sharpless as Sh2-101. About 8,000 light-years distant and 70 light-years across the complex and beautiful nebula blossoms at the center of this composite image. Ultraviolet radiation from young energetic stars at the edge of the Cygnus OB3 association, including O star HDE 227018, ionizes the atoms and powers the emission from the Tulip Nebula. HDE 227018 is the bright star near the center of the nebula. Also framed in the field of view is microquasar Cygnus X-1, one of the strongest X-ray sources in planet Earth’s sky. Driven by powerful jets from a black hole accretion disk, its fainter visible curved shock front lies above and right, just beyond the cosmic Tulip’s petals via NASA http://ift.tt/2lVUygT

The Calabash Nebula from Hubble

Fast expanding gas clouds mark the end for a central star in the Calabash Nebula. The once-normal star has run out of nuclear fuel, causing the central regions to contract into a white dwarf. Some of the liberated energy causes the outer envelope of the star to expand. In this case, the result is a photogenic proto-planetary nebula. As the million-kilometer per hour gas rams into the surrounding interstellar gas, a supersonic shock front forms where ionized hydrogen and nitrogen glow blue. Thick gas and dust hide the dying central star. The Calabash Nebula, also known as the Rotten Egg Nebula and OH231.8+4.2, will likely develop into a full bipolar planetary nebula over the next 1000 years. The nebula, featured here, is about 1.4 light-years in extent and located about 5000 light-years away toward the constellation of Puppis. via NASA http://ift.tt/2lKLZtg

The Rosette Nebula

Would the Rosette Nebula by any other name look as sweet? The bland New General Catalog designation of NGC 2237 doesn’t appear to diminish the appearance of this flowery emission nebula. Inside the nebula lies an open cluster of bright young stars designated NGC 2244. These stars formed about four million years ago from the nebular material and their stellar winds are clearing a hole in the nebula’s center, insulated by a layer of dust and hot gas. Ultraviolet light from the hot cluster stars causes the surrounding nebula to glow. The Rosette Nebula spans about 100 light-years across, lies about 5000 light-years away, and can be seen with a small telescope towards the constellation of the Unicorn (Monoceros). via NASA http://ift.tt/2ksUEf4

Comet 45P Passes Near the Earth

A large snowball has just passed the Earth. Known as Comet 45P/Honda–Mrkos–Pajdušáková”, or 45P for short, the comet came 10 times closer to Earth yesterday than the Earth ever gets to the Sun. During this passage, the comet was photographed sporting a thin ion tail and a faint but expansive green coma. The green color is caused mostly by energized molecules of carbon. Comet 45P became just bright enough to see with the unaided eye when it came closest to the Sun in December. Now, however, the comet is fading as it heads back out to near the orbit of Jupiter, where it spends most of its time. The kilometer-sized nucleus of ice and dirt will return to the inner Solar System in 2022. via NASA http://ift.tt/2kGZb0R

Solar System Portrait

On Valentine’s Day in 1990, cruising four billion miles from the Sun, the Voyager 1 spacecraft looked back one last time to make this first ever Solar System family portrait. The complete portrait is a 60 frame mosaic made from a vantage point 32 degrees above the ecliptic plane. In it, Voyager’s wide angle camera frames sweep through the inner Solar System at the left, linking up with gas giant Neptune, the Solar System’s outermost planet, at the far right. Positions for Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are indicated by letters, while the Sun is the bright spot near the center of the circle of frames. The inset frames for each of the planets are from Voyager’s narrow field camera. Unseen in the portrait are Mercury, too close to the Sun to be detected, and Mars, unfortunately hidden by sunlight scattered in the camera’s optical system. Closer to the Sun than Neptune at the time, small, faint Pluto’s position was not covered. via NASA http://ift.tt/2l4F6lk

Melotte 15 inthe Heart

Cosmic clouds form fantastic shapes in the central regions of emission nebula IC 1805. The clouds are sculpted by stellar winds and radiation from massive hot stars in the nebula’s newborn star cluster, Melotte 15. About 1.5 million years young, the cluster stars are scattered in this colorful skyscape, along with dark dust clouds in silhouette against glowing atomic gas. A composite of narrowband and broadband telescopic images, the view spans about 15 light-years and includes emission from ionized hydrogen, sulfur, and oxygen atoms mapped to green, red, and blue hues in the popular Hubble Palette. Wider field images reveal that IC 1805’s simpler, overall outline suggests its popular name – The Heart Nebula. IC 1805 is located about 7,500 light years away toward the boastful constellation Cassiopeia. via NASA http://ift.tt/2kb8Ii1

The Butterfly Nebula from Hubble

The bright clusters and nebulae of planet Earth’s night sky are often named for flowers or insects. Though its wingspan covers over 3 light-years, NGC 6302 is no exception. With an estimated surface temperature of about 250,000 degrees C, the dying central star of this particular planetary nebula has become exceptionally hot, shining brightly in ultraviolet light but hidden from direct view by a dense torus of dust. This sharp close-up of the dying star’s nebula was recorded by the Hubble Space Telescope and is presented here in reprocessed colors. Cutting across a bright cavity of ionized gas, the dust torus surrounding the central star is near the center of this view, almost edge-on to the line-of-sight. Molecular hydrogen has been detected in the hot star’s dusty cosmic shroud. NGC 6302 lies about 4,000 light-years away in the arachnologically correct constellation of the Scorpion (Scorpius). via NASA http://ift.tt/2lqs7YW