Do you recognize this constellation? Setting past the Central Bohemian Highlands in the Czech Republic is Orion, one of the most identifiable star groupings on the sky and an icon familiar to humanity for over 30,000 years. Orion has looked pretty much the same during this time and should continue to look the same for many thousands of years into the future. Prominent Orion is high in the sky at sunset this time of year, a recurring sign of (modern) winter in Earth’s northern hemisphere and summer in the south. The featured picture is a composite of over thirty images taken from the same location and during the same night last month. Below and slightly to the left of Orion’s three-star belt is the Orion Nebula, while four of the bright stars surrounding the belt are, clockwise, Sirius (far left, blue), Betelgeuse (top, orange, unusually faint), Aldebaran (far right), and Rigel (below). As future weeks progress, Orion will set increasingly earlier. Infinite Random Loop: Create an APOD Station in your classroom or Science Center.
Besides fading, is Betelgeuse changing its appearance? Yes. The famous red supergiant star in the familiar constellation of Orion is so large that telescopes on Earth can actually resolve its surface — although just barely. The two featured images taken with the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope show how the star’s surface appeared during the beginning and end of last year. The earlier image shows Betelgeuse having a much more uniform brightness than the later one, while the lower half of Betelgeuse became significantly dimmer than the top. Now during the first five months of 2019 amateur observations show Betelgeuse actually got slightly brighter, while in the last five months the star dimmed dramatically. Such variability is likely just normal behavior for this famously variable supergiant, but the recent dimming has rekindled discussion on how long it may be before Betelgeuse does go supernova. Since Betelgeuse is about 700 light years away, its eventual supernova — probably thousands of years in the future — will likely be an amazing night-sky spectacle, but will not endanger life on Earth.
To some, this huge nebula resembles a person’s head surrounded by a parka hood. In 1787, astronomer William Herschel discovered this unusual planetary nebula: NGC 2392. More recently, the Hubble Space Telescope imaged the nebula in visible light, while the nebula was also imaged in X-rays by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. The featured combined visible-X ray image, shows X-rays emitted by central hot gas in pink. The nebula displays gas clouds so complex they are not fully understood. NGC 2392 is a double-shelled planetary nebula, with the more distant gas having composed the outer layers of a Sun-like star only 10,000 years ago. The outer shell contains unusual light-year long orange filaments. The inner filaments visible are being ejected by strong wind of particles from the central star. The NGC 2392 Nebula spans about 1/3 of a light year and lies in our Milky Way Galaxy, about 3,000 light years distant, toward the constellation of the Twins (Gemini).