Big, bright, beautiful spiral, Messier 106 dominates this cosmic vista. The nearly two degree wide telescopic field of view looks toward the well-trained constellation Canes Venatici, near the handle of the Big Dipper. Also known as NGC 4258, M106 is about 80,000 light-years across and 23.5 million light-years away, the largest member of the Canes II galaxy group. For a far away galaxy, the distance to M106 is well-known in part because it can be directly measured by tracking this galaxy’s remarkable maser, or microwave laser emission. Very rare but naturally occurring, the maser emission is produced by water molecules in molecular clouds orbiting its active galactic nucleus. Another prominent spiral galaxy on the scene, viewed nearly edge-on, is NGC 4217 below and right of M106. The distance to NGC 4217 is much less well-known, estimated to be about 60 million light-years.
What’s the magnetic field like in the center of our Milky Way Galaxy? To help find out, NASA’s SOFIA — an observatory flying in a modified 747 — imaged the central region with an instrument known as HAWC+. HAWC+ maps magnetism by observing polarized infrared light emitted by elongated dust grains rotating in alignment with the local magnetic field. Now at our Milky Way’s center is a supermassive black hole with a hobby of absorbing gas from stars it has recently destroyed. Our galaxy’s black hole, though, is relatively quiet compared to the absorption rate of the central black holes in active galaxies. The featured image gives a clue as to why — a surrounding magnetic field may either channel gas into the black hole — which lights up its exterior, or forces gas into an accretion-disk holding pattern, causing it to be less active — at least temporarily. Inspection of the featured image — appearing perhaps like a surreal mashup of impasto art and gravitational astrophysics — brings out this telling clue by detailing the magnetic field in and around a dusty ring surrounding Sagittarius A*, the black hole in our Milky Way’s center.
Did you see the full moon last night? If not, tonight’s nearly full moon should be almost as good. Because full moons are opposite the Sun, they are visible in the sky when the Sun is not — which should be nearly all night long tonight, clouds permitting. One nickname for June’s full moon is the Strawberry Moon, named for when wild strawberries start to ripen in parts of Earth’s northern hemisphere. Different cultures around the globe give this full moon different names, though, including Honey Moon and Rose Moon. In the foreground of this featured image, taken yesterday in Cape Sounion, Greece, is the 2,400 year-old Temple of Poseidon. Next month will the 50th anniversary of the time humans first landed on the Moon.
To see the feathered serpent descend the Mayan pyramid requires exquisite timing. You must visit El Castillo — in Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula — near an equinox. Then, during the late afternoon if the sky is clear, the pyramid’s own shadows create triangles that merge into the famous illusion of the slithering viper. Also known as the Temple of Kukulkan, the impressive step-pyramid stands 30 meters tall and 55 meters wide at the base. Built up as a series of square terraces by the pre-Columbian civilization between the 9th and 12th century, the structure can be used as a calendar and is noted for astronomical alignments. To see the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy descend overhead the Mayan pyramid, however, requires less exquisite timing. Even the ancient Mayans might have been impressed, though, to know that the exact positions of the Milky Way, Saturn (left) and Jupiter (right) in the featured image give it a time stamp more specific than equinox — in fact 2019 April 7 at 5 am.