A gorgeous spiral galaxy, M104 is famous for its nearly edge-on profile featuring a broad ring of obscuring dust lanes. Seen in silhouette against an extensive central bulge of stars, the swath of cosmic dust lends a broad brimmed hat-like appearance to the galaxy suggesting a more popular moniker, the Sombrero Galaxy. This sharp optical view of the well-known galaxy made from ground-based image data was processed to preserve details often lost in overwhelming glare of M104’s bright central bulge. Also known as NGC 4594, the Sombrero galaxy can be seen across the spectrum, and is host to a central supermassive black hole. About 50,000 light-years across and 28 million light-years away, M104 is one of the largest galaxies at the southern edge of the Virgo Galaxy Cluster. Still the colorful spiky foreground stars in this field of view lie well within our own Milky Way galaxy.
Closest to the Sun on March 1, and closest to planet Earth on April 23, this Comet ATLAS (C/2020 R4) shows a faint greenish coma and short tail in this pretty, telescopic field of view. Captured at its position on May 5, the comet was within the boundaries of northern constellation Canes Venatici (the Hunting Dogs), and near the line-of-sight to intriguing background galaxies popularly known as the Whale and the Hockey Stick. Cetacean in appearance but Milky Way sized, NGC 4631 is a spiral galaxy seen edge-on at the top right, some 25 million light-years away. NGC 4656/7 sports the bent-stick shape of interacting galaxies below and left of NGC 4631. In fact, the distortions and mingling trails of gas detected at other wavelengths suggest the cosmic Whale and Hockey Stick have had close encounters with each other in their distant past. Outbound and only about 7 light-minutes from Earth this Comet ATLAS should revisit the inner solar system in just under 1,000 years.
Is the night sky darkest in the direction opposite the Sun? No. In fact, a rarely discernable faint glow known as the gegenschein (German for “counter glow”) can be seen 180 degrees around from the Sun in an extremely dark sky. The gegenschein is sunlight back-scattered off small interplanetary dust particles. These dust particles are millimeter sized splinters from asteroids and orbit in the ecliptic plane of the planets. Pictured here from last March is one of the more spectacular pictures of the gegenschein yet taken. The deep exposure of an extremely dark sky over Teide Observatory in Spain’s Canary Islands shows the gegenschein as part of extended zodiacal light. Notable background objects include a bright meteor (on the left), the Big Dipper (top right), and Polaris (far right). The meteor nearly points toward Mount Teide, Spain’s highest mountain, while the Pyramid solar laboratory is visible on the right. During the day, a phenomenon like the gegenschein called the glory can be seen in reflecting air or clouds opposite the Sun from an airplane.
What’s happening behind Uluru? A United Nations World Heritage Site, Uluru is an extraordinary 350-meter high mountain in central Australia that rises sharply from nearly flat surroundings. Composed of sandstone, Uluru has slowly formed over the past 300 million years as softer rock eroded away. In the background of the featured image taken in mid-May, a raging thunderstorm is visible. Far behind both Uluru and the thunderstorm is a star-filled sky highlighted by the constellation of Orion. The Uluru region has been a home to humans for over 22,000 years. Local indigenous people have long noted that when the stars that compose the modern constellation of Orion first appear in the night sky, a hot season involving lightning storms will soon be arriving.
Clusters of stars can be near or far, young or old, diffuse or compact. The featured image shows two quite contrasting open star clusters in the same field. M35, on the lower left, is relatively nearby at 2800 light years distant, relatively young at 150 million years old, and relatively diffuse, with about 2500 stars spread out over a volume 30 light years across. Bright blue stars frequently distinguish younger open clusters like M35. Contrastingly, NGC 2158, on the upper right, is four times more distant than M35, over 10 times older, and much more compact. NGC 2158’s bright blue stars have self-destructed, leaving cluster light to be dominated by older and yellower stars. In general, open star clusters are found in the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy, and contain anywhere from 100 to 10,000 stars — all of which formed at nearly the same time. Both open clusters M35 and NGC 2158 can be found together with a small telescope toward the constellation of the Twins (Gemini).
The dark Horsehead Nebula and the glowing Orion Nebula are contrasting cosmic vistas. Adrift 1,500 light-years away in one of the night sky’s most recognizable constellations, they appear in opposite corners of the above stunning mosaic. The familiar Horsehead nebula appears as a dark cloud, a small silhouette notched against the long red glow at the lower left. Alnitak is the easternmost star in Orion’s belt and is seen as the brightest star to the left of the Horsehead. Below Alnitak is the Flame Nebula, with clouds of bright emission and dramatic dark dust lanes. The magnificent emission region, the Orion Nebula (aka M42), lies at the upper right. Immediately to its left is a prominent reflection nebula sometimes called the Running Man. Pervasive tendrils of glowing hydrogen gas are easily traced throughout the region. Astrophysicists: Browse 2,500+ codes in the Astrophysics Source Code Library
Sixty years ago, near the dawn of the space age, NASA controllers “lit the candle” and sent Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard arcing into space atop a Redstone rocket. His cramped space capsule was dubbed Freedom 7. Broadcast live to a global television audience, the historic Mercury-Redstone 3 (MR-3) spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral Florida at 9:34 a.m. Eastern Time on May 5, 1961. The flight of Freedom 7, the first space flight by an American, followed less than a month after the first human venture into space by Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. The 15 minute sub-orbital flight achieved an altitude of 116 miles and a maximum speed of 5,134 miles per hour. As Shepard looked back near the peak of Freedom 7’s trajectory, he could see the outlines of the west coast of Florida, Lake Okeechobe in central Florida, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Bahamas. Shepard would later view planet Earth from a more distant perspective and walk on the Moon as commander of the Apollo 14 mission.
NGC 3199 lies about 12,000 light-years away, a glowing cosmic cloud in the nautical southern constellation of Carina. The nebula is about 75 light-years across in this narrowband, false-color view. Though the deep image reveals a more or less complete bubble shape, it does look very lopsided with a much brighter edge along the top. Near the center is a Wolf-Rayet star, a massive, hot, short-lived star that generates an intense stellar wind. In fact, Wolf-Rayet stars are known to create nebulae with interesting shapes as their powerful winds sweep up surrounding interstellar material. In this case, the bright edge was thought to indicate a bow shock produced as the star plowed through a uniform medium, like a boat through water. But measurements have shown the star is not really moving directly toward the bright edge. So a more likely explanation is that the material surrounding the star is not uniform, but clumped and denser near the bright edge of windblown NGC 3199.
What creates STEVEs? Strong Thermal Emission Velocity Enhancements (STEVEs) have likely been seen since antiquity, but only in the past five years has it been realized that their colors and shapes make them different from auroras. Seen as single bright streaks of pink and purple, the origin of STEVEs remain an active topic of research. STEVEs may be related to subauroral ion drifts (SAIDs), a supersonic river of hot atmospheric ions. For reasons currently unknown, STEVEs are frequently accompanied by green “picket-fence” auroras. The featured STEVE image is a combination of foreground and background exposures taken consecutively in mid-March from Copper Harbor, Michigan, USA. This bright STEVE lasted several minutes, spanned from horizon to horizon, and appeared in between times of normal auroras.
That’s no sunspot. It’s the International Space Station (ISS) caught passing in front of the Sun. Sunspots, individually, have a dark central umbra, a lighter surrounding penumbra, and no Dragon capsules attached. By contrast, the ISS is a complex and multi-spired mechanism, one of the largest and most complicated spacecraft ever created by humanity. Also, sunspots circle the Sun, whereas the ISS orbits the Earth. Transiting the Sun is not very unusual for the ISS, which orbits the Earth about every 90 minutes, but getting one’s location, timing and equipment just right for a great image is rare. The featured picture combined three images all taken from the same location and at nearly the same time. One image — overexposed — captured the faint prominences seen across the top of the Sun, a second image — underexposed — captured the complex texture of the Sun’s chromosphere, while the third image — the hardest to get — captured the space station as it shot across the Sun in a fraction of a second. Close inspection of the space station’s silhouette even reveals a docked Dragon Crew capsule.