Like salsa verde on your favorite burrito, a green aurora slathers up the sky in this 2017 June 25 snapshot from the International Space Station. About 400 kilometers (250 miles) above Earth, the orbiting station is itself within the upper realm of the auroral displays. Aurorae have the signature colors of excited molecules and atoms at the low densities found at extreme altitudes. Emission from atomic oxygen dominates this view. The tantalizing glow is green at lower altitudes, but rarer reddish bands extend above the space station’s horizon. The orbital scene was captured while passing over a point south and east of Australia, with stars above the horizon at the right belonging to the constellation Canis Major, Orion’s big dog. Sirius, alpha star of Canis Major, is the brightest star near the Earth’s limb.
What are these two giant arches across the sky? Perhaps the more familiar one, on the left, is the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy. This grand disk of stars and nebulas here appears to encircle much of the southern sky. Visible below the stellar arch is the rusty-orange planet Mars and the extended Andromeda galaxy. For a few minutes during this cold artic night, a second giant arch appeared to the right, encircling part of the northern sky: an aurora. Auroras are much closer than stars as they are composed of glowing air high in Earth’s atmosphere. Visible outside the green auroral arch is the group of stars popularly known as the Big Dipper. The featured digital composite of 18 images was captured in mid-December over the in Norway. APOD Year in Review (2020): RJN’s Night Sky Network Lecture
In the center of nearby star-forming region lies a huge cluster containing some of the largest, hottest, and most massive stars known. These stars, known collectively as star cluster R136, part of the Tarantula Nebula, were captured in the featured image in visible light in 2009 through the Hubble Space Telescope. Gas and dust clouds in the Tarantula Nebula, have been sculpted into elongated shapes by powerful winds and ultraviolet radiation from these hot cluster stars. The Tarantula Nebula lies within a neighboring galaxy known as the Large Magellanic Cloud and is located a mere 170,000 light-years away.
Like Earth’s moon, Saturn’s largest moon Titan is locked in synchronous rotation. This mosaic of images recorded by the Cassini spacecraft in May of 2012 shows its anti-Saturn side, the side always facing away from the ringed gas giant. The only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere, Titan is the only solar system world besides Earth known to have standing bodies of liquid on its surface and an earthlike cycle of liquid rain and evaporation. Its high altitude layer of atmospheric haze is evident in the Cassini view of the 5,000 kilometer diameter moon over Saturn’s rings and cloud tops. Near center is the dark dune-filled region known as Shangri-La. The Cassini-delivered Huygens probe rests below and left of center, after the most distant landing for a spacecraft from Earth.
Barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365 is truly a majestic island universe some 200,000 light-years across. Located a mere 60 million light-years away toward the chemical constellation Fornax, NGC 1365 is a dominant member of the well-studied Fornax Cluster of galaxies. This impressively sharp color image shows the intense, reddish star forming regions near the ends of central bar and along the spiral arms, with details of the obscuring dust lanes cutting across the galaxy’s bright core. At the core lies a supermassive black hole. Astronomers think NGC 1365’s prominent bar plays a crucial role in the galaxy’s evolution, drawing gas and dust into a star-forming maelstrom and ultimately feeding material into the central black hole.
Along a narrow path crossing southern South America through Chile and Argentina, the final New Moon of 2020 moved in front of the Sun on December 14 in the year’s only total solar eclipse. Within about 2 days of perigee, the closest point in its elliptical orbit, the New Moon’s surface is faintly lit by earthshine in this dramatic composite view. The image is a processed composite of 55 calibrated exposures ranging from 1/640 to 3 seconds. Covering a large range in brightness during totality, it reveals the dim lunar surface and faint background stars, along with planet-sized prominences at the Sun’s edge, an enormous coronal mass ejection, and sweeping coronal structures normally hidden in the Sun’s glare. Look closely for an ill-fated sungrazing Kreutz family comet (C/2020 X3 SOHO) approaching from the lower left, at about the 7 o’clock position. In 2021 eclipse chasers will see an annular solar eclipse coming up on June 10. They’ll have to wait until December 4 for the only total solar eclipse in 2021 though. That eclipse will be total along a narrow path crossing the southernmost continent of Antarctica.
Why are these sand dunes on Mars striped? No one is sure. The featured image shows striped dunes in Kunowsky Crater on Mars, photographed recently with the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter’s HiRISE Camera. Many Martian dunes are known to be covered unevenly with carbon dioxide (dry ice) frost, creating patterns of light and dark areas. Carbon dioxide doesn’t melt, but sublimates, turning directly into a gas. Carbon dioxide is also a greenhouse material even as a solid, so it can trap heat under the ice and sublimate from the bottom up, causing geyser-like eruptions. During Martian spring, these eruptions can cause a pattern of dark defrosting spots, where the darker sand is exposed. The featured image, though, was taken during Martian autumn, when the weather is getting colder – making these stripes particularly puzzling. One hypothesis is that they are caused by cracks in the ice that form from weaker eruptions or thermal stress as part of the day-night cycle, but research continues. Watching these dunes and others through more Martian seasons may give us more clues to solve this mystery.
What is the Small Magellanic Cloud? It has turned out to be a galaxy. People who have wondered about this little fuzzy patch in the southern sky included Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan and his crew, who had plenty of time to study the unfamiliar night sky of the south during the first circumnavigation of planet Earth in the early 1500s. As a result, two celestial wonders easily visible for southern hemisphere skygazers are now known in Western culture as the Clouds of Magellan. Within the past 100 years, research has shown that these cosmic clouds are dwarf irregular galaxies, satellites of our larger spiral Milky Way Galaxy. The Small Magellanic Cloud actually spans 15,000 light-years or so and contains several hundred million stars. About 210,000 light-years away in the constellation of the Tucan (Tucana), it is more distant than other known Milky Way satellite galaxies, including the Sagittarius Dwarf galaxy and the Large Magellanic Cloud. This sharp image also includes the foreground globular star cluster 47 Tucanae on the right.