It is not a coincidence that planets line up. That’s because all of the planets orbit the Sun in (nearly) a single sheet called the plane of the ecliptic. When viewed from inside that plane — as Earth dwellers are likely to do — the planets all appear confined to a single band. It is a coincidence, though, when three of the brightest planets all appear in nearly the same direction. Such a coincidence was captured about a month ago. Featured above, Earth’s Moon, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter were all imaged together, just before sunrise, from the Black Sea coast of Bulgaria. A second band is visible diagonally across this image — the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy. If you wake up early, you will find that these same planets remain visible in the morning sky this month, too. Astrophysicists: Browse 2,100+ codes in the Astrophysics Source Code Library
Would you like a NASA astronomy-exploration poster? You are just one page-print away. Any of the panels you see on the featured image can appear on your wall. Moreover, this NASA page has, typically, several more posters of each of the Solar System objects depicted. These posters highlight many of the places humanity, through NASA, has explored in the past 50 years, including our Sun, and planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Moons of Jupiter that have been posterized include Europe, Ganymede, Callisto, and Io, while moons of Saturn that can be framed include Enceladus and Titan. Images of Pluto, Ceres, comets and asteroids are also presented, while six deep space scenes — well beyond our Solar System — can also be prominently displayed. If you lack wall space or blank poster sheets don’t despair — you can still print many of these out as trading cards.
What’s happening over the water? Pictured here is one of the better images yet recorded of a waterspout, a type of tornado that occurs over water. Waterspouts are spinning columns of rising moist air that typically form over warm water. Waterspouts can be as dangerous as tornadoes and can feature wind speeds over 200 kilometers per hour. Some waterspouts form away from thunderstorms and even during relatively fair weather. Waterspouts may be relatively transparent and initially visible only by an unusual pattern they create on the water. The featured image was taken in 2013 July near Tampa Bay, Florida. The Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida is arguably the most active area in the world for waterspouts, with hundreds forming each year. Experts Debate: How will humanity first discover extraterrestrial life?
A dark river seems to flow through this sky from the horizon toward colorful clouds near red giant star Antares. Murky looking, the dark river is a dusty nebula obscuring background starlight near the central Milky Way, although the dark dust nebula contains mostly hydrogen molecular gas. Dust scattering starlight around Antares, alpha star of Scorpius, creates the unusual yellow-hued reflection nebula. Above it, bright blue double star Rho Ophiuchi is embedded in more typical dusty bluish reflection nebulae, with red emission nebulae also scattered through the interstellar space. Globular star cluster M4 looks almost like a bright star just above and right of Antares, though it lies far behind the colorful clouds, at a distance of some 7,000 light-years. The dark river itself is about 500 light years away. To create the startling night sky view, all background and foreground exposures were made back to back with the same camera and telephoto lens on the same night from the same location. In combination they produce a stunning image that reveals a range of brightness and color that your eye can’t quite perceive. Recorded in the early hours of January 31, the composite also captures Mars still near the eastern horizon and rising to join rival Antares on the celestial stage. Bright Mars and its watery reflection are left of a lonely tree in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico, planet Earth.
These two galaxies are far far away, 12 million light-years distant toward the northern constellation of the Great Bear. On the left, with grand spiral arms and bright yellow core is spiral galaxy M81, some 100,000 light-years across. On the right marked by red gas and dust clouds, is irregular galaxy M82. The pair have been locked in gravitational combat for a billion years. Gravity from each galaxy has profoundly affected the other during a series of cosmic close encounters. Their last go-round lasted about 100 million years and likely raised density waves rippling around M81, resulting in the richness of M81’s spiral arms. M82 was left with violent star forming regions and colliding gas clouds so energetic the galaxy glows in X-rays. In the next few billion years, their continuing gravitational encounters will result in a merger, and a single galaxy will remain.
The pre-dawn hours of May 3rd were moonless as grains of cosmic dust streaked through southern skies above Reunion Island. Swept up as planet Earth plowed through dusty debris streams left behind periodic Comet 1/P Halley, the annual meteor shower is known as the Eta Aquarids. This inspired exposure captures a bright aquarid meteor flashing left to right over a sea of clouds. The meteor streak points back to the shower’s radiant in the constellation Aquarius, well above the eastern horizon and off the top of the frame. Known for speed Eta Aquarid meteors move fast, entering the atmosphere at about 66 kilometers per second, visible at altitudes of 100 kilometers or so. Then about 6 light-minutes from Earth, the pale greenish coma and long tail of Comet C/2020 F8 SWAN were not to be left out of the celestial scene, posing above the volcanic peaks left of center. Now in the northern sky’s morning twilight near the eastern horizon Comet SWAN has not become as bright as anticipated though. This first time comet made its closest approach to planet Earth only two days ago and reaches perihelion on May 27.