What bizarre planet are these alien creatures from? It’s only planet Earth, of course. The planet’s home galaxy the Milky Way stretches across a dark sky in the panoramic, fisheye all-sky projection composed with a wide lens. But the imposing forms gazing skyward probably look strange to many denizens of Earth. Found on the Canary Island of Tenerife in the Teide National Park, they are red tajinastes, flowering plants that grow to a height of up to 3 meters. Among the rocks of the volcanic terrain, tajinastes bloom in spring and early summer and then die after a week or so as their seeds mature. A species known as Echium wildpretii, the terrestrial life forms were individually lit by flashlight during the wide-angle exposures.

An abundance of boulders litters the surface asteroid 101955 Bennu in this dramatic close-up from the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Taken on March 28 from a distance of just 3.4 kilometers (2.1 miles) the field of view is about 50 meters across while the light colored boulder at top right is 4.8 meters tall. Likely a loose conglomerate rubble pile asteroid, Bennu itself spans less than 500 meters. That’s about the height of the Empire State Building. Mapping the near Earth asteroid since the spacecraft’s arrival in December of 2018, the OSIRIS-REx mission plans a TAG (Touch-and-Go) maneuver for July 2020 to sample Bennu’s rugged surface, returning the sample to planet Earth in September 2023. Citizen scientists have been invited to help choose the sample collection site.

On May 20, a nearly Full Moon and Jupiter shared this telephoto field of view. Captured when a passing cloud bank dimmed the moonlight, the single exposure reveals the familiar face of our fair planet’s own large natural satellite, along with bright Jupiter (lower right) and some of its Galilean moons. Lined up left to right the tiny pinpricks of light near Jupiter are Ganymede, Europa, [Jupiter] and Callisto. (That’s not just dust on your screen …) Closer and brighter, our own natural satellite appears to loom large. But Ganymede, and Callisto are physically larger than Earth’s Moon, while water world Europa is only slightly smaller. In fact, of the Solar System’s six largest planetary satellites, Saturn’s moon Titan is missing from the scene and a fourth Galilean moon, Io, is hidden by our ruling gas giant.

Primordial contact binary 2014 MU69, also known as Ultima Thule, really is very red. In fact, it’s the reddest outer solar system object ever visited by a spacecraft from Earth. Its reddish hue is believed to be due to organic materials on its surface. Ruddy color and tantalizing surface details seen in this composite image are based on data from the New Horizons spacecraft recorded during the January 1 flyby of the farthest world yet explored. Embedded in the smaller lobe Thule (top), the 8 kilometer wide feature nicknamed Maryland crater is the largest depression known on the surface of Ultima Thule. Transmission of data collected from the flyby continues, and will go on until the late summer 2020 as New Horizons speeds deeper into the dim and distant Kuiper Belt.

These three bright nebulae are often featured on telescopic tours of the constellation Sagittarius and the crowded starfields of the central Milky Way. In fact, 18th century cosmic tourist Charles Messier cataloged two of them; M8, the large nebula just left of center, and colorful M20 on the top left. The third emission region includes NGC 6559 and can be found to the right of M8. All three are stellar nurseries about five thousand light-years or so distant. Over a hundred light-years across, the expansive M8 is also known as the Lagoon Nebula. M20’s popular moniker is the Trifid. Glowing hydrogen gas creates the dominant red color of the emission nebulae. In striking contrast, blue hues in the Trifid are due to dust reflected starlight. Recently formed bright blue stars are visible nearby. The colorful composite skyscape was recorded in 2018 in Teide National Park in the Canary Islands, Spain.

Why would clouds appear to be different colors? The reason here is that ice crystals in distant cirrus clouds are acting like little floating prisms. Sometimes known as a fire rainbow for its flame-like appearance, a circumhorizon arc lies parallel to the horizon. For a circumhorizontal arc to be visible, the Sun must be at least 58 degrees high in a sky where cirrus clouds are present. Furthermore, the numerous, flat, hexagonal ice-crystals that compose the cirrus cloud must be aligned horizontally to properly refract sunlight in a collectively similar manner. Therefore, circumhorizontal arcs are quite unusual to see. This circumhorizon display was photographed through a polarized lens above Dublin, Ohio in 2009.

Pulsating RS Puppis, the brightest star in the image center, is some ten times more massive than our Sun and on average 15,000 times more luminous. In fact, RS Pup is a Cepheid variable star, a class of stars whose brightness is used to estimate distances to nearby galaxies as one of the first steps in establishing the cosmic distance scale. As RS Pup pulsates over a period of about 40 days, its regular changes in brightness are also seen along its surrounding nebula delayed in time, effectively a light echo. Using measurements of the time delay and angular size of the nebula, the known speed of light allows astronomers to geometrically determine the distance to RS Pup to be 6,500 light-years, with a remarkably small error of plus or minus 90 light-years. An impressive achievement for stellar astronomy, the echo-measured distance also more accurately establishes the true brightness of RS Pup, and by extension other Cepheid stars, improving the knowledge of distances to galaxies beyond the Milky Way.

Have you ever experienced a really dark night sky? One common and amazing feature is the glowing band of our Milky Way galaxy stretching from horizon to horizon. If you live in or near a big city, though, you might not know this because city lights reflecting off the Earth’s atmosphere could only allow you to see the Moon and a few stars. Today, however, being UNESCO’s International Day of Light, the International Astronomical Union is asking people to Turn on the Night by trying to better understand, and in the future better reduce, light pollution. You can practice even now by going to the main APOD website at NASA and hovering your cursor over the Before image. The After picture that comes up is a panorama of four exposures taken with the same camera and from the same location, showing what happened recently in China when people in Kaihua County decided to turn down many of their lights. Visible in the Before picture are the stars Sirius (left of center) and Betelgeuse, while visible in the After picture are thousands of stars with the arching band of our Milky Way Galaxy. Humanity has lived for millennia under a dark night sky, and connecting to it has importance for both natural and cultural heritage.

How far away is spiral galaxy NGC 4921? It’s surpringly important to know. Although presently estimated to be about 300 million light years distant, a more precise determination could be coupled with its known recession speed to help humanity better calibrate the expansion rate of the entire visible universe. Toward this goal, several images were taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in order to help identify key stellar distance markers known as Cepheid variable stars. Since NGC 4921 is a member of the Coma Cluster of Galaxies, refining its distance would also allow a better distance determination to one of the largest nearby clusters in the local universe. The magnificent spiral NGC 4921 has been informally dubbed anemic because of its low rate of star formation and low surface brightness. Visible in the featured image are, from the center, a bright nucleus, a bright central bar, a prominent ring of dark dust, blue clusters of recently formed stars, several smaller companion galaxies, unrelated galaxies in the far distant universe, and unrelated stars in our Milky Way Galaxy. APOD in other languages: Arabic, Catalan, Chinese (Beijing), Chinese (Taiwan), Croatian, Czech, Dutch, German, French, French, Hebrew, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Montenegrin, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Slovenian, Spanish and Ukrainian