These silvery blue waves washing over a tree-lined horizon in the eastern French Alps are noctilucent clouds. From high in planet Earth’s mesosphere, they reflect sunlight in this predawn skyscape taken on July 8. This summer, the night-shining clouds are not new to the northern high-latitudes. Comet NEOWISE is though. Also known as C/2020 F3, the comet was discovered in March by the Earth-orbiting Near Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE) satellite. It’s now emerging in morning twilight only just visible to the unaided eye from a clear location above the northeastern horizon.
What is that fuzzy streak extending from Mercury? Long exposures of our Solar System’s innermost planet may reveal something unexpected: a tail. Mercury’s thin atmosphere contains small amounts of sodium that glow when excited by light from the Sun. Sunlight also liberates these molecules from Mercury’s surface and pushes them away. The yellow glow from sodium, in particular, is relatively bright. Pictured, Mercury and its sodium tail are visible in a deep image taken in late May from Italy through a filter that primarily transmits yellow light emitted by sodium. First predicted in the 1980s, Mercury’s tail was first discovered in 2001. Many tail details were revealed in multiple observations by NASA’s robotic MESSENGER spacecraft that orbited Mercury between 2011 and 2015. Tails are usually associated with comets. The tails of Comet NEOWISE are currently visible with the unaided eye in the morning sky. Comet NEOWISE from Around the Globe: Notable Images Submitted to APOD
A comet has suddenly become visible to the unaided eye. Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) was discovered in late March and brightened as it reached its closest approach to the Sun, inside the orbit of Mercury, late last week. The interplanetary iceberg survived solar heating, so far, and is now becoming closer to the Earth as it starts its long trek back to the outer Solar System. As Comet NEOWISE became one of the few naked-eye comets of the 21st Century, word spread quickly, and the comet has already been photographed behind many famous sites and cities around the globe. Featured, Comet NEOWISE was captured over Lebanon two days ago just before sunrise. The future brightness of Comet NEOWISE remains somewhat uncertain but the comet will likely continue to be findable not only in the early morning sky, but also next week in the early evening sky. Comet NEOWISE from Around the Globe: Notable Images Submitted to APOD
Unspeakable beauty and unimaginable bedlam can be found together in the Orion Nebula Arguably the most famous of all astronomy nebulas, the Great Nebula in Orion is an immense interstellar molecular cloud only 1500 light-years away. In the featured deep image shown in assigned colors, the part of the nebula’s center known as M43 is shown as taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. The Great Nebula in Orion can be found with the unaided eye near the easily identifiable belt of three stars in the popular constellation Orion. The entire Orion Nebula, including both M42 and M43 spans about 40 light years and is located in the same spiral arm of our Galaxy as the Sun.
Why would clouds form a hexagon on Saturn? Nobody is sure. Originally discovered during the Voyager flybys of Saturn in the 1980s, nobody has ever seen anything like it anywhere else in the Solar System. Acquiring its first sunlit views of far northern Saturn in late 2012, the Cassini spacecraft’s wide-angle camera recorded this stunning, false-color image of the ringed planet’s north pole. The composite of near-infrared image data results in red hues for low clouds and green for high ones, giving the Saturnian cloudscape a vivid appearance. This and similar images show the stability of the hexagon even 20+ years after Voyager. Movies of Saturn’s North Pole show the cloud structure maintaining its hexagonal structure while rotating. Unlike individual clouds appearing like a hexagon on Earth, the Saturn cloud pattern appears to have six well defined sides of nearly equal length. Four Earths could fit inside the hexagon. Beyond the cloud tops at the upper right, arcs of the planet’s eye-catching rings appear bright blue.