Peering from the shadows, the Saturn-facing hemisphere of tantalizing inner moon Enceladus poses in this Cassini spacecraft image. North is up in the dramatic scene captured during November 2016 as Cassini’s camera was pointed in a nearly sunward direction about 130,000 kilometers from the moon’s bright crescent. In fact, the distant world reflects over 90 percent of the sunlight it receives, giving its surface about the same reflectivity as fresh snow. A mere 500 kilometers in diameter, Enceladus is a surprisingly active moon. Data collected during Cassini’s flybys and years of images have revealed the presence of remarkable south polar geysers and a possible global ocean of liquid water beneath an icy crust.
Interstellar dust clouds and bright nebulae abound in the fertile constellation of Orion. One of the brightest, M78, is near the center in this colorful telescopic view, covering an area north of Orion’s belt. At a distance of about 1,500 light-years, the bluish nebula itself is about 5 light-years across. Its blue tint is due to dust preferentially reflecting the blue light of hot, young stars in the region. Dark dust lanes and other nebulae can easily be traced through the gorgeous skyscape that includes many Herbig- Haro objects, energetic jets from stars in the process of formation. But missing from this image is McNeil’s nebula. A major discovery only recognized in 2004, the enigmatic, variable nebula was found along the dark lane of dust above and right of larger M78. McNeil’s nebula is associated with a protostar and seen to be sometimes present and sometimes absent in photos of the well-imaged region. McNeil’s nebula faded from view late last year and is still absent in this deep image recorded in February 2019.
Normally faint and elusive, the Jellyfish Nebula is caught in this alluring telescopic field of view. The entire scene is a two panel mosaic constructed using narrowband image data, with emission from sulfur, hydrogen and oxygen atoms shown in red, green and blue hues. It’s anchored right and left by two bright stars, Mu and Eta Geminorum, at the foot of the celestial twin. The Jellyfish Nebula itself is right of center, the brighter arcing ridge of emission with dangling tentacles. In fact, the cosmic jellyfish is part of bubble-shaped supernova remnant IC 443, the expanding debris cloud from a massive star that exploded. Light from the explosion first reached planet Earth over 30,000 years ago. Like its cousin in astrophysical waters the Crab Nebula supernova remnant, the Jellyfish Nebula is known to harbor a neutron star, the remnant of the collapsed stellar core. An emission nebula cataloged as Sharpless 249 fills the field at the upper left. The Jellyfish Nebula is about 5,000 light-years away. At that distance, this image would be about 300 light-years across.
Where have all the sunspots gone? Last month the total number of spots that crossed our Sun was … zero. Well below of the long term monthly average, the Sun’s surface has become as unusually passive this solar minimum just like it did 11 years ago during the last solar minimum. Such passivity is not just a visual spectacle, it correlates with the Sun being slightly dimmer, with holes in the Sun’s corona being more stable, and with a reduced intensity in the outflowing solar wind. The reduced wind, in turn, cools and collapses Earth’s outer atmosphere (the thermosphere), causing reduced drag on many Earth-orbiting satellites. Pictured in inverted black & white on the left, the Sun’s busy surface is shown near solar maximum in 2012, in contrast to the image on the right, which shows the Sun’s surface last August, already without spots (for a few days), as solar minimum was setting in. Effects of this unusually static solar minimum are being studied.