Category Archives: Space Telescope

Here Comes Another Comet

Hot on the heels of 45P/Honda, here comes C/2016 U1 NEOWISE and it might be visible with binoculars by next week – maybe.  2016 U1 NEOWISE is a telescope target right now and even a modest telescope should see it.

But wait, there’s more!  We may have another possible comet called 2016 WF9 coming too; “possible” being the key-word because we just don’t know for sure.

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Here’s the story from NASA:
NASA’s NEOWISE mission has recently discovered some celestial objects traveling through our neighborhood, including one on the blurry line between asteroid and comet. Another–definitely a comet–might be seen with binoculars through next week.

An object called 2016 WF9 was detected by the NEOWISE project on Nov. 27, 2016. It’s in an orbit that takes it on a scenic tour of our solar system. At its farthest distance from the sun, it approaches Jupiter’s orbit. Over the course of 4.9 Earth-years, it travels inward, passing under the main asteroid belt and the orbit of Mars until it swings just inside Earth’s own orbit. After that, it heads back toward the outer solar system. Objects in these types of orbits have multiple possible origins; it might once have been a comet, or it could have strayed from a population of dark objects in the main asteroid belt.

2016 WF9 will approach Earth’s orbit on Feb. 25, 2017. At a distance of nearly 32 million miles (51 million kilometers) from Earth, this pass will not bring it particularly close. The trajectory of 2016 WF9 is well understood, and the object is not a threat to Earth for the foreseeable future.

A different object, discovered by NEOWISE a month earlier, is more clearly a comet, releasing dust as it nears the sun. This comet, C/2016 U1 NEOWISE, “has a good chance of becoming visible through a good pair of binoculars, although we can’t be sure because a comet’s brightness is notoriously unpredictable,” said Paul Chodas, manager of NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object (NEO) Studies at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

As seen from the northern hemisphere during the first week of 2017, comet C/2016 U1 NEOWISE will be in the southeastern sky shortly before dawn. It is moving farther south each day and it will reach its closest point to the sun, inside the orbit of Mercury, on Jan. 14, before heading back out to the outer reaches of the solar system for an orbit lasting thousands of years. While it will be visible to skywatchers at Earth, it is not considered a threat to our planet either.

NEOWISE is the asteroid-and-comet-hunting portion of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. After discovering more than 34,000 asteroids during its original mission, NEOWISE was brought out of hibernation in December of 2013 to find and learn more about asteroids and comets that could pose an impact hazard to Earth. If 2016 WF9 turns out to be a comet, it would be the 10th discovered since reactivation. If it turns out to be an asteroid, it would be the 100th discovered since reactivation.

What NEOWISE scientists do know is that 2016 WF9 is relatively large: roughly 0.3 to 0.6 mile (0.5 to 1 kilometer) across.

It is also rather dark, reflecting only a few percent of the light that falls on its surface. This body resembles a comet in its reflectivity and orbit, but appears to lack the characteristic dust and gas cloud that defines a comet.

“2016 WF9 could have cometary origins,” said Deputy Principal Investigator James “Gerbs” Bauer at JPL. “This object illustrates that the boundary between asteroids and comets is a blurry one; perhaps over time this object has lost the majority of the volatiles that linger on or just under its surface.”

Near-Earth objects (NEOs) absorb most of the light that falls on them and re-emit that energy at infrared wavelengths. This enables NEOWISE’s infrared detectors to study both dark and light-colored NEOs with nearly equal clarity and sensitivity.

“These are quite dark objects,” said NEOWISE team member Joseph Masiero, “Think of new asphalt on streets; these objects would look like charcoal, or in some cases are even darker than that.”

NEOWISE data have been used to measure the size of each near-Earth object it observes. Thirty-one asteroids that NEOWISE has discovered pass within about 20 lunar distances from Earth’s orbit, and 19 are more than 460 feet (140 meters) in size but reflect less than 10 percent of the sunlight that falls on them.

A Galactic “Winter Wonderland”

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This space telescope collaboration (see below) was the NASA Image of the Day.  It kind of reminded me of the holiday lights so evident around the neighborhood.

Here’s the NASA description:

Although there are no seasons in space, this cosmic vista invokes thoughts of a frosty winter landscape. It is, in fact, a region called NGC 6357 where radiation from hot, young stars is energizing the cooler gas in the cloud that surrounds them.

This composite image contains X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the ROSAT telescope (purple), infrared data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope (orange), and optical data from the SuperCosmos Sky Survey (blue) made by the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope.

Located in our galaxy about 5,500 light years from Earth, NGC 6357 is actually a “cluster of clusters,” containing at least three clusters of young stars, including many hot, massive, luminous stars. The X-rays from Chandra and ROSAT reveal hundreds of point sources, which are the young stars in NGC 6357, as well as diffuse X-ray emission from hot gas. There are bubbles, or cavities, that have been created by radiation and material blowing away from the surfaces of massive stars, plus supernova explosions.

Astronomers call NGC 6357 and other objects like it “HII” (pronounced “H-two”) regions. An HII region is created when the radiation from hot, young stars strips away the electrons from neutral hydrogen atoms in the surrounding gas to form clouds of ionized hydrogen, which is denoted scientifically as “HII”.

Researchers use Chandra to study NGC 6357 and similar objects because young stars are bright in X-rays. Also, X-rays can penetrate the shrouds of gas and dust surrounding these infant stars, allowing astronomers to see details of star birth that would be otherwise missed.

A recent paper on Chandra observations of NGC 6357 by Leisa Townsley of Pennsylvania State University appeared in The Astrophysical Journal Supplement Series and is available online. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.

Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/PSU/L. Townsley et al; Optical: UKIRT; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Little Friend

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NASA’s caption:

A snapshot of the life cycle of stars has been captured where a stellar nursery is reflecting X-rays from a source powered by an object at the endpoint of its evolution. This discovery, described in our latest press release, provides a new way to study how stars form.

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This composite image shows X-rays from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (white) and radio data from the Smithsonian’s Submillimeter Array (red and blue). The X-ray data reveal a bright X-ray source to the right known as Cygnus X-3, a system containing either a black hole or neutron star (a.k.a. a compact source) left behind after the death of a massive star. Within that bright source, the compact object is pulling material away from a massive companion star. Astronomers call such systems “X-ray binaries.”

In 2003, astronomers presented results using Chandra’s high-resolution vision in X-rays to identify a mysterious source of X-ray emission located very close to Cygnus X-3 on the sky (smaller white object to the upper left). The separation of these two sources is equivalent to the width of a penny about 800 feet away. A decade later, astronomers reported the new source is a cloud of gas and dust.  In astronomical terms, this cloud is rather small – about 0.7 light years in diameter or under the distance between the Sun and Pluto’s orbit.

Astronomers realized that this nearby cloud was acting as a mirror, reflecting some of the X-rays generated by Cygnus X-3 towards Earth. They nicknamed this object the “Little Friend” due to its close proximity to Cygnus X-3 on the sky and because it also demonstrated the same 4.8-hour variability in X-rays seen in the X-ray binary.

To determine the nature of the Little Friend, more information was needed. The researchers used the Submillimeter Array (SMA), a series of eight radio dishes atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii, to discover the presence of molecules of carbon monoxide. This is an important clue that helped confirm previous suggestions that the Little Friend is a Bok globule, small, dense, very cold clouds where stars can form. The SMA data also reveal the presence of a jet or outflow within the Little Friend, an indication that a star has started to form inside. The blue portion shows a jet moving towards us and the red portion shows a jet moving away from us.

These results were published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, and the paper is also available online. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, manages the Chandra program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts, controls Chandra’s science and flight operations.

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/M.McCollough et al, Radio: ASIAA/SAO/SMA

Hershel Looks at Orion

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Click the image for the annotated version.

Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech

The original caption:

The dusty side of the Sword of Orion is illuminated in this striking infrared image from the European Space Agency’s Hershel Space Observatory.

This immense nebula is the closest large region of star formation, situated about 1,500 light years away in the constellation of Orion. The parts that are easily observed in visible light, known alternatively as the Orion Nebula or Messier 42, correspond to the light blue regions. This is the glow from the warmest dust, illuminated by clusters of hot stars that have only recently been born in this chaotic region.

The red spine of material running from corner to corner reveals colder, denser filaments of dust and gas that are scattered throughout the Orion nebula. In visible light this would be a dark, opaque feature, hiding the reservoir of material from which stars have recently formed and will continue to form in the future.

Herschel data from the PACS instrument observations, at wavelengths of 100 and 160 microns, is displayed in blue and green, respectively, while SPIRE 250-micron data is shown in red.

Within the inset image, the emission from ionized carbon atoms (C+), overlaid in yellow, was isolated and mapped out from spectrographic data obtained by the HIFI instrument. A version without the inset is also available.

Herschel is a European Space Agency mission, with science instruments provided by consortia of European institutes and with important participation by NASA. While the observatory stopped making science observations in April 2013, after running out of liquid coolant as expected, scientists continue to analyze its data. NASA’s Herschel Project Office is based at JPL. JPL contributed mission-enabling technology for two of Herschel’s three science instruments. The NASA Herschel Science Center, part of IPAC, supports the U.S. astronomical community. Caltech manages JPL for NASA.

A Planetary Nebula?

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This doesn’t look like a typical planetary nebula it is.

From ESA:
The two spiral arms winding towards the bright centre might deceive you into thinking you are looking at a galaxy a bit like our Milky Way. But the object starring in this image is of a different nature: PK 329-02.2 is a ‘planetary nebula’ within our home galaxy.

Despite the name, this isn’t a planet either. Planetary nebula is a misnomer that came about because of how much nebulas resembled giant, gaseous planets when looked through a telescope in the 1700s. Rather, what we see in this image is the last breath of a dying star.

When stars like the Sun are nearing the end of their lives, they let go of their gaseous outermost layers. As these clouds of stellar material move away from the central star they can acquire irregular and complex shapes. This complexity is evident in the faint scattered gas you see at the centre of the image. But there is also beautiful symmetry in PK 329-02.2, as the two bright blue spiral arms perfectly align with the two stars at the centre of the nebula.

It may look like the spiral arms are connected, but it is the stars that are companions. They are part of a visual binary, though only the one at the upper right gave rise to the nebula. While the stars will continue to orbit each other for millions or billions of years, the nebula – and its spiral arms – will spread out from the centre and eventually fade away over the next few thousands of years.

This planetary nebula with spiral arms is also known as Menzel 2, after the US astronomer Donald Menzel who discovered it in the 1920s. It is located in Norma, a constellation in the Southern celestial hemisphere where you can also find Menzel 1 and 3, two ‘bipolar planetary nebulas’ (shaped like butterflies or hourglasses).

Hubble’s Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 captured this image, which was processed using green, blue, red and infrared filters. Astrophotography-enthusiast Serge Meunier entered a version of this image into the 2012 Hubble’s Hidden Treasures image processing competition.

Copyright ESA/Hubble & NASA; Acknowledgement: Serge Meunier

Hubble and PGC 83677

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Oh my just look at this!

Hubble took this image of the lenticular galaxy PGC 83677 and it is just magnificent. We can see many other galaxies which are mere hazy spots at best in most of the images I’ve seen of the area.

The original caption:
A lone source shines out brightly from the dark expanse of deep space, glowing softly against a picturesque backdrop of distant stars and colorful galaxies.

Captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s Advanced Camera for Surveys (ACS), this scene shows PGC 83677, a lenticular galaxy — a galaxy type that sits between the more familiar elliptical and spiral varieties.

It reveals both the relatively calm outskirts and intriguing core of PGC 83677. Here, studies have uncovered signs of a monstrous black hole that is spewing out high-energy X-rays and ultraviolet light.

Text credit: ESA – Image: NASA/ESA/Hubble; acknowledgements: Judy Schmidt (Geckzilla)

Gaia’s First Map

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The Gaia spacecraft gives us this view of our Milky Way. This map will improve in terms of artifact as Gaia makes more observations. Gaia will survey more than a BILLION stars by the time the mission ends. Gaia can determine stellar position so accurately it is estimated the spacecraft may find as many as 50,000 new planets by measuring the stellar wobble caused by an orbiting planet.

Copyright ESA/Gaia/DPAC

From ESA:
An all-sky view of stars in our Galaxy – the Milky Way – and neighbouring galaxies, based on the first year of observations from ESA’s Gaia satellite, from July 2014 to September 2015.

This map shows the density of stars observed by Gaia in each portion of the sky. Brighter regions indicate denser concentrations of stars, while darker regions correspond to patches of the sky where fewer stars are observed.

The Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, with most of its stars residing in a disc about 100 000 light-years across and about 1000 light-years thick. This structure is visible in the sky as the Galactic Plane – the brightest portion of this image –which runs horizontally and is especially bright at the centre.

Darker regions across the Galactic Plane correspond to dense clouds of interstellar gas and dust that absorb starlight along the line of sight.

Many globular and open clusters – groupings of stars held together by their mutual gravity – are also sprinkled across the image.

Globular clusters, large assemblies of hundreds of thousands to millions of old stars, are mainly found in the halo of the Milky Way, a roughly spherical structure with a radius of about 100 000 light-years, and so are visible across the image.

Open clusters are smaller assemblies of hundreds to thousands of stars and are found mainly in the Galactic Plane.

The two bright objects in the lower right of the image are the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, two dwarf galaxies orbiting the Milky Way. Other nearby galaxies are also visible, most notably Andromeda (also known as M31), the largest galactic neighbour to the Milky Way, in the lower left of the image. Below Andromeda is its satellite, the Triangulum galaxy (M33).

A number of artefacts are also visible on the image. These curved features and darker stripes are not of astronomical origin but rather reflect Gaia’s scanning procedure. As this map is based on observations performed during the mission’s first year, the survey is not yet uniform across the sky.

These artefacts will gradually disappear as more data are gathered during the five-year mission.

High resolution versions of the Gaia map, with transparent background, are available to download from:http://sci.esa.int/gaia/58209

Acknowledgement: A. Moitinho & M. Barros (CENTRA – University of Lisbon), on behalf of DPAC

Hubble’s Fireball

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WOW! Thanks to ESA/Hubble & NASA Acknowledgement: J. Schmidt (geckzilla.com) for this image.

A higher resolution version is available from ESA.  Links go off-site so you will have to back track.

From the ESA press release (linked above):
This dramatic burst of colour shows a cosmic object with an equally dramatic history. Enveloped within striking, billowing clouds of gas and dust that form a nebula known as M1-67, sits a bright star named Hen 2-427 (otherwise known as WR 124).

This star is just as intense as the scene unfolding around it. It is a Wolf-Rayet star, a rare type of star known to have very high surface temperatures – well over 25000ºC, next to the Sun’s comparatively cool 5500ºC – and enormous mass, which ranges over 5–20 times our Sun’s. Such stars are constantly losing vast amounts of mass via thick winds that continuously pour from their surfaces out into space.

Hen 2-427 is responsible for creating the entire scene shown here, which has been captured in beautiful detail by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope. The star, thought to be a massive one in the later stages of its evolution, blasted the material comprising M1-67 out into space some 10 millennia ago – perhaps in multiple outbursts – to form an expanding ring of ejecta.

Since then, the star has continued to flood the nebula with massive clumps of gas and intense ionising radiation via its fierce stellar winds, shaping and sculpting its evolution. M1-67 is roughly ring-shaped but lacks a clear structure – it is essentially a collection of large, massive, superheated knots of gas all clustered around a central star.

Hen 2-427 and M1-67 lie 15 000 light-years away in the constellation of Sagitta (The Arrow). This image uses visible-light data gathered by Hubble’s Wide Field Planetary Camera 2, and was released in 2015 (the same data were previously processed and released in 1998).