Globular Cluster Omega Centauri

Globular star cluster Omega Centauri packs about 10 million stars much older than the Sun into a volume some 150 light-years in diameter. Also known as NGC 5139, at a distance of 15,000 light-years it’s the largest and brightest of 200 or so known globular clusters that roam the halo of our Milky Way galaxy. Though most star clusters consist of stars with the same age and composition, the enigmatic Omega Cen exhibits the presence of different stellar populations with a spread of ages and chemical abundances. In fact, Omega Cen may be the remnant core of a small galaxy merging with the Milky Way. With a yellowish hue, Omega Centauri’s red giant stars are easy to pick out in this sharp telescopic view. A two-decade-long exploration of the dense star cluster with the Hubble Space Telescope has revealed evidence for a massive black hole near the center of Omega Centauri.

A Sagittarius Triplet

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 above center, and colorful M20 below and left in the frame. The third emission region includes NGC 6559, right of M8 and separated from the larger nebula by a dark dust lane. 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. But for striking contrast, blue hues in the Trifid are due to dust reflected starlight. The broad interstellar skyscape spans almost 4 degrees or 8 full moons on the sky.

Noctilucent Clouds over Florida

These clouds are doubly unusual. First, they are rare noctilucent clouds, meaning that they are visible at night — but only just before sunrise or just after sunset. Second, the source of these noctilucent clouds is actually known. In this rare case, the source of the sunlight-reflecting ice-crystals in the upper atmosphere can be traced back to the launch of a nearby SpaceX rocket about 30 minutes earlier. Known more formally as polar mesospheric clouds, the vertex of these icy wisps happens to converge just in front of a rising crescent Moon. The featured image — and accompanying video — were captured over Orlando, Florida, USA about a week ago. The bright spot to the right of the Moon is the planet Jupiter, while the dotted lights above the horizon on the right are from an airplane.

Exoplanet Zoo: Other Stars

Do other stars have planets like our Sun? Surely they do, and evidence includes slight star wobbles created by the gravity of orbiting exoplanets and slight star dimmings caused by orbiting planets moving in front. In all, there have now been over 5,500 exoplanets discovered, including thousands by NASA’s space-based Kepler and TESS missions, and over 100 by ESO’s ground-based HARPS instrument. Featured here is an illustrated guess as to what some of these exoplanets might look like. Neptune-type planets occupy the middle and are colored blue because of blue-scattering atmospheric methane they might contain. On the sides of the illustration, Jupiter-type planets are shown, colored tan and red from the scatterings of atmospheric gases that likely include small amounts of carbon. Interspersed are many Earth-type rocky planets of many colors. As more exoplanets are discovered and investigated, humanity is developing a better understanding of how common Earth-like planets are, and how common life might be in the universe.

Iridescent Clouds over Sweden

Why are these clouds multi-colored? A relatively rare phenomenon in clouds known as iridescence can bring up unusual colors vividly — or even a whole spectrum of colors simultaneously. These polar stratospheric clouds also, known as nacreous and mother-of-pearl clouds, are formed of small water droplets of nearly uniform size. When the Sun is in the right position and, typically, hidden from direct view, these thin clouds can be seen significantly diffracting sunlight in a nearly coherent manner, with different colors being deflected by different amounts. Therefore, different colors will come to the observer from slightly different directions. Many clouds start with uniform regions that could show iridescence but quickly become too thick, too mixed, or too angularly far from the Sun to exhibit striking colors. The featured image and an accompanying video were taken late in 2019 over Ostersund, Sweden.

NGC 7789: Caroline’s Rose

Found among the rich starfields of the Milky Way, star cluster NGC 7789 lies about 8,000 light-years away toward the constellation Cassiopeia. A late 18th century deep sky discovery of astronomer Caroline Lucretia Herschel, the cluster is also known as Caroline’s Rose. Its visual appearance in small telescopes, created by the cluster’s complex of stars and voids, is suggestive of nested rose petals. Now estimated to be 1.6 billion years young, the galactic or open cluster of stars also shows its age. All the stars in the cluster were likely born at the same time, but the brighter and more massive ones have more rapidly exhausted the hydrogen fuel in their cores. These have evolved from main sequence stars like the Sun into the many red giant stars shown with a yellowish cast in this color composite. Using measured color and brightness, astronomers can model the mass and hence the age of the cluster stars just starting to “turn off” the main sequence and become red giants. Over 50 light-years across, Caroline’s Rose spans about half a degree (the angular size of the Moon) near the center of the sharp telescopic image.

Mount Etna Milky Way

A glow from the summit of Mount Etna, famous active stratovolcano of planet Earth, stands out along the horizon in this mountain and night skyscape. Bands of diffuse light from congeries of innumerable stars along the Milky Way galaxy stretch across the sky above. In silhouette, the Milky Way’s massive dust clouds are clumped along the galactic plane. But also familiar to northern skygazers are bright stars Deneb, Vega, and Altair, the Summer Triangle straddling dark nebulae and luminous star clouds poised over the volcanic peak. The deep combined exposures also reveal the light of active star forming regions along the Milky Way, echoing Etna’s ruddy hue in the northern hemisphere summer’s night.

A Beautiful Trifid

The beautiful Trifid Nebula is a cosmic study in contrasts. Also known as M20, it lies about 5,000 light-years away toward the nebula rich constellation Sagittarius. A star forming region in the plane of our galaxy, the Trifid does illustrate three different types of astronomical nebulae; red emission nebulae dominated by light from hydrogen atoms, blue reflection nebulae produced by dust reflecting starlight, and dark nebulae where dense dust clouds appear in silhouette. But the red emission region, roughly separated into three parts by obscuring dust lanes, is what lends the Trifid its popular name. Pillars and jets sculpted by newborn stars, above and right of the emission nebula’s center, appear in famous Hubble Space Telescope close-up images of the region. The Trifid Nebula is about 40 light-years across. Too faint to be seen by the unaided eye, it almost covers the area of a full moon on planet Earth’s sky.

M83: Star Streams and a Thousand Rubies

Big, bright, and beautiful, spiral galaxy M83 lies a mere twelve million light-years away, near the southeastern tip of the very long constellation Hydra. About 40,000 light-years across, M83 is known as the Southern Pinwheel for its pronounced spiral arms. But the wealth of reddish star forming regions found near the edges of the arms’ thick dust lanes, also suggest another popular moniker for M83, the Thousand-Ruby Galaxy. This new deep telescopic digital image also records the bright galaxy’s faint, extended halo. Arcing toward the bottom of the cosmic frame lies a stellar tidal stream, debris drawn from massive M83 by the gravitational disruption of a smaller, merging satellite galaxy. Astronomers David Malin and Brian Hadley found the elusive star stream in the mid 1990s by enhancing photographic plates.

NGC 602: Oyster Star Cluster

The clouds may look like an oyster, and the stars like pearls, but look beyond. Near the outskirts of the Small Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy some 200 thousand light-years distant, lies this 5 million year old star cluster NGC 602. Surrounded by its birth shell of gas and dust, star cluster NGC 602 is featured in this stunning Hubble image, augmented in a rollover by images in the X-ray by the Chandra Observatory and in the infrared by Spitzer Telescope. Fantastic ridges and swept back gas strongly suggest that energetic radiation and shock waves from NGC 602’s massive young stars have eroded the dusty material and triggered a progression of star formation moving away from the star cluster’s center. At the estimated distance of the Small Magellanic Cloud, the featured picture spans about 200 light-years, but a tantalizing assortment of background galaxies are also visible in this sharp view. The background galaxies are hundreds of millions of light-years — or more — beyond NGC 602.

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