The Unbearable Beauty of the Night Sky

Take a DEEP BREATH before watching this ESOCast mashup with Dr. J. The Sun is setting behind Cerro Paranal in the Chilean Atacama desert. While astronomers get ready to observe with ESO’s Very Large Telescope, Nature prepares for her own grand display. As night falls over the desert, the southern sky reveals its nocturnal beauty, leaving the spectator in silent amazement. Some people, however, don’t just stare at the spectacle. With great skill, they record these unique moments for everyone to see – they are the photographers of the night.

Anyone who has been up at night in a remote, high place such as at one of ESO’s observatories in Chile may have been lucky enough to experience the splendid view of the myriad stars shining brightly from the heavens. It is a both a dream and a challenge for a photographer to capture an image of this incredible view. Today we will focus on three ESO staff members, who, during their free time, produce outstanding astrophotography. By publishing their results on the internet they share their enthusiasm for the astonishing wonders of the southern skies with a wider audience.

Yuri Beletsky is an ESO Fellow and astronomer at the Paranal Observatory.
When Continue reading The Unbearable Beauty of the Night Sky

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Saturn’s Ring Disturber

While orbiting Saturn for the last six years, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has kept a close eye on the collisions and disturbances in the gas giant’s rings. They provide the only nearby natural laboratory for scientists to see the processes that must have occurred in our early solar system, as planets and moons coalesced out of disks of debris.

New images from Cassini show icy particles in Saturn’s F ring clumping into giant snowballs as the moon Prometheus makes multiple swings by the ring. The gravitational pull of the moon sloshes ring material around, creating wake channels that trigger the formation of objects as large as 20 kilometers (12 miles) in diameter.

Saturn’s thin, kinky F ring was discovered by NASA’s Pioneer 11 spacecraft in 1979. Prometheus and Pandora, the small “shepherding” moons on either side of the F ring, were discovered a year later by NASA’s Voyager 1. In the years since, the F ring has rarely looked the same twice, and scientists have been watching the impish behavior of the two shepherding moons for clues.

Prometheus, the larger and closer to Saturn of the two moons, appears to be the primary source of the disturbances. At its longest, the Continue reading Saturn’s Ring Disturber

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Lurking Dragon, Cosmic Swan

A beautiful nugget from Spitzer’s “Hidden Universe.” Behind a dark veil of dust in the constellation Sagittarius, a lurking dragon has been revealed by the infrared eye of NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope.

The red dots along its dark filaments are baby stars forming at a furious rate. The dark Dragon appears to fly away from M17, its brightly glowing neighbor known alternately as the Omega or Swan nebula. Oddly, astronomers have found that both the Dragon and the Swan are forming roughly the same numbers of stars.

If so, why should they look so different from one another? The answer may be that dragons, rather than ugly ducklings, grow up to become swans. While the Dragon is forming fairly large type B stars, only in the Swan do we find the very largest O stars. Their brilliant glare illuminates and disperses the dust, creating a nebula that is equally vivid in infrared and visible light.

The gas and dust clouds in this region appear to be passing through the Sagittarius spiral arm, a kind of gravitational traffic jam. Astronomers have long believed clouds will bunch up when they enter a spiral arm, triggering the gravitational collapse needed to form stars. Continue reading Lurking Dragon, Cosmic Swan

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New High-Intensity Cosmic Explosion

The Fermi Gamma Ray Space Telescope picked up a whole new type of cosmic explosion: a ultra high-intensity explosion coming from the surface of a white dwarf star. The finding stunned observers and theorists alike because it overturns a long-standing notion that such novae explosions lack the power for such high-energy emissions.

In March, Fermi’s Large Area Telescope (LAT) detected gamma rays — the most energetic form of light — from the nova for 15 days. Scientists believe that the emission arose as a million-mile-per-hour shock wave raced from the site of the explosion. A nova is a sudden, short-lived brightening of an otherwise inconspicuous star. The outburst occurs when a white dwarf in a binary system erupts in an enormous thermonuclear explosion.

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Glacier Slab Breaks Off

A giant 97-square mile slab of ice recently broke off from Greenland’s Petermann Glacier. Is this a sign that the climate is gradually changing? What does it mean in a global context? NASA scientists are training their satellites on these dynamic rivers of ice and factoring them into climate models designed to understand and predict where we’re going.

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Viking First Views of Mars

A Titan 3/Centaur rocket launched NASA’s Viking 1 spacecraft on a 505-million-mile journey to Mars on Aug. 20, 1975. Viking 2 followed three weeks later.

Each mission included both an orbiter and a lander, and all four components accomplished successes. On July 20, 1976, the Viking 1 lander returned the first photograph taken on the surface of Mars. That lander in a region called Chryse Planitia operated until Nov. 13, 1982. The Viking 2 lander operated in the Utopia Planitia region from Sept. 3, 1976 to April 11, 1980. The orbiters sent home images of the entire planet at resolutions of 300 meters or less per pixel.

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Sensational Solar System Discovery

Astronomers working with the super planet finding HARPS instrument at the La Silla Observatory in Chile, have discovered a remarkable extrasolar planetary system that has some striking similarities to our own Solar System. At least five planets are orbiting the Sun-like star HD 10180, and the regular pattern of their orbits is similar to that observed for our neighbouring planets. One of the new extrasolar worlds could be only 1.4 times the mass of the Earth, making it the least massive exoplanet ever found.

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Cold Sparks & Black Holes – Preview

Watch for our 20-minute COSMIC JOURNEYS episode. It explores the power scales of the universe, from the least to the most energetic events and places known to science.

All across the immense reaches of time and space, energy is being exchanged, transferred, released… in a great cosmic pinball game we call our universe.

To see how energy stitches the cosmos together, and how we fit within it, we now journey through the cosmic scales of power…

From atoms… nearly frozen to stillness…

To Earth’s largest explosions.

From stars…. colliding… exploding…

To distant centers of power so strange… and violent… they challenge our imaginations.

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Cosmic Energy: Cold Sparks to Black Holes

What’s the hottest place in the universe? What’s it like inside a Black Hole? This video climbs the power scales of the universe, from the coldest and bleakest reaches of our galaxy on out to the hottest and most violent places known. How and where do Earth and humanity fit within the immensely powerful scales that define our universe?

All across the immense reaches of time and space, energy is being exchanged, transferred, released, in a great cosmic pinball game we call our universe.

To see how energy stitches the cosmos together, and how we fit within it, we now journey through the cosmic power scales of the universe, from atoms nearly frozen to stillness. To Earth’s largest explosions. From stars colliding, exploding, to distant centers of power so strange, and violent, they challenge our imaginations.

Today, energy is very much on our minds, as we search for ways to power our civilization and serve the needs of our citizens. But what is energy? Where does it come from? And where do we stand within the great power streams that shape time and space?

Energy comes from a Greek word for activity or working. In physics, it’s simply the property Continue reading Cosmic Energy: Cold Sparks to Black Holes

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Space is exciting