Astronomy Picture of the Day

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A different astronomy and space science related image is featured each day, along with a brief explanation.
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Comet NEOWISE Rising over the Adriatic Sea

This sight was worth getting out of bed early. Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) has been rising before dawn during the past week to the delight of northern sky enthusiasts awake that early. Up before sunrise, the featured photographer was able to capture in dramatic fashion one of the few comets visible to the unaided eye this century, an inner-Solar System intruder that might become known as the Great Comet of 2020. The resulting video details Comet NEOWISE from Italy rising over the Adriatic Sea. The time-lapse video combines over 240 images taken over 30 minutes. The comet is seen rising through a foreground of bright and undulating noctilucent clouds, and before a background of distant stars. Comet NEOWISE has remained unexpectedly bright, so far, with its ion and dust tails found to emanate from a nucleus spanning about five kilometers across. Fortunately, starting tonight, northern observers with a clear and dark northwestern horizon should be able to see the sun-reflecting interplanetary snowball just after sunset.
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Comet CG Creates Its Dust Tail

Where do comet tails come from? There are no obvious places on the nuclei of comets from which the jets that create comet tails emanate. One of the best images of emerging jets is shown in the featured picture, taken in 2015 by ESA's robotic Rosetta spacecraft that orbited Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (Comet CG) from 2014 to 2016. The picture shows plumes of gas and dust escaping numerous places from Comet CG's nucleus as it neared the Sun and heated up. The comet has two prominent lobes, the larger one spanning about 4 kilometers, and a smaller 2.5-kilometer lobe connected by a narrow neck. Analyses indicate that evaporation must be taking place well inside the comet's surface to create the jets of dust and ice that we see emitted through the surface. Comet CG (also known as Comet 67P) loses in jets about a meter of radius during each of its 6.44-year orbits around the Sun, a rate at which will completely destroy the comet in only thousands of years. In 2016, Rosetta's mission ended with a controlled impact onto Comet CG's surface.
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The Tails of Comet NEOWISE

Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) is now sweeping through northern skies. Its developing tails stretch some six degrees across this telescopic field of view, recorded from Brno, Czech Republic before daybreak on July 10. Pushed out by the pressure of sunlight itself, the comet's broad, yellowish dust tail is easiest to see. But the image also captures a fainter, more bluish tail too, separate from the reflective comet dust. The fainter tail is an ion tail, formed as ions from the cometary coma are dragged outward by magnetic fields in the solar wind and fluoresce in the sunlight. In this sharp portrait of our new visitor from the outer Solar System, the tails of comet NEOWISE are reminiscent of the even brighter tails of Hale Bopp, the Great Comet of 1997.
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Comet NEOWISE from the ISS

Rounding the Sun on July 3rd and currently headed for the outer Solar System, Comet NEOWISE (C/2020 F3) has been growing brighter in the predawn skies of planet Earth. From low Earth orbit it also rises before the Sun, captured above the approaching glow along the eastern horizon in this snapshot from the International Space Station on July 5. Venus, now Earth's morning star is the brilliant celestial beacon on the right in the field of view. Above Venus you can spot the sister stars of the more compact Pleiades cluster. Earthbound skygazers can spot this comet with the unaided eye, but should look for awesome views with binoculars.
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Noctilucent NEOWISE

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.
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Mercurys Sodium Tail

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.
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Comet NEOWISE over Lebanon

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.
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M43: Dust, Gas, and Stars in the Orion Nebula

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.
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Saturns Northern Hexagon

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.
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Meeting in the Mesosphere

A sensitive video camera on a summit of the Vosges mountains in France captured these surprising fireworks above a distant horizon on June 26. Generated over intense thunderstorms, this one about 260 kilometers away, the brief and mysterious flashes have come to be known as red sprites. The transient luminous events are caused by electrical breakdown at altitudes of 50 to 100 kilometers. That puts them in the mesophere, the coldest layer of planet Earth's atmosphere. The glow beneath the sprites is from more familiar lighting though, below the storm clouds. But on the right, the video frames have captured another summertime apparition from the mesophere. The silvery veins of light are polar mesospheric clouds. Also known as noctilucent or night shining clouds, the icy clouds still reflect the sunlight when the Sun is below the horizon.
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Lynds Dark Nebula 1251

Stars are forming in Lynds Dark Nebula (LDN) 1251. About 1,000 light-years away and drifting above the plane of our Milky Way galaxy, the dusty molecular cloud is part of a complex of dark nebulae mapped toward the Cepheus flare region. Across the spectrum, astronomical explorations of the obscuring interstellar clouds reveal energetic shocks and outflows associated with newborn stars, including the telltale reddish glow from scattered Herbig-Haro objects seen in this sharp image. Distant background galaxies also lurk on the scene, buried behind the dusty expanse. This alluring view imaged with a backyard telescope and broadband filters spans about two full moons on the sky, or 17 light-years at the estimated distance of LDN 1251.
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The Galaxy, the Planet, and the Apple Tree

The Old Astronomer's Milky Way arcs through this peaceful northern sky. Against faint, diffuse starlight you can follow dark rifts of interstellar dust clouds stretching from the galaxy's core. They lead toward bright star Antares at the right, almost due south above the horizon. The brightest beacon in the twilight is Jupiter, though. From the camera's perspective it seems to hang from the limb of a tree framing the foreground, an apple tree of course. The serene maritime nightscape was recorded in tracked and untracked exposures on June 16 from Dover, Nova Scotia, planet Earth.
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Our Rotating Earth

Has your world ever turned upside-down? It would happen every day if you stay fixed to the stars. Most time-lapse videos of the night sky show the stars and sky moving above a steady Earth. Here, however, the camera has been forced to rotate so that the stars remain fixed, and the Earth rotates around them. The movie, with each hour is compressed to a second, dramatically demonstrates the daily rotation of the Earth, called diurnal motion. The video begins by showing an open field in Namibia, Africa, on a clear day, last year. Shadows shift as the Earth turns, the shadow of the Earth rises into the sky, the Belt of Venus momentarily appears, and then day turns into night. The majestic band of our Milky Way Galaxy stretches across the night sky, while sunlight-reflecting, Earth-orbiting satellites zoom by. In the night sky, you can even spot the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds. The video shows a sky visible from Earth's Southern Hemisphere, but a similar video could be made for every middle latitude on our blue planet.
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Bright Planetary Nebula NGC 7027 from Hubble

What created this unusual planetary nebula? NGC 7027 is one of the smallest, brightest, and most unusually shaped planetary nebulas known. Given its expansion rate, NGC 7027 first started expanding, as visible from Earth, about 600 years ago. For much of its history, the planetary nebula has been expelling shells, as seen in blue in the featured image. In modern times, though, for reasons unknown, it began ejecting gas and dust (seen in red) in specific directions that created a new pattern that seems to have four corners. These shells and patterns have been mapped in impressive detail by recent images from the Wide Field Camera 3 onboard the Hubble Space Telescope. What lies at the nebula's center is unknown, with one hypothesis holding it to be a close binary star system where one star sheds gas onto an erratic disk orbiting the other star. NGC 7027, about 3,000 light years away, was first discovered in 1878 and can be seen with a standard backyard telescope toward the constellation of the Swan (Cygnus).
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Dark Sky Reflections

When the lake calmed down, many wonders of the land and sky appeared twice. Perhaps the most dramatic from the dark sky was the central band of our Milky Way Galaxy, visible as a diagonal band. Toward the right were both the Small (SMC) and Large (LMC) Magellanic Clouds, satellite galaxies of our Milky Way. Faint multicolored bands of airglow fanned across the night. Numerous bright stars were visible including Antares, while the bright planet Jupiter appears just above the image center. The featured image is a composite of exposures all taken from the same camera and from the same location within 30 minutes in mid-May from the shore of Lake Bonney Riverland in South Australia. Dead trees that extend from the lake were captured not only in silhouette, but reflection, while lights from the small town of Barmera were visible across the lake. In July, Jupiter and Saturn will rise toward the east just as the Sun sets in the west.
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Europa and Jupiter from Voyager 1

What are those spots on Jupiter? Largest and furthest, just right of center, is the Great Red Spot -- a huge storm system that has been raging on Jupiter possibly since Giovanni Cassini's likely notation of it 355 years ago. It is not yet known why this Great Spot is red. The spot toward the lower left is one of Jupiter's largest moons: Europa. Images from Voyager in 1979 bolster the modern hypothesis that Europa has an underground ocean and is therefore a good place to look for extraterrestrial life. But what about the dark spot on the upper right? That is a shadow of another of Jupiter's large moons: Io. Voyager 1 discovered Io to be so volcanic that no impact craters could be found. Sixteen frames from Voyager 1's flyby of Jupiter in 1979 were recently reprocessed and merged to create the featured image. About 43 years ago, Voyager 1 launched from Earth and started one of the greatest explorations of the Solar System ever.
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Eclipse under the ISS

The dark shadow of the New Moon reached out and touched planet Earth on June 21. A high definition camera outside the International Space Station captured its passing in this snapshot from low Earth orbit near the border of Kazakhstan and China. Of course those along the Moon's central shadow track below could watch the much anticipated annular eclipse of the Sun. In the foreground a cargo spacecraft is docked with the orbital outpost. It's the H-II Transfer Vehicle-9 from JAXA the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency.
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Eclipse under the Bamboo

Want to watch a solar eclipse safely? Try looking down instead of up, though you might discover you have a plethora of images to choose from. For example, during the June 21st solar eclipse this confusing display appeared under a shady bamboo grove in Pune, India. Small gaps between close knit leaves on the tall plants effectively created a network of randomly placed pinholes. Each one projected a separate image of the eclipsed Sun. The snapshot was taken close to the time of maximum eclipse in Pune when the Moon covered about 60 percent of the Sun's diameter. But an annular eclipse, the Moon in silhouette completely surrounded by a bright solar disk at maximum, could be seen along a narrow path where the Moon's dark shadow crossed central Africa, south Asia, and China.
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Eclipse Street, Hong Kong

On June 21 an annular solar eclipse came soon after the solstice and our fair planet's northernmost sunset for 2020. At maximum eclipse, the New Moon in silhouette created a ring of fire visible along a narrow path at most 85 kilometers wide. The annular eclipse path began in central Africa, crossed south Asia and China, and ended over the Pacific Ocean. But a partial eclipse of the Sun was visible over a much broader region. In Hong Kong, this busy section of Jordan Street looks to the northwest, well-aligned with the track of the near solstice afternoon Sun. The street level view was composited with an eclipse sequence made with a safe solar filter on the camera. For that location the eclipse was partial. The Moon covered about 90 percent of the Sun's diameter at maximum, seen near the middle of the eclipse sequence.
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Inverted City Beneath Clouds

How could that city be upside-down? The city, Chicago, was actually perfectly right-side up. The long shadows it projected onto nearby Lake Michigan near sunset, however, when seen in reflection, made the buildings appear inverted. This fascinating, puzzling, yet beautiful image was captured by a photographer in 2014 on an airplane on approach to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. The Sun can be seen both above and below the cloud deck, with the latter reflected in the calm lake. As a bonus, if you look really closely -- and this is quite a challenge -- you can find another airplane in the image, likely also on approach to the same airport.
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