Astronomy Picture of the Day
APOD: 2014 July 2 - NGC 4651: The Umbrella Galaxy
Explanation: Spiral galaxy NGC 4651 is a mere 62 million light-years distant, toward the well-groomed northern constellation Coma Berenices. About the size of our Milky Way, this island universe is seen to have a faint umbrella-shaped structure that seems to extend (left) some 100 thousand light-years beyond the bright galactic disk. The giant cosmic umbrella is now known to be composed of tidal star streams - extensive trails of stars gravitationally stripped from a smaller satellite galaxy. The small galaxy was eventually torn apart in repeated encounters as it swept back and forth on eccentric orbits through NGC 4651. In fact, the picture insert zooms in on the smaller galaxy's remnant core, identified in an extensive exploration of the system, using data from the large Subaru and Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea. Work begun by a remarkable collaboration of amateur and professional astronomers to image faint structures around bright galaxies suggests that even in nearby galaxies, tidal star streams are common markers of such galactic mergers. The result is explained by models of galaxy formation that also apply to our own Milky Way.
APOD: 2013 February 6 - The Arms of M106
Explanation: The spiral arms of bright galaxy M106 sprawl through this remarkable multiframe portrait, composed of data from ground- and space-based telescopes. Also known as NGC 4258, M106 can be found toward the northern constellation Canes Venatici. The well-measured distance to M106 is 23.5 million light-years, making this cosmic scene about 80,000 light-years across. Typical in grand spiral galaxies, dark dust lanes, youthful blue star clusters, and pinkish star forming regions trace spiral arms that converge on the bright nucleus of older yellowish stars. But this detailed composite reveals hints of two anomalous arms that don't align with the more familiar tracers. Seen here in red hues, sweeping filaments of glowing hydrogen gas seem to rise from the central region of M106, evidence of energetic jets of material blasting into the galaxy's disk. The jets are likely powered by matter falling into a massive central black hole.
APOD: 2012 January 26 - NGC 4449: Star Stream for a Dwarf Galaxy
Explanation: A mere 12.5 million light-years from Earth, irregular dwarf galaxy NGC 4449 lies within the confines of Canes Venatici, the constellation of the Hunting Dogs. About the size of our Milky Way's satellite galaxy the Large Magellanic Cloud, NGC 4449 is undergoing an intense episode of star formation, evidenced by its wealth of young blue star clusters, pinkish star forming regions, and obscuring dust clouds in this deep color portrait. It also holds the distinction of being the first dwarf galaxy with an identified tidal star stream, faintly seen at the lower right. Placing your cursor over the image reveals an inset of the stream resolved into red giant stars. The star stream represents the remains of a still smaller infalling satellite galaxy, disrupted by gravitational forces and destined to merge with NGC 4449. With relatively few stars, small galaxies are thought to possess extensive dark matter halos. But since dark matter interacts gravitationally, these observations offer a chance to examine the significant role of dark matter in galactic merger events. The interaction is likely responsible for NGC 4449's burst of star formation and offers a tantalizing insight into how even small galaxies are assembled over time.
APOD: 2011 September 15 - NGC 3521: Galaxy in a Bubble
Explanation: Gorgeous spiral galaxy NGC 3521 is a mere 35 million light-years away, toward the constellation Leo. Relatively bright in planet Earth's sky, NGC 3521 is easily visible in small telescopes but often overlooked by amateur imagers in favor of other Leo spiral galaxies, like M66 and M65. It's hard to overlook in this colorful cosmic portrait, though. Spanning some 50,000 light-years the galaxy sports characteristic patchy, irregular spiral arms laced with dust, pink star forming regions, and clusters of young, blue stars. Remarkably, this deep image also finds NGC 3521 embedded in gigantic bubble-like shells. The shells are likely tidal debris, streams of stars torn from satellite galaxies that have undergone mergers with NGC 3521 in the distant past.
APOD: 2011 June 11 - Supernovae in the Whirlpool
Explanation: Where do spiral galaxies keep their supernovae? Near their massive star forming regions, of course, and those regions tend to lie along sweeping blue spiral arms. Because massive stars are very short-lived, they don't have a chance to wander far from their birth place. Remarkably, in the last 6 years two Type II supernovae, representing the death explosions of massive stars, have been detected in nearby spiral M51. Along with a third supernova seen in 1994, that amounts to a supernova bonanza for a single galaxy. As demonstrated in these comparison images, SN2005cs, the supernova discovered in 2005, and more recently SN2011dh, the exceptionally bright supernova first recorded just last month, both lie along M51's grand spiral arms. Perhaps the original spiral nebula, M51 is also known as the Whirlpool Galaxy.
APOD: 2011 May 13 - A Beautiful Trifid
Explanation: The beautiful Trifid Nebula is a cosmic study in colorful 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 illustrates three different types of astronomical nebulae; red emission nebulae dominated by light emitted by hydrogen atoms, blue reflection nebulae produced by dust reflecting starlight, and dark nebulae where dense dust clouds appear in silhouette. The bright red emission region, roughly separated into three parts by obscuring, dark dust lanes, lends the Trifid its popular name. In this well met scene, the red emission is also juxtaposed with the telltale blue haze of reflection nebulae. Pillars and jets sculpted by newborn stars, below and left of the emission nebula's center, appear in Hubble Space Telescope close-up images of the region. The Trifid Nebula is about 40 light-years across.
APOD: 2011 March 19 - Messier 106
Explanation: Close to the Great Bear (Ursa Major) and surrounded by the stars of the Hunting Dogs (Canes Venatici), this celestial wonder was discovered in 1781 by the metric French astronomer Pierre Mechain. Later, it was added to the catalog of his friend and colleague Charles Messier as M106. Modern deep telescopic views reveal it to be an island universe -- a spiral galaxy around 30 thousand light-years across located only about 21 million light-years beyond the stars of the Milky Way. Along with a bright central core, this colorful composite image highlights youthful blue star clusters and reddish stellar nurseries tracing the galaxy's spiral arms. It also shows off remarkable reddish jets of glowing hydrogen gas. In addition to small companion galaxy NGC 4248 (bottom right) background galaxies can be found scattered throughout the frame. M106 (aka NGC 4258) is a nearby example of the Seyfert class of active galaxies, seen across the spectrum from radio to x-rays. Active galaxies are believed to be powered by matter falling into a massive central black hole.
APOD: 2010 December 9 - M81 and Arp's Loop
Explanation: One of the brightest galaxies in planet Earth's sky and similar in size to the Milky Way, big, beautiful spiral M81 lies 11.8 million light-years away in the northern constellation Ursa Major. This deep image of the region reveals details in the bright yellow core, but at the same time follows fainter features along the galaxy's gorgeous blue spiral arms and sweeping dust lanes. It also follows the expansive, arcing feature, known as Arp's loop, that seems to rise from the galaxy's disk at the right. Studied in the 1960s, Arp's loop has been thought to be a tidal tail, material pulled out of M81 by gravitational interaction with its large neighboring galaxy M82. But a recent investigation demonstrates that much of Arp's loop likely lies within our own galaxy. The loop's colors in visible and infrared light match the colors of pervasive clouds of dust, relatively unexplored galactic cirrus only a few hundred light-years above the plane of the Milky Way. Along with the Milky Way's stars, the dust clouds lie in the foreground of this remarkable view. M81's dwarf companion galaxy, Holmberg IX, can be seen just above and left of the large spiral. On the sky, this image spans about 0.5 degrees, about the size of the Full Moon.
APOD: 2010 September 11 - Star Streams and the Sunflower Galaxy
Explanation: A bright spiral galaxy of the northern sky, Messier 63 is about 25 million light-years distant in the loyal constellation Canes Venatici. Also cataloged as NGC 5055, the majestic island universe is nearly 100,000 light-years across, about the size of our own Milky Way. Known by the popular moniker, The Sunflower Galaxy, M63 sports a bright yellowish core and sweeping blue spiral arms, streaked with cosmic dust lanes and dotted with pink star forming regions. This deep exposure also reveals an enormous but dim arc extending far into the halo above the brighter galactic plane. A collaboration of professional and amateur astronomers has shown the arc to be consistent with the stellar stream from a smaller satellite galaxy, tidally disrupted as it merged with M63 during the last 5 billion years. Their discovery is part of an increasing body of evidence that the growth of large spirals by cannibalizing smaller galaxies is commonplace in the nearby Universe.
APOD: 2010 April 15 - NGC 4651: The Umbrella Galaxy
Explanation: Spiral galaxy NGC 4651 is a mere 35 million light-years distant, toward the well-groomed constellation Coma Berenices. About 50 thousand light-years across, this galaxy is seen to have a faint umbrella-shaped structure (right) that seems to extend some 50 thousand light-years farther, beyond the bright galactic disk. The giant cosmic umbrella is now known to be composed of tidal star streams. The streams themselves are extensive trails of stars gravitationally stripped from a smaller satellite galaxy that was eventually torn apart. Placing your cursor over the image will superimpose a simulation of the satellite galaxy's path as it was disrupted and absorbed into NGC 4651. Recent work by a remarkable collaboration of amateur and professional astronomers to image faint structures around bright galaxies suggests that even in nearby galaxies, such tidal star streams are common. The result is predicted by models of galaxy formation, including the formation of our Milky Way.
APOD: 2010 January 14 - M94: A New Perspective
Explanation: Beautiful island universe M94 lies a mere 15 million light-years distant in the northern constellation of the hunting dogs, Canes Venatici. A popular target for astronomers, the brighter inner part of the face-on spiral galaxy is about 30,000 light-years across. Traditionally, deep images have been interpreted as showing M94's inner spiral region surrounded by a faint, broad ring of stars. But a new multi-wavelength investigation has revealed previously undetected spiral arms sweeping across the outskirts of the galaxy's disk, an outer disk actively engaged in star formation. At optical wavelengths, M94's outer spiral arms are followed in this remarkable discovery image, processed to enhance the outer disk structure. Background galaxies are visible through the faint outer arms, while the three spiky foreground stars are in our own Milky Way galaxy.
APOD: 2009 May 8 - Galaxies of the Perseus Cluster
Explanation: This colorful telescopic skyscape is filled with galaxies that lie nearly 250 million light-years away, the galaxies of the Perseus cluster. Their extended and sometimes surprising shapes are seen beyond a veil of foreground stars in our own Milky Way. Ultimately consisting of over a thousand galaxies, the cluster is filled with yellowish elliptical and lenticular galaxies, like those scattered throughout this view of the cluster's central region. Notably, the large galaxy at the left is the massive and bizarre-looking NGC 1275. A prodigious source of high-energy emission, active galaxy NGC 1275 dominates the Perseus cluster, accreting matter as entire galaxies fall into it and feed the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's core. Of course, spiral galaxies also inhabit the Perseus cluster, including the small, face-on spiral NGC 1268, right of picture center. The bluish spot on the outskirts of NGC 1268 is supernova SN 2008fg. At the estimated distance of the Perseus galaxy cluster, this field spans about 1.5 million light-years.
APOD: 2008 December 25 - Fox Fur, a Unicorn, and a Christmas Tree
Explanation: Clouds of glowing hydrogen gas fill this colorful skyscape in the faint but fanciful constellation Monoceros, the Unicorn. A star forming region cataloged as NGC 2264, the complex jumble of cosmic gas and dust is about 2,700 light-years distant and mixes reddish emission nebulae excited by energetic light from newborn stars with dark interstellar dust clouds. Where the otherwise obscuring dust clouds lie close to the hot, young stars they also reflect starlight, forming blue reflection nebulae. The wide mosaic spans about 3/4 degree or nearly 1.5 full moons, covering 40 light-years at the distance of NGC 2264. Its cast of cosmic characters includes the the Fox Fur Nebula, whose convoluted pelt lies at the upper left, bright variable star S Mon immersed in the blue-tinted haze just below the Fox Fur, and the Cone Nebula at the far right. Of course, the stars of NGC 2264 are also known as the Christmas Tree star cluster. The triangular tree shape traced by the stars appears sideways here, with its apex at the Cone Nebula and its broader base centered near S Mon.
APOD: 2008 June 19 - The Star Streams of NGC 5907
Explanation: Grand tidal streams of stars seem to surround galaxy NGC 5907. The arcing structures form tenuous loops extending more than 150,000 light-years from the narrow, edge-on spiral, also known as the Splinter or Knife Edge Galaxy. Recorded only in very deep exposures, the streams likely represent the ghostly trail of a dwarf galaxy -- debris left along the orbit of a smaller satellite galaxy that was gradually torn apart and merged with NGC 5907 over four billion years ago. Ultimately this remarkable discovery image, from a small robotic observatory in New Mexico, supports the cosmological scenario in which large spiral galaxies, including our own Milky Way, were formed by the accretion of smaller ones. NGC 5907 lies about 40 million light-years distant in the northern constellation Draco.
APOD: 2008 February 7 - NGC 4013 and the Tidal Stream
Explanation: Nearly 50 million light-years away in the constellation Ursa Major, NGC 4013 was long considered an isolated island universe. Seen edge-on, the gorgeous spiral galaxy was known for its flattened disk and central bulge of stars, cut by silhouetted dust lanes. But this deep color image of the region reveals a previously unknown feature associated with NGC 4013, an enormous, faint looping structure extending (above and toward the left) over 80 thousand light-years from the galaxy's center. A detailed exploration of the remarkable structure reveals it to be a stream of stars originally belonging to another galaxy, likely a smaller galaxy torn apart by gravitational tides as it merged with the larger spiral. Astronomers argue that the newly discovered tidal stream also explains a warped distribution of neutral hydrogen gas seen in radio images of NGC 4013 and offers parallels to the formation of our own Milky Way galaxy.
APOD: 2007 August 13 - The Trifid Nebula in Stars and Dust
Explanation: Unspeakable beauty and unimaginable bedlam can be found together in the Trifid Nebula. Also known as M20, this photogenic nebula is visible with good binoculars towards the constellation of Sagittarius. The energetic processes of star formation create not only the colors but the chaos. The red-glowing gas results from high-energy starlight striking interstellar hydrogen gas. The dark dust filaments that lace M20 were created in the atmospheres of cool giant stars and in the debris from supernovae explosions. Which bright young stars light up the blue reflection nebula is still being investigated. The light from M20 we see today left perhaps 3000 years ago, although the exact distance remains unknown. Light takes about 50 years to cross M20.
APOD: 2007 July 6 - Bright Galaxy NGC 2903
Explanation: Spiral galaxy NGC 2903 is only some 20 million light-years distant in the constellation Leo. One of the brighter galaxies visible from the northern hemisphere, it is surprisingly missing from Charles Messier's famous catalog of celestial sights. This impressively sharp color image shows off the galaxy's beautiful blue spiral arms. Included in the ground-based telescopic view are intriguing details of NGC 2903's central regions -- a remarkable mix of old and young star clusters with immense dust and gas clouds. In fact, NGC 2903 exhibits an exceptional rate of star formation activity near its center, also bright in radio, infrared, ultraviolet, and x-ray bands. Just a little smaller than our own Milky Way, NGC 2903 is about 80,000 light-years across.
APOD: 2007 June 15 - Messier 96
Explanation: Dust lanes seem to swirl around the core of Messier 96 in this colorful, detailed portrait of the beautiful island universe. Of course M96 is a spiral galaxy, and counting the faint arms extending beyond the brighter central region it spans 100 thousand light-years or so, about the size of our own Milky Way. M96 is known to be 38 million light-years distant, a dominant member of the Leo I galaxy group. Background galaxies and smaller Leo I group members can be found by examining the picture, but accomplished astro-imager Adam Block notes he is most intrigued by the edge-on spiral galaxy that apparently lies behind the outer spiral arm near the 10 o'clock position. The edge-on spiral appears to be about 1/5 the size of M96. If the spiral is similar in actual size to M96, then it lies about 5 times farther away.
APOD: 2006 December 1 - In the Arms of NGC 1097
Explanation: A smaller companion seems wrapped in the spiral arms of enigmatic galaxy NGC 1097. This amazingly deep image of the peculiar spiral system, also known as Arp 77, actually combines data from two telescopes, one in the northern and one in the southern hemisphere of planet Earth. The faint details revealed include hints of a mysterious jet emerging toward the top of the view. Seen to be about 42,000 light-years from the larger galaxy's center, the companion galaxy is gravitationally interacting with the spiral and will ultimately merge with it. NGC 1097's center also harbors a massive black hole. NGC 1097 is located about 45 million light-years away in the chemical constellation Fornax.
APOD: 2006 July 27 - NGC 7331 and Beyond
Explanation: Spiral galaxy NGC 7331 is often touted as an analog to our own Milky Way. About 50 million light-years distant in the northern constellation Pegasus, NGC 7331 was recognized early on as a spiral nebula and is actually one of the brighter galaxies not included in Charles Messier's famous 18th century catalog. Since the galaxy's disk is inclined to our line-of-sight, long telescopic exposures often result in an image that evokes a strong sense of depth. The effect is further enhanced in this well-framed view by the galaxies that lie beyond this beautiful island universe. The background galaxies are about one tenth the apparent size of NGC 7331 and so lie roughly ten times farther away.
APOD: 2006 May 25 - NGC 1579: Trifid of the North
Explanation: Colorful NGC 1579 resembles the better known Trifid Nebula, but lies much farther north in planet Earth's sky, in the heroic constellation Perseus. About 2,100 light-years away and 3 light-years across, NGC 1579 is a captivating study in color. Like the Trifid, NGC 1579 is a dusty star forming region providing contrasting emission and reflection nebulae in the same field - the characteristic red glow of hydrogen gas and the blue of reflected starlight. Also like the Trifid, dark dust lanes are prominent in the nebula's central regions. In fact, obscuring dust is pervasive in NGC 1579, drastically dimming the visible light from the massive, young, hot stars still embedded in the cosmic cloud.
APOD: 2006 April 21 - NGC 253: Dusty Island Universe
Explanation: Shiny NGC 253, sometimes called the Silver Dollar Galaxy, is one of the brightest spiral galaxies visible - and also one of the dustiest. First swept up in 1783 by mathematician and astronomer Caroline Herschel, the dusty island universe lies a mere 10 million light-years away in the southern constellation Sculptor. About 70 thousand light-years across, NGC 253 is the largest member of the Sculptor Group of Galaxies, the nearest to our own Local Group of Galaxies. In addition to its spiral dust lanes, striking tendrils of dust seem to be rising from the galactic disk in this gorgeous view. The high dust content accompanies frantic star formation, giving NGC 253 the designation of a starburst galaxy. NGC 253 is also known to be a strong source of high-energy x-rays and gamma rays, likely due to massive black holes near the galaxy's center.
APOD: 2006 March 11 - Colors of Comet Pojmanski
Explanation: Comet Pojmanski flew by planet Earth last weekend on a surprise trip through the inner solar system. Then an easy binocular target for morning skygazers, Pojmanski ultimately showed off a long tail, but it also presented some lovely green-blue hues as gas molecules in its tenuous coma and tail fluoresced in the sunlight. Astronomers Adam Block and Jay GaBany recorded this colorful high-resolution view on March 3rd in the darkness just before twilight. The picture spans about one full moon on the sky. Comet Pojmanski (C/2006 A1) is outward bound and fading now, still visible in binoculars for northern hemisphere observers.
APOD: 2005 December 25 - The Mysterious Cone Nebula
Explanation: Sometimes the simplest shapes are the hardest to explain. For example, the origin of the mysterious cone-shaped region seen on the far left remains a mystery. The interstellar formation, dubbed the Cone Nebula, is located about 2700 light years away. Other features in the image include red emission from diffuse interstellar hydrogen, wispy filaments of dark dust, and bright star S Monocerotis, visible on the far right. Blue reflection nebulae surround the brighter stars. The dark Cone Nebula region clearly contains much dust which blocks light from the emission nebula and open cluster NGC 2264 behind it. One hypothesis holds that the Cone Nebula is formed by wind particles from an energetic source blowing past the Bok Globule at the head of the cone.
APOD: 2005 August 19 - NGC 1 and NGC 2
Explanation: Beautiful nebulae, clusters, and galaxies that grace planet Earth's night sky are often known by their New General Catalog designation or NGC number. That classic listing was compiled by John Louis Emil Dreyer, remarkable director of the Armagh Observatory from 1882 to 1916. NGC 2266 is, for example, the 2,266th item in his New General Catalog of Nebulae and Clusters of Stars. Noting that "every book has a first page", modern day astronomer Jay GaBany wondered what NGC 1 might look like - and found it, along with NGC 2 in the constellation Pegasus. Pictured above, both are more or less typical-sized (50-100 thousand light-years across) spiral galaxies with estimated distances of over 150 million light-years for NGC 1 (top) and about twice that for NGC 2. NGC ordering is based on an astronomical coordinate system, so these otherwise unremarkable spirals appear first in the NGC listing because their location in the sky translates to the smallest Right Ascension coordinate in the catalog.
APOD: 2005 July 19 - A Nearby Supernova in M51
Explanation: One of the nearest supernovas of recent years was discovered late last month in the bright nearby galaxy M51. It is visible on the right of the above before and after images of the picturesque spiral. Can you spot it? The supernova, discovered originally by Wolfgang Kloehr and now dubbed 2005cs, is still near its maximum brightness and visible with a telescope toward the constellation of the Hunting Dogs (Canes Venatici). The supernova has been identified as a Type II but has an unusual brightness history, creating speculation that is similar in nature to the brightest supernova of modern times: 1987A. The progenitor star has been identified as a bright blue star. Although hundreds of supernovas are discovered each year by automated searches, nearby supernova are rare and important because they frequently become bright enough to be studied by many telescopes and are near enough for their (former) host star and immediate surroundings to be spatially resolved. Supernova 2005cs may have left behind a core that has been compressed into a neutron star or black hole.
APOD: 2005 June 30 - Three Planets from Mt Hamilton
Explanation: Venus, Mercury, and Saturn wandered close together in western evening skies last week. On Saturnday, June 25, astronomer R. Jay GaBany recorded this snapshot of their eye-catching planetary conjunction, from historic Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton, California, USA. The view looks toward the Pacific shortly after sunset with the lights of San Jose and the southern San Francisco Bay area in the foreground. Of course, Venus is the brightest of the trio. Mercury is nearby on the right and Saturn is below and left, closest to the horizon. Farther to the right of the planetary triangle are Pollux and Castor, twin stars of Gemini, with Regulus, bright star of the constellation Leo, at the very upper left corner of the picture. In the coming days, Venus and Mercury remain close, while Saturn continues to drop below them, toward the horizon.