Thursday, August 6, 2009

Astronomy Pictures of the Day (NASA)

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an agency of the United States government.

Explanation: The July 22nd total solar eclipse was the longest of the 21st century. From the point of maximum eclipse along the Moon's shadow track across the Pacific Ocean, the Moon completely blocked the Sun for a total of 6 minutes and 39 seconds. But from the deck of this cruise ship the duration of the total eclipse phase was extended to a whopping 6 minutes and 42 seconds by the ship's motion along the shadow track. This panoramic view of the scene shows the shimmering solar corona in a darkened daytime sky, with clouds silhouetted by a bright sky on the distant horizon, beyond the Moon's shadow. Mercury can be seen near the eclipsed Sun. Venus lies near the upper right edge of the frame.

Explanation: This wide, sharp telescopic view reveals galaxies scattered beyond the stars at the northern boundary of the high-flying constellation Pegasus. Prominent at the upper right is NGC 7331. A mere 50 million light-years away, the large spiral is one of the brighter galaxies not included in Charles Messier's famous 18th century catalog. The disturbed looking group of galaxies at the lower left is well-known as Stephan's Quintet. About 300 million light-years distant, the quintet dramatically illustrates a multiple galaxy collision, its powerful, ongoing interactions posed for a brief cosmic snapshot. On the sky, the quintet and NGC 7331 are separated by about half a degree.

Explanation: The sharpest image ever of Betelgeuse shows a mammoth star that is slowly evaporating. Betelgeuse (sounds a lot like "beetle juice"), also known as Alpha Orionis, is one of the largest and brightest stars known. The star is a familiar orange fixture easily visible to the unaided eye toward the constellation of Orion. The above recent image from the Very Large Telescope in Chile resolves not only the face of Betelgeuse, but a large and previously unknown plume of surrounding gas. This plume gives fresh indications of how the massive star is shedding mass as it nears the end of its life. Conversely, a series of previous observations indicate that the surface of Betelgeuse has noticeably shrunk, on the average, over the past decade. If Betelgeuse, a red supergiant star about 640 light years distant, were placed at the center of our Solar System, the plume would extend past the orbit of Jupiter. Since Betelgeuse is known to change its brightness irregularly, future observations may determine if changes its appearance irregularly as well. Betelgeuse is a candidate to undergo a spectacular supernova explosion almost anytime in the next few thousand years.

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