What a View! Exoplanet Odd Couple Orbit in Close Proximity

Imagine if the Neptune was only a million miles from Earth. What a view we’d have! … not to mention some incredible gravitational effects from the close-by, gigantic planet. A similar scenario is taking place for real in star system in the constellation Cygnus. A newly found planet duo orbiting a sun-like star come together in extremely close proximity, and strangely enough, the two planets are about as opposite as can be: one is a rocky planet 1.5 times the size of Earth and weighs 4.5 times as much, and the other is a gaseous planet 3.7 times the size of Earth and weighing 8 times that of Earth.

“They are the closest to each other of any planetary system we’ve found,” said Eric Agol of the University of Washington, co-author of a new paper outlining the discovery of this interesting star system by the Kepler spacecraft. “The bigger planet is pushing the smaller planet around more, so the smaller planet was harder to find.”

Known as Kepler-36, the star is a several billion years older than our Sun, and at this time is known to have just two planets.

The inner rocky world, Kepler-36b orbits about every 14 days at an average distance of less than 11 million miles, while the outer gas “hot Neptune” planet orbits once each 16 days at a distance of 12 million miles.

The two planets experience a conjunction every 97 days on average. At that time, they are separated by less than 5 Earth-Moon distances. Since Kepler-36c is much larger than the Moon, it presents a spectacular view in its neighbor’s sky. And the science team noted that the smaller Kepler-36b would appear about the size of the Moon when viewed from Kepler-36c).

But the timing of their orbits means they’ll never collide, Agol said. However, close encounters of this kind would cause tremendous gravitational tides that squeeze and stretch both planets.

The larger planet was originally spotted in data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft, which uses a photometer to measure light from distant celestial objects and can detect a planet when it transits, or passes in front of, and briefly reduces the light coming from, its parent star.

The team wanted to try finding a second planet in a system where it was already known that there was one planet. Agol suggested applying an algorithm called quasi-periodic pulse detection to examine data from Kepler.

The data revealed a slight dimming of light coming from Kepler-36a every 16 days, the length of time it takes the larger Kepler-36c to circle its star. Kepler-36b circles the star seven times for each six orbits of 36c, but it was not discovered initially because of its small size and the gravitational jostling by its orbital companion. But when the algorithm was applied to the data, the signal was unmistakable.

“If you look at the transit time pattern for the large planet and the transit time pattern for the smaller planet, they are mirror images of one another,” Agol said.

The fact that the two planets are so close to each other and exhibit specific orbital patterns allowed the scientists to make fairly precise estimates of each planet’s characteristics, based on their gravitational effects on each other and the resulting variations in the orbits. To date, this is the best-characterized system with small planets, the researchers said.

From their calculations, the team estimates the smaller planet is 30 percent iron, less than 1 percent atmospheric hydrogen and helium and probably no more than 15 percent water. The larger planet, on the other hand, likely has a rocky core surrounded by a substantial amount of atmospheric hydrogen and helium.

The planets’ densities differ by a factor of eight but their orbits differ by only 10 percent. The big differences in composition and the close proximity of the two is quite a head-scratcher, as current models of planet formation don’t really predict this. But the team is wondering if there are more systems like this out there.

“We found this one on a first quick look,” said co-author Josh Carter, a Hubble Fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA). “We’re now combing through the Kepler data to try to locate more.”

Lead image caption: This image, adapted by Eric Agol of the UW, depicts the view one might have of a rising Kepler-36c (represented by a NASA image of Neptune) if Seattle (shown in a skyline photograph by Frank Melchior, frankacaba.com) were placed on the surface of Kepler-36b.

Second image caption: In this artist’s conception, a “hot Neptune” known as Kepler-36c looms in the sky of its neighbor, the rocky world Kepler-36b. The two planets have repeated close encounters, experiencing a conjunction every 97 days on average. At that time, they are separated by less than 5 Earth-Moon distances. Such close approaches stir up tremendous gravitational tides that squeeze and stretch both planets, which may promote active volcanism on Kepler-36b.
Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA)

Sources: CfA, University of Washington

Daylight Fireball Dazzles Colorado, Grounds Fire Tankers

Fireball Meteor
Credit: Pierre Martin of Arnprior, Ontario, Canada.

A dazzling daytime fireball zipped across New Mexico and Colorado yesterday creating a stir among law enforcement agencies, news organizations, radio stations and briefly grounded air tankers fighting wildfires west of Colorado Springs.

According to the Denver Post, Pueblo air-dispatch received reports of “balls of fire or something in the air.” As a precaution, officials grounded flights to ensure no aircraft were hit. Flights resumed 90 minutes later.

The event occurred between 12:35 and 12:40 MDT Wednesday afternoon. Witnesses say the fireball lasted about 3 seconds about 45 degrees above the ground, heading from the north to the south and ending near the horizon, with a tail color ranging from bright white to yellow and red. Some of the nearly 20 reports received by the American Meteor Society report that the brightness of the fireball was brighter than a full moon; some reporting it brighter than the Sun.

A fireball is a meteor that is larger and brighter than normal. Although typically visible after sunset, dramatic fireballs have been recorded during the daytime, such as the April 22, 2012 bright daytime meteor that was seen over California in the US. Usually meteors are smaller than a pebble and move very fast. As the object encounters increased friction from the air in the upper atmosphere, it begins to get hot and glow. Most meteors burn up before hitting the ground. But some survive to be picked up and put in museums. Scientists estimate that nearly 100 tons of space dust lands on Earth every day. Most of it lands in the ocean.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) based at Peterson Air Force Base near Colorado Springs told the Denver Post they were not tracking any man-made objects in the area.

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science has meteor cameras stationed around the state. Unfortunately, they are turned off during the day and no video or pictures have surfaced.

Astronomers and meteor/meteorite enthusiasts will certainly be interested in seeing any pictures or videos of the event, and so are we! If saw the event, or happened to capture it on a camera or surveillance video, you can send it to us or post it on our Flickr page.

Lead image caption: A Perseid fireball meteor. Credit: Pierre Martin of Arnprior, Ontario, Canada.

Euclid and the Geometry of the Dark Universe

Artist’s impression of Euclid Credit: ESA/C. Carreau

Euclid, an exciting new mission to map the geometry, distribution and evolution of dark energy and dark matter has just been formally adopted by ESA as part of their Cosmic Vision 2015-2025 progamme. Named after Euclid of Alexandria, the “Father of Geometry”, it will accurately measure the accelerated expansion of the Universe, bringing together one of the largest collaborations of astronomers, engineers and scientists in an attempt to answer one of the most important questions in cosmology: why is the expansion of the Universe accelerating, instead of slowing down due to the gravitational attraction of all the matter it contains?

In 2007 the Hubble Space Telescope produced a 3D map of dark matter that covered just over 2 square degrees of sky, while in March this year the Baryon Oscillation Spectroscopic Survey (BOSS) measured the precise distance to just over a quarter of a million galaxies. Working in the visible and near-infrared wavelengths, Euclid will precisely measure around two billion galaxies and galaxy clusters in 3 dimensions in a wide extragalactic survey covering 15,000 square degrees (over a third of the sky) plus a deep survey out to redshifts of ~2, covering an area of 40 square degrees, the 3-D galaxy maps produced will trace dark energy’s influence over 10 billion years of cosmic history, covering the period when dark energy accelerated the expansion of the Universe.

The mission was selected last October but now that it has been formally adopted by ESA, invitations to tender will be released, with Astrium and Thales Alenia Space, Europe’s two main space companies expected to bid. Hoping to launch in 2020, Euclid will involve contributions from 11 European space agencies as well as NASA while nearly 1,000 scientists from 100 institutes form the Euclid Consortium building the instruments and participating in the scientific harvest of the mission. It is expected to cost around 800m euros ($1,000m £640m) to build, equip, launch and operate over its nominal 6 year mission lifetime, where it will orbit the second Sun-Earth Lagrange point (L2 in the image below) It will have a mass of around 2100 kg, and measure about 4.5 metres tall by 3.1 metres. It will carry a 1.2 m Korsch telescope, a near infrared camera/spectrometer and one of the largest optical digital cameras ever flown in space.

Sun Earth Lagrange Points Credit: Xander89 via Wikimedia Commons

Dark matter represents 20% of the universe and dark energy 76%. Euclid will use two techniques to map the dark matter and measure dark energy. Weak gravitational lensing measures the distortions of light from distant galaxies due to the mass of dark matter, this requires extremely high image quality to suppress or calibrate-out image distortions in order to measure the true distortions by gravity. Euclid’s camera will produce images 100 times larger than those produced by Hubble, minimizing the need to stitch images together. Baryonic acoustic oscillations, wiggle patterns, imprinted in the clustering of galaxies, will provide a standard ruler to measure dark energy and the expansion in the Universe. This involves the determination of the redshifts of galaxies to better than 0.1%. It is also hoped that later in the mission, supernovas may be used as markers to measure the expansion rate of the Universe.

Find out more about Euclid and other Cosmic Vision missions at ESA Science

Lead image caption: Artist’s-impression-of-Euclid-Credit-ESA-C.-Carreau

Second image caption: Sun Earth Lagrange Points Credit: Xander89 via Wikimedia Commons

Hush, Hush US Spy Satellite Blasts Off atop Milestone Atlas Rocket

Image Caption: Spy Satellite for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office blasts off atop Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 8:28 a.m. EDT. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com

A top secret US national security Spy satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) roared mightily to space this morning (June 20) through picturesque layers of broken clouds an Atlas V rocket at 8:28 a.m. EDT (1228 GMT) from Space Launch Complex-41 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla.

Basically nothing is publicly known about the specifications or mission of the vital payload, dubbed NROL-38, launched in support of America’s national defense.

The classified mission entered a total news blackout and cutoff of the live webcast some five minutes after launch when the rocket’s first stage and upper stage engine separated successfully and before the secret satellite was deployed and reached orbit.

The flight marked a key milestone as the 50th successful launch of the combined Atlas V and Delta IV booster families collectively known as the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) built by United Launch Alliance (ULA). The maiden launch took place in 2002.

Image Caption: NROL-38 Spy Satellite soars to space on an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida at 8:28 a.m. EDT on Jun 20, 2012. Credit: Jeff Seibert/wired4space.com

ULA was formed in 2006 as a partnership between Boeing and Lockheed Martin who were originally in competition at the start of the EELV program.

“This morning’s flawless launch is the product of many months of hard work and collaboration of government and industry teams. We hit it out of the park again as we continue to deliver superior vigilance from above for the Nation,” remarked Col James D. Fisher, Director of Office of Space Launch.

Threatening clouds and gusting winds remained within acceptable levels and did not delay the launch.

The 19 story Atlas booster first stage was powered by the RD AMROSS RD-180 engine and the Centaur upper stage was powered by a single Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne RL10A-4 engine.

Image Caption: NROL-38 Spy Satellite liftoff on June 20, 2012 atop Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer/www.kenkremer.com

“Congratulations to the NRO and to all the mission partners involved in this critical national security launch,” said Jim Sponnick, ULA vice president, Mission Operations. “This launch marks an important milestone as we celebrate the 50th successful Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) mission, with 31 Atlas V and 19 Delta IV missions flown since August 2002.”

The NROL-38 spy satellite is the first of three critical NRO missions slated for launch by ULA over the next two months. The NRO is based in Chantilly, Va. and the U.S. Government agency responsible for designing, building, launching, and maintaining America’s intelligence satellites.

Indeed the next NRO satellite is currently scheduled for blastoff in the early morning hours of June 28 atop a Delta 4 Heavy booster rocket, now the most powerful rocket in the US arsenal following the forced retirement of NASA’s trio of Space Shuttle orbiters and which will surely put on a spectacular sky show !

The likewise classified NROL-15 mission will lift off next Thursday from Space Launch Complex-37 at Cape Canaveral.

Image Caption: NROL-38 Spy Satellite liftoff on June 20, 2012 atop Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Credit: Ken Kremer

The EELV Program was developed by the United States Air Force to provide assured access to space for Department of Defense and other government payloads, achieve significant cost savings and reliably meet launch schedule targets as older booster such as the Titan were phased out.

“Twelve of the 50 EELV launches have been NRO missions and these have been vital to our overall mission of delivering on commitments critical to our national security,” said Bruce Carlson, director, National Reconnaissance Office. “I thank and congratulate ULA and the EELV program for the tremendous performance and achievement of this very impressive and noteworthy milestone.”

Image Caption: NROL-38 Spy Satellite atop Atlas V rocket pierces cloud layers after liftoff on June 20, 2012. Credit: Ken Kremer

ULA will be getting some competition. SpaceX Corporation – which recently dispatched the first private spacecraft (Dragon) to dock at the ISS – will compete in the bidding to launch future US national security payloads.

Ken Kremer

Early Black Holes were Grazers Rather than Glutonous Eaters

Faint quasars powered by black holes. Image credit NASA/ESA/Yale

Black holes powering distant quasars in the early Universe grazed on patches of gas or passing galaxies rather than glutting themselves in dramatic collisions according to new observations from NASA’s Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes.

A black hole doesn’t need much gas to satisfy its hunger and turn into a quasar, says study leader Kevin Schawinski of Yale “There’s more than enough gas within a few light-years from the center of our Milky Way to turn it into a quasar,” Schawinski explained. “It just doesn’t happen. But it could happen if one of those small clouds of gas ran into the black hole. Random motions and stirrings inside the galaxy would channel gas into the black hole. Ten billion years ago, those random motions were more common and there was more gas to go around. Small galaxies also were more abundant and were swallowed up by larger galaxies.”

Quasars are distant and brilliant galactic powerhouses. These far-off objects are powered by black holes that glut themselves on captured material; this in turn heats the matter to millions of degrees making it super luminous. The brightest quasars reside in galaxies pushed and pulled by mergers and interactions with other galaxies leaving a lot of material to be gobbled up by the super-massive black holes residing in the galactic cores.

Schawinski and his team studied 30 quasars with NASA’s orbiting telescopes Hubble and Spitzer. These quasars, glowing extremely bright in the infrared images (a telltale sign that resident black holes are actively scooping up gas and dust into their gravitational whirlpool) formed during a time of peak black-hole growth between eight and twelve billion years ago. They found 26 of the host galaxies, all about the size of our own Milky Way Galaxy, showed no signs of collisions, such as smashed arms, distorted shapes or long tidal tails. Only one galaxy in the study showed evidence of an interaction. This finding supports evidence that the creation of the most massive black holes in the early Universe was fueled not by dramatic bursts of major mergers but by smaller, long-term events.

“Quasars that are products of galaxy collisions are very bright,” Schawinski said. “The objects we looked at in this study are the more typical quasars. They’re a lot less luminous. The brilliant quasars born of galaxy mergers get all the attention because they are so bright and their host galaxies are so messed up. But the typical bread-and-butter quasars are actually where most of the black-hole growth is happening. They are the norm, and they don’t need the drama of a collision to shine.

“I think it’s a combination of processes, such as random stirring of gas, supernovae blasts, swallowing of small bodies, and streams of gas and stars feeding material into the nucleus,” Schawinski said.

Unfortunately, the process powering the quasars and their black holes lies below the detection of Hubble making them prime targets for the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope, a large infrared orbiting observatory scheduled for launch in 2018.

You can learn more about the images here.

Image caption: These galaxies have so much dust enshrouding them that the brilliant light from their quasars cannot be seen in these images from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope.

Huge Wildfires Burn on Opposite Sides of the Planet

The latest views of Earth from NASA’s Aqua and Terra satellites are looking a bit hazy from wildfires burning in wilderness areas of the United States and Siberia.

The above image acquired July 18 from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer, or MODIS, aboard the Terra satellite, shows a whopping 198 wildfires burning across Siberia. You can view more of this huge fire at NASA’s Earth Observatory website. The fires have charred an area of more than 83 square kilometers. Some of the fires were started by people who lost control of agricultural fires but some fires were started by lightning.

High Park Fire from NASA's Aqua MODIS
Another NASA earth-observing satellite, Aqua, has taken dramatic images of the High Park Fire just west of Fort Collins, Colorado and the Whitewater-Baldy Complex Fire in southwestern New Mexico. The High Park Fire has grown to more than 235 square kilometers, burning 180 structures and leading to the death of one person. It has become one of the most destructive and largest fires in Colorado history. Thankfully, the

Besides measuring the smoke plume and fire extent, much can be learned using satellite images of wildfires. Types of vegetation can affect the type and color of smoke emitted by the wildfire. Grassland fires tend to burn quickly and give off carbon-rich black smoke. Forest fires where moisture is higher give off thicker smoke; a combination of organic rich ash and water vapor, that ranges in color from brown to bright white.

Pyrocumulus cloud from High Park Fire, ColoradoOn the plus side for weather buffs, each of the fires have produced rare pyrocumulus, or fire clouds. Wildfires and volcanos can produce these dramatic clouds as intense heating causes the air to rise. As the rising air cools, water vapor in the ash cloud condenses just like a normal cloud. The ash particles provide nuclei for water to condense. Sometimes this moisture will fall back on the fire as rain. Dave Lipson, a meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told the Denver Post that calm and clear weather along Colorado’s Front Range made the towering pyrocumulus cloud look especially menacing Tuesday. Tuesday afternoon, the lone fire cloud could be seen from 40 miles away from Denver.

Lead image caption: NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE MODIS Rapid Response. Instrument: Terra – MODIS

Second image caption: High Park Fire, Colorado from NASA’s Aqua MODIS

Third image caption: Looking north near Boulder, Colorado at the pyrocumulus cloud produced from the High Park Fire. Photo: John Williams

Loads of Ice Waiting for Explorers at the Moon’s Shackleton Crater

Shackleton crater on the Moon’s south pole has been somewhat of an enigma, as its permanently shadowed interior has made it difficult to detect what is inside. But with new observations using the laser altimeter on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) spacecraft, a team of researchers has essentially illuminated the crater’s interior with laser light, measuring its albedo, or natural reflectance. The scientists found that the crater’s floor is quite bright, an observation consistent with the presence of ice. In fact, ice may make up 22 percent of the material on the crater floor, with possibly more ice embedded within the crater walls.

“We decided we would study the living daylights out of this crater,” said Maria Zuber from the Massachuesetts Institute of Technology, who lead a team to study Shackleton Crater. “From the incredible density of observations we were able to make an extremely detailed topographic map.”

For laser altimeter observations, elevation maps can be created by measuring the time it takes for laser light to bounce down to the Moon’s surface and back to the instrument. The longer it takes, the lower the terrain’s elevation. Using these measurements, the group mapped the crater’s floor and the slope of its walls.

The team used over 5 million measurements to create their detailed map.

While the crater’s floor was relatively bright, Zuber and her colleagues observed that its walls were even brighter. The finding was at first puzzling. Scientists had thought that if ice were anywhere in a crater, it would be on the floor, where no direct sunlight penetrates. The upper walls of Shackleton crater are occasionally illuminated, which could evaporate any ice that accumulates. A theory offered by the team to explain the puzzle is that “moonquakes”– seismic shaking brought on by meteorite impacts or gravitational tides from Earth — may have caused Shackleton’s walls to slough off older, darker soil, revealing newer, brighter soil underneath. Zuber’s team’s ultra-high-resolution map provides strong evidence for ice on both the crater’s floor and walls.

“There may be multiple explanations for the observed brightness throughout the crater,” said Zuber. “For example, newer material may be exposed along its walls, while ice may be mixed in with its floor.”

The crater, named after the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, is nearly 20 km (more than 12 miles) wide and over 3 km (2 miles) deep — about as deep as Earth’s oceans. Zuber described the crater’s interior as “extremely rugged … It would not be easy to crawl around in there.”

She added that the new topographic map will help researchers understand crater formation and study other uncharted areas of the moon.

“I will never get over the thrill when I see a new terrain for the first time,” Zuber said. “It’s that sort of motivation that causes people to explore to begin with. Of course, we’re not risking our lives like the early explorers did, but there is a great personal investment in all of this for a lot of people.”

Ben Bussey, staff scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, said the new evidence for ice in Shackleton crater may indeed help determine the course for future lunar missions.

“Ice in the polar regions has been sort of an enigmatic thing for some time … I think this is another piece of evidence for the possibility of ice,” Bussey says. “To truly answer the question, we’ll have to send a lunar lander, and these results will help us select where to send a lander.”

And for any humans explorers, a crater like Shackleton at the lunar poles may well be the best location for a base, as the poles contain regions of near-permanent sunlight needed for power, and regions of near-permanent darkness containing ice — both of which would be essential resources for any lunar colony.

The team’s research was published today in the Journal Nature.

Sources: MIT, NASA

Lead image caption: Elevation (left) and shaded relief (right) image of Shackleton, a 21-km-diameter (12.5-mile-diameter) permanently shadowed crater adjacent to the lunar south pole. The structure of the crater’s interior was revealed by a digital elevation model constructed from over 5 million elevation measurements from the Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter. Credit: NASA/Zuber, M.T. et al., Nature, 2012

Second image caption: This is an elevation map of Shackleton crater made using LRO Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter data. The false colors indicate height, with blue lowest and red/white highest. Credit: NASA/Zuber, M.T. et al., Nature, 2012

Organics Found in Mars Meteorites, But Nothing Biological

Editor’s note: This guest post was written by Andy Tomaswick, an electrical engineer who follows space science and technology.

The search for biologically created organic molecules on Mars goes back at least to the 1970s with the Viking program. Those missions had famously mixed results, and so the search for carbon-based life on Mars continues to this day. Researchers keeping piling on more and more evidence to excite astrobiologists and new results published in a study by the Planetary Science Institute and the Carnegie Institute of Washington may heighten their enthusiasm.

The latest results come from a team led by Andrew Steele of the Carnegie Institution for Science who surveyed meteorites from Mars, which covered a 4.2 billion year time span of Martian geology. While it is no surprise that there are organics on Mars — that Martian meteorites contain carbon-based molecules has been known for years — the team confirmed those findings by detecting organics on ten of the eleven meteorites they examined. However, questions remained as to where exactly the meteorite-bound organic molecules came from and, if they were from Mars, what had created them?

The team set out to answer these questions and came to the conclusion that the molecules are indeed from Mars and not the result of some cross-contamination from Earth’s biosphere. However, they also found that the molecules were not created by any biological process. The organics actually formed in the chunks of rock that later became the meteorites that transported them to earth. Their formation was part of a volcanic process that traps carbon in crystal structures formed by cooling magma. Through a series of non-biological chemical reactions, the complex organics found in the meteorites are created using the carbon trapped in these crystals.

The team also casts doubt on another possible explanation: whether the organics might be caused by emissions from microbes that had migrated into the volcano via tectonic processes similar to those on Earth. They point out that Mars does not have the tectonic activity similar to Earth so there is very little likelihood that the molecules are created by microbial activity.

That might sound like a depressing result for the astrobiologists. But the important finding from this study is that Mars has been natively and naturally creating complex organic molecules for 4.2 billion years and may be still be doing so today. Since the creation of organic molecules on Earth was a precursor to life, scientists can still hold out hope that the same life-creating process might have already happened on the red planet.

Interestingly, one of the Martian meteorites that was studied was the famous ALH84001, the meteorite that some researchers claimed in 1996 might contain fossils from Mars. That claim was subsequently strongly challenged, and studies of the rock are ongoing. ALH84001 is a portion of a meteorite that was dislodged from Mars by a huge impact about 16 million years ago and that fell to Earth in Antarctica approximately 13,000 years ago. The meteorite was found in Allan Hills ice field in Antarctica.

Read the team’s abstract.

Lead image caption: ALH84001 is one of 10 rocks from Mars in which researchers have found organic carbon compounds that originated on Mars without involvement of life. Credit: NASA/JSC/Stanford University

Sources: Planetary Science Institute, LiveScience, NASA

A Close-up Look at the War and Peace Nebula

Take a trip out to the constellation of Scorpius get a close-up look at the War and Peace nebula, courtesy of the Very Large Telescope. This is the most detailed visible-light image so far of this spectacular stellar nursery, which is within NGC 6357. The view shows many hot young stars, glowing clouds of gas and weird dust formations sculpted by ultraviolet radiation and stellar winds.

The unusual name of “War and Peace” was given to this nebula not because of the famous novel by Tolstoy, but because in infrared light, the bright, western part of the nebula resembles a dove, while the eastern part looked like a skull. Unfortunately this effect cannot be seen in this visible-light image, but instead we can see dark disks of gas and young stars wrapped in expanding cocoons of dust.

In fact, the whole image is covered with dark trails of cosmic dust, but some of the most fascinating dark features appear at the lower right and on the right hand edge of the picture. Here the radiation from the bright young stars has created huge columns, similar to the famous “pillars of creation” in the Eagle Nebula and other fascinating structures revealed by the awesome power of the VLT.

Lead image caption: The War and Peace Nebula inside NGC 6357, as seen by the Very Large Telescope. Credit: ESO

Source: ESO

This Video Will Make You Grateful for the Earth’s Magnetosphere

A newly released video from NASA showcases the space agency’s data visualization skills, as well as the dramatic science behind the Sun’s powerful coronal mass ejections and their interactions with the Earth’s magnetosphere and climate. These ejections stripped the lighter elements away from Venus long ago, leaving the planet with a desolate, hostile environment. But in this animation, you can watch as the particles from the solar wind are redirected around the Earth, keeping us safe – and hydrated.

This video is actually an excerpt from a longer video called Dynamic Earth: Exploring Earth’s Climate Engine, which is playing at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C; this portion showcases the interaction between the Sun’s solar wind and the Earth’s ocean currents. What’s really amazing about this video is that the underlying data visualizations are based on real satellite observations. The swirling ocean currents were created from real ocean current data.

Still sitting on the fence, finger hovering over the play button, not sure if you should spend a few minutes of your valuable time? You might be interested to know that the video was recently chosen as a “select entry” for the 2012 SIGGRAPH conference, held in Los Angeles on Aug. 5 to 9, 2012. This is the conference where all the film studios showcase their 3D graphics work. A NASA video chosen as a select entry? I like their taste.