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Hubble to search for worlds beyond Pluto

NASA’S NEW HORIZONS spacecraft, launched in January 2006, is closing in on its primary target, the dwarf planet Pluto. Arrival at the icy outer world is on track for 14 July 2015.

But when it reaches Pluto, New Horizons won’t be able to stop and admire the scenery. By necessity (ie. orbital mechanics and the fact that it doesn’t have a rocket motor to slow itself down) it will go sailing straight past, after having given us our first-ever close up glimpse of what used to be called the ninth planet. (I still do call it the ninth planet. Ed.)

This was always the plan. And the plan also calls for a second stage for the mission – a visit to one or more other icy worlds that orbit the Sun far beyond Pluto.

Artist's impression of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto

Artist’s impression of the New Horizons spacecraft at Pluto.

They’re called Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs), as they belong to a family of small, ice bodies that live in that part of the Solar System, called the Kuiper Belt.

The aim is to redirect New Horizons – once it has passed Pluto – onto a course that will take it near one or more of these KBOs.

But even though astronomers have been hunting for candidate KBOs for some years, they’ve yet to find one that is in the right place for New Horizons to visit. Yet there are probably some there that they just can’t see at the moment. So they’ve put out a call for help from the telescope best suited to spot any hidden KBOs – the Hubble Space Telescope.

This week, the Hubble Space Telescope Time Allocation Committee – the body that decides who gets to use the telescope – has recommended it be pressed into service.

The telescope will examine a small region of space to see if it can spot any KBOs. The first step will be doing a pilot study to see if Hubble can indeed spot KBOs in that region and at that distance – 8 billion kilometres from the Sun.

If it finds any, that will give the astronomers enough confidence to push ahead with a deeper, longer search to find the candidate KBOs for New Horizons to visit.

Image courtesy NASA.

Partial eclipse of the Sun on Tuesday

A PARTIAL ECLIPSE WILL BE VISIBLE across Australia on Tuesday afternoon, April 29. It will be highest in the sky in Western Australia, including Perth and Albany, and it will be visible low in the sky near sunset in Melbourne and Sydney.

A small bit of Antarctica, an inaccessible part, will experience an annular eclipse, which occurs when the Moon is a little farther than average from the Earth so that it doesn’t entirely cover the Sun, instead leaving a thin ring of sunlight visible.

Partial solar eclipse

A partial solar eclipse will be experienced across Australia on the afternoon of April 29. Image courtesy Jay Pasachoff.

At an annular or a partial solar eclipse, the sky never gets dark, and to view it directly you must use a special, safe solar filter or project the image onto a wall or screen and then look away from the eclipse at the screen. Don’t be tempted to use ‘backyard’ filters such as looking through exposed film or X-rays – they are dangerous and you can end up blinded.

At Perth and Albany in Western Australia, where the Sun’s diameter will be 60%-65% covered by the Moon, the eclipse will start at 1:15pm local time and end at 3:59pm, with maximum coverage at 2:41pm. This means that the whole event will be visible.

In Melbourne, the eclipse will occur from 3:58pm to and will be about halfway through by the time the Sun sets.

In Sydney, it will start at 4:13pm, and again, the Sun will set while it is still halfway through.

In Adelaide, it will begin at 3:26pm local time, with mid-eclipse at 4:37pm and sunset at 5:34pm.

In Hobart, it will begin at 3:51pm, with mid-eclipse at 5:01pm and sunset at 5:16pm.

In Darwin, it will start at 4:22pm local time, with mid-eclipse at 4:56pm and the end of the eclipse at 5:28pm.

In Brisbane, it will begin at 4:31pm, with mid-eclipse and sunset happening at the same time, 5:17pm.

In Cairns, it will begin at 4:57pm with mid-eclipse at 5:32pm and sunset at 5:58pm.

French amateur astronomer Xavier Jubier has put a Google map online that can be zoomed into, and you can click to find out what you would see from any particular location.

Safe solar viewing

you should never look directly at the Sun, either normally or when there is an eclipse. The Sun’s visible and invisible rays can blind you very quickly. It is particularly important to not use any kind of optical aid to view the Sun — instant blindness will result. Do not use dark glasses, pieces of exposed film and so on — none of these things work.

There are three safe ways to witness a solar eclipse.

First, if you have some special ‘eclipse glasses’ from a previous eclipse, you can use those – as long as they are in good condition and don’t have any holes or scratches.

The second way is to make a ‘pinhole camera’ from two sheets of white cardboard. Using a pin or a needle, punch a hole in the middle of one of the sheets. Then, standing with your back to the Sun, so that the sunlight is coming over your shoulder, with one hand hold the sheet of cardboard with the pinhole in it up to one side of your head. Then with the other hand, hold the other sheet out at about arm’s length in front of you. Arrange it so that the sunlight goes through the pinhole and falls onto the second sheet of cardboard. You’ll see a small image of the Sun on the second sheet. When the eclipse is happening, you’ll see a chunk taken out of the round Sun. Experiment to get the right distance between the sheets of cardboard.

The third way is to view it online, as there will telescopes videocasting it on the internet – see below for details.

Here are some links to information on how to safely view solar eclipses, total or partial, including how to make a pinhole camera:

Solar viewing safety advice from the Queensland government

How to build a pinhole camera

How to build a different kind of pinhole camera

View the eclipse online

Slooh will broadcast the partial phases of the eclipse live from Australia. Viewers can watch free on Slooh.com or by downloading the Slooh iPad app. Coverage will begin on Monday, April 28th, starting at 11pm US PDT on April  28, which is 2am US EDT on the 29th, 6am GMT on the 29th and 4pm Australia Eastern Standard Time.

The live image stream will be accompanied by commentary from scientists. Viewers can ask questions during the show by using the hashtag #Slooh.

The deepest part of the eclipse, where the Moon might be viewed as being completely enveloped by the larger-seeming and more distant Sun, can only be observed from deep within Antarctica, in a remote uninhabited region. This is why this eclipse has been nicknamed the ‘penguin’ eclipse.

A sequence of images showing an annular solar eclipse

A sequence of images showing an annular solar eclipse. Unfortunately, this time, no one will get to see the annular or ‘ring of fire’ parts of the eclipse, but Australians will be treated to the partial phases. Image courtesy of Jay Pasachoff.

Says Slooh astronomer Bob Berman, “Researchers at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station will not view any kind of solar eclipse. After all, their long six-month night began over a month ago, and the Sun is below the horizon for them. If they could somehow rise off the icy surface and stretch their necks into space, they’d see a central annular eclipse, as it sweeps into space, narrowly missing our planet.”

“But hundreds of miles farther north, where the very low Sun still sits on the horizon, barely up, well, anyone there would see the Moon covering the slightly larger-seeming Sun behind it. The result is a lopsided, off-centre ring of fire surrounding the inky Moon.”

“However, no human will be in that small region of Antarctica. Thus, this is one of the few annular eclipses that will most likely only be seen by penguins.”

More information:

eclipses.info

totalsolareclipse.org

Melbourne Planetarium

Adapted from information issued by Williams College and Slooh. Images courtesy Jay Pasachoff and Slooh.

Australian telescope to reveal early universe

SOLAR STORMS, SPACE JUNK and the formation of the Universe are about to be seen in an entirely new way with the start of operations this week of the $51 million Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) radio telescope.

The first of three international precursors facilities to the $2 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope, the MWA is located in a remote pocket of outback Western Australia. It is the product of an international project led by Curtin University and was officially turned on this morning by Australia’s Science and Research Minister, Senator Kim Carr.

Using bleeding edge technology, the MWA will become an eye on the sky, acting as an early warning system that will potentially help to save billions of dollars as it steps up observations of the Sun to detect and monitor massive solar storms. It will also investigate a unique concept that will see stray FM radio signals used to track dangerous space debris.

Night-time photo of antennae of the MWA

Antennae of the MWA in outback Western Australia. Photo by John Goldsmith.

The MWA will also give scientists an unprecedented view into the first billion years of the Universe, enabling them to look far into the past by studying radio waves that are more than 13 billion years old. This major field of study has the potential to revolutionise the field of astrophysics.

“This collaboration between some of astronomy’s greatest minds has resulted in the creation of a groundbreaking facility,” Director of the MWA and Professor of Radio Astronomy at Curtin University, Steven Tingay said.

“Right now we are standing at the frontier of astronomical science. Each of these programs has the potential to change our understanding about the Universe.”

Nine major projects

The development and commissioning of the MWA, the most powerful low frequency radio telescope in the Southern Hemisphere, is the outcome of nearly nine years’ work by an international consortium of 13 institutions across four countries (Australia, USA, India and New Zealand).

The detailed observations will be used by scientists to hunt for explosive and variable objects in the Milky Way such as black holes and exploding stars, as well as to make the most comprehensive survey of the Southern Hemisphere sky at low radio frequencies.

From this week, regular data will be captured through the entirely static telescope, which spans a three-kilometre area at the CSIRO’s Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory, future home to the SKA.

Close-up shot of some MWA antennae

The MWA comprises thousands of small antennae spread across a three-kilometre-wide section of the Western Australian desert.

The data will be processed 800 kilometres away at the $80 million Pawsey High Performance Computing Centre for SKA Science, in Perth, carried there on a link provided by the NBN and enabled by AARNet. The MWA will be the Pawsey Centre’s first large-scale customer.

Nine major research programs were announced at the launch, with more than 700 scientists across four continents awaiting the information the telescope has now begun to capture.

“Given the quality of the data obtained during the commissioning process and the vast areas of study that will be investigated, we are expecting to see preliminary results in as little as three months’ time,” Professor Tingay said.

“This is an exciting prospect for anyone who’s ever looked up at the sky and wondered how the Universe came to be.

“The MWA has and will continue to lift the bar even higher for the SKA.”

Forerunner to the SKA

Under Professor Tingay and fellow colleague Professor Peter Hall’s guidance, Curtin University has been awarded a $5 million grant by the Australian Government to participate in the SKA pre-construction program over the next three years, with the MWA’s unique insight being used to develop a low frequency radio telescope that is expected to be 50 times more sensitive.

The MWA has been supported by both State and Federal Government funding, with the majority of federal funding being administered by Astronomy Australia Limited.

The MWA project says it recognises the Wadjarri Yamatji people as the traditional owners of the site on which the MWA is built and thanks the Wadjarri Yamatji people for their support, as well as that of Astronomy Australia Limited.

The MWA launch event took place simultaneously at the Astronomical Society of Australia’s annual scientific meeting hosted at Monash University Melbourne and the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory in the Murchison, Western Australia.

More information: Murchison Widefield Array

Adapted from information issued by Curtin University.

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Astronomers spy on galaxies in the raw

A CSIRO RADIO TELESCOPE has detected the raw material for making the first stars in galaxies that formed when the Universe was just three billion years old – less than a quarter of its current age. This opens the way to studying how these early galaxies make their first stars.

The telescope is CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array telescope near Narrabri, NSW. “It one of very few telescopes in the world that can do such difficult work, because it is both extremely sensitive and can receive radio waves of the right wavelengths,” says CSIRO astronomer Professor Ron Ekers.

The raw material for making stars is cold molecular hydrogen gas, called H2. It can’t be detected directly but its presence is revealed by a ‘tracer’ gas, carbon monoxide (CO), which emits radio waves.

The Spiderweb

In one project, astronomer Dr Bjorn Emonts (CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science) and his colleagues used the Compact Array to study a massive, distant conglomerate of star-forming ‘clumps’ or ‘proto-galaxies’ that are in the process of coming together as a single massive galaxy. This structure, called the Spiderweb, lies more than ten thousand million light-years away (at a redshift of 2.16).

The Spiderweb, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope

MAIN IMAGE: The Spiderweb, imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope – a central galaxy (MRC 1138-262) surrounded by hundreds of other star-forming ‘clumps’. (Credit: NASA, ESA, George Miley and Roderik Overzier, Leiden Observatory.) INSET: In blue, the carbon monoxide gas detected in and around the Spiderweb. (Credit: B. Emonts et al, CSIRO/ATCA)

Dr Emonts’ team found that the Spiderweb contains at least sixty thousand million  times the mass of the Sun in molecular hydrogen gas, spread over a distance of almost a quarter of a million light-years. This must be the fuel for the star-formation that has been seen across the Spiderweb. “Indeed, it is enough to keep stars forming for at least another 40 million years,” says Dr Emonts.

Magnifying lens

In a second set of studies, Dr Manuel Aravena (European Southern Observatory) and colleagues measured CO, and therefore H2, in two very distant galaxies (at a redshift of 2.7).

The faint radio waves from these galaxies were amplified by the gravitational fields of other galaxies – ones that lie between us and the distant galaxies. This process, called gravitational lensing, “acts like a magnifying lens and allows us to see even more distant objects than the Spiderweb,” says Dr Aravena.

Dr Aravena’s team was able to measure the amount of H2 in both galaxies they studied. For one of the galaxies (called SPT-S 053816-5030.8), they could also use the radio emission to make an estimate of how rapidly the galaxy is forming stars – an estimate independent of the other ways astronomers measure this rate.

Antennae of CSIRO's Compact Array telescope

Dishes of the CSIRO’s Australia Telescope Compact Array near Narrabri in New South Wales. Photo: David Smyth

Upgraded telescope

The Compact Array’s ability to detect CO is due to an upgrade that has boosted its bandwidth – the amount of radio spectrum it can see at any one time – sixteen-fold (from 256 MHz to 4 GHz), and made it far more sensitive.

“The Compact Array complements the new ALMA telescope in Chile, which looks for the higher-frequency transitions of CO,” says Ron Ekers.

Adapted from information issued by CSIRO.

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Close encounter could reveal planets

NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope will have two opportunities in the next few years to hunt for Earth-sized planets around the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri. The opportunities will occur in October 2014 and February 2016 when Proxima Centauri, the star nearest to our Solar System, passes in front of two other stars. Astronomers plotted Proxima Centauri’s precise path and predicted the two close encounters using data from Hubble.

Red dwarfs are the most common class of stars in our Milky Way galaxy; there are about 10 for every star like our Sun. Red dwarfs are less massive than other stars, and because lower-mass stars tend to have smaller planets, they are ideal places to go hunting for Earth-sized planets.

Previous attempts to detect planets circling Proxima Centauri have not been successful. But astronomers believe they may be able to detect smaller Earth-sized planets, if they exist, by looking for ‘microlensing’ effects during the two rare stellar alignments.

The projected motion of the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri

The projected motion of the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri (green line) over the next decade, as plotted from Hubble Space Telescope observations (the path appears looped due to Earth’s motion around the Sun. In 2014 and 2016 Proxima Centauri will pass almost in front of two background stars, affording astronomers a rare opportunity to study the warping of space by Proxima’s gravity. The amount of warping will be used to calculate a precise mass for Proxima Centauri and look for the gravitational footprint and any planets orbiting the star. Credit: NASA, ESA, K. Sahu and J. Anderson (STScI), H. Bond (STScI and Pennsylvania State University), M. Dominik (University of St. Andrews), and Digitized Sky Survey (STScI/AURA/UKSTU/AAO)

Microlensing occurs when a foreground star (the ‘lens’) passes close to our line of sight to a more distant background star (the ‘source’). The appearance of the background star may be distorted, brightened and multiplied depending on the alignment between the foreground lens and the background source.

These microlensing events, which range in duration from a few hours to a few days, will enable astronomers to precisely measure the mass of Proxima Centauri. Getting a precise determination of mass is critical to understanding a star’s temperature, diameter, intrinsic brightness and longevity.

Astronomers will measure the mass by examining images of each of the background stars to see how far the stars appear to be shifted from their real positions in the sky. The shifts will be the result of Proxima Centauri’s gravitational field warping space. The degree of shift can be used to measure Proxima Centauri’s mass; the greater the shift, the greater the mass. If the red dwarf has any planets, their gravitational fields will produce a second small position shift.

Diagram explaining microlensing as Proxima Centauri appears to pass close to a background star

The upcoming conjunction between the nearest star to our Sun, Proxima Centauri, and a distant background star. Proxima’s gravitational field distorts space like a funhouse mirror and bends the path of light from the background star. The result is that the apparent position of the star will shift slightly during Proxima Centauri’s passage, as seen in the upper right diagram. If an unseen planet is orbiting Proxima Centauri, the star’s apparent position will be further offset, as seen at lower right. Credit: A. Feild (STScI)

At a distance of 4.2 light-years from Earth, Proxima Centauri is just 0.2 light-year from the more distant binary star Alpha and Beta Centauri. These three stars are considered part of the triple-star system, though Proxima Centauri evolved in isolation from the two Sun-like companion stars.

Because Proxima Centauri is so close to Earth, the area of sky warped by its gravitation field is larger than for more distant stars. This makes it easier to look for shifts in apparent stellar position caused by this effect. However, the position shifts will be too small to be perceived by any but the most sensitive telescopes in space and on the ground. The European Space Agency’s Gaia space telescope (due for launch later this year) and the European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope in Chile might be able to make measurements comparable to Hubble’s.

Adapted from information issued by NASA and the Space Telescope Science Institute.

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Antares roars into space

Antares Rocket Launches

The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket is seen as it launches from Pad-0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, Sunday, April 21, 2013. Image Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

NASA COMMERCIAL space partner Orbital Sciences Corporation launched its Antares rocket on Sunday from the new Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad-0A at the agency’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, USA.

The test flight was the first launch from the pad at Wallops and was the first flight of Antares, which delivered the equivalent mass of a spacecraft, a so-called mass simulated payload, into Earth orbit.

The test of the Antares launch system began with the rocket’s rollout and placement on the launch pad April 6, and culminated with the separation of the mass simulator payload from the rocket just minutes after launch.

Here’s the video of the launch – it goes for about 12 minutes:

The completed flight paves the way for a demonstration mission by Orbital to resupply the space station later this year. Antares will launch experiments and supplies to the orbiting laboratory carried aboard the company’s new Cygnus cargo spacecraft through NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.

Orbital is building and testing its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft under NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. After successful completion of a COTS demonstration mission to the station, Orbital will begin conducting eight planned cargo resupply flights to the orbiting laboratory through a US$1.9 billion NASA contract with the company.

“Today’s successful test marks another significant milestone in NASA’s plan to rely on American companies to launch supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station, bringing this important work back to the United States where it belongs,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. “Congratulations to Orbital Sciences and the NASA team that worked alongside them for the picture-perfect launch of the Antares rocket. In addition to providing further evidence that our strategic space exploration plan is moving forward, this test also inaugurates America’s newest spaceport capable of launching to the space station, opening up additional opportunities for commercial and government users.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program also is working with commercial space partners to develop capabilities to launch U.S. astronauts from American soil in the next few years.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.

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New view of the Horsehead Nebula

Horsehead Nebula in infrared light

The rich tapestry of the Horsehead Nebula pops out against the backdrop of Milky Way stars and distant galaxies that easily are visible in infrared light. Image Credit: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team

ASTRONOMERS HAVE USED NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope and the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Herschel Space Observatory have produced stunning new photographs of the iconic Horsehead Nebula at infrared wavelengths.

Looking like an apparition rising from whitecaps of interstellar foam, the iconic Horsehead Nebula has graced astronomy books ever since its discovery more than a century ago. It is about 1,300 light-years from Earth.

The new far-infrared Herschel view shows in spectacular detail the scene playing out around the Horsehead Nebula at the right-hand side of the image, where it seems to surf like a ‘white horse’ in the waves of turbulent star-forming clouds.

Horsehead Nebula in infrared light

A new view from ESA’s Herschel space observatory of the iconic Horsehead Nebula (right) and two other prominent sites where massive stars are forming, NGC 2068 and NGC 2071 (left). Image credit: ESA/Herschel/PACS, SPIRE/N. Schneider, Ph. André, V. Könyves (CEA Saclay, France) for the “Gould Belt survey” Key Programme.

It appears to be riding towards another favorite stopping point for astrophotographers: NGC 2024, also known as the Flame Nebula. This star-forming region appears obscured by dark dust lanes in visible light images, but blazes in full glory in the far-infrared Herschel view.

Intense radiation streaming away from newborn stars heats up the surrounding dust and gas, making it shine brightly to Herschel’s infrared-sensitive eyes.

The panoramic view also covers two prominent sites of massive star formation to the northeast (left-hand side of this image), known as NGC 2068 (or M78) and NGC 2071. These take on the appearance of beautifully patterned butterfly wings, with long tails of colder gas and dust streaming away.

A wide-angle view of the Horsehead Nebula

A wide-angle view of the Horsehead Nebula, seen at normal visible wavelengths. Image Credit: NASA

Extensive networks of cool gas and dust weave throughout the scene in the form of red and yellow filaments, some of which may host newly forming lightweight stars.

The new Hubble view, taken at near-infrared wavelengths with its Wide Field Camera 3 to celebrate the 23rd anniversary of the launch of the observatory, zooms in on the Horsehead to reveal fine details of its structure.

Nearby stars illuminate the backlit wisps along the upper ridge of the nebula in an ethereal glow. The harsh ultraviolet glare from these bright stars is slowly evaporating the dusty stellar nursery. Two fledgling stars have already been exposed from their protective cocoons, and can just be seen peeking out from the upper ridge.

The nebula is a favourite target for amateur and professional astronomers. It is shadowy in optical light, but appears transparent and ethereal when seen at infrared wavelengths.

Detailed, visible wavelength image of the Horsehead

This detailed, visible wavelength image of the Horsehead was released by the European Southern Observatory in 2002. Image credit: ESO

Adapted from information issued by NASA and ESA.

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Sun sends an explosion our way

SOHO image of a CME

The Solar Heliospheric Observatory spacecraft captured these images of the sun spitting out a coronal mass ejection on March 15, 2013.

ON MARCH 15, the Sun erupted with an Earth-directed coronal mass ejection (CME), a solar phenomenon that can send billions of tonnes of solar particles into space and can reach Earth one to three days later and affect electronic systems in satellites and on the ground.

Experimental NASA research models, based on observations from the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) and ESA/NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory spacecraft, show that the CME left the Sun at speeds of around 14,50 kilometres per second, which is a fairly fast speed for CMEs. Historically, CMEs at this speed have caused mild to moderate effects when they reach Earth.

The NASA research models also show that the CME may pass by the Spitzer (an Earth-orbiting observatory) and Messenger (Mercury orbiter) spacecraft. NASA has notified their mission operators. There is, however, only minor particle radiation associated with this event, which is what would normally concern operators of interplanetary spacecraft since the particles can trip on-board computer electronics.

Earth-directed CMEs can cause a space weather phenomenon called a geomagnetic storm, which occurs when they connect with the outside of the Earth’s magnetic envelope, the magnetosphere, for an extended period of time.

In the past, geomagnetic storms caused by CMEs such as this one have usually been of mild to medium strength.

In the USA, NOAA’s Space Weather Prediction Center is the United States Government official source for space weather forecasts, alerts, watches and warnings.

In Australia, the solar monitoring and notifications are the responsibility of IPS Radio and Space Services.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / GSFC. Image credit: ESA & NASA / SOHO.

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Mars: sharp image of Mount Sharp

MSL image of Mount Sharp

This mosaic of images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity shows Mount Sharp in a white-balanced colour adjustment that makes the sky look overly blue but shows the terrain as if under Earth-like lighting.

RISING ABOVE THE PRESENT location of NASA’s Mars rover Curiosity, higher than any mountain in the 48 contiguous states of the United States, Mount Sharp is featured in new imagery from the rover.

A pair of mosaics assembled from dozens of telephoto images shows Mount Sharp in dramatic detail. The component images were taken by the 100-millimetre-focal-length telephoto lens camera mounted on the right side of Curiosity’s remote sensing mast, during the 45th Martian day of the rover’s mission on Mars (September 20, 2012).

The image above is only a small part of the whole panorama – you can see the full panorama here.

This layered mound, also called Aeolis Mons, in the centre of Gale Crater rises more than five kilometres above the crater floor location of Curiosity. Lower slopes of Mount Sharp remain a destination for the mission, though the rover will first spend many more weeks around a location called ‘Yellowknife Bay,’ where it has found evidence of a past environment favourable for microbial life.

A version of the mosaic that has been white-balanced to show the terrain as if under Earthlike lighting, which makes the sky look overly blue, can be seen here.

White-balanced versions help scientists recognise rock materials based on their terrestrial experience. The Martian sky would look like more of a butterscotch colour to the human eye. A version of the mosaic with raw colour, as a typical smart-phone camera would show the scene, is here.

In both versions, the sky has been filled out by extrapolating colour and brightness information from the portions of the sky that were captured in images of the terrain.

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory project is using Curiosity and the rover’s 10 science instruments to investigate environmental history within Gale Crater, a location where the project has found that conditions were long ago favourable for microbial life.

More information:

NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory page

JPL’s Mars Science Laboratory page

Curiosity’s Twitter page

Adapted from information issued by JPL.

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GALLERY: Light and dark in the Milky Way

Star cluster NGC 6520 and nebula Barnard 86

The bright star cluster NGC 6520 and its neighbour, the dark cloud Barnard 86. In the background are millions of glowing stars from the brightest part of the Milky Way.

SET AGAINST A BACKGROUND of millions of glowing stars from the brightest part of the Milky Way, a region so dense with stars that barely any dark sky can be seen, lies the bright star cluster NGC 6520 and its neighbour, the dark nebula Barnard 86.

This part of the constellation Sagittarius is one of the richest star fields in the whole sky – the Large Sagittarius Star Cloud. The huge number of stars dramatically emphasise the blackness of dark clouds like Barnard 86.

Known as a Bok globule, Barnard 86 was described as “a drop of ink on the luminous sky” by its discoverer Edward Emerson Barnard, an American astronomer who discovered and photographed numerous comets, dark nebulae, one of Jupiter’s moons, and made many other contributions. An exceptional visual observer and keen astrophotographer, Barnard was the first to use long-exposure photography to explore dark nebulae.

Through a small telescope Barnard 86 looks like a hole in the star fields, or a window onto a patch of distant, clearer sky. However, it is actually in the foreground of the star field – a cold, dark, dense cloud made up of small dust grains that block starlight and make the region appear black. It is thought to have formed from the remnants of an interstellar cloud that formed the star cluster NGC 6520, seen just to the left of Barnard 86.

NGC 6520 is an open star cluster that contains many hot stars that glow bright blue-white, a telltale sign of their youth. Open clusters usually contain a few thousand stars that all formed at the same time, giving them all the same age. Such clusters usually only live comparatively short lives, on the order of several hundred million years, before drifting apart.

Both NGC 6520 and Barnard 86 are thought to lie at a distance of around 6,000 light-years from our Sun. The stars that appear to be within Barnard 86 are actually in front of it, between us and the nebula.

The image was taken with the Wide Field Imager, an instrument mounted on the MPG/ESO 2.2-metre telescope at the ESO La Silla Observatory.

Star cluster NGC 6520 and nebula Barnard 86

This wide-field view shows the very rich star fields of the Large Sagittarius Star Cloud and the cluster NGC 6520 and the neighbouring dark cloud Barnard 86. It was created from images from the Digitized Sky Survey 2.

Adapted from information issued by ESO. Images courtesy ESO / Digitised Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgement: Davide De Martin

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