THE COSMOS' EYE OF SAURON

Our universe's take on the infamous Eye from Lord of the Rings, wandering planets and galaxies behind bars in this selection from NASA's Astronomy Picture of the Day.

apod.nasa.gov

Many spiral galaxies have bars across their centers. Even our own Milky Way Galaxy is thought to have a modest central bar. Prominently barred spiral galaxy NGC 1672, featured here, was captured in spectacular detail in an image taken by the orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. Visible are dark filamentary dust lanes, young clusters of bright blue stars, red emission nebulas of glowing hydrogen gas, a long bright bar of stars across the center, and a bright active nucleus that likely houses a supermassive black hole. Light takes about 60 million years to reach us from NGC 1672, which spans about 75,000 light years across. NGC 1672, which appears toward the constellation of the Dolphinfish (Dorado), is being studied to find out how a spiral bar contributes to star formation in a galaxy's central regions.

Photography: Hubble Legacy Archive, NASA, ESA; Processing & Copyright: Steve Cooper

The Helix Nebula in Infrared


What makes this cosmic eye look so red? Dust. The featured image from the robotic Spitzer Space Telescope shows infrared light from the well-studied Helix Nebula (NGC 7293) a mere 700 light-years away in the constellation of the Water Carrier Aquarius. The two light-year diameter shroud of dust and gas around a central white dwarf has long been considered an excellent example of a planetary nebula, representing the final stages in the evolution of a Sun-like star. But the Spitzer data show the nebula's central star itself is immersed in a surprisingly bright infrared glow. Models suggest the glow is produced by a dust debris disk. Even though the nebular material was ejected from the star many thousands of years ago, the close-in dust could have been generated by collisions in a reservoir of objects analogous to our own solar system's Kuiper Belt or cometary Oort cloud. Had the comet-like bodies formed in the distant planetary system, they would have survived even the dramatic late stages of the star's evolution.

Photography: NASA, JPL-Caltech, Spitzer Space Telescope; Processing: Judy Schmidt

Full Moon over Brno


After sunset this gorgeous full moon rose over Brno city in the Czech Republic on July 20, 2016. The panoramic image was made during a celebration of the 47th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. A series of exposures captures the yellow hued lunar disk against the fading colors of twilight, with the 14th century Spilberk castle illuminated in the foreground. Of course, tonight's full moon is called the Harvest Moon. The closest full moon to the northern hemisphere's autumnal equinox, its traditional name has long been celebrated in story and song. Tonight's full lunar phase also coincides with a subtle, penumbral lunar eclipse, the Moon passing only through the Earth's diffuse, outer shadow.

Photography: Petr Horálek

Retrograde Mars and Saturn


Wandering Mars and Saturn have spent much of this year remarkably close in planet Earth's night sky. In a sequence of exposures spanning mid-December 2015 through the beginning of this week, this composited skyview follows their time together, including both near opposition, just north of bright star Antares near the Milky Way's central bulge. In the corresponding video, Saturn's apparent movement is seen to be back and forth along the flattened, compact loop, while Mars traces the wider, reversing S-shaped track from upper right to lower left through the frame. To connect the dots and dates just slide your cursor over the picture (or follow this link). It looks that way, but Mars and Saturn don't actually reverse direction along their orbits. Instead, their apparent backwards or retrograde motion with respect to the background stars is a reflection of the orbital motion of the Earth itself. Retrograde motion can be seen each time Earth overtakes and laps planets orbiting farther from the Sun, the Earth moving more rapidly through its own relatively close-in orbit.

Photography: Tunç Tezel (TWAN)

M33: Triangulum Galaxy


The small, northern constellation Triangulum harbors this magnificent face-on spiral galaxy, M33. Its popular names include the Pinwheel Galaxy or just the Triangulum Galaxy. M33 is over 50,000 light-years in diameter, third largest in the Local Group of galaxies after the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), and our own Milky Way. About 3 million light-years from the Milky Way, M33 is itself thought to be a satellite of the Andromeda Galaxy and astronomers in these two galaxies would likely have spectacular views of each other's grand spiral star systems. As for the view from planet Earth, this sharp composite image nicely shows off M33's blue star clusters and pinkish star forming regions along the galaxy's loosely wound spiral arms. In fact, the cavernous NGC 604 is the brightest star forming region, seen here at about the 1 o'clock position from the galaxy center. Like M31, M33's population of well-measured variable stars have helped make this nearby spiral a cosmic yardstick for establishing the distance scale of the Universe.

Photography: Giovanni Benintende