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NASA Picture of the Day


The Iris Nebula in a Field of Dust

Explanation: These cosmic dust clouds drift some 1,300 light-years away along the fertile starfields of the constellation Cepheus. The beautiful Iris Nebula, also known as NGC 7023, blossoms at the upper left. Not the only nebula in the sky to evoke the imagery of flowers, its pretty, symmetric form spans about 6 light-years. This nebula's dominant blue color is characteristic of the pervasive dust grains reflecting light from a nearby hot, bluish star. But darker, obscuring dust clouds cover most of the nearly 4 degree wide field of view. At the right is the LDN 1147/1158 complex of Lynds Dark...

IC 1805: The Heart Nebula

Explanation: What energizes the Heart Nebula? First, the large emission nebula dubbed IC 1805 looks, in whole, like a human heart. The nebula glows brightly in red light emitted by its most prominent element: hydrogen. The red glow and the larger shape are all powered by a small group of stars near the nebula's center. In the center of the Heart Nebula are young stars from the open star cluster Melotte 15 that are eroding away several picturesque dust pillars with their energetic light and winds. The open cluster of stars contains a few bright stars nearly 50 times the...

Pluto in True Color

Explanation: What color is Pluto, really? It took some effort to figure out. Even given all of the images sent back to Earth when the robotic New Horizons spacecraft sped past Pluto in 2015, processing these multi-spectral frames to approximate what the human eye would see was challenging. The result featured here, released three years after the raw data was acquired by New Horizons, is the highest resolution true color image of Pluto ever taken. Visible in the image is the light-colored, heart-shaped, Tombaugh Regio, with the unexpectedly smooth Sputnik Planitia, made of frozen nitrogen, filling its western lobe. New...

Perijove 11: Passing Jupiter

Explanation: Here comes Jupiter! NASA's robotic spacecraft Juno is continuing on its 53-day, highly-elongated orbits around our Solar System's largest planet. The featured video is from perijove 11 in early 2018, the eleventh time Juno has passed near Jupiter since it arrived in mid-2016. This time-lapse, color-enhanced movie covers about four hours and morphs between 36 JunoCam images. The video begins with Jupiter rising as Juno approaches from the north. As Juno reaches its closest view -- from about 3,500 kilometers over Jupiter's cloud tops -- the spacecraft captures the great planet in tremendous detail. Juno passes light zones and...

Unusual Signal Suggests Neutron Star Destroyed by Black Hole

Explanation: What created this unusual explosion? Three weeks ago, gravitational wave detectors in the USA and Europe -- the LIGO and Virgo detectors -- detected a burst of gravitational radiation that had the oscillating pattern expected when a black hole destroys a neutron star. One object in event S190814sv was best fit with a mass greater than five times the mass of the Sun -- making it a good candidate for a black hole, while the other object appeared to have a mass less than three times the mass of the Sun -- making it a good candidate for a...

M45: The Pleiades Star Cluster

Explanation: Have you ever seen the Pleiades star cluster? Even if you have, you probably have never seen it as dusty as this. Perhaps the most famous star cluster on the sky, the bright stars of the Pleiades can be seen without binoculars from even the depths of a light-polluted city. With a long exposure from a dark location, though, the dust cloud surrounding the Pleiades star cluster becomes very evident. The featured exposure took over 12 hours and covers a sky area several times the size of the full moon. Also known as the Seven Sisters and M45, the...

Spitzer's Orion

Explanation: Few cosmic vistas excite the imagination like the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. Spanning about 40 light-years across the region, this infrared image from the Spitzer Space Telescope was constructed from data intended to monitor the brightness of the nebula's young stars, many still surrounded by dusty, planet-forming disks. Orion's young stars are only about 1 million years old, compared to the Sun's age of 4.6 billion years. The region's hottest stars are found in the Trapezium Cluster, the brightest cluster near picture center. Launched into orbit around the Sun on August 25, 2003...

NGC 7129 and NGC 7142

Explanation: This wide-field telescopic image looks toward the constellation Cepheus and an intriguing visual pairing of dusty reflection nebula NGC 7129 (right) and open star cluster NGC 7142. The two appear separated by only half a degree on the sky, but they actually lie at quite different distances. In the foreground, dusty nebula NGC 7129 is about 3,000 light-years distant, while open cluster NGC 7142 is likely over 6,000 light-years away. In fact, pervasive and clumpy foreground dust clouds in this region redden the light from NGC 7142, complicating astronomical explorations of the cluster. Still, NGC 7142 is thought to...

M27: Not a Comet

Explanation: While hunting for comets in the skies above 18th century France, astronomer Charles Messier diligently kept a list of the things he encountered that were definitely not comets. This is number 27 on his now famous not-a-comet list. In fact, 21st century astronomers would identify it as a planetary nebula, but it's not a planet either, even though it may appear round and planet-like in a small telescope. Messier 27 (M27) is an excellent example of a gaseous emission nebula created as a sun-like star runs out of nuclear fuel in its core. The nebula forms as the star's...

Nearby Spiral Galaxy NGC 4945

Explanation: Large spiral galaxy NGC 4945 is seen edge-on near the center of this cosmic galaxy portrait. In fact, it's almost the size of our Milky Way Galaxy. NGC 4945's own dusty disk, young blue star clusters, and pink star forming regions standout in the sharp, colorful telescopic image. About 13 million light-years distant toward the expansive southern constellation Centaurus, NGC 4945 is only about six times farther away than Andromeda, the nearest large spiral galaxy to the Milky Way. Though this galaxy's central region is largely hidden from view for optical telescopes, X-ray and infrared observations indicate significant high...

Animation: Spiral Disk around a Black Hole

Explanation: What would it look like to orbit a black hole? Many black holes are surrounded by swirling pools of gas known as accretion disks. These disks can be extremely hot, and much of the orbiting gas will eventually fall through the black hole's event horizon -- where it will never been seen again. The featured animation is an artist's rendering of the curious disk spiraling around the supermassive black hole at the center of spiral galaxy NGC 3147. Gas at the inner edge of this disk is so close to the black hole that it moves unusually fast --...

Lenticular Clouds over Mount Etna

Explanation: What's happening above that volcano? Although Mount Etna is seen erupting, the clouds are not related to the eruption. They are lenticular clouds formed when moist air is forced upwards near a mountain or volcano. The surreal scene was captured by chance late last month when the astrophotographer went to Mount Etna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Sicily, Italy, to photograph the conjunction between the Moon and the star Aldebaran. The Moon appears in a bright crescent phase, illuminating an edge of the lower lenticular cloud. Red hot lava flows on the right. Besides some breathtaking stills, a...