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...a diary of great Astronomical Pics
(updated occasionally)

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Very good telescopic views of Saturn can be expected in the coming days as the ringed planet nears opposition on March 8th, its closest approach to Earth in 2009. Of course, opposition means opposite the Sun in planet Earth's sky - an arrangement that occurs almost yearly for Saturn. But while Saturn itself grows larger in telescopic images, Saturn's rings seem to be vanishing as their tilt to our line-of-sight decreases. In fact, the rings will be nearly invisible, edge-on from our perspective, by September 4. Recorded on February
28, this sharp image was made with the 1 meter telescope at Pic Du Midi, a mountain top observatory in the French Pyrenees. The rings are seen to be tilted nearly edge-on, but remarkable details are visible in the gas giant's cloud bands. The icy moon Tethys appears just beyond the rings at the lower left.


What is the closest galaxy to the Milky Way? The new answer to this old question is the Canis Major dwarf galaxy. For many years astronomers thought the Large Magellan Cloud (LMC) was closest, but its title was supplanted in 1994 by the Sagittarius dwarf galaxy. Recent measurements indicate that the Canis Major dwarf is only 42,000 light years from the Galactic center, about three quarters of the distance to the Sagittarius dwarf and a quarter of the distance to the LMC. The discovery was made in data from the 2MASS-sky survey, where infrared light allows a better view through our optically opaque Galactic plane. The labeled illustration above shows the location of the newly discovered Canis Major dwarf and its associated tidal stream of material in relation to our Milky Way Galaxy. The Canis Major dwarf and other satellite galaxies are slowly being gravitationally ripped apart as they travel around and through our Galaxy.


What did the first quasars look like? The nearest quasars are now known to be supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies. Gas and dust that falls toward a quasar glows brightly, sometimes outglowing the entire home galaxy. The quasars that formed in the first billion years of the universe are more mysterious, though, with even the nature of the surrounding gas still unknown. Above, an artist's impression shows a primordial quasar as it might have been, surrounded by sheets of gas, dust, stars, and early star clusters. Exacting observations of three distant quasars now indicate emission of very specific colors of the element iron. These Hubble Space Telescope observations, which bolster recent results from the WMAP mission, indicate that a whole complete cycle of stars was born, created this iron, and died within the first few hundred million years of the universe.


Stars seem to arc through southern skies in this surrealistic time exposure -- recorded before moonrise from the Gemini South Observatory, Cerro Pachon, Chile, Planet Earth. During the one hour 40 minute exposure camera and tripod were fixed, so the concentric star trails are a reflection of Earth's daily rotation about its axis. The view looks to the south and includes the Gemini telescope enclosure in the foreground. At the apparent center of the curving trails, the South Celestial Pole lies just off the upper left edge. Two faint, wide streaks track the Magellanic Clouds, satellites of the Milky Way Galaxy, while a meteor flashes throught the scene just left of the observatory.


Where does dust collect in galaxies? To help find out, a team of researchers took the most detailed image ever of gas clouds and dust in the neighboring Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) galaxy. The composite image, shown above, was taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope in infrared light, which highlights the natural glow of the warm materials returned to the interstellar medium by stars. The above mosaic combines 300,000 individual pointings to create a composite 1,000-times sharper than any previous LMC image. Visible are vast clouds of gas and dust, showing in graphic detail that dust prefers regions near young stars (red-tinted bright clouds), scattered unevenly between the stars (green-tinted clouds), and in shells around old stars (small red dots). Also visible are huge caverns cleared away by the energetic outflows of massive former stars. The faint blue (false-color) glow across the bottom is the combined light from the old stars in the central bar of the LMC. The LMC is a satellite galaxy to our own Milky Way Galaxy, spans about 70,000 light years, and lies about 160,000 light years away toward the southern constellation of the Swordfish (Dorado).


One of the most identifiable nebulae in the sky, the Horsehead Nebula in Orion, is part of a large, dark, molecular cloud. Also known as Barnard 33, the unusual shape was first discovered on a photographic plate in the late 1800s. The red glow originates from hydrogen gas predominantly behind the nebula, ionized by the nearby bright star Sigma Orionis. The darkness of the Horsehead is caused mostly by thick dust, although the lower part of the Horsehead's neck casts a shadow to the left. Streams of gas leaving the nebula are funneled by a strong magnetic field. Bright spots in the Horsehead Nebula's base are young stars just in the process of forming. Light takes about 1500 years to reach us from the Horsehead Nebula. The above image was taken with the 0.9-meter telescope at Kitt Peak National Observatory.