A comet visiting from the most distant parts of our Solar System is putting on a spectacular display. Named Comet C/2020 F3 NEOWISE, the comet made its once-in-our-lifetime close approach to the Sun on July 3, 2020, and will cross outside Earth's orbit on its way back to the outer parts of the Solar System by mid-August. The comet cruised just inside Mercury's orbit on July 3. This very close passage by the Sun is cooking the comet's outermost layers, causing gas and dust to erupt off the icy surface and creating a large tail of debris. And yet the comet has managed to survive this intense roasting. Observers all over the world are racing to see the natural fireworks display before the comet speeds away into the depths of space.
“Your smartphone has already replaced your camera, your TV, your radio, your wristwatch, your calendar, your GPS, your credit cards, your newspaper, your magazines, and your local library... Maybe you should lift up your head, look away from the screen, and engage your family and friends in some face-to-face conversation -- Before your smartphone replaces them too.” - Guy J. Pirro
Welcome to the night sky report for July 2020 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In July, find the Scorpius constellation to identify the reddish supergiant Antares, which will lead you to discover a trio of globular star clusters, as well as three nebulas: the Omega Nebula (M17), the Lagoon Nebula (M8), and the Trifid Nebula (M20).The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
Gamma rays have the smallest wavelengths and the most energy of any wave in the electromagnetic spectrum. They are produced by the hottest and most energetic objects in the universe, such as neutron stars and pulsars, supernova explosions, and regions around black holes. Unlike optical light and x-rays, gamma rays cannot be captured and reflected by mirrors. Gamma-ray wavelengths are so short that they can pass through the space within the atoms of a detector. Over the past few years, scientists have observed the Universe using gamma rays. Gamma rays originate from regions of the Universe where particles are accelerated to huge energies unattainable in human-built accelerators. Gamma rays are emitted by a wide range of cosmic objects, such as quasars, which are active galaxies with a highly energetic nucleus. An international collaboration bringing together over 200 scientists from thirteen countries has shown that the very high-energy gamma-ray emission from quasars, galaxies with a highly energetic nucleus, is not concentrated in the region close to their central black hole but in fact extends over several thousand light-years along jets of plasma. This discovery shakes up current scenarios for the behavior of such plasma jets.
Welcome to the night sky report for June 2020 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. Though the nights are shorter in June, they are filled with fine sights. Look for the Hercules constellation, which will lead you to a globular star cluster with hundreds of thousands of densely packed stars. You can also spot Draco the dragon, which will point you to the Cat’s Eye Nebula. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
A new era of human spaceflight is set to begin as American astronauts once again launch on an American rocket from American soil to low-Earth orbit for the first time since the conclusion of the Space Shuttle Program in 2011. SpaceX and NASA are targeting May 27, 2020 for Falcon 9’s launch of Crew Dragon’s second demonstration mission (Demo-2) from historic Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida as part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. NASA astronauts Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley will be the first two NASA astronauts to fly aboard the Dragon spacecraft to and from the International Space Station (ISS). As the final flight test for SpaceX, this mission will validate the company’s crew transportation system, including the launch pad, rocket, spacecraft, and operational capabilities. This also will be the first time NASA astronauts will test the spacecraft systems in orbit.
A team of astronomers from the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and other institutes have discovered a black hole lying just 1000 lightyears from Earth. The black hole is closer to our Solar System than any other found to date and forms part of a triple system that can be seen with the naked eye. The team found evidence for the invisible object by tracking its two companion stars using a telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory in Chile. The astronomers say this system could just be the tip of the iceberg, as many more similar black holes could be found in the future.
Welcome to the night sky report for May 2020 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. In May, we are looking away from the crowded, dusty plane of our own galaxy, toward a region where the sky is brimming with distant galaxies. Locate Virgo to find a concentration of roughly 2000 galaxies. Then search for Coma Berenices to identify many more. The night sky is truly a celestial showcase. Get outside and explore its wonders from your own backyard.
Thirty years ago on April 24, 1990, Hubble was carried aloft from the Kennedy Space Center aboard the space shuttle Discovery, along with a five astronaut crew. Deployed into low Earth orbit a day later, the telescope opened a new eye onto the cosmos that has been transformative for our civilization. NASA is celebrating the Hubble Space Telescope's 30 years of unlocking the beauty and mystery of space. Hubble has made more than 1.4 million observations of nearly 47,000 celestial objects. In its 30-year lifetime the telescope has racked up more than 175,000 trips around our planet, totaling about 4.4 billion miles. More than 900,000 observations have been taken with imaging instruments. Hubble observations have produced nearly 164 terabytes of data, which are available for present and future generations of researchers. Astronomers using Hubble data have published more than 17,000 scientific papers, with more than 1,000 of those papers published in the past year. Unlike any space telescope before it, Hubble has made astronomy relevant, engaging, and accessible for people of all ages. The space telescope's iconic imagery has redefined our view of the Universe and our place in space and time.
One of the pillars of cosmology is that the universe is “isotropic,” meaning that it is the same in all directions. However, a new study using data from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and ESA's XMM-Newton is now challenging that basic notion. In the past, scientists have conducted many tests to ascertain whether the universe is the same in all directions. These included using optical observations of exploded stars and infrared studies of galaxies. Many of these previous efforts have produced evidence that the universe is seemingly isotropic, but some have not. So, will this new work tear down one of the most crucial pillars of cosmology? Only time (and further research) will tell.
The crew of Apollo 13 consisted of Commander James Lovell, Command Module Pilot John Swigert, and Lunar Module Pilot Fred Haise. Their Saturn V rocket launched at 2:13 p.m. EST on April 11, 1970, from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. While en route to the Moon on April 13, an oxygen tank in the Apollo Service Module (SM) exploded. The lunar landing and moonwalks, which would have been executed by Lovell and Haise, were aborted as a dedicated team of flight controllers and engineering experts in the Apollo Mission Control Center devoted their efforts to developing a plan to shelter the crew in the Lunar Excursion Module (LEM) as a “lifeboat” and retain sufficient resources to bring the spacecraft and its crew back home safely. Splashdown successfully occurred in the Pacific Ocean at 1:07 p.m. April 17. As NASA marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, which has become known as “a successful failure,” the agency is sharing a variety of resources, recognizing the triumph of the mission control team and the astronauts, and looking at how lessons learned can be applied to NASA’s upcoming lunar Artemis program.
Welcome to the night sky report for April 2020 -- Your guide to the constellations, deep sky objects, planets, and celestial events that are observable during the month. Clear April nights are filled with galaxies. You can spot M101 (the Pinwheel Galaxy), M81, and M82. Venus climbs higher in the sky each evening, crossing through the Pleiades star cluster. Mars continues its getaway from Jupiter and Saturn. Also, “the Moon illusion” will be visible during the month as the moody and sometimes downright haunting vista of a huge, yellowish-colored Moon rises above the horizon.
Quasars are extremely remote celestial objects, emitting exceptionally large amounts of energy. Quasars contain supermassive black holes fueled by in-falling matter that can shine 1000 times brighter than their host galaxies of hundreds of billions of stars. Using the unique capabilities of NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, a team of astronomers has discovered the most energetic outflows ever witnessed in the universe. They emanate from quasars and tear across interstellar space like tsunamis, wreaking havoc on the galaxies in which the quasars live.
Neutron stars are compact, extremely dense remnants of supernova explosions. They are about the size of a typical city with up to twice the mass of our Sun. Neutron stars are so dense and compact, that you can think of the entire star as a single atomic nucleus. How the neutron-rich, extremely dense matter behaves is unknown and it is impossible to create such conditions in any laboratory on Earth. Physicists have proposed various models, but it is unknown which, if any, of these models correctly describe neutron star matter in nature. An international research team led by members of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Germany has obtained new measurements of how big neutron stars are. Their results show that a typical neutron star has a radius close to 11 kilometers. They also find that neutron stars merging with black holes are in most cases likely to be swallowed whole, unless the black hole is small and/or rapidly rotating. This means that while such mergers might be observable as gravitational-wave sources, they would be invisible in the electromagnetic spectrum.
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