NASA Latest Images ( from 28-Nov-2015 to 14-Dec-2015 )

Pluto: From Mountains to Plains
Image Credit: NASA, Johns Hopkins U. APL, SwRI
Explanation: What do the sharpest views ever of Pluto show? As the robotic New Horizons spacecraft moves into the outer Solar System, it is now sending back some of the highest resolution images from its historic encounter with Pluto in July. Featured here is one recently-received, high-resolution image. On the left is al-Idrisi Montes, mountainous highlands thought composed primarily of blocks of solid nitrogen. A sharp transitional shoreline leads to the ice plains, on the right, that compose part of the heart-shaped feature known as Sputnik Planum. Why the plains are textured with ice pits and segmented is currently unknown. The image was taken about 15 minutes before closest approach and shows an area about 30 kilometers across. The New Horizons spacecraft is next scheduled to fly past Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU 69 on New Year's Day 2019.

Comet Meets Moon and Morning Star
Image Credit & Copyright: Greg Hogan
Explanation: A crescent Moon and brilliant Venus met in predawn skies on December 7, a beautiful conjunction of planet Earth's two brightest celestial beacons after the Sun. Harder to see but also on the scene was Comet Catalina (C/2013 US10). The fainter comet clearly sporting two tails, lunar night side, bright sunlit lunar crescent, and brilliant morning star, are all recorded here by combining short and long exposures of the same field of view. Pointing down and right, Catalina's dust tail tends to trail behind the comet's orbit. Its ion tail, angled toward the top left of the frame, is blowing away from the Sun. Discovered in 2013, the new visitor from the Oort cloud was closest to the Sun on November 15 and is now outbound, headed for its closest approach to Earth in mid-January.

The Brightest Spot on Ceres
Image Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, UCLA, MPS/DLR/IDA
Explanation: Dwarf planet Ceres is the largest object in the Solar System's main asteroid belt with a diameter of about 950 kilometers. Exploring Ceres from orbit since March, the Dawn spacecraft's camera has revealed about 130 or so mysterious bright spots, mostly associated with impact craters scattered around the small world's otherwise dark surface. The brightest one is near the center of the 90 kilometer wide Occator Crater, seen in this dramatic false color view combining near-infrared and visible light image data. A study now finds the bright spot's reflected light properties are probably most consistent with a type of magnesium sulfate called hexahydrite. Of course, magnesium sulfate is also known to Earth dwellers as epsom salt. Haze reported inside Occator also suggests the salty material could be left over as a mix of salt and water-ice sublimates on the surface. Since impacts would have exposed the material, Ceres' numerous and widely scattered bright spots may indicate the presence of a subsurface shell of ice-salt mix. In mid-December, Dawn will begin taking observations from its closest Ceres mapping orbit.

Daytime Moon Meets Morning Star
Image Credit & Copyright: Phillip A Cruden
Explanation: Venus now appears as Earth's brilliant morning star, standing in a line-up of planets above the southeastern horizon before dawn. For most, the silvery celestial beacon rose predawn in a close pairing with an old crescent Moon on Monday, December 7. But also widely seen from locations in North and Central America, the lunar crescent actually occulted or passed in front of Venus during Monday's daylight hours. This time series follows the daytime approach of Moon and morning star in clear blue skies from Phoenix, Arizona. The progression of nine sharp telescopic snapshots, made between 9:30am and 9:35am local time, runs from lower left to upper right, when Venus winked out behind the bright lunar limb.

Arp 87: Merging Galaxies from Hubble
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, Hubble Space Telescope; Processing: Douglas Gardner
Explanation: This dance is to the death. Along the way, as these two large galaxies duel, a cosmic bridge of stars, gas, and dust currently stretches over 75,000 light-years and joins them. The bridge itself is strong evidence that these two immense star systems have passed close to each other and experienced violent tides induced by mutual gravity. As further evidence, the face-on spiral galaxy on the right, also known as NGC 3808A, exhibits many young blue star clusters produced in a burst of star formation. The twisted edge-on spiral on the left (NGC 3808B) seems to be wrapped in the material bridging the galaxies and surrounded by a curious polar ring. Together, the system is known as Arp 87 and morphologically classified, technically, as peculiar. While such interactions are drawn out over billions of years, repeated close passages should ultimately result in the death of one galaxy in the sense that only one galaxy will eventually result. Although this scenario does look peculiar, galactic mergers are thought to be common, with Arp 87 representing a stage in this inevitable process. The Arp 87 pair are about 300 million light-years distant toward the constellation Leo. The prominent edge-on spiral at the far left appears to be a more distant background galaxy and not involved in the on-going merger.

Icelandic Legends and Aurora
Image Credit & Copyright: Elizabeth M. Ryan; Rollover Annotation: Judy Schmidt
Explanation: Legends collide in this dramatic vista of land, sea, and sky. The land is Iceland, specifically Vík í Mýrdal, a southern village known for its beautiful black sand beaches. The sea, the Atlantic Ocean, surrounds Reynisdrangar, a sea stack of eroded basaltic rock pillars that Icelandic folklore tells are the petrified remains of trolls once attempting to drag a three-masted ship onto land. Watching from overhead and shining bright on the upper right is the god of the sky, according to Greek mythology: the planet Jupiter. Also visible in the sky are several other Greek legends encapsulated as constellations, including a lion (Leo), a big bear (Ursa Major), and a water snake (Hydra). One might guess that all of this commotion caused the spectacular aurora pictured -- but really it was just explosions from the Sun.

Comet Catalina Emerges
Image Credit & Copyright: Fritz Helmut Hemmerich
Explanation: Comet Catalina is ready for its close-up. The giant snowball from the outer Solar System, known formally as C/2013 US10 (Catalina), rounded the Sun last month and is now headed for its closest approach to Earth in January. With the glow of the Moon now also out of the way, morning observers in Earth's northern hemisphere are getting their best ever view of the new comet. And Comet Catalina is not disappointing. Although not as bright as early predictions, the comet is sporting both dust (lower left) and ion (upper right) tails, making it an impressive object for binoculars and long-exposure cameras. The featured image was taken last week from the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa. Sky enthusiasts around the world will surely be tracking the comet over the next few months to see how it evolves.

A Force from Empty Space: The Casimir Effect
Image Credit & Copyright: Umar Mohideen (U. California at Riverside)
Explanation: This tiny ball provides evidence that the universe will expand forever. Measuring slightly over one tenth of a millimeter, the ball moves toward a smooth plate in response to energy fluctuations in the vacuum of empty space. The attraction is known as the Casimir Effect, named for its discoverer, who, 55 years ago, was trying to understand why fluids like mayonnaise move so slowly. Today, evidence indicates that most of the energy density in the universe is in an unknown form dubbed dark energy. The form and genesis of dark energy is almost completely unknown, but postulated as related to vacuum fluctuations similar to the Casimir Effect but generated somehow by space itself. This vast and mysterious dark energy appears to gravitationally repel all matter and hence will likely cause the universe to expand forever. Understanding vacuum energy is on the forefront of research not only to better understand our universe but also for stopping micro-mechanical machine parts from sticking together.

Kepler Orrery IV
Video Credit & Copyright: Ethan Kruse (University of Washington)
Explanation: The exoplanet hunting Kepler mission's total for candidate and confirmed multiple planet systems stands at 1,705 worlds in orbit around 685 distant stars. Put all of those exoplanet orbits on the same scale and follow their relative orbital motions to get Kepler Orrery IV. To make the planets visible, their sizes aren't shown to scale. But orbits of the planets in the Solar System (dashed lines) are included to scale in the hypnotic video. Of course, Kepler uses planetary transits to detect exoplanets, looking for a slight dimming of light as the planet crosses in front of its star. In the time compressed video, Kepler's multiplanet system orbits are all oriented to put observed transits at the three o'clock position. The dervish-like movements highlight a stark contrast between most Kepler-discovered exoplanetary systems and our own. Planning an interstellar vacation? Be sure to check the scale at the upper left first. The color code indicates a planet's estimated equilibrium surface temperature based on its orbit size and parent star.

Cygnus: Bubble and Crescent
Image Credit & Copyright: Ivan Eder
Explanation: These clouds of gas and dust drift through rich star fields along the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy toward the high flying constellation Cygnus. Caught within the telescopic field of view are the Soap Bubble (lower left) and the Crescent Nebula (upper right). Both were formed at a final phase in the life of a star. Also known as NGC 6888, the Crescent was shaped as its bright, central massive Wolf-Rayet star, WR 136, shed its outer envelope in a strong stellar wind. Burning through fuel at a prodigious rate, WR 136 is near the end of a short life that should finish in a spectacular supernova explosion. recently discovered Soap Bubble Nebula is likely a planetary nebula, the final shroud of a lower mass, long-lived, sun-like star destined to become a slowly cooling white dwarf. While both are some 5,000 light-years or so distant, the larger Crescent Nebula is around 25 light-years across.

Enceladus: Ringside Water World
Image Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA
Explanation: Saturn's icy moon Enceladus poses above the gas giant's icy rings in this Cassini spacecraft image. The dramatic scene was captured on July 29, while Cassini cruised just below the ring plane, its cameras looking back in a nearly sunward direction about 1 million kilometers from the moon's bright crescent. At 500 kilometers in diameter, Enceladus is a surprisingly active moon though, its remarkable south polar geysers are visible venting beyond a dark southern limb. In fact, data collected during Cassini's flybys and years of images have recently revealed the presence of a global ocean of liquid water beneath this moon's icy crust. Demonstrating the tantalizing liquid layer's global extent, the careful analysis indicates surface and core are not rigidly connected, with Enceladus rocking slightly back and forth in its orbit.

Golden Gate Sunset: Green Flash
Video Credit & Copyright: Alex Rivest; Music: Eureka by Huma-Huma
Explanation: The setting is San Francisco Bay, the time is sunset, and the bridge is the Golden Gate. What you are about to see is an unexpected double sunset ending with a rare green flash. Watch closely -- in the recorded time-lapse sequence, unusually warm air created by bridge traffic refracts sunlight toward the Earth, causing a superior image of the top of the Sun to form. This image will disappear -- marking the first "sunset" -- only after the main image has dipped below the deck. All the while, boats pass in the foreground, cars pass over the bridge, and clouds reflecting sunlight drift by in the distance. The scene ends with Earth's turbulent atmosphere itself creating a path that only higher-energy visible sunlight can traverse, making the last glimpse of our home star appear to flash green.

Nebulae in Auriga
Image Credit & Copyright: Fritz Helmut Hemmerich
Explanation: Rich in star clusters and nebulae, the ancient constellation of the Charioteer (Auriga) rides high in northern winter night skies. Composed from narrow and broadband filter data and spanning nearly 8 Full Moons (4 degrees) on the sky, this deep telescopic view shows off some of Auriga's celestial bounty. The field includes emission region IC 405 (top left) about 1,500 light-years distant. Also known as the Flaming Star Nebula, its red, convoluted clouds of glowing hydrogen gas are energized by hot O-type star AE Aurigae. IC 410 (top right) is significantly more distant, some 12,000 light-years away. The star forming region is famous for its embedded young star cluster, NGC 1893, and tadpole-shaped clouds of dust and gas. IC 417 and NGC 1931 at the lower right, the Spider and the Fly, are also young star clusters embedded in natal clouds that lie far beyond IC 405. Star cluster NGC 1907 is near the bottom edge of the frame, just right of center. The crowded field of view looks along the plane of our Milky Way galaxy, near the direction of the galactic anticenter.

In the Center of Spiral Galaxy NGC 3521
Image Credit: ESA/Hubble & NASA and S. Smartt (Queen's University Belfast); Acknowledgement: Robert Gendler
Explanation: This huge swirling mass of stars, gas, and dust occurs near the center of a nearby spiral galaxy. Gorgeous spiral NGC 3521 is a mere 35 million light-years distant, toward the constellation Leo. Spanning some 50,000 light-years, its central region is shown in this dramatic image, constructed from data from the Hubble Space Telescope. The close-up view highlights this galaxy's characteristic multiple, patchy, irregular spiral arms laced with dust and clusters of young, blue stars. In contrast, many other spirals exhibit grand, sweeping arms. A relatively bright galaxy in planet Earth's sky, NGC 3521 is easily visible in small telescopes, but often overlooked by amateur imagers in favor of other Leo spiral galaxies, like M65 and M66.

Dark Sand Cascades on Mars
Image Credit: HiRISE, MRO, LPL (U. Arizona), NASA
Explanation: They might look like trees on Mars, but they're not. Groups of dark brown streaks have been photographed by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter on melting pinkish sand dunes covered with light frost. The above image was taken in 2008 April near the North Pole of Mars. At that time, dark sand on the interior of Martian sand dunes became more and more visible as the spring Sun melted the lighter carbon dioxide ice. When occurring near the top of a dune, dark sand may cascade down the dune leaving dark surface streaks -- streaks that might appear at first to be trees standing in front of the lighter regions, but cast no shadows. Objects about 25 centimeters across are resolved on this image spanning about one kilometer. Close ups of some parts of this image show billowing plumes indicating that the sand slides were occurring even while the image was being taken.

Rosetta and Comet Outbound
Image Credit & Copyright: Damian Peach/SEN
Explanation: Not a bright comet, 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko now sweeps slowly through planet Earth's predawn skies near the line-up of planets along the ecliptic. Still, this composite of telescopic images follows the comet's progress as it moves away from the Sun beyond the orbit of Mars, from late September (left) through late November (far right). Its faint but extensive coma and tails are viewed against the colorful background of stars near the eastern edge of the constellation Leo. A year ago, before its perihelion passage, the comet was less active, though. Then the Rosetta mission's lander Philae made its historic landing, touching down on the surface of the comet's nucleus.

Source - NASA