Follow Mars Curiosity with Virtual Planetarium

While the Olympics are dominating the news right now, NASA will be making some exciting news of its own this weekend: NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover is scheduled to land on the Red Planet at 1:31 am EDT (5:31 am GMT) Monday, August 6.  Our Virtual Planetarium™ astronomy software can keep you up-to-date with the rover and its discoveries on the Red Planet!

The dramatic landing of Curiosity rivals anything the Olympics offers!  In a period of time described as “7 minutes of terror,” the spacecraft must slow down from 13,000 mph (21,000 km/h) as it enters the Martian atmosphere to 0 mph, soft-landing in a particular crater, next to a large Martian mountain.  During those 7 minutes the spacecraft will go through a very complex set of maneuvers, which are illustrated in this NASA video.  Moreover, the spacecraft will do this all by itself: Because it takes 14 minutes for radio signals to travel from Mars to Earth, ground controllers cannot possibly control the spacecraft effectively through those crucial 7 minutes.  Instead, the spacecraft will use an onboard computer and radar to guide Curiosity to a precision landing.

Virtual Planetarium
You can follow the rover as it traverses Mars with our Virtual Planetarium software. This is a screenshot from the software's Solar System Update module showing an artist's rendition of the rover on the Martian surface.

Name A Star Live can keep you up-to-date with our Virtual Planetarium software!

A $39.95 value, Virtual Planetarium is seven great programs in one: interactive sky maps; a huge library of stunning astronomy imagery; information and images of the solar system and latest space events; and space weather reports about sun spots, auroras and more.

How to Update Virtual Planetarium

The software’s Solar System Update module already features information about Curiosity (see screenshot above).  Once Curiosity starts sending images back to Earth, Virtual Planetarium will display the more interesting Martian imagery and portal you to the latest online news from NASA.  All you’ll need to do is click on the “UPDATE DATA” button to keep up with all the new discoveries!  Here are even more detailed instructions:

  1. Open up “Space Update” ( or “Virtual Planetarium”) program. (It must be installed on your hard drive, not just on the DVD).
  2. Select “Solar system”
  3. In the upper right corner, select “Update Data”
  4. If it says “Outdated files detected” you can choose to “delete” or “keep” .  (Say “delete” to get rid of the old MSL caption – it will save it in a folder)
  5. It will then say “comparing old and new data”.  If you have a recent addition, it will find 16 new files (if you have an old edition, it may find more!)
  6. Select “Install new”. It shouldn’t take long to download.
  7. Close solar system part of the app.  (You can go to astronomy, for example).  Then when you return to solar system, the new images will be available.
  8. The new images can be seen by choosing solar system ->  Mars -> Missions -> Mars Science Laboratory

Virtual Planetarium sale!

In celebration of Curiosity‘s bold mission to Mars, we are offering a limited-time sale on Virtual Planetarium.  Click here where you can buy the software for only $29.95 from now through August 10!  You can order Virtual Planetarium delivered to you via a DVD, or for download off of our website.

How to Register Virtual Planetarium

Note that there are two ways to register your copy of Virtual Planetarium:

  1. If you install the software using the DVD, you’ll find the serial number written on the DVD.  The serial number starts with the letters “VP”.
  2. If you install the software via download from our website, then the registration key and serial number are made available to you at the moment you download. You can also retrieve these numbers by visiting our homepage (NameAStarLive.com) and logging in to the “My Account” section of our website.

 

Planets and Shooting Stars Galore!

The brighter planets of our solar system put on some impressive night shows in August!  You can also see one of the best meteor showers of the year this month.  You don’t need a telescope to enjoy these sights, although you’ll need a scope to see the rings of Saturn or the large moons of Jupiter.  Enjoy!

Meteor Shower
Over the night of Aug. 11/12, you can see lots of shooting stars (weather permitting) -- perhaps as many as 60-80 per hour!

The “Perseid Meteor Shower” is going on right now, with the best viewing opportunity between midnight and dawn over the night of August 11 and 12 (August 12 and 13 for those of you in the eastern hemisphere of Earth).  The Perseid shower is one of the best of the year.  During the pre-dawn hours you may be able to see as many as 60 to 80 “shooting stars” flying across the night sky.

You don’t need a telescope or binoculars — just a nice reclining lawn chair and something to keep you cool — or warm, depending on where you are in the world.  Starting about midnight, just lie down, look up, relax and enjoy the show!

The Perseids get their name from the constellation Perseus, from which they appear to come from as you view them from your lawn chair.  The meteors are each about the size of a grain of sand, but travel at very high speeds — an average of 130,000 mph (209,000 km/h)!

According to NASA … “Like most meteor showers, the Perseids are caused by comet debris. As comets enter the inner solar system, they are warmed by the sun and peppered by the solar wind, which produces the familiar tails that stretch across the night sky when a bright comet is close to Earth. Comet tails are made of tiny pieces of ice, dust, and rock which are spewed into interplanetary space as they bubble off the comet’s nucleus. When Earth encounters these particles on its journey around the Sun, they strike the atmosphere….  Most are observed as a bright streak across the sky that can last for several seconds, but occasionally a large fragment will explode in a multicolored fireball…. Although they travel at high speeds, these tiny meteoroids pose no threat to people or objects on the ground.”

Saturn, Mars and Spica
Saturn, Mars and Spica in the western sky on the evening of August 7 (August 8 in the eastern hemisphere of Earth).

Most of the bright planets of our solar system put on quite a show this month!  Shortly after sunset on the evening of August 7 (August 8 for those of you in the eastern hemisphere of Earth), look for a triangle of lights toward the western sky.  The triangle will be formed by the planets Saturn and Mars, and by the bright star called “Spica.”  (See image at left.)  The light you see from Spica took about 261 years to reach us. All three objects are located in the Name A Star Live constellation Virgo.

Take another look at these three bright objects over the evenings of August 12, 13 and 14 and you’ll see them form a line in space, with Mars in the middle!

For you early birds … Look in the eastern sky during the pre-dawn hours for the planets Venus and Jupiter.  Venus will be the brightest object in the eastern sky — the so-called “Morning Star.”  The planet begins the month in the Name A Star Live constellation Taurus, then skirts across a small portion of the Name A Star Live constellation Orion, and spends the last half of the month in the Name A Star Live constellation Gemini.

Jupiter remains in Taurus throughout the month, near the V-shaped group of stars called “The Hyades.”  If you find the Hyades, you’ll notice that its most prominent star appears red in color.  That is the star called “Aldebaran.”  Jupiter will be the bright point of light near Aldebaran — near the ‘open part’ of the “V”.

Venus and Jupiter
Venus and Jupiter in the eastern, pre-dawn sky of August 14, as viewed from the northern hemisphere of Earth.

Finding your star in the night sky

Stars are located within constellations, which are just areas of the night sky. Scorpius, Aries and Taurus are examples of constellations. Your Name A Star Live Star Certificate displays the name of your constellation. You can use our online World Constellation Guide to determine if you can see your constellation during the evening hours (between sunset and midnight). Of course, you’ll need a telescope to see your star.  But you can see your constellation without the use of a telescope. You can also find your constellation by using our Virtual Planetarium™ astronomy software. A planisphere is another useful device.

Beautiful Space Photos

Here are some beautiful space photos and video that have been posted on the Internet in recent weeks.  Enjoy!

Milky way
The Milky Way

This beautiful photo of the Milky Way was taken from Concordia Research Station, a remote Antarctic facility run by French and Italian scientists. The scientists at this facility are cut off from civilization during the winter months – no chance of resupply or rescue … much like future space explorers!

Pinwheel Galaxy
The Pinwheel Galaxy: The light from this galaxy takes 21 million years to reach Earth! Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; IR & UV: NASA/JPL-Caltech; Optical: NASA/STScI

This image of the Pinwheel Galaxy, or also known as M101, combines data in the infrared, visible, ultraviolet and X-rays from four of NASA’s space-based telescopes. This combination of telescope views into one image shows that both young and old stars are evenly distributed along M101’s tightly-wound spiral arms. Such composite images allow astronomers to see how features in one part of the spectrum match up with those seen in other parts. It is like seeing with a regular camera, an ultraviolet camera, night-vision goggles and X-ray vision, all at the same time.

The Pinwheel Galaxy is in the constellation of Ursa Major (which includes the Big Dipper). It is about 70% larger than our own Milky Way Galaxy, with a diameter of about 170,000 light years, and sits at a distance of 21 million light years from Earth. This means that the light we’re seeing in this image left the Pinwheel Galaxy about 21 million years ago – many millions of years before humans ever walked the Earth.

The hottest and most energetic areas in this composite image are shown in purple, where the Chandra X-ray Observatory observed the X-ray emission from exploded stars, million-degree gas, and material colliding around black holes.

The red colors in the image show infrared light, as seen by the Spitzer Space Telescope. These areas show the heat emitted by dusty lanes in the galaxy, where stars are forming.

The yellow component is visible light, observed by the Hubble Space Telescope. Most of this light comes from stars, and they trace the same spiral structure as the dust lanes seen in the infrared.

The blue areas are ultraviolet light, given out by hot, young stars that formed about 1 million years ago, captured by the Galaxy Evolution Explorer (GALEX).

England at Night
England and Wales at Night

Billions of people are seeing London through many different filters and lenses during the 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. None of those views looks quite like this one from NASA’s Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership satellite.  The image above shows London and the southern half of Great Britain as it appeared on the night of March 27, 2012.

Taikonaut Liu Yang

China’s first female astronaut (called “Taikonaut” in China), Liu Yang, emerges from the re-entry capsule of Shenzhou-9 spacecraft, which landed in China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Friday, June 29, 2012. Liu and two other crew members returned safely to Earth after a 13-day mission to an orbiting prototype space station, the Tiangong-1.

Saturn
Saturn with its largest moon, Titan. Shadows from Saturn's thin rings are cast onto the planet below. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/J. Major

Humanity’s robot orbiting Saturn has recorded yet another amazing view. That robot, of course, is the spacecraft Cassini, while the new amazing view includes a bright moon, thin rings, oddly broken clouds, and warped shadows. Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, appears above as a featureless tan as it is continually shrouded in thick clouds. The rings of Saturn are seen as a thin line because they are so flat and imaged nearly edge on. Details of Saturn’s rings are therefore best visible in the dark ring shadows seen across the giant planet’s cloud tops. Since the ring particles orbit in the same plane as Titan, they appear to skewer the foreground moon. In the upper hemisphere of Saturn, the clouds show many details, including dips in long bright bands indicating disturbances in a high altitude jet stream. Recent precise measurements of how much Titan flexes as it orbits Saturn hint that vast oceans of water might exist deep underground.

Here is a new video of time-lapse imagery of Earth taken from space courtesy of the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, NASA Johnson Space Center.  This video was set to music by Tomislav Safundžić.

July’s Planetary Pairings

The brighter planets of our solar system put on some impressive night shows in July!  You don’t need a telescope to enjoy these sights, although you’ll need a scope to see the rings of Saturn or the large moons of Jupiter.  Enjoy!

And if you take any good photos of these planetary pairings, send them along to cs1@nameastarlive.com.  Who knows, we might highlight your photo on our blog next month!  You don’t need a telescope or any special equipment.  Consider taking a nice photo of the planets with your regular camera, perhaps against a nice background setting.  (Click here for an example.)

The pre-dawn sky of July 15
The pre-dawn sky of July 15 (July 16 in the southern hemisphere of Earth)

During the hour, or so, before sunrise on July 15 (July 16 in the southern hemisphere), face east and you’ll see quite a sight in the Name A Star Live constellation Taurus.  Next to the thin, crescent Moon you’ll see both the planet Jupiter and the planet Venus.  Venus, in turn, is near the bright star “Aldebaran,” a giant red star located about 65 light-years from Earth (meaning the light you see took 65 years to arrive at Earth).  Taurus represents a mythological bull.  You’ll notice that Aldebaran is on the tip of a large, V-shape group of stars: Those are the “Hyades,” and form the head of the bull.  In fact, Aldebaran is called the “fiery red eye of the bull.”  The name “Aldebaran” means “the follower,” as this bright star follows the Pleiades, a group of stars that many people mistake for the Little Dipper.  You’ll see the Pleiades above the Hyades and Jupiter on July 15.

Dusk July 24
Looking west after sunset, July 24 (July 25 for those of you in the southern hemisphere of Earth)

Shortly after sunset on the evenings of July 23-25, the Moon is near the planets Mars and Saturn.  Of course, Saturn is always a treat to view through a telescope.  Mars, however, is moving away from Earth now and is not as impressive a sight as it often is.  Near Saturn is the bright star Spica, which is the brightest star in the Name A Star Live constellation Virgo.  Spica is about 260 light-years from Earth, meaning the light you see from Spica was generated in the year 1752! Finding your star in the night sky Stars are located within constellations, which are just areas of the night sky. Scorpius, Aries and Taurus are examples of constellations. Your Name A Star Live Star Certificate displays the name of your constellation. You can use our online World Constellation Guide to determine if you can see your constellation during the evening hours (between sunset and midnight). Of course, you’ll need a telescope to see your star.  But you can see your constellation without the use of a telescope. You can also find your constellation by using our Virtual Planetarium™ astronomy software. A planisphere is another useful device.

Song to the Evening Star

Sometimes the bright planet Venus is visible in the western sky as the “Evening Star.”  At other times it is visible in the eastern sky as the “Morning Star.”  This poem, “Song to the Evening Star,” was written by Scottish poet Thomas Campbell (1777 – 1844).

1 Star that bringest home the bee,
2 And sett’st the weary labourer free!
3 If any star shed peace, ’tis thou,
4 That send’st it from above,
5 Appearing when Heaven’s breath and brow
6 Are sweet as hers we love.

7 Come to the luxuriant skies
8 Whilst the landscape’s odours rise,
9 Whilst far-off lowing herds are heard,
10 And songs, when toil is done,
11 From cottages whose smoke unstirred
12 Curls yellow in the sun.

13 Star of lover’s soft interviews,
14 Parted lovers on thee muse;
15 Their remembrancer in heaven
16 Of thrilling vows thou art,
17 Too delicious to be riven
18 By absence from the heart.

Name a Star for your lover today!

May’s Solar Eclipse

There will be a solar eclipse visible (weather permitting) to observers in East Asia, the North Pacific and most of North America on May 20 (May 21 for those of you in the eastern hemisphere).  This will be an “annular eclipse” of the Sun where the Moon almost covers the entire disk of the sun, leaving a ring of sunlight surrounding the Moon.

Actually, the view you see in the image below will be visible only to people within about a 150 mile (240 km) diameter band that stretches thousands of miles from southern China to northern Texas.  Most people in East Asia, the North Pacific and North America will see a partial eclipse of the Sun — where the Moon takes a ‘bite’ out of the solar disk.  Still, it will be quite a show!

Note that the eclipse will not be visible at all from the East Coast of the United States.

Click here to see an animated map showing the motion of the solar eclipse over the surface of Earth on May 20.  The red dot in the animation represents the locations on Earth where the complete annular eclipse (again, as shown below) will be visible. The shadowed area in the animated map represents the large area of Earth where the partial eclipse of the sun will be visible.

Annular Eclipse
An "annular eclipse" of the Sun, when the Moon covers most of the Sun's disk. Even during an annular eclipse it is dangerous to look at the Sun directly. Photo Credit: Solar Optical Observing Network (SOON) telescope, U.S. Air Force

Of course, one should never look directly at the sun — even during an eclipse the sun’s light can cause permanent damage to your eyes. Check out this online guide to safely viewing an eclipse.

Sky & Telescope magazine has an excellent online guide to this eclipse that will provide more details.  Of course, your local news media will undoubtedly provide viewing information for your locale.

The Planets in the Night Sky

This is a good month for viewing the planets Venus, Mars and Saturn.  Venus is the ‘evening star’ — the bright point of light in the western sky during the early evening hours.  The red planet Mars is in the Name A Star Live constellation Leo, near Leo’s star “Regulus,” and Saturn is in the Name A Star Live constellation Virgo, near Virgo’s star “Spica.”

Mars on May 1, 2012
The Moon, the planet Mars and the constellation Leo on May 1, 2012.

Finding your star in the night sky

Stars are located within constellations, which are just areas of the night sky. Scorpius, Aries and Taurus are examples of constellations. Your Name A Star Live Star Certificate displays the name of your constellation. You can use our online World Constellation Guide to determine if you can see your constellation during the evening hours (between sunset and midnight). Of course, you’ll need a telescope to see your star.  But you can see your constellation without the use of a telescope. You can also find your constellation by using our Virtual Planetarium™ astronomy software. A planisphere is another useful device.

Beautiful Space Photos

Here are some beautiful space photos that have been posted on the Internet in recent weeks.  Enjoy!

Barred Galaxy
Image Credit: Hubble Heritage Team, ESA, NASA

Big, beautiful, barred spiral galaxy NGC 1300 lies some 70 million light-years away on the banks of the constellation Eridanus. This Hubble Space Telescope composite view of the gorgeous island universe is one of the largest Hubble images ever made of a complete galaxy. NGC 1300 spans over 100,000 light-years and the Hubble image reveals striking details of the galaxy’s dominant central bar and majestic spiral arms. In fact, on close inspection the nucleus of this classic barred spiral itself shows a remarkable region of spiral structure about 3,000 light-years across. Unlike other spiral galaxies, including our own Milky Way, NGC 1300 is not presently known to have a massive central black hole.

Moscow from Space
Image Credit: ISS Expedition 30, NASA

On April 12th, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Alexseyevich Gagarin became the first human to see planet Earth from space. Commenting on his view from orbit he reported, “The sky is very dark; the Earth is bluish. Everything is seen very clearly.” To celebrate, consider this recent image from the orbiting International Space Station. A stunning view of the planet at night from an altitude of 240 miles (386 kilometers), it was recorded on March 28. The lights of Moscow, Russia are near the center of the picture and one of the station’s solar panel arrays is on the left. Aurora and the glare of sunlight lie along the planet’s gently curving horizon. Stars above the horizon include the compact Pleiades star cluster, immersed in the auroral glow.

Warped spiral galaxy
Image Credit: Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA), C. Conselice (U. Wisconsin/STScI) et al., NASA

How did spiral galaxy ESO 510-13 get bent out of shape? The disks of many spirals are thin and flat, but not solid. Spiral disks are loose conglomerations of billions of stars and diffuse gas all gravitationally orbiting a galaxy center. A flat disk is thought to be created by sticky collisions of large gas clouds early in the galaxy’s formation. Warped disks are not uncommon, though, and even our own Milky Way Galaxy is thought to have a small warp. The causes of spiral warps are still being investigated, but some warps are thought to result from interactions or even collisions between galaxies. ESO 510-13, pictured above digitally sharpened, is about 150 million light years away and about 100,000 light years across.

A Most Unique Easter Basket

If you’re looking for something a little different this Easter, perhaps something a little less messy than a kid with a candy bar, you’re in the right place. Naming a star for someone this Easter is the healthier alternative to the usual basket full of malt, marshmallow and mint. Plus, if you name multiple stars, you could make up a special night time hunt to either replace or enhance the traditional Easter egg hunt. Bonus points for those who don’t like hard boiled eggs or finding them three months later.

Stumped for what to say? See what some of our past customers have written on their Easter orders in the past.

1. A special little guy with a precious smile on the most beautiful face, will forever be a part of the Heavens. Our Liam, our Happy Fella, our Little Guy, forever our Twinkling Star!

2. Happy Easter, Jonah! I am happy to inform you that you now have your very own star! Congratulations! Love, Daddy

3. This gift is to let you know that not only will you always hold a place in our hearts, but you will forever have your own place in the sky.   Happy Easter!

4. As we look to Heaven, there will be a special star sending it’s precious light to land gently on our shoulders. That special light is from Our Sweet Angel, Our Star, Kayley!

5. Your star will help you stay the path to success and a life full of adventure while family keeps you feeling safe and loved. Your intelligence will send you soaring down the path to happiness.

6. Reach for the sky with your feet on the ground and family as your safe and loving place. You can be whatever you create for yourself. No dream is too high since you now have your own path in the sky.

7. Happy Easter! Here’s something that is almost as bright and shining as you.

February’s Stars and Planets

The Moon provides a good guide to finding objects in the night sky.  Here we’ll use the Moon as a ‘landmark’ to help you identify stars and planets in January 2012. Look for the red planet Mars rising over the eastern horizon, next to the Moon on the evening of February 9 (Feb. 10 for those of you in Australia, New Zealand, China, Japan…).  That evening both Mars and the Moon will be in the Name A Star Live constellation Leo.

The Moon and Mars in February 2012
The Moon and Mars rising over the eastern horizon, February 9, 2012.

On the mornings of Feb. 12 and 13 (Feb. 13 and 14 for those of you in Australia, etc.), look for the planet Saturn near the Moon shortly before sunrise.  Both of these celestial objects will be in the Name A Star Live constellation Virgo that morning.

Right after sunset on Feb. 22 (Feb. 23 for those of you in Australia etc.), look for a very thin crescent Moon near the planet Mercury.  Both objects will be very low on the western horizon.  The Moon will be in the Name A Star Live constellation Pisces, and Mercury will be in the adjacent Name A Star Live constellation AquariusVenus will be the very bright object above the Moon.  Like the Moon, Venus will be in Pisces that evening.

On the evening of Feb. 25 (Feb. 26 for those of you in Australia etc.), the thin, crescent Moon will appear next to the planet Venus.  Both objects will be in the Name A Star Live constellation Pisces that night.

The following evening, the Moon will appear next to the solar system’s giant planet Jupiter.  Both will be in the Name A Star Live constellation Aries that night.  You should be able to see Jupiter and up to four of its large moons through any telescope — even through a pair of binoculars. These four large moons move so quickly that if you observe Jupiter’s moons every few hours you’ll see that they change their position in relation to the planet. For example, if you observe Jupiter shortly after sunset you might see one or two of its large moons, but if you observe Jupiter a few hours later you might see all four of its large moons — or vice versa!

On the evening of Feb. 28 (Feb. 29 for those of you in Australia, etc.) look for the Moon next to the Pleiades (a.k.a. “the Seven Sisters“), a beautiful collection of stars in the Name A Star Live constellation Taurus.  People often mistake the Pleiades for “The Little Dipper.”  But the Little Dipper is in another constellation.  Take a look at the Pleiades through a pair of binoculars: They are quite beautiful!

Finally, the following night the Moon appears in the Hyades, a V-shaped group of stars that form the head of the bull in the Name A Star Live constellation Taurus.  The bright red star in the Hyades is called “Aldebaran,” a binary star only 65 light-years from Earth, which is pretty close in astronomical terms.  You should be able to see the two stars in Aldebaran through a good amateur telescope (minimum mirror diameter of 6 inches).

When to go stargazing this month

Moonlight ‘drowns out’ the faint light of many stars and other celestial objects, so the best time to view the stars is when the Moon is not visible. If you’re going to stargaze between sunset and midnight, then the best time to do that in February would be during the February 16-25 time period.

Finding your star in the night sky

Stars are located within constellations, which are just areas of the night sky. Scorpius, Aries and Taurus are examples of constellations. Your Name A Star Live Star Certificate displays the name of your constellation. You can use our online World Constellation Guide to determine if you can see your constellation during the evening hours (between sunset and midnight). Of course, you’ll need a telescope to see your star. (That’s why we include the SLOOH online telescope experience in our Deluxe, Framed and Ultimate Gift Sets!) But you can see your constellation without the use of a telescope. You can also find your constellation by using our Virtual Planetarium™ astronomy software. A planisphere is another useful device.

Beautiful Space Photos

Here are some beautiful space photos that have been posted on the Internet in recent weeks.  Enjoy!

Helix Nebula
The Helix Nebula from the VISTA Telescope. Credit: ESO/VISTA/J. Emerson; Acknowledgment: Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit

Will our Sun look like this one day? The Helix Nebula, located in the Name A Star Live constellation Aquarius, is one of brightest and closest examples of a planetary nebula, a gas cloud created at the end of the life of a Sun-like star. The outer gasses of the star expelled into space appear from our vantage point as if we are looking down a helix. The remnant central stellar core, destined to become a white dwarf star, glows in light so energetic it causes the previously expelled gas to fluoresce. The Helix Nebula, given a technical designation of NGC 7293, lies about 700 light-years away and spans about 2.5 light-years. The above picture was taken in three colors on infrared light by the 4.1-meter Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) at the European Southern Observatory’s Paranal Observatory in Chile.

Saturn
Ringside with Titan and Dione. Credit : Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

Orbiting in the plane of Saturn’s rings, Saturnian moons have a perpetual ringside view of the gorgeous gas giant planet. Of course, while passing near the ring plane the Cassini spacecraft also shares their stunning perspective. The rings themselves can be seen slicing across the middle of this Cassini snapshot. The scene features Titan, largest, and Dione, third largest moon of Saturn. Remarkably thin, the bright rings still cast arcing shadows across the planet’s cloud tops at the bottom of the frame. Pale Dione is about 1,100 kilometers across and orbits over 300,000 kilometers from the visible outer edge of the A ring. Dione is seen through Titan’s atmospheric haze. At 5,150 kilometers across, Titan is about 2.3 million kilometers from Cassini, while Dione is 3.2 million kilometers away.

The Large Magellanic Cloud
Infrared Portrait of the Large Magellanic Cloud. Credit: ESA / NASA / JPL-Caltech / STScI

Cosmic dust clouds ripple across this infrared portrait of our Milky Way’s satellite galaxy, the Large Magellanic Cloud, which is visible in the southern hemisphere constellations Dorado and Mensa. In fact, the remarkable composite image from the Herschel Space Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope show that dust clouds fill this neighboring dwarf galaxy, much like dust along the plane of the Milky Way itself. The dust temperatures tend to trace star forming activity. Spitzer data in blue hues indicate warm dust heated by young stars. Herschel‘s instruments contributed the image data shown in red and green, revealing dust emission from cooler and intermediate regions where star formation is just beginning or has stopped. Dominated by dust emission, the Large Magellanic Cloud’s infrared appearance is different from views in optical images. But this galaxy’s well-known Tarantula Nebula still stands out, easily seen here as the brightest region to the left of center. A mere 160,000 light-years distant, the Large Cloud of Magellan is about 30,000 light-years across.

Grand Spiral Galaxy NGC 1232. Image Credit: FORS, 8.2-meter VLT Antu, ESO

Galaxies are fascinating not only for what is visible, but for what is invisible. Grand Spiral Galaxy NGC 1232, captured in detail by one of the new Very Large Telescopes, is a good example. The visible is dominated by millions of bright stars and dark dust, caught up in a gravitational swirl of spiral arms revolving about the center. Open clusters containing bright blue stars can be seen sprinkled along these spiral arms, while dark lanes of dense interstellar dust can be seen sprinkled between them. Less visible, but detectable, are billions of dim normal stars and vast tracts of interstellar gas, together wielding such high mass that they dominate the dynamics of the inner galaxy. Invisible are even greater amounts of matter in a form we don’t yet know – pervasive dark matter needed to explain the motions of the visible in the outer galaxy.  The Grand Spiral Galaxy is located in the constellation Eridanus, right below the Name A Star Live constellation Taurus.

The Northern Lights as viewed from an Arctic research station.

In late January 2012 a strong solar storm hit Earth’s atmosphere. Charged particles from the sun interacted with the Earth’s magnetic field to create spectacular night shows of green light — the “Northern Lights,” or “Aurora Borealis.”  See a beautiful video of the Northern Lights shot in late January from Norway!