Mars Methane Mystery Deepens

The methane mystery on Mars just got stranger. New results from ESA and Roscosmos’ ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, has unexpectedly not detected methane in the atmosphere of Mars. This result follows the 2013 detection of methane by NASA’s Curiosity rover, a result seemingly confirmed by ESA’s orbiting Mars Express the next day. The issue is so interesting because life is a major producer of methane on Earth, leading to intriguing speculation that some sort of life — possibly microbial life — is creating methane beneath the surface of Mars. Non-biological sources of methane are also possible. Pictured is a visualization of the first claimed methane plume over Mars as detected from Earth in 2003. The new non-detection of methane by the ExoMars Orbiter could mean that Mars has some unexpected way of destroying methane, or that only some parts of Mars release methane — and possibly only at certain times. As the mystery has now deepened, humanity’s scrutiny of our neighboring planet’s atmosphere will deepen as well. [via NASA]

Falcon Heavy Launch Close up

Twenty seven Merlin rocket engines are firing in this close-up of the launch of a Falcon Heavy rocket. Derived from three Falcon 9 first stage rockets with nine Merlin rocket engines each, the Falcon Heavy left NASA’s Kennedy Space Center launch pad 39A on April 11. This second launch of a Falcon Heavy rocket carried the Arabsat 6A communications satellite to space. In February of 2018, the first Falcon Heavy launch carried Starman and a Tesla Roadster. Designed to be reusable, both booster stages and the central core returned safely to planet Earth, the boosters to Cape Canaveral Air Force Station landing zones. The core stage landed off shore on autonomous spaceport drone ship Of Course I Still Love You. [via NASA]

Milky Way in Northern Spring

A postcard from planet Earth, this springtime night skyscape looks over Alandan lake in the Alborz mountains. Taken after local midnight on April 17, the central Milky Way is rising over the region’s southeast horizon. Its luminous track of stars and nebulae along the plane of our galaxy are reflected in the mirror-like lake. The brightest celestial beacon mingled with the diffuse galactic starlight is Jupiter. Slightly dimmer, Saturn is below and left just above the mountains. As spring brought leaves to the trees and the galactic center to the northern night the photographer found it also gave frogs their voices, heard like a melody across the calm water. [via NASA]

The Leo Trio

This group is popular in the northern spring. Famous as the Leo Triplet, the three magnificent galaxies gather in one field of view. Crowd pleasers when imaged with even modest telescopes, they can be introduced individually as NGC 3628 (left), M66 (bottom right), and M65 (top). All three are large spiral galaxies but they tend to look dissimilar because their galactic disks are tilted at different angles to our line of sight. NGC 3628, also known as the Hamburger Galaxy, is temptingly seen edge-on, with obscuring dust lanes cutting across its puffy galactic plane. The disks of M66 and M65 are both inclined enough to show off their spiral structure. Gravitational interactions between galaxies in the group have left telltale signs, including the tidal tails and warped, inflated disk of NGC 3628 and the drawn out spiral arms of M66. This gorgeous view of the region spans almost two degrees (four full moons) on the sky. The field covers about a million light-years at the trio’s estimated distance of 30 million light-years. Of course the spiky foreground stars lie within our own Milky Way. [via NASA]

In the Vicinity of the Cone Nebula

Strange shapes and textures can be found in neighborhood of the Cone Nebula. The unusual shapes originate from fine interstellar dust reacting in complex ways with the energetic light and hot gas being expelled by the young stars. The brightest star on the right of the featured picture is S Mon, while the region just below it has been nicknamed the Fox Fur Nebula for its color and structure. The blue glow directly surrounding S Mon results from reflection, where neighboring dust reflects light from the bright star. The red glow that encompasses the whole region results not only from dust reflection but also emission from hydrogen gas ionized by starlight. S Mon is part of a young open cluster of stars named NGC 2264, located about 2500 light years away toward the constellation of the Unicorn (Monoceros). Even though it points right at S Mon, details of the origin of the mysterious geometric Cone Nebula, visible on the far left, remain a mystery. [via NASA]

Simulation: Two Black Holes Merge

Sit back and watch two black holes merge. Inspired by the first direct detection of gravitational waves in 2015, this simulation video plays in slow motion but would take about one third of a second if run in real time. Set on a cosmic stage the black holes are posed in front of stars, gas, and dust. Their extreme gravity lenses the light from behind them into Einstein rings as they spiral closer and finally merge into one. The otherwise invisible gravitational waves generated as the massive objects rapidly coalesce cause the visible image to ripple and slosh both inside and outside the Einstein rings even after the black holes have merged. Dubbed GW150914, the gravitational waves detected by LIGO are consistent with the merger of 36 and 31 solar mass black holes at a distance of 1.3 billion light-years. The final, single black hole has 63 times the mass of the Sun, with the remaining 3 solar masses converted into energy in gravitational waves. Since then the LIGO and VIRGO gravitational wave observatories have reported several more detections of merging massive systems, while last week the Event Horizon Telescope reported the first horizon-scale image of a black hole. [via NASA]

Rigil Kentaurus and Sandqvist 169

Rigil Kentaurus is the bright star near the top of this broad southern skyscape. Of course it’s probably better known as Alpha Centauri, nearest star system to the Sun. Below it sprawls a dark nebula complex. The obscuring interstellar dust clouds include Sandqvist catalog clouds 169 and 172 in silhouette against the rich starfields along the southern Milky Way. Rigil Kent is a mere 4.37 light-years away, but the dusty dark nebulae lie at the edge of the starforming Circinus-West molecular cloud about 2,500 light-years distant. The wide-field of view spans over 12 degrees (24 full moons) across southern skies. [via NASA]