Moon over Makemake

Makemake (sounds like MAH-kay MAH-kay), second brightest dwarf planet of the Kuiper belt, has a moon. Nicknamed MK2, Makemake’s moon reflects sunlight with a charcoal-dark surface, about 1,300 times fainter than its parent body. Still, in 2016 it was spotted in Hubble Space Telescope observations intended to search for faint companions with the same technique used to find the small satellites of Pluto. Just as for Pluto and its satellites, further observations of Makemake and orbiting moon will measure the system’s mass and density and allow a broader understanding of the distant worlds. About 160 kilometers (100 miles) across compared to Makemake’s 1,400 kilometer diameter, MK2’s relative size and contrast are shown in this artist’s vision. An imagined scene of an unexplored frontier of the Solar System, it looks back from a spacecraft’s vantage as the dim Sun shines along the Milky Way. Of course, the Sun is over 50 times farther from Makemake than it is from planet Earth. [via NASA]
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Mars and the Star Clusters

At this year’s end Mars still shines brightly in planet Earth’s night as it wanders through the head-strong constellation Taurus. Its bright yellowish hue dominates this starry field of view that includes Taurus’ alpha star Aldebaran and the Hyades and Pleiades star clusters. While red giant Aldebaran appears to anchor the V-shape of the Hyades at the left of the frame, Aldebaran is not a member of the Hyades star cluster. The Hyades cluster is 151 light-years away making it the nearest established open star cluster, but Aldebaran lies at less than half that distance, along the same line-of-sight. At the right, some 400 light-years distant is the open star cluster cataloged as Messier 45, also known as the Pleiades or Seven Sisters. In Greek myth, the Pleiades were daughters of the astronomical titan Atlas and sea-nymph Pleione. [via NASA]

Horsehead and Flame

The Horsehead Nebula, famous celestial dark marking also known as Barnard 33, is notched against a background glow of emission nebulae in this sharp cosmic skyscape. About five light-years «tall» the Horsehead lies some 1,500 light-years away in the constellation of Orion. Within the region’s fertile molecular cloud complex, the expanse of obscuring dust has a recognizable shape only by chance from our perspective in the Milky Way though. Orion’s easternmost belt star, bright Alnitak, is to the left of center. Energetic ultraviolet light from Alnitak powers the glow of dusty NGC 2024, the Flame Nebula, just below it. Completing a study in cosmic contrasts, bluish reflection nebula NGC 2023 is below the Horsehead itself. This well-framed telescopic field spans about 3 full moons on the sky. [via NASA]

Messier 88

Charles Messier described the 88th entry in his 18th century catalog of Nebulae and Star Clusters as a spiral nebula without stars. Of course the gorgeous M88 is now understood to be a galaxy full of stars, gas, and dust, not unlike our own Milky Way. In fact, M88 is one of the brightest galaxies in the Virgo Galaxy Cluster some 50 million light-years away. M88’s beautiful spiral arms are easy to trace in this sharp cosmic portait. The arms are lined with young blue star clusters, pink star-forming regions, and obscuring dust lanes extending from a yellowish core dominated by an older population of stars. Spiral galaxy M88 spans over 100,000 light-years. [via NASA]

A Full Circle Rainbow over Norway

Have you ever seen an entire rainbow? From the ground, typically, only the top portion of a rainbow is visible because directions toward the ground have fewer raindrops. From the air, though, the entire 360-degree circle of a rainbow is more commonly visible. Pictured here, a full-circle rainbow was captured over the Lofoten Islands of Norway in September by a drone passing through a rain shower. An observer-dependent phenomenon primarily caused by the internal reflection of sunlight by raindrops, the rainbow has a full diameter of 84 degrees. The Sun is in the exact opposite direction from the rainbow’s center. As a bonus, a second rainbow that was more faint and color-reversed was visible outside the first. [via NASA]

NGC 6164: Dragons Egg Nebula and Halo

The star at the center created everything. Known as the Dragon’s Egg, this star — a rare, hot, luminous O-type star some 40 times as massive as the Sun — created not only the complex nebula (NGC 6164) that immediately surrounds it, but also the encompassing blue halo. Its name is derived, in part, from the region’s proximity to the picturesque NGC 6188, known as the fighting Dragons of Ara. In another three to four million years the massive star will likely end its life in a supernova explosion. Spanning around 4 light-years, the nebula itself has a bipolar symmetry making it similar in appearance to more common planetary nebulae – the gaseous shrouds surrounding dying sun-like stars. Also like many planetary nebulae, NGC 6164 has been found to have an extensive, faint halo, revealed in blue in this deep telescopic image of the region. Expanding into the surrounding interstellar medium, the material in the blue halo was likely expelled from an earlier active phase of the O-star. NGC 6164 lies 4,200 light-years away in the southern constellation of the Carpenter’s Square (Norma). [via NASA]

Geminids and the Mittens

Asteroid 3200 Phaethon’s annual gift to planet Earth always arrives in December. Otherwise known as the Geminid meteor shower, the source of the meteroid stream is dust shed along the orbit of the mysterious asteroid. Near the December 13/14 peak of the shower’s activity, geminid meteors are captured in this night skyscape, composited from 22 images of starry sky taken before the moon rose over Monument Valley in the American southwest. The bright stars near the position of the shower’s radiant are the constellation Gemini’s twin stars Castor (blue) and Pollux (yellow). As Earth sweeps through the dusty stream, the parallel meteor trails appear to radiate from a point on the sky in Gemini due to perspective, and so the yearly shower is named for the constellation. From the camera’s perspective, this view of three prominent buttes across Monument Valley also suggests appropriate names for two of them. The third one is called Merrick Butte. [via NASA]

Comet 2022 E3 ZTF

Comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) was discovered by astronomers using the wide-field survey camera at the Zwicky Transient Facility this year in early March. Since then the new long-period comet has brightened substantially and is now sweeping across the northern constellation Corona Borealis in predawn skies. It’s still too dim to see without a telescope though. But this fine telescopic image from December 19 does show the comet’s brighter greenish coma, short broad dust tail, and long faint ion tail stretching across a 2.5 degree wide field-of-view. On a voyage through the inner Solar System comet 2022 E3 will be at perihelion, its closest to the Sun, in the new year on January 12 and at perigee, its closest to our fair planet, on February 1. The brightness of comets is notoriously unpredictable, but by then C/2022 E3 (ZTF) could become only just visible to the eye in dark night skies. [via NASA]

Cassini Looks Out from Saturn

This is what Saturn looks like from inside the rings. In 2017, for the first time, NASA directed the Cassini spacecraft to swoop between Saturn and its rings. During the dive, the robotic spacecraft took hundreds of images showing unprecedented detail for structures in Saturn’s atmosphere. Looking back out, however, the spacecraft was also able to capture impressive vistas. In the featured image, taken a few hours before closest approach, Saturn’s unusual northern hexagon is seen surrounding the North Pole. Saturn’s B ring is the closest visible, while the dark Cassini Division separates B from the outer A. A close inspection will find the two small moons that shepherd the F-ring, the farthest ring discernable. A few months after this image was taken — and after more than a decade of exploration and discovery — the Cassini spacecraft ran low on fuel and was directed to enter Saturn’s atmosphere, where it surely melted. [via NASA]

NGC 1365: Majestic Island Universe

Barred spiral galaxy NGC 1365 is truly a majestic island universe some 200,000 light-years across. Located a mere 60 million light-years away toward the faint but heated constellation Fornax, NGC 1365 is a dominant member of the well-studied Fornax Cluster of galaxies. This impressively sharp color image shows the intense, reddish star forming regions near the ends of central bar and along the spiral arms, with details of the obscuring dust lanes cutting across the galaxy’s bright core. At the core lies a supermassive black hole. Astronomers think NGC 1365’s prominent bar plays a crucial role in the galaxy’s evolution, drawing gas and dust into a star-forming maelstrom and ultimately feeding material into the central black hole. [via NASA]