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Titan’s Halo and the Christmas Tree Cluster

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2005 was a busy year in the field of space exploration. From the amazing images sent back by the Cassini-Huygens probe orbiting Saturn to the unexpected longevity of the Mars Rovers, we are learning more about the planets of our solar system than ever before.

With the deep space views from Hubble, Spitzer, and Chandra telescopes orbiting Earth, we have peered ever deeper into the vast recesses of space, discovering new details about our solar system, our galaxy, and the millions of galaxies that make up our universe.

Two missions currently en route, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and ESA’s Venus Express, are expected to add even more to our growing storehouse of data about our two closest planetary neighbors.

NASA is hard at work testing a new variation of the external fuel tank (modified PAL ramp) and hopes to launch phase two of its Return To Flight by mid year.

Also on the table this year is the long awaited launch of America’s first private industry satellite launch system from SpaceX. They had near launches in November and December scrubbed by technical glitches, and hope to try again in February.

The holidays were a bit too busy, and I didn’t get to put together my planned “Space Year In Review”, but here are two images from December (with NASA text) that caught my eye:

Titan’s Halo

With its thick, distended atmosphere, Titan’s orange globe
shines softly, encircled by a thin halo of purple light-scattering haze.

Cassini images taken using blue, green and red spectral filters were used to create this enhanced-color view; the color images were combined with an ultraviolet view that makes the high-altitude, detached layer of haze visible. The ultraviolet part of the composite image was given a purplish hue to match the bluish-purple color of the upper atmospheric haze as seen in visible light.

Stellar Snowflake Cluster

Newborn stars, hidden behind thick dust, are revealed in this image of a section of the Christmas Tree Cluster from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, created in joint effort between Spitzer’s Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) and Multiband Imaging Photometer (MIPS) instruments.

The newly revealed infant stars appear as pink and red specks toward the center of the combined IRAC-MIPS image (left panel). The stars appear to have formed in regularly spaced intervals along linear structures in a configuration that resembles the spokes of a wheel or the pattern of a snowflake. Hence, astronomers have nicknamed this the “Snowflake Cluster.”

Star-forming clouds like this one are dynamic and evolving structures. Since the stars trace the straight line pattern of spokes of a wheel, scientists believe that these are newborn stars, or “protostars.” At a mere 100,000 years old, these infant structures have yet to “crawl” away from their location of birth. Over time, the natural drifting motions of each star will break this order, and the snowflake design will be no more.

While most of the visible-light stars that give the Christmas Tree Cluster its name and triangular shape do not shine brightly in Spitzer’s infrared eyes, all of the stars forming from this dusty cloud are considered part of the cluster.

The combined IRAC-MIPS image shows the presence of organic molecules mixed with dust as wisps of green, which have been illuminated by nearby star formation. The larger yellowish dots neighboring the baby red stars in the Snowflake Cluster are massive stellar infants forming from the same cloud. The blue dots sprinkled across the image represent older Milky Way stars at various distances along this line of sight.

Have a great 2006. It promises to be an exciting year of discovery for space program enthusiasts.

Also posted at VERMONT SPACE
(I went and asked Santa for a Space Suit… )

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About Bennett Dawson

  • Great job as always Bennett and fantastic images! I’m very excited about the notion of private industry innovation in space. Where do you see things going on this year / over the next five?

    This piece has been chosen as a Blogcritics.org Editor’s Pick of the Week, Celery Sticks and the Post-New Year Story Cornucopia edition, congrats!

    You’ve just earned yourself the right to nominate your favorite story (for the period of 1/4 – 1/10) for next week’s Editors’ Picks column. List the link, the story title, and the author in the comments area of this week’s column, and of course tell us why it deserves to be honored!

    Thanks and congrats again ~ EB

  • gonzo marx

    Bennett, as alway…awesome Stuff

    thanks so much for sharing it with us all…

    “Have Spacesuit, Will Travel”

    i hear ya , bro


  • Bennett

    Thanks Eric! I’m currently digesting the rather massive NASA Roadmap To Space report, and will be writing about in a week or so. One of the key elements is a transition from NASA (or Soviet) delivery of supplies and personel to a private industry supplier.

    SpaceX is one of the prime cadidates for this duty, and I’m sure the Boeing-Lockheed Martin folks want a big piece of that pie as well. I question if they’ll be willing to do it for a more standard profit than provided by the reletively no-bid contracts that have been the norm to date.

    SpaceX, if successful, will bring the price down to a level that allows for more flights and more supplies over the next 5-10 years. This is good for everyone concerned and will force the big guys to sharpen their pencils.

    Outside the USA, Russia and France are the big lifters of satellite payloads, and with the recent agreements between Ariane and Russian agencies, Russia will be launching its Soyuz rockets from Ariane’s French Guiana facilities, gaining efficiency from the relatively equatorial launch base.

    Things are heating up in the race to provide both satellite and exploration launches worldwide, and payloads are getting bigger as a matter of course.

    NASA’s new CEV configuration will be the biggest lifter to date, absolutely necessary to implement the proposed return to the moon as a colony building move as opposed to just a one-off visit.

    The next few years should be interesting!

  • Awesome!

    Totally random: Is there any realistic talk of space elevators these days?