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The ESO has released a stunning image of the nebula NGC 2736 better known to many as the Pencil Nebula

The Pencil Nebula – NGC 2736 Credit: ESO

The nebula is the brightest component of the much larger Vela supernova remnant, unsurprisingly centred on the Vela pulsar. The supernova that created the nebula occurred about 11000 years ago giving the resulting nebula plenty of time to expand and diffuse from the typical appearance of an SNR – a sphere of brightly glowing material.

The nebula is located about 815 light years from Earth in the direction of the southern constellation Vela – the sails.

The initial detonation of the star send the debris that now forms the nebula streaming away at several million kilometres an hour. During the extended time between the initial event and today the material has collided with other components of the interstellar medium – ISM – (the gas and dust found between the stars) slowing it considerably. Despite this the pencil nebula is still hurtling through space at 644,000 kilometres per hour!

The interaction between the nebula and the ISM has produced beautiful twists and folds within the nebula’s structure with the end result being the gorgeous spectacle we see today.

The nebula is about three quarters of a light year in length and was first documented by the British Astronomer John Herschel during his trip to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.

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NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (along with optical data provided by the ESO and infra-red data supplied by the Spitzer space telescope) has produced a truly amazing image of the star cluster NGC 1929 located within the nebula N44.

N44 and NGC 1929 Credit:X-ray: NASA/CXC/U.Mich./S.Oey, IR: NASA/JPL, Optical: ESO/WFI/2.2-m

The nebula and its star cluster are located in the Milky Way’s largest satellite galaxy – the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC) –  at a distance of 160,000 light years from Earth - 940.6 quadrillion miles.

The star cluster is composed of primarily newborn stars that have only recently been forged from the surrounding material.A great number of these are many times the mass of the sun and produce a precipitous amount of hard radiation and vicious solar winds, before burning out in (on the time scales of the universe) sort order as supernovae generating incredible outpourings of energy.

These shockwaves along with the continual bombardment from radiation and particle stream gouges out massive ‘bubbles’ in the surrounding nebula. The x-ray data provided by Chandra (shown in blue) shows the regions of the nebula that are at the highest temperatures – the areas under the heaviest onslaught of radiation or reeling from one or more shockwaves . The cooler gas and dust as detected by Spitzer is displayed in red with the yellow regions show where the radiation is actually causing the surrounding material to glow in the visible range (this data was collected by the ESO’s Max-Planck telescope).

Astronomers have been having a problem with N44 and other similar ‘superbubbles’ in the LMC for sometime now – they are producing too many x-rays.

Before anyone panics, this is not a medical problem (we aren’t all going to suffer radiation poisoning thanks to a few over-active nebulae in another galaxy), it only refers to the measurements pointing to such nebulae producing more x-rays than could be explained using current knowledge – our knowledge of such objects must be incomplete.

A previous study had suggested that the shockwaves of supernovae impacting the bubble’s walls along with the evaporation of hot material from the sides of the bubble could perhaps explain this anomaly. This set of observations at least doesn’t find any supporting evidence for these ideas though it has been the first time that the observations have been sensitive to distinguish between these and other possibilities so progress is being made.

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The ESA’s Mars Express orbiter has captured this fantastic image of the Ladon Basin, specifically of this spectacular double impact crater:

Sigli and Shambe Credits: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin (G. Neukum)

The pair are named Sigli and Shambe and are believed to have been formed by a single object that broke into two larch fragments just before impacting the surface of Mars.

The shape and shallow nature of the impact crater suggest that it was formed when an asteroid or comet hits a planet at a reasonably shallow angle.

This particular pair is 16km across and shows significant fracturing of the crater floor. The pair also show signs of being partially filled with sedimentary material at some point after their formation. This implies that they may well have been lakes, as such material is only deposited under water, hinting once more of Mars’ more environmentally pleasant past.

You can read more about this image here

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In around eight hours at 06:31 am, (I’m not counting, honest) the Mars Curiosity Rover will begin her descent into the Martian atmosphere and, if all of the many stages of descent and landing go perfectly, begin her mission.

The mission itself is to find out if the past – or present – environment on mars was suitable for microbial life to inhabit the soil. The mission will last as long as Curiosity does, her plutonium power source will give her enough power to be our interplanetary geologist for at least 687 days; a Martian year.

As of an hour ago Curiosity was just 142,783 km away from Mars, less than a third of the distance Earth is from the Moon. If you’d like to know plenty more snippets like this I suggest following @MSL_101 on twitter or the official NASA account, @MarsCuriosity.

I also had to share this brilliant NASA Jet Propulsion Lab video describing the challenges faced during descent. Unsurprisingly it’s described as ‘the seven minutes of terror’:


You can find a good summary of the mission here!

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NASA’s Chandra X-ray observatory has produced a spectacular image of the spiral galaxy M83:

Chandra’s view of M87 and SN 1957D Credit: NASA/CXC/STScI/K.Long et al.

The primary target of the image wasn’t the galaxy itself but a supernova remnant within – the remains of SN 1957D

This supernova remnant had previously been detected in both visible and the infra-red though had previously eluded detection in x-rays (Chandra’s first attempt to capture the object in 2000-2001 met with disappointment). This image is the end result of nearly eight and a half days of data collection using Chandra, a truly marathon effort (the observation was completed in stages during 2010 and 2011 rather than in one massive event).

The image show a wide range of X-rays, with low energy rays displayed in red, medium energy in green and those with the highest energies displayed here in blues.

The Chandra team has also produced an annotated version of the image showing the location of the remnant and you can see this below:

Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/STScI/K.Long et al., Optical: NASA/STScI

The type of X-ray emission detected from the remnant strongly suggests that it contains a rapidly spinning neutron star – a pulsar. This potentially makes it the youngest pulsar ever observed, positively confirmed as one just 55 years after it was formed (discounting the time it has taken the light to reach us here on Earth). It is potentially the youngest ever observed as there is another contender – SN 1979C – though as of yet astronomers aren’t quite sure if it is indeed a pulsar or a black hole.

M83 itself sits about 15 million light years from us in the direction of the constellation Hydra. It is one of the brightest galaxies visible from Earth and can be observed through binoculars.

M83 Credit: ESO/IDA/Danish 1.5 m/R. Gendler, S. Guisard and C. Thöne

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