Can you spot the meteor? Last weekend's Lyrid meteor shower produced lots of memorable pictures, as you can see in SpaceWeather.com's meteor gallery. But in Jeff Berkes' photograph, taken at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, the shooting star is just one little brushstroke in a cosmic masterpiece.
Berkes said last weekend's Lyrid shooting session wasn't exactly a walk in the park: "Being out that night, things got a little hairy ... literally! A black bear approached us around 11 p.m. one night, but left without any issues. ... I saw a bunch of Lyrids that night, but only captured a few faint ones with my camera. I used a Nikon D3 DSLR. It was great to view the Lyrids under a new moon and from one of my favorite national parks."
Where in the Cosmos Jeff Berkes' look at the Lyrids served as today's "Where in the Cosmos" picture puzzle on the Cosmic Log Facebook Page. It took only a minute or two for Nanette Broyles to spot the meteor streak and figure out that the picture was taken during the Lyrid meteor shower. To reward her quickness, I'm sending her a pair of Microsoft Research 3-D glasses, plus a 3-D picture of yours truly. Keep an eye on Facebook for the next "Where in the Cosmos" picture in a week. And if you haven't spotted the meteor yet ... look above the tree, just to the right of center.
The greenish glow over Lake Superior, recorded from Michigan's Upper Peninsula at 2 o'clock in the morning by Shawn Malone of LakeSuperiorPhoto.com, was impressive enough to make NBC's "Nightly News" on Tuesday night. In an email, Malone told me that the "intensity caught me off guard."
"Check out the passing freighter for scale," Malone said in his comments on the Vimeo version of the video. "What a view those sailors must have had!"
Mark Riutta had a similar view from Copper Harbor Cabins on the Upper Peninsula, as the time-lapse video below illustrates. Riutta told me over the phone that he and his girlfriend were getting the cabins ready for the summer season and were surprised by how bright Tuesday's display turned out to be. "We were just about to go to sleep, when we looked out and wondered, 'Why is it so light out there?' he said.
A GoPro HD Hero2 camera captured this view of the northern lights, set against a backdrop of the curving Earth and the glow of sunlight at the horizon. A second Hero2 camera was placed in the frame and illuminated to serve as a reference point for the camera exposure (as well as a plug for GoPro).
Project Aether, led by University of Houston physicist Ben Longmier, sent up almost two dozen weather balloons laden with high-definition cameras and scientific instruments to monitor auroral activity near Fairbanks. Most of the payloads have been recovered, but the student researchers are still on the lookout for a few that haven't yet been located. If you happen to be in the Fairbanks area and find one of them, you could win a prize.
More prizes could be in store for aurora-watchers: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Space Weather Prediction Center reports that we're currently in the midst of a minor geomagnetic storm, which could spark another wave of northern lights. What's more, an active region of the sun known as AR1465 has developed the type of magnetic field that's associated with stronger X-class outbursts.
The prototype space shuttle Enterprise is seen mated on top of NASA's modified Boeing 747 Shuttle Carrier Aircraft at Dulles International Airport in Virginia on Friday. Enterprise was the first orbiter built for the space shuttle program, but never went into orbit. It was used primarily for ground and flight tests within the atmosphere. Enterprise had been on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia, but is now being prepared for its new home at the Intrepid Sea Air and Space Museum in New York.
A day after the space shuttle Discovery took its place at the Smithsonian, the prototype shuttle Enterprise is perched on a modified 747 jet for its journey to New York. Now the timing of the trip depends on East Coast weather.
Overnight, Enterprise was towed out to Dulles International Airport and hoisted up into the air with two giant cranes. The jet, known as the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft or SCA, was brought underneath the 75-ton artifact. Then Enterprise was lowered down and "soft-mated" onto the plane at three attach points. The bolts will be tightened down for hard-mating on Saturday, in preparation for the big flight to New York.
This is the same process that Discovery went through in Florida leading up to Tuesday's flight to Dulles for its installation at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, next to the airport. On Thursday, Enterprise was moved out of the space it held since the center's opening in 2003, and Discovery was moved in.
NASA had been planning for Enterprise and the SCA to take off from Dulles as early as Monday morning, but this afternoon the space agency said the flight would be delayed due to a forecast of inclement weather in Washington as well as New York. "Managers will continue to review weather forecasts and announce a new flight date as soon as practical," NASA said in its advisory.
When forecasters give the go-ahead, the shuttle-jet combo will head up the East Coast and do a series of New York flyovers. You can expect to see the double-decker behemoth sailing over the Statue of Liberty as well as the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum, the retooled ship where Enterprise will be put on display. After the flyovers, the Enterprise will be set down at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport.
The shuttle-jet flight is old hat for Enterprise: The craft was the first vehicle built for the space shuttle program, and got its name in part thanks to a write-in campaign by "Star Trek" fans. Unlike the fictional starship, NASA's Enterprise never flew in space. Instead, it was used for ground tests as well as aerodynamic test flights atop the 747 carrier plane. Once the shuttle launches ramped up, Enterprise was deemed no longer needed for testing. It was handed over to the Smithsonian in 1985. The Udvar-Hazy Center's James S. McDonnell Space Hangar was specifically designed to show off the Enterprise.
After the 2003 Columbia tragedy, some sections of the Enterprise's wing panels were removed for impact tests, and those tests made a huge contribution to the accident investigation. That demonstrated that the shuttles can continue to benefit the space program long after their retirement.
It will take a few weeks for Enterprise to settle into its retirement home: The cranes will have to be set up for the shuttle's "demating" at JFK. Then Enterprise will have to be lifted onto a barge and brought up the Hudson River by a tugboat. The schedule calls for Enterprise to be hoisted aboard the Intrepid's flight deck sometime in June. It'll be put on display in a temporary climate-controlled pavilion this summer, and eventually housed in a permanent exhibit facility.
After Enterprise, there's one more shuttle-jet flight on tap: the transfer of Endeavour from NASA's Kennedy Space Center to the California Science Center in Los Angeles. That cross-country trip, due to take place in the latter part of this year, is likely to spark a nationwide frenzy of "Spot the Shuttle" sightings.
The last shuttle that flew in space, Atlantis, is going just down the road to Kennedy Space Center's visitor center, so there'll be no need to bring out the plane for that trip.
Even a humble sea slug can be stylish, if you find the right slug in the right place. That's what photographer Ximena Olds did when she snapped a picture of an orange headshield sea slug amid the green seagrass in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Her contrasting-color picture took the top prize in this year's Underwater Photography Contest, hosted by the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
More than 700 images were submitted for the 2012 contest, showing scenes from 20 countries. Awards were given in several categories, including Macro, Wide Angle, and Fish or Marine Mammal Portrait. Another category was set aside for University of Miami students. Olds' photo was submitted in the Macro category but was singled out for the "Best Overall" prize.
The judges included University of Miami lecturer Myron Wang, underwater photographer Nicole Wang and Michael Schmale, a professor at the Rosenstiel School.
"The quality of photos keeps getting better each year," Myron Wang, who has been judging the contest since its inception in 2005, said in today's announcement of the winners. "Judging becomes more difficult when you have so many wonderful pictures to choose from. For me, there were excellent entries in every category, but this year’s standout was the great picture of the juvenile sperm whale taken by Douglas Kahle in Dominica — it is spectacular!”
This year, for the first time, a "Fan Favorite" category was created for Internet voting. More than 1,200 ballots were cast in the poll, with Todd Aki's shot of a silhouetted jellyfish taking the prize.
The underwater photography contest is held annually, and is open to all amateur photographers who earn no more than 20 percent of their income from their photography. Click through the slideshow above, or check out the Rosenstiel School's website for more about the winners.
These composite images show Uranian auroras as bright spots on the planet's disk on Nov 16, 2011 (left), and on Nov. 29 (right). The images from the Hubble Space Telescope have been processed to bring out details in Uranus' faint ring system.
Thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope, astronomers have caught a rare display of auroras on Uranus, which ranks among the solar system's oddest planets.
Unlike the beautiful, rippling curtains of greenish light we've been seeing in earthly skies over the past few months, the Uranian auroras are short-lived bright spots sitting on top of the ice giant's bluish cloud tops. But they're caused by a similar mechanism, involving the interaction of electrically charged particles with atoms and ions in the planet's upper atmosphere.
NASA's Voyager 2 probe picked up the first evidence of Uranus' auroras in 1986. "Since then, we've had no opportunities to get new observations of this very unusual magnetosphere," Laurent Lamy, an astronomer at the Observatoire de Paris, said today in a news release. There have been a fewhints of auroral observations, but Hubble's views from last November rank as the best views yet. Lamy and his colleagues provide the details in a paper published by Geophysical Research Letters.
The team took advantage of a lucky break and a favorable planetary alignment: Last year, Earth, Jupiter and Uranus were lined up so that energetic solar emissions could flow past each planet in turn. When the sun produced several outbursts in September, the astronomers timed the flow of the particle storm past Earth a couple of days later, and then detected the flow past Jupiter two weeks after that. On the basis of those readings, they calculated that the outburst would reach Uranus in mid-November, and scrambled to schedule observing time on the Hubble Space Telescope.
Uranus is an oddity because it basically rotates on its side as it orbits the sun. The orientation of its magnetosphere is tilted 60 degrees with respect to its rotational axis. As a result, during the current season, each of the planet's magnetic poles turns to face the sun in the course of a Uranian day. "This configuration is unique in the solar system," Lamy said.
Hubble was well-placed to catch the auroral flashes on the sunlit side, near Uranus' north magnetic pole. Each flash appeared to last only a couple of minutes, the astronomers said.
Lights on Earth And then there's Earth. Last October, a solar outburst sparked northern lights that could be seen as far south as the state of Mississippi, and over the past month, higher-latitude residents have been treated to almost as many fireworks displays as Disneyland tourists typically get to see. Although the approach of summer is starting to cut down on the opportunities to see auroras in the Northern Hemisphere, some folks got great views as recently as last night. Here are a few of the highlights:
Shawn Malone of Marquette, Mich., snapped pictures of the aurora from the shores of Lake Superior. "The sky was ablaze in light," Malone told SpaceWeather.com. "Northern lights were so bright they lit up the beach!" For more from Malone, check out LakeSuperiorPhoto.com and his Vimeo video gallery.
This video showing the southern lights was taken by the crew of the International Space Station on March 10, during a pass from the Indian Ocean, southwest of Australia, to southern New Zealand. The video was released this week.
Here's a different angle on the aurora and the International Space Station, captured by Brian Larmay of Beecher, Wis. The long streak in this time-lapse photograph is the space station, sailing across the sky. To see more of Larmay's pictures, check out his SmugMug gallery.
'Where in the Cosmos' Today's picture of auroral displays on Uranus served as this week's "Where in the Cosmos" picture puzzle on the Cosmic Log Facebook page. It took only a couple of minutes for Shirley Beningo to blurt out which celestial body was shown in the picture, and what the bright spots were. To reward her for her quick cosmic vision, I'm sending her a pair of cardboard 3-D glasses, wrapped up in a 3-D picture of yours truly. Ashley Nicole and Gerry Marien came in as the runners-up, and are eligible for 3-D glasses as well. Be sure to click the "like" button on the Cosmic Log Facebook page so you're ready for next Friday's "Where in the Cosmos" contest.
In addition to Lamy, the authors of "Earth-Based Detection of Uranus' Aurorae" include R. Prange, K.C. Hansen, J.T. Clarke, P. Zarka, B. Cecconi, J. Aboudarham, N. Andre, G. Branduardi-Raymont, R. Gladstone, M. Barthelemy, N. Achilleos, P. Guio, M.K. Dougherty, H. Melin, S.W.H. Cowley, T.S. Stallard, J.D. Nichols and G. Ballester.
This picture from DigitalGlobe's QuickBird satellite shows the launch pad at the Tongchang-ri Launch Facility in North Korea, as seen on April 9. Three dark-colored support vehicles are lined up on the launch apron. The rail-mounted mobile launch platform is toward the bottom of the pad, with an exhaust deflector that's designed to deal with the hot blast of launch.
While North Korean officials were showing off their preparations for a controversial satellite launch, DigitalGlobe's Quickbird satellite was snapping high-resolution pictures of the scene from far above. The images reveal how far the North Koreans have come — and how much can be gleaned about their intentions from orbit.
DigitalGlobe is a commercial satellite imagery provider, and QuickBird can provide pictures at a resolution of a half-meter (20 inches) per pixel. But you can bet that U.S. intelligence agencies are getting significantly better views of the Tongchang-ri Launch Center from their satellites.
North Korea is due to launch its Unha-3 ("Milky Way 3") rocket anytime between now and April 16, ostensibly to send an Earth-observing satellite known as Kwangmyongsong-3 ("Bright Shining Star 3") into a pole-to-pole orbit. The United States and its allies worry that the launch is really more of a test of North Korea's capability to launch intercontinental missiles as weapons.
International journalists, including a team from NBC News, were invited to visit the secretive hard-line communist nation this week for an on-the-ground assessment of the space mission. NBC News space analyst James Oberg said that in its current configuration, the booster is "not a military missile ... but it's darn close."
"This rocket is not a weapon, but it's maybe 98 percent of one," Oberg said. "It can be converted all too easily and all too frighteningly into a weapon, and they don't need it."
AmericaSpace's Craig Covault said the Tongchang-ri facility is clearly built to handle rockets much larger than the Unha-3. He quoted U.S. and South Korean intelligence analysts as saying they believe the complex could be used for tests of North Korea's "Satan" long-range ballistic missile, as well as a North Korean-Iranian booster with up to six engines clustered in the first stage.
"Iran and possibly North Korea plan to use the large new space launch booster to send Iranian and North Korean astronauts into space," Covault wrote. He lays out a Korean-Iranian missile development program that sounds positively scary.
North Korea might have been hoping that this week's visit by journalists would put Washington's fears to rest. But based on the feedback so far, it doesn't sound as if that'll be the case.
Here's tonight's report from NBC News' Richard Engel in Pyongyang:
A North Korean satellite is poised to launch to commemorate the 100th birthday of Kim Il-sung, but there are some doubts over whether it will ever go into orbit. NBC's Richard Engel reports.
... Here's a computer-generated animation of the expected launch from Analytical Graphics Inc.:
This animation from AGI shows the launch and possible path of the Unha-3 long-range rocket, aimed at putting the Kwangmongsong-3 satellite into orbit. Video courtesy of Analytical Graphics Inc. (AGI). Visit http://agi.com/northkorea for additional resources.
... And here are more satellite pictures from DigitalGlobe:
An orbital view from DigitalGlobe's QuickBird satellite shows North Korea's Tongchang-ri Launch Facility from an altitude of 420 miles (680 kilometers).
James Oberg / msnbc.com (left) / DigitalGlobe (right)
The map of the Tongchang-ri Launch Facility that was displayed by the North Koreans during a news briefing (left) is compared with the overhead view from DigitalGlobe (right). The orientation of the satellite picture has been rotated to approximate the orientation of the map.
This satellite view shows the horizontal processing building at the Tongchang-ri Launch Facility in North Korea, with a support vehicle parked in the dark-colored parking lot below the building.
This DigitalGlobe satellite image, taken from orbit on April 9, shows the Tongchang-ri Launch Facility in North Korea. The structure in the lower part of the frame is known as the high-bay processing building, and the structures in the upper pat are housing facilities. VIP housing is at leff.
A stunning aurora season is finally coming to an end in the far north, thanks to the longer days and the shorter nights. But there were still a few opportunities this week for the northern lights to ripple across the sky in a "last dance," as this picture from Norwegian photographer Thorbjørn Riise Haagensen shows.
"Beginning in the middle of May, the midnight sun brings sunshine all night long," Haagensen told SpaceWeather.com today. "Already some daylight is visible at the horizon at midnight. There is still enough darkness, though, for the last dance of the auroras."
Haagensen's photograph shows the aurora's glow in northern Norway; click on over to his Haagensenfoto.no website for more of his pictures, including an aurora gallery. Speaking of galleries, SpaceWeather.com offers some thrilling pictures from Minnesota and northern Quebec as well as Norway.
Here's a time-lapse movie of the northern lights' last dance that was captured by Jan R. Olsen, a photographer who lives in Olderdalen, Norway. "Not many days left with the aurora," he wrote. "This was shot on the night of April 2nd. Soon it will be too light in the night to see the aurora."
Even though the northern lights may be on the wane, the southern lights should be hitting their prime — and the people in the best position to see the show in the south are the astronauts on the International Space Station. Keep an eye on the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth for shots of the aurora australis from space.
A contest sponsored by the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science has been recognizing the top underwater pictures taken by amateur photographers since 2005, but this year is different: For the first time, Internet users are being asked to select a "fan favorite" from five nominees. The voting runs through Sunday, and the People's Choice will be revealed along with other winners on April 18. Which is your favorite?
Courtesy of UM Underwater Photo Contest
The sun glints behind a jellyfish seen from the waters below.
Courtesy of UM Underwater Photo Contest
A crab and its eggs make a colorful display.
Courtesy of UM Underwater Photo Contest
A single fish is framed by a school of smaller swimmers.
Courtesy of UM Underwater Photo Contest
A penguin peers into the camera as it floats by.
Courtesy of UM Underwater Photo Contest
Colorfully striped fish make their way through an underwater scene.
The arrangement of the pictures reflects the current standings in the "People's Choice" poll. Those rankings could change as the week goes on. For now, the identity of the photographers is being held back, although at least one of the nominees is making a personal plea on the University of Miami website. That's where you can register your vote — or "votes," since you can click for your favorite once a day through Sunday. Stay tuned for the big reveal on April 18.