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Summer snapshots from space

Denis Balibouse / Reuters
A meteor streaks past stars in the night sky at the Mont-Tendre near Montricher in
the Jura Mountains, north of Geneva, late Tuesday during the Perseid shower. This
view was captured with a fisheye lens. Click on the image for a larger version.


Long after summer vacations are over, the experience lives on in slideshows, photo albums and computerized file folders filled with exotic snapshots. My weeklong vacation in Quebec produced some personal favorites - but the real action was in the skies above, highlighted by the annual Perseid meteor shower. Stunning images also came down from Mars, Saturn and frontiers beyond the solar system. Here's a rundown of the week's visual highlights:

Perseid postmortem

Bill Cooke / NASA via SpaceWeather.com
This composite view of bright Perseid meteors was created using two cameras operated by NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office at Marshall Space Flight Center.


The skies were clear outside Quebec's biggest city for my meteor vigil, from 3 to 5 a.m. Wednesday, and I saw a fair number of quick streaks of light as well as a few spectacular vapor trails. Wednesday's peak rates were recorded around 4 a.m. ET (for Western Hemisphere viewing) and 1 p.m. ET (for the Eastern Hemisphere), according to statistics from the International Meteor Organization.

The reports on the Meteorobs discussion forum spanned the spectrum from deep satisfaction to deep disappointment, as usual. Some reported that the viewing was better on Wednesday night (Aug. 12-13) than it was on the traditional peak night (Aug. 11-12). "Perseids made up for their poor Aug. 11-12 showing last night," one observer wrote. "Rates for me were triple the previous night."

Check out SpaceWeather.com's meteor gallery for stunning views of the show. The next highlight for meteor-watchers comes early next week, when the Kappa Cygnid shower is due to peak.  

Having a blast on Mars

NASA / JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Ariz.
NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter provided this oblique view of Victoria Crater. Click on the image for a larger view, with Mars rover tracks barely visible on the crater's left edge.


Despite a temporary glitch, NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is continuing to send back eye-popping pictures of the Red Planet, including the somewhat oblique view of Victoria Crater you see at right. The sidelong look was aimed at learning more about the deposits making up the crater wall, particularly the lighter layers toward the top. A larger version of the image reveals the faint tracks of NASA's Opportunity rover, which left Victoria behind almost a year ago and is now en route to an even bigger crater.

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera also spotted a Martian dust devil whipping over the planet's surface, and plenty more sights besides. But some of the most intriguing insights came from Opportunity, which is still operating on the Martian surface five and a half years after touching down.

Opportunity came across an iron-nickel meteorite during its travels - and scientists have determined that the watermelon-sized hunk of rock, nicknamed Block Island, couldn't have survived its descent from space unless Mars' atmosphere was thicker than it is today.

"Either Mars has hidden reserves of carbon dioxide ice that can supply large amounts of carbon dioxide gas into the atmosphere during warm periods of more recent climate cycles, or Block Island fell billions of years ago," rover team member Matt Golombek said in Monday's update about the find.

Season's greetings from Saturn

NASA / JPL / SSI
A picture taken by the Cassini orbiter shortly after Wednesday's equinox on Saturn shows only a thin ring shadow on the planet. Click on the image for more.


The ringed planet rang in a new season this week, with the Saturnian equinox officially taking place just after 8 p.m. ET Monday (00:15 GMT Tuesday). That's a big deal for a world where each of the four seasons lasts more than seven years. Saturn's equinox is a particularly magical time, because it marks the climax of a disappearing act.

Because Saturn's rings are precisely edge-on with respect to the sun, the rings' shadow almost completely vanishes from the planet's disk. From Earth's perspective, Saturn looks virtually ringless. The seasonal curiosity serves as a scientific opportunity as well: The shadows of objects embedded in the ring plane became incredibly elongated in the weeks leading up to the equinox, revealing weird bumpy features in the rings as well as a previously undetected moonlet. Check out the Cassini imaging team's Web site for the latest images of this magical season.

Saturn's largest moon, Titan, was also in the news this week, thanks to the detection of a tropical storm within its smoggy atmosphere. You can see a picture of the storm, as well as a psychedelic infrared portrait of Saturn and Titan, at the Gemini Observatory's Web site.

A fresh burst of starbirth

NASA / CXC / PSU
/ JPL-Caltech / CfA
This composite image from the Chandra and Spitzer space telescopes shows the molecular cloud Cepheus B. Click on the image for a larger view.


When two of NASA's Great Observatories get together, the results have got to be good. This week's image from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory and the Spitzer Space Telescope provides a sparkling view of a "trigger-happy" star formation region 2,400 light-years from Earth.

The picture shows bursts of starbirth within a cloud of molecular hydrogen known as Cepheus B, and suggests that infant star systems can be "triggered" into existence.

"Astronomers have generally believed that it's somewhat rare for stars and planets to be triggered into formation by radiation from massive stars," Penn State University's Konstantin Getman said in a news release jointly distributed Wednesday by the Spitzer and Chandra teams. "Our new result shows this belief is likely to be wrong."

Getman is the lead author of a study detailing the results, published in the July 10 issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

You can expect more marvels from yet another Great Observatory just after Labor Day, when astronomers are due to release a fresh crop of images from the repaired and upgraded Hubble Space Telescope. The vacation season may be drawing toward a close, but the stunning snapshots from space just keep on coming.


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