A NASA Picture Show with Universal Appeal

The Long Gas Tail of Spiral Galaxy D100
Image Credit & Copyright: NASA, ESA, Hubble, Subaru Telescope, W. Cramer (Yale) et al., M. Yagi, J. DePasquale

There are more ways to see the universe than there are people on earth or stars in the sky.

This reality was on glorious display at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) Jan. 12 as NASA astrophysicist Dr. Jerry T. Bonnell took a rapt audience on a cosmic journey through spectacular images of earth and interstellar space.

Bonnell, a scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center who co-founded NASA’S popular website Astronomy Picture of the Day (APOD), kicked off the 2019 AAA Lecture Series with a selection of images featured on the site in 2018 at a free public lecture in the Kaufmann Theater of the AMNH.

“Each day,” says the website, “a different photograph or image from our fascinating universe is featured, along with a brief explanation written by a professional astronomer.”

Bonnell displayed a wide spectrum of celestial sights — images captured by everything from a high-powered telescope at non-visible wavelengths, to a single lens reflex camera, to an iPhone. They included:

  • A whimsical image of “the teapot” asterism in the constellation Sagittarius set against the Milky Way galaxy rising over the mountains near Teakettle Junction in Death Valley, CA.
  • Side by side images of Mars at opposition, one revealing the red planet’s mottled surface of volcanoes and impact craters, the second showing the surface totally obscured by a planetary sand and dust cloud in the southern hemisphere
  • A dramatic time lapse photo of the longest eclipse of the 21st century – when the moon was at apogee – that lasted an hour and a half
  • The blues, greens and purple flares of the Aurora Borealis in a photo taken from a plane as it crossed the desert heading east on a flight from San Francisco
  • The Pleiades star cluster cast in the clear and dark skies over the Canary Islands
  • A long exposure from the launch of the Parker Solar Probe at Cape Canaveral of the rocket streaking down range
  • A selfie that the Curiosity Rover took with its long robotic arm set against a panoramic backdrop of the Martian landscape
  • A photo that appeared to be a fake composite was an actual photo of a Tesla Roadster automobile that was used as a dummy payload for a test flight of the Falcon Heavy Rocket by SpaceX. Tesla and SpaceX are both owned by the technology entrepreneur, Elon Musk.
  • An amateur photographer’s image of a rocket launch at the China One missile site in Southern China for the first-ever surface mission to the far side of the moon
Photo by:NASA
1972: The “Blue Marble” (Apollo 17)

And, finally, Bonnell traveled back in time 50 years to show Earthrise, the iconic photograph of Earth and some of the Moon’s surface that was taken from lunar orbit by astronaut William Anders on December 24, 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission.

When APOD began in 1995 it received only 14 page views on its first day. As of 2012, it had received over a billion image views. Its archive is one of the largest collections of annotated astronomical images on the Internet. It receives about a million hits a day and is translated into more than 21 languages.

The selection process is competitive. Bonnell said they receive many, many submissions from professional and amateur astronomers around the globe. “But I get about ten a day that I would love to make the Astronomy Picture of the Day.”

A native of Oklahoma, Bonnell shared stories of his own stargazing near his home in suburban Maryland. During a recent meteor shower he set the alarm for 1 am and woke up to see if the sky was clear. Seeing no clouds, he drove to the middle of a local ball field to escape the ambient light and stretched out face up on the roof of his car to watch the show.

Dr. Robert J. Nemiroff and Dr. Jerry T. Bonnell were awarded the 2015 Klumpke-Roberts Award by the Astronomical Society of the Pacific “for outstanding contributions to public understanding and appreciation of astronomy” for their work on APOD.

Bonnell came to the Goddard Space Flight Center in 1988 and worked on the Cosmic Background Explorer and International Ultraviolet Explorer projects. Since 1992 he has been a member of the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory Science Support Center staff in the Laboratory for High Energy Astrophysics. Bonnell’s research efforts have involved multi-wavelength studies of gamma-ray selected blazars and studies of the time histories and spectral evolution of cosmic gamma-ray bursts.

“I’ve been doing this since 1995,” concluded Bonnell. “And I still enjoy it. I still enjoy looking through all the pictures. That doesn’t get old.”


For printed versions of Bonnell’s work check out:

Astronomy: 365 Days, a spectacular collection of photographs of space and sky, drawn from Jerry Bonnell and Robert Nemiroffs enormously popular website, Astronomy Picture of the Day.

The Universe: 365 Days (the second-highest-selling title in the 365 Days series), a volume filled with amazing images from the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars and the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn, the latest revelations from the Hubble Space Telescope, and gorgeous views from professionals and amateurs.