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Dispatches : Nature

The 2012 Astronomy Photographer of the Year

M51 - The Whirlpool Galaxy © Martin PughM51, The Whirlpool Galaxy. Photo: The Royal Observatory Photographer of the Year/Martin Pugh

Australian Martin Pugh nabbed the Astronomy Photographer of the Year 2012 award from The Royal Observatory in Greenwich for the second time. Pugh, who previously won the award in 2009, snatched it up this time for his shot of M51, better known as the Whirlpool Galaxy. The two-armed spiral cluster of stars sits 31 million light years away from earth and can be seen in the constellation "The Hunting Dogs."

“The photographer has made the most of exceptionally good atmospheric conditions to capture an astonishing range of detail in his image of this iconic galaxy; the beautiful spiral structure, dark lanes of dust, and the way the pink clouds of hydrogen really stand out," said Dr. Mare Kukula, the Royal Observatory Public Astronomer. "It’s a remarkable achievement by an amateur astronomer; one of the best images of M51 that I’ve seen.”

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President Barack Obama Declares Chimney Rock a National Monument

8009702157_106d7859cd_zChimney Rock. Photo:

On Friday, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation designating 4,726 acres of land in southwestern Colorado as Chimney Rock National Monument. Roughly 1,000 years ago, the Chaco civilization built more than 200 homes and farmed the land in this area, which is marked by two large rock spires at an elevation of roughly 7,600 feet. Once every 18.6 years, the moon rises between those two spires, Chimney Rock and Companion Rock, creating a moment known as a lunar standstill. Peregrine falcons, mule deer, and mountain lions live in the ponderosa pine, juniper, and pinon environments around the spires.

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Fire Devil Tears Up Australian Outback

Filmmaker Chris Tangey recorded the above video of a fire whirl whisking through the Australian Outback near Alice Springs on September 11. Since then, the clip has swerved from news sites to blogs to social media around the world. In its wake came this simple explanation from New York State climatologist Mark Wysocki on how a fire devil forms, via Life's Little Mysteries:

Like the dust devils that spring up on clear, sunny days in the deserts of the Southwest, a fire devil is birthed when a disproportionately hot patch of ground sends up a plume of heated air. But while dust devils find their heat source in the sun, fire devils arise from hot spots in preexisting wildfires.

"These plumes form in a very small region over the land," Wysocki explained. "They start to rise very rapidly, and as things start to rise, they suck the surrounding air in like a vacuum. Then you get this twisting that begins to resemble a vortex."

As the vortex rises and sucks the blaze up with it, its diameter begins to shrink and, like an ice skater pulling in her limbs to gather speed in a spin, its rotation accelerates.

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Arctic Sea Ice Sets a New Low

Screen Shot 2012-09-19 at 9.44.57 PMThe record low compared to the average minimum. Photo: NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio

The extreme melt of Arctic sea ice has stopped for the year, but only after setting a record low for area covered, scientists said. Arctic sea ice covered about 1.32 million square miles on September 16, when scientists said the extent was likely* at its lowest point for the year. That area is difficult to imagine. Picture this: In the lowest previous minimum year for ice extent, 2007, there was an area of ocean the size of Texas covered with additional hard white stuff. Now picture this: The state of Alaska times two. That's the area this year's minimum sea ice extent was smaller than the annual average since measurements were first taken in 1979.

"Climate models have predicted a retreat of the Arctic sea ice; but the actual retreat has proven to be much more rapid than the predictions," said Claire Parkinson, a climate scientist at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "There continues to be considerable interannual variability in the sea ice cover, but the long-term retreat is quite apparent."

In other words, this record low happened sooner and faster than scientists thought it would, and it's definitely part of a trend.

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Overturning the Record for the World's Hottest Temperature

For almost a century, the world's hottest temperature was believed to be a 136-degree Fahrenheit measurement recorded in El Azizia, Libya, on September 13, 1922. This month, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) threw that record out. They gave their reasons in a study published in the September issue of the Bulletin of the American Meterological Society. The story of how the extreme temperature was refuted involves a two-year quest by a blogger, an investigation by the head of the Libyan National Meteorological Center who disappeared for six months during the country's revolution, and the amazing recovery of handwritten temperature records from a destroyed building.

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