Get your Sagan on with 60 awe-inspiring photos of the final frontier

Parker Hall

Once Sputnik 1 was successfully hurled into orbit in 1957, spaceflight was no longer a mere pipe dream reserved for the pages of fiction. Shortly after the peculiar satellite’s stunning series of orbits, an entire planet watched as mankind, against all odds, set foot on the moon, marking the dawn of the spacefaring age — and leading to some of the best extraterrestrial photos to date. In the half century or so since these historic achievements, we have launched a vast array of instruments into outer space, allowing us to better understand our infinitesimal sliver in the infinite void of the cosmos.

Since then, space agencies around the globe have proposed bizarre missions to whet our curiosities in the name of science. While many of these far-out programs never left the launchpad — let alone the drawing board — plenty of pioneering probes have blasted through our atmosphere, through the outer reaches of our solar system, and, at least on one occasion, drifted into interstellar space. We have rendezvoused with asteroids, sailed through the rings of Saturn, and quite literally roved robotic marathons on the red planet. In pure 21st-century fashion, at least one of these rovers can’t seem to resist the occasional selfie.

While most of us will probably never escape Earth’s gravity, a joint partnership between the International Space Station (ISS) and Google recently unveiled an interactive Space View platform — a variation of the Google Street View program. It lets those of us who never fully achieved our childhood dream of becoming an astronaut virtually tour the ISS and even peer out at a panoramic Earth from the Cupola bay.

Luckily for us, some of the most sophisticated imaging technology ever is currently making its way through our solar system, transmitting breathtaking images of the final frontier back to Earth for our gawking pleasure. From the early, grainy images of the Martian surface sent from the Viking 1 lander to humanity’s first close-up of Pluto’s moon, these glimpses of our celestial neighbors and those light-years away fill us with a sense of wonder. So without further ado, here are 60 of the best space photos to help you put our Pale Blue Dot in perspective.

Photo: NASA

Patches of snow on the red planet

The large patches of ice that typically cover this section of Mars were melted by the heat of early Martian summer, offering a beautiful picture of sand dunes interspersed by small icy formations. This photograph was taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Photo: NASA

Fresh Tiger Stripes on Saturn’s Enceladus

Long lines called tiger stripes are known by scientists to be spewing ice from the surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, creating a cloud of fine ice particles over the moon’s south pole. This photo from the Cassini spacecraft shows those tiger stripes — dubbed here in a false-color blue.

Photo: NASAESAJPLSSICassini Imaging Team

Hubble Finds an Einstein Ring

This galaxy-packed image from the Hubble Space Telescope showcases a phenomenon known as an Einstein ring. Light from beyond the SDSS J0146-0929 galaxy cluster has been distorted by the massive gravity of the cluster, forced to travel along many different light paths toward Earth, and giving us the appearance of a ring in the sky.

Photo: ESA/Hubble & NASA; Acknowledgment: Judy Schmidt

Space Shuttle Rising

This image of the space shuttle Endeavor shows it punching through the Florida clouds on its final journey into orbit. Taken in 2011, this was the featured image of the Endeavour’s last trip to space. The shuttle would eventually be transported to California, where it can be visited by the public at the California Science Center.

Photo: NASA

M57: The Ring Nebula

A dense ring that is wrapped around a football-shaped cloud of glowing gas, the Ring Nebula is an iconic celestial formation that resembles the fiery eye of Sauron from the Lord of the Rings. A well-studied planetary nebula, the gaseous shroud of the Ring Nebula was formed by the outer layers of a dying, sun-like star. The nebula is also bigger than you may think — measuring a light year across and about 2,000 light years away.

Photo:NASAESAHubble Legacy ArchiveComposition: Giuseppe Donatiello

Painting with Jupiter

At first glance, this gorgeous image of Jupiter’s atmospheric bands appears as though it is a painting by a famous impressionist. That is largely due to processing by Rick Lundh, who took a close-encounter image shot by the Juno Spacecraft on December 16, 2017, and put it through a special oil-painting filter in his photo-processing software. The result is a beautiful photo that captures the unique appearance of Jupiter’s massive gas clouds and makes it a touch more human, providing a whole new perspective on the beautiful planet.

Photo: NASAJPL-CaltechSwRIMSSSProcessing: Rick Lundh

STS-41-B Spacewalk

It may have a boring name, but this sure is a pretty picture. This is Astronaut Robert L. Stewart floating a few meters away from the Space Shuttle Challenger during an extravehicular activity (EVA). The mission specialist is seen floating above the oceans of Earth without tethers, using a propulsion system attached to his suit to move around freely in space.

Photo: NASA/Flickr

Horsehead: A Wider View

This image of the Horsehead Nebula combines imaging data from the ground-based VISTA telescope and the Hubble Space Telescope, providing a gorgeous view of one of the most beautiful formations of gas and dust. It’s also massive: The left-to-right frame of the photo spans around 10 light years, showcasing the birthplace of numerous young stars.

Photo: Robert Gendler, ESO, VISTA, HLA, Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

Enceladus in Silhouette

This Cassini image from 2009 showcases Saturn’s moon Enceladus, as it floats above the gas giant’s rings with the sun behind it. Just beyond the rings, you can also see Pandora, a pint-sized moon that’s being faintly lit by the reflected light from Saturn.

Photo: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

ISS Solar Transit

This is a 10 frame composite image that shows the International Space Station, with a crew of six onboard, in as it transits across the sun at roughly five miles per second. Shot on Saturday, Dec. 17, 2016, from Newbury Park, California.

Photo: Flickr/NASA/Joel Kowsky

Tesla In Space

Private space organization SpaceX used founder Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster as its payload during its February 6, 2018 test launch. The launch was an overall success, sending Mr. Musk’s car deep into space on a trans-Mars injection heliocentric orbit. This photo was taken from the outside of the driver’s side of the car and shows a demo version of the company’s planned spacesuit design with both hands on the wheel.

Photo: SpaceX

Hubble mosaic of the Sombrero Galaxy

This composite shot of the majestic Sombrero Galaxy (M104) shows the galaxy’s brilliantly white core surrounded by thick spiraled dust lanes. Typically just beyond the brightness that would allow humans to see it with their naked eyes, the galaxy can easily be seen through small telescopes. But when shot from the mighty Hubble, it’s true beauty shines through.

Photo: NASA/ESA

Westerlund 2

This special image of the cluster Westerlund was released as part of the Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th year in orbit. A star cluster in the center of the image blends visible light and near-infrared exposures to create a jaw-dropping blend of color in the image.

Photo: ESA/Hubble

Into the unknown

The New Horizons spacecraft captured this image of Pluto after a more than nine-year voyage to the dwarf planet. As part of the mission, the probe performed a six-month flyby reconnaissance study of the dwarf planet and its moons, including the closest approach of Pluto to date. This mission was a major success but the probe was far from finished faring the final frontier.

New Horizons was designed with extra hydrazine fuel onboard to investigate potential Kuiper belt objects (KBO) beyond Pluto if they were detected nearby. In 2014, three such KBOs were discovered all with possible flyby dates in late 2018 or in 2019 and last year, the craft received the green light to journey even farther into the Kuiper belt. The probe is now en route to an object known as (486958) 2014 MU69 and — seeing as this series of numbers and letters isn’t the most communicable of names — NASA has enlisted mankind to come up with an alternate monicker. Those so-inclined have until December 1 to nominate and vote on other potential names via the New Horizons website.

Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

A little perspective

Spanish photographer Dani Caxete snapped this photo of the International Space Station passing in front of the moon earlier in 2017. The image was captured during one of the space station’s 15 daily orbits at a speed of more than 17,000 miles per hour or about 5 miles per second. Nearly the size of a football field, the space station can be seen with the naked eye as it passes overhead. Individuals so inclined can sign up to receive text alerts from NASA as the orbiting laboratory approaches their neck of the woods.

Photo: Flickr/DaniCaxete

Alien terrain

Earlier this year, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured this image of a portion of the Hellas Planitia — the largest visible impact basin in our solar system. The formation is more than 1,200 miles in diameter and deeper than the Grand Canyon along certain stretches. However, what is truly mesmerizing about this particular expansive dune field depicted above are the strange, extensive network of winding clefts and the cause of these seemingly meandering markings is still largely unknown.

During the Martian winter, higher latitude surfaces are covered with frost and NASA postulates that these “linear gullies” are formed as this dry ice breaks apart and slowly sift downward along these warm slopes. The space agency is currently testing a prototype “igloo” habitat that could utilize subsurface water ice to insulate humans from the harsh Martian environment.

Photo: NASA/JPL

Throwing shade

NASA/JPL/JUNO

The Jovian moon, Amalthea, casts an oblong shadow on the gas giant in this Juno image snapped earlier in 2017. As part of the missions eighth flyby, the spacecraft was racing 2,400 miles above Jupiter’s atmosphere when this photo was captured. Amalthea is an irregularly shaped moon (hence the peculiar shadow) nearly 170 miles in length and about half that in width.

Other than its odd shape, the craggy satellite holds the very specific title of “reddest” object in the solar system. This crimson-clad space rock orbits the volcanically active moon, Io, and it has been speculated that Amalthea’s deep red hue is the result of accumulated sulphur emitted by its lava-spewing neighboring.

Photo: NASA/JPL/JUNO

A galactic “hit and run

The Hubble Space Telescope captured thousands of galaxies in this breathtaking observation in 1999. The largest feature depicted is galaxy UGC 10214 known as the Tadpole because of its peculiar shape. Located roughly 420 million light-years away, this odd-shaped galaxy is the result of a gravitational encounter with a small interloper (the bright blue feature in the to left of the image). This cosmic collision created a number of stars and stars clusters and each of these individual clusters is comprised of up to one million stars. Eventually these will evolve into globular clusters like our Milky Way galaxy. Billions and billions indeed.

Photo: NASA

Trailblazing the Red Planet

In 2003, NASA launched the twin robotic geologists Spirit and Opportunity, and the following January the two rovers landed on opposite sides of Mars. Opportunity landed in the flat plain known as Meridiani Planum searching for evidence of Martian water. The golf cart-sized craft snapped this photo of the landing site clearly showing the conical outer hull of the shattered heat shield on the left and the physical impact site on the far right. Samples collected at the location determined the area was once the shoreline of a salty Martian sea.

While mission control lost contact with Spirit in 2010, Opportunity is still roving the Red Planet today, exceeding its original 90-day mission timeline by more than a decade. In 2015, the rover set the record for greatest extraterrestrial ground distance traveled breaking the previous record of 24.2 miles set by the Russian Lunokhod 2 rover. Currently surveying Perseverance Valley, Opportunity’s has now logged nearly 28 miles and is showing no signs of stopping.

Photo: NASA/JPL

A rare glimpse of totality

On August 21, some of us witnessed the first total solar eclipse to cross the entire continental United States in nearly a century. Millions flocked to the direct path for the event for a chance to experience a few moments of totality, however, only the six humans aboard the ISS had the opportunity to take in this sight of the moon’s shadow, or umbra, as the total solar eclipse passed over Earth. The ISS orbited the eclipse three times in total, at an altitude of roughly 250 miles. NASA recently released a time lapse of images taken by the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC) showing the moon’s shadow as it crossed over our planet.

Photo: NASA/ISS

Pluto’s polygons

In July 2015, the New Horizons craft gave mankind its first up-close and personal look at the dwarf planet formerly known as our ninth planet, Pluto. When NASA began combing through these transmitted images, the team was initially taken aback by a patchwork of seemingly “fresh” polygonal shapes atop Sputnik Planum, an equatorial sea of frozen nitrogen. These findings and others indicate the dwarf planet is surprisingly still geologically active. An article published in the Nature suggests these cells could be the result of subsurface convection — a process that replaces older surface material with fresh ice over time. This would allow the planet to essentially “repave” its icy surface roughly every one million years. To celebrate the two-year anniversary of New Horizon’s initial flyby, NASA used mission data as well as elevation models based on Pluto and its moon, Charon, to create a series of virtual flyovers. You can watch these stunning cuts here.

Photo: JPL/NASA

Juno spies Jupiter’s crimson chaos

best space photos Jupiter great red spot

Orbiting at a speed of nearly 129,000 miles per hour, the Juno spacecraft captured this image of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot on July 10. When this photo was taken, the probe was just 5,600 miles above the planet’s atmosphere, making the flyby of the iconic storm system the closest to date. Although the spot has been shrinking in recent years, it is still more than 10,000 miles in width (or about 1.3 times wider than Earth). Juno’s next flyby of the Jovian giant will take place in September, and we can only hope for a panoply of equally spellbinding snapshots.

Photo: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/GeraldEichstädt/SeánDoran

Historic firsts

best space photos SpaceX Dragon

Aboard the International Space Station, astronaut Jack Fischer captured this image of the SpaceX Dragon capsule as it burned through Earth’s atmosphere upon reentry. The event marked the first successful relaunch of a recycled capsule. SpaceX, Elon Musk’s private space company, has launched and landed multiple rockets at this point — the company even reused one of these rockets earlier this year. Needless to say, recycled capsules and rockets such as these will be paramount in driving down the cost of space travel moving forward.

Photo: NASA

Veiled Titan

Cassini captured this image of Saturn’s A and F rings, the craggy moon Epimetheus, and a hazy Titan drifting in the background. Titan is the only moon in our solar system known to have an Earth-like cycle of liquids flowing across its surface and also an atmosphere. It is believed conditions on the moon could possibly support life. Researchers have proposed an array of crafts that may one day unlock the secrets of the mystifying moon. These concept vehicles range from a subsurface probe capable of drilling through potential surface ice to a helium blimp that could circumnavigate the moon every few weeks.

Photo: NASA/JPL

Hidden in plain sight

NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) captured this image of the Red Planet on April 8, 2015. The small, blue dot in the center of the photo is actually the Curiosity rover, trekking through a colorful valley known as Artist’s Drive on the lower slope of Mount Sharp. For perspectives sake, Curiosity is about the size of a small SUV. The MRO once again spotted Curiosity climbing Mount Sharp on June 5, 2017. As of Sol 1734, Curiosity has traveled more than 10 miles across Mars; however, another Martian rover, Opportunity, surpassed 26.2 miles traveled on the Red Planet in 2015, making it the first manmade vehicle to complete a Martian marathon.

Photo: NASA/JPL

More than a “red” planet

On Mars, higher latitudes are often more concentrated with seasonal ravines than lower ones. However, NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) snapped this photo of the vibrant Krupac Crater and its subsequent gullies, which are located just south of the equator. These seasonal flows — also known as recurring slope lineae — occur during the warmer months, and the subsequent color of each channel corresponds to the eroded source materials.

Photo: NASA/JPL

Enigmatic Mars

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) packs one of the largest cameras to ever visit another planet, allowing the spacecraft to snap the most vivid images of our planetary neighbor to date. This photo of the Red Planet was taken by the MRO during late summer in the Martian Southern hemisphere. During this season, the Sun sits low in the sky, brilliantly highlighting the shifting topography of this so-called “Swiss cheese terrain.”

Mars has polar ice caps similar to Earth, however, on Mars these regions are made of a combination of water, ice, and carbon dioxide, known as “dry ice” in its frozen state. This photo depicts dozens of circular formations in these vast dry ice deposits created by impacts with foreign bodies or as a result of natural surface collapse. Researchers at JPL and NASA have yet to determine the cause of the massive pit — estimated to be hundreds of feet wide — featured in the right of this image.

Photo: JPL/NASA

Juno beholds a not-so-gentle giant

The Juno spacecraft snapped this photo of the gas giant, Jupiter, in August. Taken from an altitude of about 32,000 miles, we can see the planet’s south pole and dozens of Earth-sized hurricanes in stunning detail. The probe arrived at the planet in June and makes a flyover every 53 days, at which point the probe uses eight instruments to collect data for roughly two hours. Once this information has been transmitted back to Earth, this file takes 36 hours for NASA to download.

Along with these sophisticated instruments, Juno packs a few other surprising items, including a trio of Lego passengers: The Roman god Jupiter, his wife Juno, and — last but certainly not least — Galileo. In Roman mythology, Jupiter drew a veil of clouds around himself to conceal his mischief. Juno will get a small taste of this mischief and then some when the spacecraft makes its final plunge into the gas giant in early 2018.

Photo: NASA/Juno

Glinting through the darkness

Earlier this year, NASA started releasing global maps of Earth at night, known as “night lights.” Until recently, these images were only produced roughly once a decade. However, NASA is now analyzing these intricate images more regularly for a host of economic, social science, and environmental applications. Researchers will soon be able to produce high-definition images daily, and NASA is currently comparing these photographs — like this composite shot from 2016 — to better project regional and global carbon dioxide emissions.

Photo: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

The potential for extraterrestrial life

The Galileo spacecraft captured this composite image of Jupiter’s moon, Europa, in the late 1990s. Researchers believe Europa is home to a global ocean of liquid water — nearly 60 miles deep — beneath a frozen exterior. If this turns out to be true, Europa would contain more than twice as much water as Earth. Europa’s distance from Jupiter varies due to its orbital pattern causing flexing along the surface. These disproportionate gravitational tugs are responsible for creating the ridges and cracks along the surface, producing these intricate markings as regions continuously shatter and freeze. The same tidal flexing responsible for these geological features may also cause volcanic activity along the seafloor. The subsequent heat and nutrients from such hydrothermal activity could potentially support living organisms.

Photo: NASA/JPL

Fixing our ‘eyes’ in the sky

Some of the most detailed images we have of our cosmos would not be possible without the Hubble Space Telescope. Since Hubble’s launch and deployment in 1990, the telescope has snapped more than 1.3 million “observations.” NASA has also routinely serviced the telescope to tweak faulty equipment and upgrade its overall performance.

This photo was snapped during the first servicing mission in 1993, when astronauts installed new instruments and equipment to correct a flaw in the primary mirror. Hubble weighed about 24,000 pounds when launched, and after the final servicing mission in 2009, it now orbits at a svelte 13.5 tons. The James Webb Space Telescope will replace Hubble in October 2018 — talk about a tough act to follow.

Photo: NASA/Hubble

lucky

The Magellan probe took this photo of the second rock from the sun, Venus, in the ’90s. However, Magellan was not the first craft to attempt to unlock the planet’s many mysteries. Venus is one of the most inhospitable bodies in our solar system. The atmosphere is made predominantly of carbon dioxide, with thick clouds of sulfuric acid and a surface strewn with volcanoes and vast plains of lava. Moreover, the atmospheric pressure on the planet is enough to crush a human and the surface temperature — at nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit — is more than capable of melting lead.

Needless to say, designing a craft that’s capable of both landing and withstanding such conditions is no easy feat. Nonetheless, in the ’70s and ’80s, the Soviet Union set out to do just that with the Venera missions. In 1975, Venera 9 successfully landed in operational condition, snapping the first 180-degree image of the Venusian surface. Venera 10 similarly touched down on the inhospitable planet and transmitted data back to Earth for roughly an hour. You can check out some of these stunning — albeit grainy — mission images here.

Photo: NASA/JPL

The end of an era

The Cassini spacecraft snapped this photo of Saturn’s small shepherd moon, Pan, on March 7. The moon orbits Saturn at a distance of about 83,000 miles in a 200-mile gap — known as the Encke Gap — within the planet’s A-ring. The probe has regularly transmitted stunning images like this back to Earth, however, after more than a decade in orbit around the gas giant, we are now approaching the end of the Cassini mission. In September, the craft will have nearly exhausted its fuel reserves. To prevent Cassini from colliding with one of Saturn’s moons and potentially contaminating the surface with “hardy” Earth microbes, the craft will be sent on a controlled dive toward Saturn, where it will quickly burn up in the planet’s atmosphere.

Photo: NASA/JPL

Blue skies on the red planet — a “curious” sunset indeed

The Curiosity rover’s Mastcam snapped this breathtaking Martian sunset during a “skywatching” test on April 15, 2015. This specific image was taken between dust storms, and the faint blue haze is the result of sunlight reflecting off of dust that lingers in the atmosphere. The Curiosity team often captures both twilight and sunset images to gauge how high in the atmosphere this dust extends. Curiosity’s official Twitter account originally posted this image with a quote from T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock: “Let us go then, you and I when the evening is spread out against the sky: Blue sunset on Mars.”

Photo: NASA/JPL

Ice mountains and cryovolcanoes

The New Horizons mission gave us our first close-up look at the dwarf planet Pluto in 2015, revealing a truly bizarre world. Photographed at a distance of 11,000 miles from the surface, this picture reveals the dwarf planet in stunning detail. The relatively smooth region depicted in the right portion of the image is known as Sputnik Planum. A series of jagged mountains extending as far as 11,000-feet high dominant the left portion of the image. The Norgay Montes formation is also highlighted in the foreground.

These craggy mountains are probably composed primarily of water ice. NASA believes it has identified two potential cryovolcanoes — volcanoes that spew a “slurry” combination of water ice, nitrogen, ammonia, and methane — in the southern hemisphere. The spacecraft snapped this mesmerizing image just minutes into its closest approach. Talk about first impressions…

Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Mimas’ Everest

Mimas, the smallest of Saturn’s major moons, has one of the most cratered surfaces within our solar system. The most prominent of these features is the Herschel crater, named after the astronomer who discovered Mimas, William Herschel. At more than 80 miles across, the massive formation is nearly a third of the total diameter of Mimas.

Fractures on the opposite side of Herschel were potentially caused by shockwaves. In fact, it is believed that the impact event that created the crater nearly fragmented the moon. The peak at the center is nearly 3.5-miles high, making it about as tall as Mount Everest.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Juno beholds a Jovian giant

This photo of Jupiter’s northern latitudes was taken by the Juno spacecraft in December 2016. The image was snapped as the spacecraft was just 10,000 miles above the planet’s upper atmosphere. In the top portion of the photograph, we can see an anticyclonic storm significantly smaller than Jupiter’s infamous Great Red Spot. Consequently, this meteorological phenomenon is known as the Little Red Spot. This smaller storm system is roughly the size of Earth. While the Great Red Spot appears to be shrinking in size, winds inside of the Little Red Spot have rapidly increased in recent years, causing the system to darken in color.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dunes

Depicted above is a portion of the Namib Dune, located in the Martian Bagnold Dune Field. This feature appears as a dark band on the planet’s surface, and was sculpted by Martian winds. The Curiosity rover snapped this picture in 2015 as part of the first investigation of a sand dune on a planet other than Earth. While smaller dunes and similar ripples can also be found on Earth, these larger formations — those more than 10-feet apart — are not part of our earthly landscape.

Photo: NASA/JPL

Cosmic collisions

This photograph was snapped by the Cassini spacecraft nearly 1.4 million miles from Saturn. In the right portion of the shot, you can see a hazy debris field inside the planet’s F ring, which is normally the result of a collision.

This disruption was likely caused by Saturn’s small moon Pandora, seen in the bottom-right portion of the photograph. However, the impingement could also have been the result of an interaction between other objects within the ring. Since these objects are often very small, however, tracking and identifying such an event is exceptionally complicated.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

A truly peculiar planet

This surreal photo of Earth rising behind our moon was taken by “Kaguya,” a Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) orbiter. The spacecraft was named after a 10th-century Japanese folktale in which a lunar princess visits Earth.

The orbiter spent more than 20 months orbiting and surveying the moon. The mission ended in June 2009, however, when Kaguya intentionally impacted the lunar surface near the crater Gill. JAXA later released a trove of photographs depicting our craggy moon, as well as the space rock we call home, in chilling clarity.

Photo: JAXA/Kaguya

Going out on top

In a year chock-full of general low points, the European Space Agency (ESA) served up arguably the best highlight reel of 2016. On September 30, at the end of the Rosetta mission, the ESA executed a controlled fatal crash into comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

The final moments of the orbiter’s life were livestreamed across the globe in real time via an onboard camera. The craft took the selfie above while in transit. Rosetta’s grand finale generated more than 4 million views, making it the most livestreamed video of 2016. You can rewatch the video here.

Photo: ESA/Rosetta

Pluto’s sapphire silhouette

The New Horizons spacecraft spent more than six months studying Pluto and the dwarf planet’s moon, Charon, in the latter half of 2015. Backlit by the sun, this high-resolution, true color image of Pluto was taken on July 14, 2015. The vibrant, hazy layers in the photo extend more than 120 miles above the Plutonian surface. It’s believed that this gorgeous blue haze is a “photochemical smog,” which is the direct result of the sun acting on methane and other molecules in the planet’s atmosphere.

Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Ocean Moon

For decades, scientists were perplexed by Saturn’s ultra-bright moon Enceladus, which remains the most reflective object in our solar system. The mystery behind the moon’s radiance was finally explained, however, during the Cassini mission in 2005. Data from the flyby revealed that Enceladus is home to a vast saltwater ocean.

On the surface, this ocean is frozen, but beneath the dense layer of ice lies a liquid ocean heated by active hydrothermal vents. Jets of ice and water gush through the surface at more than 800 miles per hour. Some of this material continues into space, some of it rains back down onto the moon, and the remaining material actually escapes only to quickly become part of Saturn’s iconic rings.

Photo: NASA/JPL

A not-so-gentle giant

jupiter 12 new moons touch up

Jupiter is as gorgeous as it is anomalous. The planet actually has more in common with our sun than it does any other planet in our solar system, having developed from the celestial “leftovers” remaining after the formation of the sun. In fact, Jupiter has the same ingredients as a star (hydrogen and helium), however, the planet did not become massive enough to ignite. C’est la vie.

Jupiter also doesn’t have a true “surface.” A probe wouldn’t be able to land on the the planet, however, a spacecraft would also be unable to fly through the gas giant. The intense pressure and extreme temperatures would literally vaporize anything that attempted to do so.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Mai

A lucky rabbit’s footprints

In 2013, China became became the third nation to successfully perform a soft landing on the moon (the United States and Russia being the two others). The landing module, Chang’e-3, and the rover, Yutu — which translates to “The Jade Rabbit” — were named after a Chinese goddess and her pet rabbit.

Yutu spent three months exploring the lunar surface before the mission ended abruptly due to mechanical failures. It is believed that the rover did not properly enter hibernation before a frigid, two-week lunar night. The “frostbitten” Jade Rabbit never fully recovered. China plans to send another lander to the moon and return samples to Earth in 2017.

Photo: NCSA

Rings abound

This is a rare glimpse of Uranus and the planet’s elegant ring system. Astronomers had no idea Uranus even had a ring system until 1977. The astronomers who made the discovery believed there to be six rings in all, though, later observations made by the Hubble Space Telescope identified a total of 13 rings. The hazy white feature depicted near the top of Uranus is actually a massive aurorae. This was one of the first images taken to capture such a meteorological phenomenon on another planet.

Photo: NASA, ESA, and L. Lamy (Observatory of Paris, CNRS, CNES)

Asteroids and interstellar visitors

This is a photograph of asteroid 243 Ida — informally known as simply “Ida” — and its moon, Dactyl. Ida was first identified in 1884, however, its small moon wasn’t discovered until the Galileo spacecraft flyby en route to Jupiter in 1993. At that time, Ida was the first asteroid ever identified with its own satellite. Recently, while scanning the skies for other asteroids, a team of astronomers in Hawaii happened upon the first documented interstellar object to enter our solar system. The team dubbed this drifting visitor “Oumuamua” — a name meaning “a messenger from afar arriving first.”

While Oumuamua‘s exact origins are still unknown, even if the asteroid originated within the nearest star system along its trajectory, it would have taken a minimum of a few hundred thousand years to reach us.

Unfortunately, Oumuamua is quickly whirling toward yet another interstellar adventure and after mid-December, it will be too faint to be detected using even the largest telescopes on Earth.

Photo: NASA/JPL

Craggy moons

This is Saturn’s third-largest moon, Iapetus. The natural satellite’s most prominent feature is the dense ridge that runs along the bulk of its equator. This equatorial ridge has peaks reaching up to six miles high, making these individual mountains some of the tallest in our solar system. This ridge was discovered by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft in 2004. The Voyager missions during the late-’70s and ’80s were the first to provide detail of these geological features, and thus they are informally known as the Voyager Mountains.

Photo: NASA/Cassini

Billions and billions, indeed

Your are looking at one the most extraordinary photographs ever captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. This image was taken as part of NASA’s Frontier Fields campaign, the point of which is to investigate galaxy clusters in more detail than ever before. For this image, Hubble homed in on the constellation Leo, revealing thousands of vibrant galaxies.

Photo: ESA/Hubble/NASA

Lesser-known “spots” in our solar system

This is a composite image of Neptune created from 42 photos, each snapped by Voyager II in 1989. Featured in the photo is Neptune’s Great Dark Spot, which was once a huge storm akin to the one that defines Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. The massive system was about the size of Earth, and winds in the Great Dark Spot were estimated to gust at speeds of nearly 1,500 miles per hour. In 1994, when Hubble focused in to monitor the storm, the system had faded, although a new spot had formed in the northern hemisphere.

Photo: JPL/NASA

Humans on the moon

Images sent back millions of miles to the Earth from various probes are a testament to our species’ curiosity. However, there’s just nothing quite like the photographs taken on the Apollo missions. Photos of the moon snapped by the fingertips of the first humans to bravely bridge the cold, void of space. This photo in particular comes from the Apollo 15 mission. The lefthand portion of the photograph shows a section of Mt. Hadley. On the right, is a lunar formation known as Swann Range, named after Apollo 15 geologist Gordon Swann. The tracks of the Lunar Roving Vehicle can be seen faintly in the bottom left of the image.

Photo: Apollo 15/NASA

Massive impact craters

The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRISE camera snapped a photograph of this huge impact crater located in the Sirenum Fossae region. The crater is a more than a half of a mile wide. NASA has determined this feature to be relatively new (in cosmic terms) based on the sharp rim and well-preserved ejecta.

Photo: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Unprecedented spacewalks

On February, 7, 1984, NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless II became the first astronaut to drift outside of a spacecraft without a tether. In this photo, taken by crew members onboard the Space Shuttle Challenger, McCandless is seen field-testing a hand-guided, nitrogen-propulsion device known as the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU).

Photo: NASA

Cryovolcanoes

Featured amongst the vivid reds is one of two suspected Plutonian cryovolcanoes. At nearly 90 miles across and 2.5 miles high, if further analysis determines this to actually be an ice volcano, this would be the largest known cryovolcano in the outer solar system. Scientists still are baffled as to why the red sediments are not more widespread throughout the region.

Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Charon up-close

This photo of Pluto’s largest moon, Charon, was snapped by the New Horizons spacecraft. Charon is a very large natural satellite. In fact the moon is nearly half the size of Pluto. The combination is sometimes even referred to as a double dwarf planet system. The reddish portion at the top is a polar region known informally as Mordor Macula.

Photo: NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI

Jupiter’s red spot

Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is perhaps one of the most recognizable features of our Solar System. The “spot” is actually a massive, turbulent storm roughly the size of three and a half Earths. The storm has been circling the planet for at least 186 years. This classic photograph was created from three black-and-white negatives from Voyager 1’s 1979 flyby of the gas giant. In 2012, Voyager 1 entered interstellar space, the region between stars — and is still sending signals back to Earth. Talk about return on investment…

Photo: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

Death Stars among us

Tethys is one of Saturn’s 62 confirmed moons. Astronomers have long jokingly referred to the moon as the “Death Star” due to its resemblance to the planet-sized battle station from Star Wars. The large impact crater — known as Odysseus — is actually one of the largest in the entire Solar System. Tethys is roughly 660 miles across and the crater is nearly 280 miles wide, meaning the crater itself represents 5 percent of the moon’s total surface.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

A quintet poses

quintet-of-moons saturn

Cassini has snapped thousands of gorgeous photos of Saturn during its extended mission. In this photo, five of Saturn’s moons are caught in frame alongside a few of the planet’s extensive network of rings. (From right to left: Rhea, Mimas, Enceladus, Pandora, and Janus.)

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturnian hurricanes

The Cassini satellite completed its original four-year mission to explore the Saturn and its moons in 2008. And it’s still snapping detailed photographs of the beautiful ringed planet today. This incredible image is a close-up of Saturn’s north-pole hurricane, the first close-up ever taken of the infamous storm; the clouds at the edge are traveling at roughly 335 miles per hour. The eye of the hurricane itself is roughly 1,200 miles wide. To put that in perspective, the United States is about 2,800 miles across. The vibrant colorations are added by spectral filters sensitive to wavelengths of near-infrared light.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Martian bedrock

Located on the northwest rim of Isidis impact basin, the Nili Fossae region is considered one of the most vibrant on Mars. In this photo, the Martian bedrock is exposed, sans the vast expanses of sand dunes. This photo was taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona