Right at this moment, robotic probes launched by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and others are gathering information all across the solar system. We currently have spacecraft in orbit around the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and Saturn. Several others are on their way to smaller bodies, and a few are heading out of the solar system entirely. Although the Space Shuttle no longer flies, astronauts are still at work aboard the International Space Station, performing experiments and sending back amazing photos. With all these eyes in the sky, I'd like to take another opportunity to put together a recent photo album of our solar system -- a set of family portraits, of sorts -- as seen by our astronauts and mechanical emissaries. This time, we have some closer views of the asteroid Vesta, a visit to the durable (if dusty) Mars rover Opportunity, some glimpses of Saturn's moons, and lovely images of our home, planet Earth.
A view of the Sun on March 7, 2012, seen in extreme ultraviolet wavelengths by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly aboard NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Looping lines reveal solar plasma that is rising and falling along magnetic field lines in the solar atmosphere, or corona. The brighter prominence at upper left is named solar active region 1429, which has already released several large solar flares, some accompanied by large explosions of solar plasma known as coronal mass ejections.
An animated image of the Sun, showing a large solar flare erupting on March 5, 2012, launching a coronal mass ejection into space.
Comet Lovejoy approaches the sun (left side), interacting the with the sun's corona which is several million degrees, and re-emerges at right, after passing closely by the far side of the Sun. Comet Lovejoy survived what astronomers figured would be a sure death when it danced uncomfortably close to the sun on December 15, 2011. The comet, which was only discovered a couple of weeks before, was supposed to melt as it came so close to the sun that the temperatures around it would hit several million degrees. Astronomers had tracked 2,000 other sun-grazing comets make the same suicidal trip. None had ever survived.
(AP Photo/NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory)
A partial solar eclipse, as seen from space, on Tuesday February 21, 2012, when the Moon moved in between NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) satellite and the Sun, on February 22, 2012.
On December 05, 2011, NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft, in orbit around the planet Mercury, sent back this image of the central peaks of Eminescu Crater. Eminescu crater is 125 kilometers (78 miles) in diameter, and was only recently named - in honor of Mihai Eminescu, an accomplished and influential poet who is still considered the national poet of Romania. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)
This NASA radar image shows asteroid 2005 YU55, as the 400m (1,300ft) diameter space rock passed by at 3.6 lunar distances from Earth, (about 860,000 miles, or 1.38 million kilometers), near it's closest approach on November 7, 2011. Scientists will be watching for the return of 2005 YU55, due for close flybys in 2041, and again in 2075.
The International Space Station (top left) flies past the moon, as seen from Houston, Texas, on January 4, 2012. The station was flying in an orbit at 390 km (242 miles) with six astronauts aboard.
On the Moon, the Apollo 15 landing site, imaged from an altitude of 25 km by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter on November 6, 2011. Apollo 15 was the ninth manned mission in the Apollo space program, and the fourth to land on the Moon on July 30, 1971. Commander David Scott and Lunar Module Pilot James Irwin spent three days on the Moon, including lots of time in LRV-1, the first Lunar Rover, which they drove across 17.25 miles (27.76 km) of lunar surface. In this image, the descent stage of Apollo 15 is just right of center, the white spot with a surrounding shadow. Dark tracks to the right lead to the LRV-1, left parked on the moon. The trail of astronaut footprints at center-left surround the ALSEP experiments package. If you look closely at the left edge, you can see rover tracks leading off toward Hadley Rille, some 2km beyond.
The moon disappears behind the Earth, seen distorted through the Earth's atmosphere from the International Space Station, on January 9, 2012.
Nighttime view from the International Space Station shows the Atlantic coast of the United States in this image dated February 6, 2012. Metropolitan areas from the Virginia/Maryland/Washington, D.C., area are visible in the image that spans almost to Rhode Island. Boston is just out of frame at right. Long Island and the New York City area are visible in the lower right quadrant. Philadelphia and Pittsburgh are near the center. Parts of two Russian vehicles parked at the orbital outpost are seen in left foreground.
European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers, Expedition 30 flight engineer, enjoys the view of Earth from the windows in the Cupola of the International Space Station, on December 24, 2011.
Russian support personnel arrive to help meet the Soyuz TMA-02M spacecraft shortly after the capsule landed with International Space Station Expedition 29 Commander Mike Fossum, and Flight Engineers Sergei Volkov and Satoshi Furukawa outside of the town of Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, on November 22, 2011. Fossum, Volkov and Furukawa were returning from more than five months aboard the ISS.
(Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
Russian support personnel work to help get Expedition 29 crew members out of the Soyuz TMA-02M spacecraft shortly after the capsule landed outside of the town of Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, on November 22, 2011.
(Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
A Delta II rocket launches with the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) spacecraft payload from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, on October 28, 2011, outside of Lompoc, California. NPP is the first NASA satellite mission to address the challenge of acquiring a wide range of land, ocean, and atmospheric measurements for Earth system science while simultaneously preparing to address operational requirements for weather forecasting.
(Bill Ingalls/NASA via Getty Images)
An unpiloted ISS Progress resupply vehicle approaches the International Space Station, carrying 2,050 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds oxygen and air, 926 pounds of water and 2,778 pounds of spare parts and experiment hardware for a total of 2.9 tons of food, fuel and equipment for the residents of the space station. Photo taken on January 12, 2012.
A swirling cloud formation and the lights of the Aurora Borealis, seen from the International Space Station, high above the Gulf of Alaska, on February 10, 2012.
Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, Expedition 30 flight engineer, participates in a session of extravehicular activity (EVA) to continue outfitting the International Space Station. During the six-hour, 15-minute spacewalk, Shkaplerov and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko (out of frame), flight engineer, moved the Strela-1 crane from the Pirs Docking Compartment to begin preparing the Pirs for its replacement next year with a new laboratory and docking module. Both spacewalkers wore Russian Orlan spacesuits bearing blue stripes and equipped with NASA helmet cameras.
Star trails captured from the ISS by Astronaut Ron Pettit. A long-exposure photograph of Earth's night side below, showing Airglow in the atmosphere, multiple lightning strikes, and streaks from city lights - as well as the star trails above.
This image provided by NASA shows a "Blue Marble" image of the Earth taken from the The Visible/Infrared Imager Radiometer Suite or VIIRS instrument aboard NASA's most recently launched Earth-observing satellite - Suomi NPP. This composite image uses a number of swaths of the Earth's surface taken on January 4, 2012. The NPP satellite was renamed "Suomi NPP" on January 24, 2012 to honor the late Verner E. Suomi of the University of Wisconsin.
The Comet Lovejoy is visible near Earth's horizon in this nighttime image photographed by NASA astronaut Dan Burbank, Expedition 30 commander, aboard the International Space Station, on December 21, 2011.
(AP Photo/NASA, Dan Burbank)
The surface of Mars, in an enhanced-color image provided by NASA and released Wednesday January 25, 2012. The image shows sand dunes trapped in an impact crater in Noachis Terra. The area covered in the image is about six-tenths of a mile (1 kilometer) across.
Part of the fractured surface of Echus Chasma on Mars, viewed on Christmas Day, 2011 by the THEMIS instrument on board the Mars Odyssey spacecraft, which has been sending imagery home from Mars orbit since February of 2002.
What eight dusty years on Mars will do to a rover. This pair of self-portaits from NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows dust accumulation on the rover's solar panels as the mission approaches its fifth Martian winter. The dust reduces the rover's power supply, and the rover's mobility is limited until the winter is over or wind cleans the panels. The photo on the left side was taken in February of 2005, when Opportunity had only been on the planet for 322 Martian days (sols). The right side was taken in December of 2011, after some 2,800 sols. Total distance driven by Opportunity to date: 34.36 km (21.35 miles)
In the foreground, the high-gain antenna aboard NASA's Rover Opportunity, as the robotic probe has positioned itself on the rim of Endeavour Crater with an approximate 15-degree northerly tilt for favorable solar energy production during the Martian winter. While positioned for the winter, Opportunity is conducting regular radio Doppler tracking measurements to support geo-dynamic investigations of the planet.
This image obtained by the framing camera on NASA's Dawn spacecraft shows the south pole of the giant asteroid Vesta. The image was recorded with the framing camera aboard NASA's Dawn spacecraft from a distance of about 2,700 km (1,700 mi). (NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA)
An image of the giant asteroid Vesta, obtained by NASA's Dawn spacecraft as it was spiraling down from its high altitude mapping orbit to low altitude mapping orbit, on November 27, 2011. NASA announced December 12 that the spacecraft successfully maneuvered into its closest orbit around the giant asteroid Vesta, beginning a new phase of science observations. The spacecraft is now circling Vesta at an altitude averaging about 210 km (130 mi).
An new mosaic from old data -- images of Jupiter taken by NASA's Voyager mission in 1979, processed recently by Björn Jónsson. The image highlights Jupiter's "Great Red Spot."
Saturn's moon Mimas appears behind its larger neighbor moon Dione, on December 12, 2011, as seen by NASA's Cassini orbiter.
Saturn's tiny moon Hyperion, seen by NASA's Cassini orbiter on August 25, 2011.
Rhea passes in front of the much larger haze-shrouded moon Titan, both in orbit around Saturn.
Cassini's view of the swirling surface clouds of Saturn on August 01, 2011.
Crescent shape of Dione, orbiting Saturn, on December 12, 2011.
Dione, crossing just in front of Saturn and a small visible part of its rings, on December 12, 2011.
Saturn's fourth-largest moon, Dione, can be seen through the haze of the planet's largest moon, Titan, in this color view of the two posing before the planet and its rings from NASA's Cassini spacecraft.
(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)