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, and two operational rovers on Mars. 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 a great shot of comet Pan-STARRS between the Earth and Sun, some very sharp images from Mars rover Curiosity, a preview image of Comet ISON, potentially the "comet of the century", when it approaches in November, intriguing glimpses of Saturn and its moons, and, of course, lovely images of our home, planet Earth.
Dozens of coronal loops gyrate above several active regions of the sun, as they were rotating into view on October 17, 2012. When viewed in extreme ultraviolet light, the dancing loops of competing and connecting magnetic field lines become visible.
A prominence composed of solar plasma just behind the edge of the Sun, rose up and swirled around for many hours, then burst away into space over about a one-day period on November 19, 2012. Unseen magnetic fields, mostly above this area, are the driving forces behind the event. Events like this are fairly common, but when viewed in profile, it is easier to see the dynamics of the plasma more clearly.
A mosaic of two images that were acquired as part of the Mercury Dual Imaging System (MDIS) limb imaging campaign on NASA's MESSENGER orbiter at Mercury. Once per week, MDIS captures images of Mercury's limb, with an emphasis on imaging the southern hemisphere limb. These limb images provide information about Mercury's shape and complement measurements of topography made by the Mercury Laser Altimeter of Mercury's northern hemisphere. Date acquired: October 23, 2012. (NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington)
Comet Pan-STARRS, seen from the STEREO Behind spacecraft, on March 15, 2013. At right is the Earth, at left, a coronal mass ejection (CME) flying outward from the Sun. Following in Earth's orbit, the spacecraft is nearly opposite the Sun and looks back toward the comet and Earth, with the Sun just off the left side of the frame. The comet is in the foreground of this image. Objects that are too bright create the sharp vertical lines. The image reveals complex feather-like structures in Comet Pan-STARRS caused by dust particles. The ion tail is the thin one that's pointing almost radially away from the Sun.
Expedition 33 Flight Engineer Akihiko Hoshide takes a picture of his reflective helmet visor while participating in a 6-hour, 38-minute spacewalk outside the International Space Station, on November 1, 2012. Various parts of the space station and much of the blue and white Earth below are mirrored in his visor. During the spacewalk, Expedition 33 Commander Sunita Williams and Hoshide ventured outside the orbital outpost to perform work and to support ground-based troubleshooting of an ammonia leak.
An astronaut photograph showing parts of several cities in the Phoenix metro area, including Glendale and Peoria. While the major street grid is oriented north-south, the northwest-southeast oriented Grand Avenue cuts across it at image center. Photographed from the International Space Station on March 16, 2013.
Several tiny satellites are featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 33 crew member on the International Space Station, on October 4, 2012. The satellites were released outside the Kibo laboratory using a Small Satellite Orbital Deployer attached to the Japanese module's robotic arm on October 4, 2012. Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency astronaut Aki Hoshide set up the satellite deployment gear inside the lab and placed it in the Kibo airlock. The Japanese robotic arm then grappled the deployment system and its satellites from the airlock for deployment.
When NASA's Aqua satellite passed over northern Quebec on November 25, 2012, winter snow and ice had transformed the pockmarked landscape of Ungava Peninsula into a seemingly endless expanse of white. However, two near-perfect circles remained stubbornly free of ice. Those ice-free areas are Pingualuit and Couture craters. Both craters were formed millions of years ago by meteorites striking the Earth's surface, and today they hold deep lakes. Couture is approximately 8 km (5 mi) wide and has a water depth of 150 m (490 ft). Pingualuit's lake is about 3 km (2 mi) across and has a depth of 246 m (807 ft). (NASA/Jeff Schmaltz, LANCE MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC)
Layers of atmosphere along Earth's limb and the exhaust trails from a Soyuz rocket that lifted off from Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on October 23, 2012. At the time, the ISS was passing over northeastern China, and the photographer was looking back to the west. The plumes bent and curled in different directions, most likely due to winds blowing in different directions as the spacecraft made its way both horizontally across the sky and vertically through several atmospheric layers. The Soyuz passed through the troposphere, the stratosphere, the mesosphere, and into the thermosphere. Rocket trails can last for minutes to hours and reside high enough in the atmosphere that they will often remain lit well after the Sun is below the horizon.
A meteor streaked through the sky above Chelyabinsk, Russia, on February 15, 2013, captured in this image by resident M. Ahmetvaleev. The small asteroid was about 56 to 66 feet (17 to 20 meters) wide, and triggered multiple shockwaves that damaged buildings across a wide area and caused hundreds of injuries.
The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket launches from Pad-0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at the NASA Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, on April 21, 2013. The test launch marked the first flight of Antares and the first rocket launch from Pad-0A. The Antares rocket delivered the equivalent mass of a spacecraft, a so-called mass simulated payload, into Earth's orbit.
On Mars, a self-portrait of NASA's rover Curiosity, combining dozens of exposures taken by the rover's Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) during the 177th Martian day, or sol, is seen in this February 3, 2013 image. The rover is positioned at a patch of flat outcrop called "John Klein," which was selected as the site for the first rock-drilling activities by Curiosity.
Curiosity rover on Mars, seen from above by the HiRise camera on board NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This image shows the entire distance traveled from the landing site (dark smudge at left) to its location as of January 2,2013 (the rover is bright feature at right). The tracks are not seen where the rover has recently driven over the lighter-toned surface.
(NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)
This mosaic of images from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Mars rover Curiosity shows Mount Sharp in a white-balanced color adjustment that makes the sky look overly blue but shows the terrain as if under Earth-like lighting. Mount Sharp, also called Aeolis Mons, is a layered mound in the center of Mars' Gale Crater, rising more than 3 miles (5 kilometers) above the crater floor, where Curiosity has been working since the rover's landing in August 2012. Lower slopes of Mount Sharp are the major destination for the mission, though the rover will first spend many more weeks around a location called "Yellowknife Bay," where it has found evidence of a past environment favorable for microbial life. Images gathered on September 20, 2012.
This sequence of seven images from the HiRise camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows wind-caused changes in the parachute of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory spacecraft as the chute lay on the Martian ground during months after its use in safe landing of the Curiosity rover. The parachute canopy is the bright shape in the lower half of each image. Suspension lines still attach it to the spacecraft's back shell, which is the bright shape in the upper half of each image. The length of the parachute, including the lines, is about 165 feet (50 meters).
(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)
A Martian eclipse from the past. The larger of the two moons of Mars, Phobos, transits (passes in front of) the sun in this image from the panoramic camera (Pancam) on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity taken on the rover's 2,415th Martian day, or sol November 9, 2010.
A radar data image of asteroid Toutatis, generated with data collected using NASA's 230-foot-wide (70-meter) Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California, on December 12, 2012. On December 12, the day of its closest approach to Earth, Toutatis was about 18 lunar distances, 4.3 million miles (6.9 million km) from Earth. The radar data images indicate that it is an elongated, irregularly shaped object with ridges and perhaps craters. Along with shape detail, scientists are also seeing some interesting bright glints that could be surface boulders. The asteroid rotates about its long axis every 5.4 days and precesses (changes the orientation of its rotational axis) like a wobbling, badly thrown football, every 7.4 days.
Comet ISON photographed by the Hubble telescope on April 10, 2013, when the comet was slightly closer than Jupiter's orbit at a distance of 386 million miles from the Sun (394 million miles from Earth). Comet ISON is potentially the "comet of the century" because around the time the comet makes its closest approach to the Sun, on November 28, it may briefly become brighter than the full Moon according to NASA.
(Reuters/NASA Hubble telescope)
Jupiter has been suffering more impacts over the last four years than ever previously observed, including this meteoroid impact on September 10, 2012. The left-hand image was taken from a red-filtered video by amateur astronomer George Hall of Dallas, Texas, on September 10 and processed by Ricardo Hueso (University of the Basque Country, Bilbao, Spain). The right-hand image is an infrared image from NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, taken on September 11. Scientists compare the visible-light images to the infrared images to learn about the fireball's disruption of the Jovian atmosphere. In this case, the infrared view reveals no long-term disturbance. Scientists think the fireball was caused by an object less than 45 feet (15 meters) in diameter. (NASA/IRTF/JPL-Caltech/G. Hall/University of the Basque Country)
Dawn on Saturn is greeted across the vastness of interplanetary space by the morning star, Venus, in this image from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Venus appears just off the edge of the planet, in the upper part of the image, directly above the white streak of Saturn's G ring. Lower down, Saturn's E ring makes an appearance, looking blue thanks to the scattering properties of the dust that comprises the ring. A bright spot near the E ring is a distant star.
(NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Roiling storm clouds and a swirling vortex at the center of Saturn's famed north polar hexagon, in a close-up image from NASA's Cassini mission, on November 27, 2012. The camera was pointing toward Saturn from approximately 224,618 miles (361,488 kilometers) away.
(Reuters/NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
NASA's Cassini spacecraft has delivered this view of Saturn, taken while the spacecraft was in Saturn's shadow, on December 18, 2012. The cameras were turned toward Saturn and the sun so that the planet and rings were backlit. This special, very-high-phase viewing geometry lets scientists study ring and atmosphere phenomena not easily seen at a lower phase.