Astonishing technological advancements in recent decades have allowed NASA to send an increasing number of spacecraft to far-off places, enabling earthlings to explore everything from planets and stars to entire galaxies and even black holes. Having the International Space Station orbiting our own planet also allows for science research in unique conditions, conducted by the first generation of humans to live and work in space.
To celebrate yet another extraordinary year in space exploration, we’ve picked out some of the most striking images released by NASA in the last 12 months. Enjoy!
This is the gorgeous spiral galaxy NGC 691 located in the constellation of Aries some 120 million light-years from Earth, captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. NGC 691 was discovered by astronomer William Herschel in 1786 and is calculated to be 130,000 light-years across.
Aurora over the southern skies
A beautiful aurora over Earth, captured from the International Space Station (ISS) as it orbited 274 miles above the southern Indian Ocean between Australia and Antarctica.
This was the year that NASA’s Perseverance rover arrived in spectacular fashion on Mars. Soon after touching down, Perseverance set to work exploring the red planet, while also finding some time to snap a few selfies. The photo you see here was created using 62 separate shots that enabled the removal of the selfie stick (or robotic arm to be more accurate). Here’s how the image was created.
The stunning Flame Nebula, which also goes by the less dramatic name NGC 2024, is located in the constellation Orion around 1,400 light-years from Earth. The image, captured by Hubble, features the dark, dusty heart of the nebula where a star cluster resides, though it’s mostly hidden from view.
International Space Station
Captured by an astronaut looking out from SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft during a rare fly-around of the orbiting outpost, the ISS stands out dramatically against the inky blackness of space.
This incredible image shows two large rotating storms on Jupiter, captured by the JunoCam on NASA’s Juno spacecraft during one of its many passes.
NASA notes the bright “pop-up” clouds situated above the lower storm. The clouds may seem small, but they’re actually huge, and often around 30 miles (48 km) across.
Cosmic explosion aftermath
Another fabulous Hubble capture, this image features cosmic ribbons of gas left behind by a titanic stellar explosion known as a supernova. The destructive event occurred inside a part of the Large Magellanic Cloud about 158,000 light-years from Earth.
Tropical storm Wanda
Closer to home again, here we see Tropical Storm Wanda captured from the space station’s Cupola module about 260 miles above Earth in early November. In the foreground, you can see one of two cymbal-shaped UltraFlex solar arrays — part of Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus spacecraft.
Mars’ frosty sand dunes
Frost on Mars? Yes, it’s a thing, as evidenced by this remarkable image captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter from an altitude of around 196 miles (315 km). The frost is on a field of sand dunes inside a crater in the high latitudes of the northern plains of the red planet.
Jupiter’s Great Red Spot
This image, captured by Juno from 8,600 miles (13,840 km) above Jupiter’s cloud tops, gives us a wonderful look at one of the planet’s best-known features — the Great Red Spot.
NASA data reveals that the giant vortex extends much deeper into Jupiter’s atmosphere than first thought, to about 300 miles (500 km) below the cloud tops.
“The surprising discovery demonstrates that the Great Red Spot and other vortices descend below the depth where sunlight warms the atmosphere, providing new clues about the inner workings of the planet’s beautiful but violent atmosphere.”
The original image was taken in 2017 but citizen scientist Andrea Luck recently processed it from raw JunoCam data to create the rendition shown here.
SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon
Another stunner from the space station, this one showing a cool view of SpaceX’s Cargo Dragon, with Earth below, as the spacecraft approaches the ISS with its nose cone raised in preparation for docking.
This extraordinary Hubble image of a small portion of the Veil Nebula shows off its delicate threads and filaments of ionized gas. The Veil Nebula lies around 2,100 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Cygnus (also known as the Swan and Northern Cross).
As per NASA: “The Veil Nebula is the visible portion of the nearby Cygnus Loop, a supernova remnant formed roughly 10,000 years ago by the death of a massive star. That star — which was 20 times the mass of the sun — lived fast and died young, ending its life in a cataclysmic release of energy.”
Captured by Hubble, the image (artificially colored by astronomers to enhance details for analysis) shows the breakup of the solid nucleus of Comet Atlas, with analysis of this and another similar image identifying as many as 30 separate fragments. The comet was approximately 91 million miles from Earth when Hubble recorded its dramatic appearance. Astronomers believe it may be from a larger comet that swung by the sun 5,000 years ago.
French astronaut Thomas Pesquet is seen here attached to an articulating portable foot restraint located at the end of the Canadarm2 robotic arm during a spacewalk to install new roll-out solar arrays on the ISS in work to upgrade the facility’s power supply.
Ganymede — a satellite of Jupiter and the largest moon in our solar system — in an image captured by Juno during a flyby of the icy moon. At its closest approach, the spacecraft was within 645 miles (1,038 km) of its surface, “closer to Jupiter’s largest moon than any other spacecraft has come in more than two decades,” NASA said.
Finally, here we see CW Leonis, a dying star engulfed by orange-red “cobwebs” that are in fact dusty clouds of sooty carbon.
Located 400 light-years from Earth, CW Leonis is our closest carbon star, providing scientists with their best chance to study a celestial body of this nature.
It won’t have escaped your notice that Hubble has been doing some extraordinary work since its deployment more than 30 years ago, and while it will continue to explore the universe for a while yet, it’s soon to be joined by the much more powerful James Webb Space Telescope that astronomers believe will herald a new era of space discoveries.
- James Webb Space Telescope reaches destination, so now what?
- NASA delays launch of its first space tourism mission to ISS
- How to watch NASA’s update on James Webb’s arrival at L2
- Hubble captures a beautiful galaxy with a nautical theme
- Mars lander InSight is awake from safe mode after dust storm