The last few weeks have seen a spate of amazing images – from the outer edges of the solar system to as nearby as Alaska. Each image, while being visually amazing, represents incredible scientific research and potential discovery.
So, here are a pick of four incredible images from the past couple of months: a tour of the surfaces and skies of Mars, Earth, Saturn and the Milky Way itself.
The sheer level of detail visible in this photo of the surface of the red planet is impressive. However, the focus of the image isn’t the crater, but the small shiny dot visible in the bottom left of the frame – the lander for NASA’s Spirit rover. Spirit first trundled off this landing equipment and touched Martian soil in 2004, working for approximately 6 years before it came to a halt in 2010. This image was taken by the HiRISE camera onboard NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in January this year.
On February 19th of this year, the intimidatingly-named ‘Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Coupling in the Alfvén resonator’ (MICA) mission, funded by NASA, launched a rocket. Laden with instruments to investigate the physical processes behind the northern lights, the rocket streaked into a sky lit up by the green haze of the aurorae themselves. A constant stream of charged solar particles impacts on Earth’s upper atmosphere to cause these lights, and the MICA rocket aims to investigate the electric and magnetic fields present some 200 miles above Earth.
This image shows Saturn and three of its moons: Titan, Pandora and Prometheus. It is a ‘Where’s Wally’ style photo – Pandora is only identifiable by the shadow it casts on the gas giant itself! Titan is Saturn’s largest moon at 5150km across and can be seen in the top right of the image. Prometheus can be seen as a tiny white dot just above Saturn’s rings above Titan, and Pandora, tiny at 100km across, casts a shadow on Saturn itself about a third of the way up the image, and halfway across. The thin line above Pandora’s shadow is the shadow cast by Saturn’s rings themselves, highlighting just how thin the rings are despite their considerable reflectivity.
THE MILKY WAY
This all-sky image shows how Carbon Monoxide (CO) is distributed in molecular clouds across the sky. The image is taken by the Planck instrument, whose main goal is to observe the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). The CMB is the remnant of radiation left over from the Big Bang, and scientists believe that through studying this we can discover more about the universe’s composition and origin. This image is the first CO all-sky map ever compiled.