Space Shuttle Spied En Route to Hubble
Using a telescope with a special solar filter, photographer Thierry Legault captured the tiny silhouette of the space shuttle Atlantis crossing in front of the sun in May.
The tightly cropped shot shows Atlantis in orbit--a day before the shuttle latched on to the Hubble Space Telescope so that astronauts could perform a series of spacewalks to repair and upgrade the iconic instrument.
Shock Wave Spits Out High-Speed Particles
Meet the Large Hadron Collider's role model: A shock wave that acts as a superefficient particle accelerator.
In June scientists with the Chandra X-ray Observatory released this picture of a shock wave plowing through the supernova remnant RCW 86, seen above in both x-ray and visible light. Although the shock wave is moving rapidly, its energy is not heating the surrounding gas as much as it should, scientists say. The new image shows that the extra energy is instead powering up particles and firing them out into space at nearly the speed of light.
Saharan "Land of Terror" Revealed
White salt flats seem to melt over dark sandstone hills in the Tanezrouft Basin, as seen in a picture released in October by the European Space Agency. In partnership with the ESA, Japan's Advanced Land Observing Satellite captured this image in June with an instrument that charts land cover and vegetation in visible and near-infrared light.
The Tanezrouft Basin, in south-central Algeria, is one of the most desolate parts of the Sahara, and is sometimes called the land of terror. The bouquet of yellow seen in the upper right is Erg Mehedjibat, a small cluster of star-shaped sand dunes that grow upward rather than side to side.
Geminid Meteor Pierces the Night
Like a silver spear cast from the heavens, the bright streak of a Geminid meteor pierces the night sky over California's Mojave Desert during the annual meteor shower's December 2009 peak.
Geminids are slower than other shooting stars and are known to make beautiful long arcs across the sky. This could be because they're born of debris from a dormant comet and so are made mostly of hard, sun-baked rock that takes longer to burn up in Earth's atmosphere, experts suggest.
Hubble Catches Space "Butterfly"
A dying star on the verge of exploding creates a cosmic "butterfly" in a picture from the Wide Field Camera 3--a new camera installed in May during the Hubble Space Telescope's final servicing mission. The Hubble team released some of the first pictures taken by the upgraded telescope in September.
Known as a planetary nebula, this structure lies roughly 3,800 light-years away. Optical filters in the space telescope allowed astronomers to precisely determine the nebula's chemical makeup, temperature, and density, and to trace the stages of the star's demise.
The central star, now obscured by a dense band of dust, was once five times the mass of the sun. Over the past two thousand years the star has expelled most of its outer gas envelope to create the ghostly "wings," which together span about two light-years.
Saturn Moon Seen in the Raw
The tiny moon Rhea hangs like a pearl in front of Saturn's rings, as seen in a "raw" picture from the orbiting Cassini spacecraft. The image has been rotated, but otherwise the scene appears just as the orbiter saw things in early November.
The spacecraft's namesake, Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini, discovered Rhea in 1672. In 2008 astronomers had announced that Rhea may be the first known moon with its own system of faint rings.
Hubble Makes a Holiday "Wreath"
Just in time for the December holidays, astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope released their version of a colorful wreath: a new picture of the young stellar cluster R136. The festive grouping sits in a turbulent star-birth region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite of our Milky Way galaxy.
In the image, gassy garlands of red (hydrogen) and green (oxygen) surround icy blue "diamonds," which are actually some of the most massive stars known--several are more than a hundred times the mass of our sun.
Mars's "Labyrinth of the Night" Illuminated
Dunes ripple across Mars's Noctis Labyrinthus--a sprawling region of flatlands cut by canyons, troughs, and pits--in an August picture taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and released in October.
The snapshot, taken by the orbiter's HiRISE camera, shows light-colored layers of iron-bearing sulfates and clay minerals exposed near the dune field, which is close to the Martian equator.
Green Comet Makes Its Debut
Comet Lulin is framed by red-lit trees in Virginia's Shenandoah National Park in a picture taken February 23. The green, "two tailed" comet made its closest approach to Earth in February, swinging past at about 38 million miles (61 million kilometers). And considering the comet's nearly parabolic orbit, experts said, that first visit may have been its last.
Because of its angle of approach, Lulin appeared to have a second anti-tail pointing toward the sun as it neared Earth. Vaporizing ices from the comet included cyanogen and diatomic carbon, both gases that glow green in sunlight out in the vacuum of space.
NASA Rocket Gets Cloud Cover
A cone of moisture surrounds part of NASA's Ares I-X rocket during its suborbital test flight over Florida's Kennedy Space Center in October.
Such "sonic boom clouds" can occur when aircraft fly fast enough to cool the air around them, causing moisture in the air to condense. Shortly after launch, the Ares I-X rocket was traveling at more than four times the speed of sound.
The rocket's six-minute, U.S. $450-million flight was designed to help NASA refine its plans for Ares I, the next-generation craft that--combined with the Orion crew capsule--is slated to replace the aging space shuttle as the U.S.'s primary means of ferrying humans and cargo into space.