Just think of all those millennia our human ancestors spent looking up at the sky, spinning stories about the heavens. Little did they know that what’s actually going on up there is more magnificent than even the most audacious tales of mythical heroes and fiery chariots streaking across the sky.
In more modern times, NASA has opened the doors of exploration with telescopes and probes that give us a window onto the wonders of space. Here’s a look back at the 10 best NASA images of 2012.
1 – Venus transits the sun
As the planets careen around the sun, there is occasionally a fortuitous alignment. In June of 2012 the planet Venus transited the sun, which means it passed in front of Sol from Earth’s perspective. As the planet began its transit, the NASA/JAXA Hinode spacecraft was on hand to take some pictures. This amazing image [featured at the top] shows the sphere of Venus passing into the sun’s corona, silhouetted by the boiling backdrop of glowing plasma.
Enjoy it — Venus won’t transit the sun again until 2117!
2 – Saturn smiles for Cassini
The Cassini-Huygens probe was launched in October of 1997 and arrived at Saturn in 2004. It has taken some awe-inspiring images since then, but the new Saturn mosaic just released in mid-December takes things to a whole new level. The mosaic was taken with Saturn backlit by the sun — something that doesn’t happen very often from the craft’s perspective. Cassini was also closer, allowing it to capture this breathtaking false-color shot with incredible ring detail.
3 – Incredible solar eruption
Our sun sure looks placid and life-sustaining up there in the sky, but it’s actually a torrent of super-hot plasma interwoven with magnetic fields. On August 31, 2012 Sol reminded us of that.
NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory was watching that day when the magnetic fields at the sun’s surface whipped up a massive loop of plasma during a solar storm. The arch of plasma reached a maximum distance from the surface of 300,000 kilometers, and it shot out at 1,400 kilometers per second. Millions of tons of sun-stuff erupted from the star, and we were there to see it.
4 – New Blue Marble
NASA spent the first weeks of 2012 running the new Suomi NPP Earth observation satellite through its paces. And what better way than to update that iconic Blue Marble image from a decade ago? The new Blue Marble shows Earth in staggering, beautiful detail. This image is a mosaic created from many shots of the planet taken by Suomi NPP on January 4, 2012.
5 – Curiosity self-shot
The landing of the Curiosity rover was amazing for many reasons, but it’s been doing some cool science ever since the excitement died down. Curiosity is equipped with a fairly low-resolution digital imaging sensor, but it can still take a self-pic fit for any MySpace profile. By extending its arm and snapping multiple photos, a much larger image can be assembled, and the arm itself can be taken out of the composite. The same stitching technique is used to capture high-resolution images of things other than the rover.
Who’d have thought humanity would get a robot on Mars capable of taking selfies?
6 – Hercules A black hole
The galaxy Hercules A resides a little over 2 billion light years away from our own Milky Way. At first glance, Hercules A is a standard elliptical galaxy, but at its center is a black hole so massive that it makes our galaxy look like a lightweight — Hercules A appears to have a total mass of about 1,000 times that of the Milky Way.
A collaboration between NASA’s Hubble telescope and the Karl G. Jansky Very Large Array reveals the scale of this black hole. Radio wave imaging reveals two massive jets of plasma blasting out from the black hole that are over 1 million light years long from tip to tip. These features, seen in purple above, are likely caused by matter colliding and heating up as it is pulled into the black hole.
7 – Mars dust devil
What’s that? Dust? How is that impressive? Well, that’s not just any wisp of dust. That is a dust devil on Mars. Also, it’s over 12 miles tall.
This monster vortex materialized on March 14, 2012 and was spotted by the HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The red planet might be a little chilly, but it’s far from dead. Just think — a dust devil like we see here on Earth, but on a different planet.
8 – Eye of Saturn
Taking a trip back to Saturn and Cassini, we see this incredible image of the Eye of Saturn. The rings get all the attention, but this is another cool feature: at Saturn’s north pole is hexagonal vortex in the thick atmosphere. This structure is over 25,000 kilometers across, and at the center is a swirling circular storm that you see pictured here. The Eye of Saturn is by itself some 2,000 kilometers across, but has never been imaged in such high detail before. You can actually see massive storm clouds rising out of the atmosphere.
9 – NASA HiRISE spies curiosity
As the Curiosity rover was landing on Mars to take self portraits and do science, something really cool happened. From millions of miles away, NASA took a picture of Curiosity. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was on the scene with its HiRISE camera, and when Curiosity deployed its parachute, NASA knew where to look. A robot orbiting another planet was used to take a picture of another robot landing on that planet. Just think about how amazing it is that this image even exists.
10 – New Hubble Deep Field
Early in Hubble’s run, it was used to produce the so-called Deep Field image. This was a frame so chock-full of galaxies it would make your head spin. Now NASA has generated a new version of this image called the the Hubble Extreme Deep Field, which was created from 2000 snapshots of a seemingly empty patch of sky over the course of 23 days. Every swirl, every smudge, every pixel, and every point of light in this image is an entire galaxy. Think about that. Billions and billions of stars compressed to a single pixel in an image taken by highly-evolved apes on an unremarkable blue planet on the outer rim of a run-of-the-mill galaxy.
It all makes the universe seem like an impossibly big place. But in 2012, we learned a little more about what’s out there. Let’s hope we keep on learning in 2013.