AIR SPACE

SpaceShots: The Week's Best Photos of Our Universe

The best space images of the week, putting you in touch with the most distant parts of the heavens.

A Tiny Solar Observer

Jan. 19: Proba-2 is among the smallest spacecraft ever launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) — it's less than a cubic meter — but it prepares technologies for future ESA missions, as well as giving scientists a new view of the Sun. Proba-2 is flight-testing a total of 17 technology demonstrators for future missions. 

ESA/Pierre Carril

Colorful Streaks on Mars

Jan 20: The central pit of an impact crater in the ancient highlands on Mars. The central uplifts of large impact craters often collapse to form pits on the planet, but they are still structural uplifts and often expose deep bedrock with diverse rock types which have a variety of colors. In this enhanced color image, we see colorful streaks, where the bedrock is eroding, moving downhill a bit, then getting swept by the wind.

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Cats Paw Nebula

Jan. 20: The Cat's Paw Nebula is a vast region of star formation. This new portrait of it combines images taken through blue, green and red filters, as well as a special filter designed to let through the light of glowing hydrogen. The Cat's Paw lies about 5,500 light-years from Earth in the constellation of Scorpius. The whole gas cloud is about 50 light-years across. 

ESO

Chi Cygni, a Dying Star

Jan. 19: A preview of what's in store for our sun is in view across the galaxy, as a similar star balloons in its dying throes. This sun twin, called Chi Cygni, lies about 550 light-years away from Earth. As it nears the end of its life, it has bloated in size and begun to pulse in and out like a giant beating heart. These are the telltale signs of a star running out of fuel after billions of years shining bright. 

ESO/L. Calçada

The ExoMars Orbiter

Jan. 18: ESA and NASA are inviting scientists from across the world to propose instruments for their joint Mars mission, the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter. Scheduled for launch in 2016, the spacecraft will focus on understanding the rarest constituents of Mars's atmosphere, including the mysterious methane that could signal life on the planet. Here, an artist's impression of the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter

ESA

The World's Largest Telescope

Jan. 18: An architectural concept drawing of ESO's planned European Extremely Large Telescope shows the world's largest planned optical telescope gazing heavenwards. Slated to begin operations in 2018, it will tackle the biggest scientific challenges of our time. A chief goal will be to track down Earth-like planets around other stars in the "habitable zones" where life could exist — one of the Holy Grails of modern observational astronomy. 

Swinburne Astronomy Productions/ESO

Haiti from Space

Jan. 14: A satellite map over the Port-au-Prince area of Haiti acquired on 13 January 2010, following a 7.0 magnitude earthquake and several aftershocks that hit the Caribbean nation on 12 January. The death toll from the devastating earthquake is estimated at 200,000, according to Haitian government figures relayed by the European Commission.

SERTIT - CNES - International Charter

Stunning Shots of Tycho Crater

Jan 14: New photographs taken by a satellite in orbit around the moon have revealed one of its most prominent craters in a whole new light. Tycho Crater, though average in size, is special because it appears to have formed relatively recently. The vast crater still looks pristine in the new images, while older craters are slowly covered by newer impacts as their features are obscured over the years. Like all the moon's craters, Tycho is thought to have formed when a space rock slammed into the surface. 

NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

CryoSat in Space

Jan 13: The Earth Explorer CryoSat mission is dedicated to precise monitoring of the changes in the thickness of marine ice floating in the polar oceans and variations in the thickness of the vast ice sheets that overlay Greenland and Antarctica. With much of Europe still in the grip of one of the coldest winters for some years, the icy conditions aptly set the stage for this first leg of CryoSat-2's journey. Here, an artist's rendering of the satellite in space. 

ESA/AOES Medialab

A Satellite Preps for Launch

Jan. 13: CryoSat-2 arrives safely at Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan on 13 January. In what might seem rather appropriate weather conditions, the CryoSat-2 Earth Explorer satellite has completed its journey to the Baikonur launch site in Kazakhstan, where it will be prepared for launch on 25 February.

ESA/W.Simpson

Zodiacal Light Over Chile

Jan. 11: Zodiacal light, a triangular glow seen best in night skies free of overpowering moonlight and light pollution, is captured at La Silla Observatory in Chile after the Sun had set. A sea of clouds has settled in the valley below La Silla, which sits at an altitude of 1.5 miles, with lesser peaks and ridges poking through the mist. 

The zodiacal light is sunlight reflected by dust particles between the Sun and Earth, and is best seen close to sunrise or sunset. As its name implies, this celestial glow appears in the ring of constellations known as the zodiac. These are found along the ecliptic, which is the eastward apparent "path" that the Sun traces across Earth’s sky.

ESO/Y. Beletsky

Sky-Mapping WISE Takes First Shots

Jan. 6: A sea of stars takes center stage in the very first photo released from NASA's newest space telescope built to map the entire sky. This infrared snapshot of a region in the constellation Carina near the Milky Way was taken shortly after NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) ejected its cover.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

The Martian Headwaters

Jan. 6: One of the most well-known valley networks on Mars is this, the Warrego Valles. Located along the southern boundary of the Thaumasia Plateau in the southern highlands, images of these valley systems are often used in textbooks or online as evidence for a more Earth-like climate on early Mars.

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Cloud of Dust on Dunes

Jan. 6: There is a vast region of sand dunes at high northern latitudes on Mars. In the winter, a layer of carbon dioxide ice covers the dunes, and in the spring as the sun warms the ice it evaporates. This is a very active process, and sand dislodged from the crests of the dunes cascades down, forming dark streaks. 

The color of the ice surrounding adjacent streaks of material suggests that dust has settled on the ice at the bottom after similar events. Also discernible in this subimage are polygonal cracks in the ice on the dunes (the cracks disappear when the ice is gone).

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Endeavour at the Pad

Jan. 06: Space shuttle Endeavour atop the mobile launcher platform is secured on Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Commander George Zamka will lead the STS-130 mission to the International Space Station aboard space shuttle Endeavour, to deliver a third connecting module, the Tranquility node, to the station in addition to the seven-windowed Cupola module, which will be used as a control room for robotics. The mission will feature three spacewalks.

NASA/Amanda Diller

Mystery of the Fading Star

Jan. 5: NASA's Spitzer Space telescope has solved a centuries-old riddle. Every 27 years, a bright star called Epsilon Aurigae fades over period of two years, then brightens back up again. The nature of both the bright star and the companion object that periodically eclipses (known to be surrounded by a dusty disk, as illustrated in this artist's concept) it have remained unclear. 

Data from Spitzer turned out to be the missing puzzle piece. Spitzer's infrared vision revealed the size of the dusty disk that swirls around the companion object. When astronomers plugged this information into a model of the system, they were able to rule out the theory that the main bright star is a supergiant. Instead, it is a bright star with a lot less mass. The new model also holds that the companion object is a so-called "B star" circled by a dusty disk.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Dusty, Little Galaxy

Jan. 5: The infrared portrait of the Small Magellanic Cloud, taken by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, reveals the stars and dust in this galaxy as never seen before. The Small Magellanic Cloud is a nearby satellite galaxy to our Milky Way galaxy, approximately 200,000 light-years away. 

The image shows the main body of the Small Magellanic Cloud, which is comprised of the "bar" and "wing" on the left and the "tail" extending to the right. The bar contains both old stars (in blue) and young stars lighting up their natal dust (green/red). The wing mainly contains young stars, the tail only gas, dust and newly formed stars. Spitzer data has confirmed that the tail region was recently torn off the main body of the galaxy. 

NASA/JPL-Caltech/STScI

Sagittarius A*: Peering Into The Heart of Darkness

Jan 05: The supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way is known as Sagittarius A* (or Sgr A*, for short). Sgr A* is relatively quiet compared to other black holes of similar size, and a new model based on this photograph from Chandra may explain it. 

This model considers the flow of energy between two regions: an inner region close to the so-called event horizon and an outer region that includes the black hole's fuel source. Collisions between particles in the hot inner region transfer energy to particles in the cooler outer region via a process called conduction. This, in turn, provides additional outward pressure that makes nearly all of the gas in the outer region flow away from the black hole. The model appears to explain well the extended shape of hot gas detected around Sgr A*.

NASA/CXC/MIT/F.K. Baganoff et al

Massive Black Hole, Stellar Destruction

Jan 04: Evidence from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Magellan telescopes suggest a star has been torn apart by an intermediate-mass black hole in a globular cluster. 

In this image, X-rays from Chandra are shown in blue and are overlaid on an optical image from the Hubble Space Telescope. The Chandra observations show that this object is a so-called ultraluminous X-ray source (ULX). An unusual class of objects, ULXs emit more X-rays than any known stellar X-ray source, but less than the bright X-ray sources associated with supermassive black holes in the centers of galaxies. Their exact nature has remained a mystery, but one suggestion is that some ULXs are black holes with masses between about a hundred and a thousand times that of the Sun.

X-ray: NASA/CXC/UA/J. Irwin et al; Optical: NASA/STScI

Alma's Antennas

Jan. 4: At the European Southern Observatory, three ALMA antennas linked together as an interferometer for the first time, on the 5,000-meter altitude plateau of Chajnantor. Having three antennas observing in unison makes it possible to correct errors that arise when only two antennas are used, thus paving the way for precise images of the cool Universe at unprecedented resolution.

ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

Perfect Crescent Mars

Jan. 2: The European Space Agency's Visual Monitoring Camera (VMC) is mounted on Mars Express, ESA's deep-space probe now orbiting the Red Planet. It originally provided simple, low-tech photos of the Beagle lander separation, and is now back in action as the 'Mars Webcam'. It's not a scientific instrument, but it does provide fantastic images of Mars - including crescent views of the planet not obtainable from Earth.

ESA

A Proton Rocket Launches

Dec. 28: A new high-definition television broadcasting satellite was deployed by a Proton rocket, bolstering DirecTV's programming lineup for customers in the United States. The DirecTV 12 satellite was bolted atop the 191-foot-tall booster for liftoff from pad 39 at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. 

The Proton's three core stages heaved the satellite and Breeze M propulsion module on a ballistic trajectory less than 10 minutes after launch. The Breeze M's main engine ignited 2 minutes later to put the spacecraft in a stable parking orbit, according to International Launch Services, the U.S.-based launch provider.

Roscosmos (Federal Space Agency)

Clouds and Sunlight on Italy's Boot

Dec. 30: This astronaut photograph shows the Calabria region of southern Italy — the toe of Italy's "boot" — outlined by the Ionian and Tyrrhenian Seas to the southeast and northwest, respectively. The water appears almost mirror-like due to sunglint. This phenomenon is caused by sunlight reflecting off the water surface directly back towards the observer aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS was located over northwestern Romania, to the northeast of Calabria, when this image was taken.

NASA

Stately Saturn

Dec. 29: Saturn, stately and resplendent in this natural color view, dwarfs its icy moon Rhea. Rhea (949 miles in diameter) orbits beyond the rings on the right of the image. The moon Tethys is not shown here, but its shadow is visible on the planet on the left of the image. This view looks toward the northern, sunlit side of the rings from just above the ringplane.

Images taken using red, green and blue spectral filters were combined to create this natural color view. The images were obtained with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera at a distance of approximately 808,000 miles from Saturn.

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

The European Extremely Large Telescope

28 Dec: A conceptual drawing of ESO's planned European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) shows the telescope at work, with its dome open and its record-setting 138-foot mirror pointed to the sky.The comparatively tiny pickup truck parked at the base of the E-ELT helps to give a sense of the scale of this massive telescope: It's dome will be similar in size to a football stadium.

Scheduled to begin operations in 2018, the E-ELT will help track down Earth-like planets around other stars in the "habitable zones" where life could exist — one of the Holy Grails of modern observational astronomy. 

Swinburne Astronomy Productions/ESO

Geology 201: Mars

Dec. 23: The north polar layered deposits (PLD) cover an extensive area at both Martian poles. They likely contain ice-rich and dust-rich layers, with the darker layers being probably more dust-rich than the bright layers. 

The PLD holds clues to past climate regimes similar to ice cores on Earth. Several of the layers occur in fairly regular sequences, as seen in this image, suggesting that Mars underwent cyclic climate changes in the past.

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Gale Crater on Mars

Dec. 23: Gale Crater is one of several craters around the Martian equator that have deposits of light-toned layers. In this large canyon, dark sands have accumulated and formed ripples and dunes. The fact that we don't see many loose rocks along the surface suggests that the rocks are quickly being destroyed by winds due to their fragile nature. Resistant hills tend to be elongated from the upper left to the lower right, consistent with erosion from upslope or downslope winds.

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

X-Ray Visions of Our High-Energy Cosmos

Dec. 21: This artist's impression shows a supermassive black hole surrounded by an accretion disc and dust torus. Material within the accretion disc is accelerated to extremely high velocities by the inexorable gravitational pull of the black hole. 

The International X-ray Observatory (IXO) mission candidate, being considered for launch around 2020, will enable more detailed study of the composition and behavior of such highly energetic material, which radiates at X-ray wavelengths.

ESA / V. Beckmann (NASA-GSFC)

Observing La Silla Observatory

Dec. 21: The European Southern Observatory's La Silla Observatory sits against the night sky. The glowing band of the Milky Way galaxy slants through the sky from the upper left to the lower middle; the ghostly, bluish objects above the telescope's dome are two galaxies belonging to the Milky Way's close neighbor, known as the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds.

ESO/Y. Beletsky

The Soyuz Launch

Dec. 20: The Soyuz TMA-17 rocket launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, carrying Expedition 22 NASA Flight Engineer Timothy J. Creamer of the U.S., Soyuz Commander Oleg Kotov of Russia and Flight Engineer Soichi Noguchi of Japan to the International Space Station.

The craft successfully docked with the ISS two days later, just in time for the holidays. 

NASA/Bill Ingalls

Arianne Lifts Off

Dec. 18: An Ariane 5 GS launcher lifted off from Europe's Spaceport in French Guiana on a journey to place the French military reconnaissance satellite Helios-2B into Sun-synchronous polar orbit. Flight V193 was the seventh Ariane 5 launch of 2009 and used the last of the GS variant of the launcher. The payload mass for this launch was 13,126 pounds; the satellite mass was nearly 10,000 pounds, with payload adapters and dispensers making up the additional weight.

ESA/CNES/Arianespace - Optique vidéo du CSG, L. Boyer

The Dark Heart of the Eagle

Dec. 16: The new Herschel space scope has peered inside an unseen stellar nursery and revealed surprising activity. Some 700 newly-forming stars are estimated to be crowded into filaments of dust stretching through this image, the first new release from Herschel.

This image shows a dark cloud 1,000 light-years away in the constellation Aquila, the Eagle. It covers an area 65 light-years across and is so shrouded in dust that no previous infrared satellite has been able to see into it. Now, thanks to Herschel's superior sensitivity at the longest wavelengths of the infrared, astronomers have their first picture of the interior of this cloud.

ESA and the SPIRE & PACS consortia, P. André (CEA Saclay) for the Gould’s Belt Key Programme Consortia

Paris Wants Atomic Space Clocks

Dec. 15: Simonetta Di Pippo, ESA Director of Human Spaceflight signed an agreement that paves the way for the launch of a high-accuracy atomic clock to be attached to the outside of the European Columbus laboratory onboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The PHARAO (Projet d’Horloge Atomique par Refroidissement d’Atomes en Orbite) atomic clock (seen here in an artist's conception of the completed, attached project) will be combined with another atomic clock, the Space Hydrogen Maser (SHM), to form ESA's Atomic Clock Ensemble in Space (ACES), will have an accuracy of 1x10-16, corresponding to a time error of about one second over 300 million years.

ESA - D. DUCROS

Mayon Volcano from Space

Dec. 15: Tens of thousands of people living within the danger zone of Mayon Volcano in the Philippines were forced to evacuate to emergency shelters in mid-December 2009 as small earthquakes, incandescent lava at the summit and minor ash falls suggested a major eruption was on the way. 

This natural-color image of Mayon was captured by the Advanced Land Imager on NASA's Earth Observing-1 (EO-1) satellite. A small plume of ash and steam is blowing west from the summit. Dark-colored lava or debris flows from previous eruptions streak the flanks of the mountain. A ravine on the southeast slope is occupied by a particularly prominent lava or debris flow.

NASA/Jesse Allen

Icy-Hearted Earth-Like Neighbor

Dec. 16: Astronomers have discovered the second super-Earth exoplanet for which they have determined the mass and radius, giving vital clues about its structure. It is also the first super-Earth where an atmosphere has been found. 

The exoplanet, orbiting a small star only 40 light-years away from us, opens up dramatic new perspectives in the quest for habitable worlds. The planet, GJ1214b, has a mass about six times that of Earth and its interior is likely to be mostly made of water ice. Its surface appears to be fairly hot and the planet is surrounded by a thick atmosphere, which makes it inhospitable for life as we know it on Earth.

European Southern Observatory

Sunlight Gleams off Titan

Dec. 17: The first flash of sunlight reflected off a lake on Saturn's moon Titan. The glint off a mirror-like surface is known as a specular reflection. This kind of glint was detected by the visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) on NASA's Cassini spacecraft. It confirmed the presence of liquid in the moon's northern hemisphere, where lakes are more numerous and larger than those in the southern hemisphere. Scientists using VIMS had confirmed the presence of liquid in Ontario Lacus, the largest lake in the southern hemisphere, in 2008.

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/DLR

How Supernovas Stay in Shape

Dec. 17: A new study of supernova remnants allows scientists to categorize the explosion that created them based on their shape. A team of researchers examined the shapes of 17 supernova remnants in both the Milky Way galaxy and the neighboring Large Magellanic Cloud. 

The results revealed that one category of supernova explosion, known as "Type Ia," generated a very symmetric, circular remnant, as seen in the Kepler supernova remnant here. This type of supernova is thought to be caused by the thermonuclear explosion of a white dwarf, and is often used by astronomers as a "standard candle" for measuring cosmic distances.

NASA/CXC/UCSC/L. Lopez et al.

How Supernovas Stay in Shape

Dec. 17: A new study of supernova remnants allows scientists to categorize the explosion that created them based on their shape. A team of researchers examined the shapes of 17 supernova remnants in both the Milky Way galaxy and the neighboring Large Magellanic Cloud. 

The collapse of a very massive star results in more asymmetrically shaped remnants, as seen in this G292.0+1.8 remnant. In G292, the asymmetry is subtle but can be seen in elongated features defined by the brightest emission (colored white).

NASA/CXC/UCSC/L. Lopez et al.

Mars Orbiter Resumes Operation

Dec. 16: Researchers are receiving new science data from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter after the spacecraft's six science instruments resumed observations today. Observations had been suspended since a computer reset Aug. 26. Since then, engineers have analyzed a series of previous computer resets and completed preventive care to guard against a vulnerability identified by that analysis.

NASA/JPL

Asteroid in the Kuiper Belt

Dec. 16: This is an artist's impression of a one-half-mile-diameter Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) that was detected by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope. The icy relic from the early solar system is too small for Hubble to photograph. The object was detected when it passed in front of a background star, temporarily disrupting the starlight.

NASA, ESA, and G. Bacon (STScI)

The Polar Dunes of Mars

Dec. 16: This false-color image shows the layered deposits at top and darker materials at bottom exposed at the head of Chasma Boreale, a large canyon eroded into the layered deposits of Mars. The polar layered deposits appear red because of dust mixed within them, but are ice-rich as indicated by previous observations. The water ice in the layered deposits is probably responsible for the pattern of fractures seen near the top of the scarp. Exposures such as these are useful in understanding the recent climate variations that are likely recorded in the polar layered deposits.

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

A New Crater on Mars

Dec. 16: This impact crater is only about 18 feet across — tiny compared to the giant basins that scar most planetary bodies. This type of bowl-shaped crater is called a simple crater. It's simple compared to larger craters that have terraces, central peaks and rings, and other, more complex, shapes.

But it's extremely young. The largest craters on Mars are several billion years old, but this crater formed between January 2006 and May 2008. That means it was only a few months old when photographed.

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Within the Doradus Nebula

Dec. 15: The image from the Hubble telescope spans about 100 light-years and captures the massive, young stellar grouping called R136. It's only a few million years old and resides in the 30 Doradus Nebula, a turbulent star-birth region in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way. 

There is no known star-forming region in our galaxy as large or as prolific as 30 Doradus. Many of the diamond-like icy blue stars are among the most massive stars known. Several are over 100 times more massive than our Sun. These hefty stars are destined to pop off, like a string of firecrackers, as supernovas in a few million years.

NASA, ESA, and F. Paresce (INAF-IASF, Bologna, Italy), R. O'Connell (University of Virginia, Charlottesville), and the Wide Field Camera 3 Science Oversight Committee

NASA's Sky Mapper Takes Off

Dec. 14: NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, or WISE, launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket at 9:09 a.m. EST from Space Launch Complex-2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base. WISE will scan the entire sky in infrared light, picking up the glow of hundreds of millions of objects and producing millions of images.

Bill Hartenstein/United Launch Alliance

When Galaxies Collide

Dec. 10: This composite image from three different telescopes shows an ongoing collision between two galaxies. Astronomers think that supermassive black holes exist at the center of most galaxies. Not only do the galaxies and black holes seem to co-exist, they are apparently inextricably linked in their evolution. To better understand this symbiotic relationship, scientists have turned to rapidly growing black holes — so-called active galactic nucleus — to study how they are affected by their galactic environments.

X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/M.Machacek; Optical: ESO/VLT; Infrared: NASA/JPL/Caltech

Missile Launch Lights up Norway

Dec. 10: The failure of a new Russian intercontinental ballistic missile during testing was the cause of spectacular spiraling blue lights in the skies over northern Norway. Speculation of UFOs activity swirled, but military analysts said the lights were clearly the result of the Bulava missle's explosion. This kind of light show comes from a failed missile launch," said Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst. "Russia has run free fireworks for the Norwegians."

Dagfinn Rapp

Orion’s Belt and the Flame Nebula

Dec. 10: This spectacular visible light wide-field view of part of the famous belt of the great celestial hunter Orion shows the region of the sky around the Flame Nebula. The whole image is filled with glowing gas clouds illuminated by hot blue young stars. It was created from photographs in red and blue light forming part of the Digitized Sky Survey 2. The field of view is approximately three degrees.

ESO and Digitized Sky Survey 2. Acknowledgment: Davide De Martin

Satellite Marks 10 Years in Space

Dec. 10: One of the most successful European space missions is celebrating its birthday: the XMM-Newton X-ray observatory marks 10 years mark in space. On 10 December 1999, an Ariane 5 rocket launched the 33-foot tall, 4-ton research satellite for the European Space Agency (ESA). It now ranks among the most successful space observatories.

EADS Astrium

Saturn's Moon in Black and White

Dec. 10: New data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft at Saturn helps explain the bizarre yin-yang appearance of the ringed planet's odd moon Iapetus, where one side is dark and the other is bright. The images and heat-mapping data collected by Cassini support the leading explanation of the moon's strange appearance, which suggests that migrating ice makes half the moon reflective and bright, while the other half is dust-covered and dark.

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Snow Blankets the U.S.

Dec. 9: NASA's MODIS Rapid Response satellites Terra and Aqua captured this image of snows covering the Western United States. Massive snowfalls blanketed the nation, and were blamed for at least 16 deaths.

MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

Saturn Has a Hexagon

Dec. 9: As Saturn's north pole emerged from winter darkness, Cassini captured new details of a jet stream that follows a hexagon-shaped path and has long puzzled scientists. As the planet approached its equinox (signaled the start of northern spring), the whole hexagonal shape could be mapped out in visible light for the first time. The hexagon is likely formed by the path of a jet stream flowing around the planet's north pole.

NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Mars Orbiter Moves On

Dec. 8: NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter today has been taken out of the precautionary "safe mode" it had been in since August. Taking the spacecraft out of safe mode is the latest step in a series of commands that are being sent to the orbiter this week. Engineers plan to resume science operations once they conclude a check of all the science instruments. Normal science operations may resume next week.

NASA/JPL

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo

Nov. 7: SpaceShipTwo is a carbon composite cousin in construction and design to SpaceShipOne — the privately financed, single-piloted spacecraft that bagged the $10 million Ansari X Prize purse by flying back-to-back treks to suborbital space in 2004. Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic finally unveiled the new ship, which will be the keystone in his plan to corner the tourists-in-space market. 

Virgin Galactic/Ned RocknRoll

Transporting a Telescope

Dec. 7: European Space Organization (ESO) astronomer Yuri Beletsky captured images of the transport of one of the 6-foot telescopes that compose, together with their larger 27-foot companions, ESO’s Very Large Telescope array. The telescope was moved with the utmost care from base camp, where it had been undergoing maintenance, including the recoating of its mirrors, back to the VLT platform on top of Cerro Paranal.

ESO/Y. Beletsky

Subaru Finds a Planet

Dec. 3: The first observations with the world's newest planet-hunter instrument on Japan's Subaru Telescope, HiCIAO (High Contrast Instrument for the Subaru next generation Adaptive Optics), have revealed a new exo-planet: a companion to the Sun-like star GJ 758. With an estimated mass 10 to 40 times that of Jupiter, GJ 758 B is either a giant planet or a lightweight brown dwarf. Without the scope's angular differential imaging, the star's speckle halo (the burst-like feature in the center) would overwhelm the signals from the planet.

Subaru Telescope, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ)

Star Cluster Trumper 14

Dec. 3: Trumpler 14 is not only the youngest, but also one of the most populous clusters within the nebula. Astronomers counted about 2,000 stars in the very central parts of this cluster. This image so far covers the widest area of the sky, and is based on data obtained through two different filters.

ESO

Soyuz TMA-15 Capsule

Dec. 1: Russian specialists work on the Soyuz TMA-15 capsule after landing on the steppe in northern Kazakhstan. European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Frank De Winne of Belgium, Russian cosmonaut Roman Romanenko and Canadian astronaut Robert Thirsk are still inside.

AP

Soufriere Hills Volcano

November 28: Activity at Montserrat’s Soufrière Hills Volcano continues to ebb and flow. Growth of the lava dome on the volcano’s summit has led to numerous pyroclastic flows, some of which nearly reached the ocean. NASA’s Aqua satellite snapped this natural-color image at 1:40 PM local time; roughly 3 hours before, the Air Force Weather Agency reported an ash plume reaching to flight level 120. 

Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team, NASA GSFC

Japanese Spy Satellite

Nov. 28: An H-2A rocket carrying a spy satellite lifts off from a space center on the southern island of Tanegashima. Japan launched its fifth spy satellite  in a bid to boost its ability to gather intelligence independently, the government said.

AP Photo/Kyodo News

Atlantis in Space

Nov. 25: Surrounded by the blackness of space, this profile view of the space shuttle Atlantis was photographed by the Expedition 21 crew on the International Space Station soon after the shuttle and station began their post-undocking relative separation. Undocking of the two spacecraft occurred at 3:53 a.m. CST on Nov. 25. Atlantis and the STS-129 crew landed safely at Kennedy Space Center two days later.

NASA

Gullies on Mars

Nov. 25: The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter's HiRISE camera documents a variety of gullies on Mars. Some hypotheses about their formation involve the flow of liquid (water, brine or some other substance). Other postulates involve the downhill movement of dry material such as dust or sand. To further complicate things, different gullies could have formed by different methods.

NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

SpaceShots: The Week's Best Photos of Our Universe

The best space images of the week, putting you in touch with the most distant parts of the heavens.

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