Images From Offworld

Robotic probes launched by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and others are gathering information all across the solar system. We currently have spacecraft in orbit around the Sun, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, a comet, Jupiter, and Saturn; two operational rovers on Mars; and a recent close flyby of Pluto. Astronauts aboard the International Space Station are still performing experiments in low Earth orbit and sending back amazing photos. With all these eyes in the sky, I’d once again like to put together a recent photo album of our solar system—a set of family portraits—as seen by our astronauts and mechanical emissaries. This time, we have a photo of a long-lost lander found on the surface of a comet, new images of Jupiter’s polar regions, color photos from the surface of Mars, a double eclipse of the Sun, and, of course, lovely images of our home, planet Earth. [25 photos total]

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This image from NASA's Juno spacecraft provides a never-before-seen perspective on Jupiter's south pole. The JunoCam instrument acquired the view on August 27, 2016, when the spacecraft was about 58,700 miles (94,500 kilometers) above the polar region. At this point, the spacecraft was about an hour past its closest approach, and fine detail in the south polar region is clearly resolved. Unlike the equatorial region's familiar structure of belts and zones, the poles are mottled by clockwise and counterclockwise rotating storms of various sizes, similar to giant versions of terrestrial hurricanes. The south pole has never been seen from this viewpoint, although the Cassini spacecraft was able to observe most of the polar region at highly oblique angles as it flew past Jupiter on its way to Saturn in 2000. (JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / NASA) #
A double eclipse. Early in the morning of September 1, 2016, NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) caught both Earth and the moon crossing in front of the sun. Earth briefly blocks SDO’s line of sight each day – a consequence of SDO’s geosynchronous orbit. On September 1, Earth completely eclipsed the sun from SDO’s perspective just as the moon began its journey across the face of the sun. The end of the Earth eclipse happened just in time for SDO to catch the final stages of the lunar transit. In the SDO data, you can tell Earth and the moon’s shadows apart by their edges: Earth’s is fuzzy, while the moon’s is sharp and distinct. This is because Earth’s atmosphere absorbs some of the sun’s light, creating an ill-defined edge. On the other hand, the moon has no atmosphere, producing a crisp horizon. (SDO / NASA) #
International Space Station Expedition 47 Flight Engineer Jeff Williams of NASA captured a series of photos on April 25, 2016, for this composite image of the setting sun reflected by the ocean. (Jeff Williams / NASA) #
International Space Station Expedition 48 Commander Jeff Williams (shown) and Flight Engineer Kate Rubins of NASA successfully installed the first of two international docking adapters on August 19, 2016, during a five hour and 58-minute spacewalk. (NASA) #
The island of Hawaii rarely takes a direct hit from a hurricane. Here, two Pacific storms are lining up to change that. The natural-color image above is a composite built from two overpasses by the Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) on the Suomi NPP satellite on August 29, 2016. At the time, Hurricane Madeline and Hurricane Lester were both hovering between category 3 and 4 storms. The bright streaks across the ocean surface (crossing Hawaii and Lester) are areas of sunglint, where sunlight reflected directly back at the VIIRS imager. (NASA Earth Observatory / Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership) #
Photo taken of cloudtops casting long shadows, seen from the International Space Station in orbit above India on August 24, 2016. (NASA) #
Though it may appear to be a watercolor painting, this image is a natural-color capture of a plankton bloom in the Barents Sea by the Sentinel-2A satellite. Since plankton contain photosynthetic chlorophyll pigments, these simple organisms play a similar role to terrestrial ‘green’ plants in the photosynthetic process. Although some types of plankton are individually microscopic, the chlorophyll they use for photosynthesis collectively tints the color of the surrounding ocean waters, providing a means of detecting these tiny organisms from space with dedicated sensors, such as Sentinel-2’s multispectral imager. (ESA) #
On December 6, 2015, astronauts aboard the International Space Station were awaiting the launch of the Cygnus Commercial Resupply Services spacecraft. Cygnus was lofted into space by an Atlas V rocket, with engines that fire for about 18 minutes. This photograph was taken 4 minutes 12 seconds after launch as the crew looked southwest into the dusk sky. Using a powerful lens, an astronaut captured the spacecraft with the Atlas engines still firing and long tendrils of exhaust trailing back toward Cape Canaveral in Florida. The spacecraft is a tiny object and would otherwise have been invisible to the crew. This photo of the launch was snapped when the ISS was far to the north-northeast over the Atlantic Ocean, just east of Newfoundland. (NASA) #
A full Moon on August 19, 2016, as photographed from aboard the International Space Station by NASA astronaut Jeff Williams. Jeff posted this image on Twitter, commenting: "The last month has gone by quickly…full Moon again!". (Jeff Williams / NASA) #
These dark dunes are influenced by local topography. The shape and orientation of dunes can usually tell us about wind direction, but in this image, the dune-forms are very complex, so it's difficult to know the wind direction. However, a circular depression (probably an old and infilled impact crater) has limited the amount of sand available for dune formation and influenced local winds. As a result, the dunes here form distinct dots and dashes. The "dashes" are linear dunes formed by bi-directional winds, which are not traveling parallel to the dune. Instead, the combined effect of winds from two directions at right angles to the dunes, funnels material into a linear shape. The smaller "dots" (called "barchanoid dunes") occur where there is some interruption to the process forming those linear dunes. This process is not well understood at present and is one motivation for NASA's HiRISE instrument aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to image this area. (JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona / NASA) #
This view from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows a sloping hillside within the "Murray Buttes" region on lower Mount Sharp. The rim of Gale Crater, where the rover has been active since landing in 2012, is visible in the distance, through the dusty haze. The image was taken on September 8, 2016, during the 1454th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars. (JPL-Caltech / MSSS / NASA) #
This view from the Mast Camera (Mastcam) in NASA's Curiosity Mars rover shows a hillside outcrop with layered rocks within the "Murray Buttes" region on lower Mount Sharp. The buttes and mesas rising above the surface in this area are eroded remnants of ancient sandstone that originated when winds deposited sand after lower Mount Sharp had formed. Curiosity closely examined that layer -- called the "Stimson formation" -- during the first half of 2016, while crossing a feature called "Naukluft Plateau" between two exposures of the Murray formation. The layering within the sandstone is called "cross-bedding" and indicates that the sandstone was deposited by wind as migrating sand dunes. The image was taken on September 8, 2016, during the 1454th Martian day, or sol, of Curiosity's work on Mars. (JPL-Caltech / MSSS / NASA) #
From its perch high on a ridge, NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity recorded this image of a Martian dust devil twisting through the valley below. The view looks back at the rover's tracks leading up the north-facing slope of "Knudsen Ridge," which forms part of the southern edge of "Marathon Valley." Opportunity took the image using its navigation camera (Navcam) on March 31, 2016, during the 4,332nd Martian day, or sol, of the rover's work on Mars. Dust devils were a common sight for Opportunity's twin rover, Spirit, in its outpost at Gusev Crater. Dust devils have been an uncommon sight for Opportunity though. During the uphill drive to reach the top of Knudsen Ridge, Opportunity's tilt reached 32 degrees, the steepest ever for any rover on Mars. (JPL-Caltech / NASA) #
These sand dunes are a type of aeolian bedform and partly encircle the Martian North Pole in a region called Olympia Undae. Unlike most of the sand dunes on Mars that are made of the volcanic rock basalt, these are made of a type of sulfate mineral called gypsum. The boxy gridding of the dunes indicates that the wind blows in multiple directions. Note: "Aeolian" means wind-blown and "bedform" means piles of sediment shaped by a flowing fluid (liquid or gas). (JPL-Caltech / Univ. of Arizona / NASA) #
Bright, frosty polar caps, and clouds above a vivid, rust-colored landscape reveal Mars as a dynamic seasonal planet in this NASA Hubble Space Telescope view taken on May 12, 2016, when Mars was 50 million miles from Earth. The Hubble image reveals details as small as 20 to 30 miles across. The large, dark region at far right is Syrtis Major Planitia, one of the first features identified on the surface of the planet by seventeenth-century observers. Christiaan Huygens used this feature to measure the rotation rate of Mars. (A Martian day is about 24 hours and 37 minutes.) Today we know that Syrtis Major is an ancient, inactive shield volcano. Late-afternoon clouds surround its summit in this view. A large oval feature to the south of Syrtis Major is the bright Hellas Planitia basin. About 1,100 miles across and nearly five miles deep, it was formed about 3.5 billion years ago by an asteroid impact. The orange area in the center of the image is Arabia Terra, a vast upland region in northern Mars that covers about 2,800 miles. The landscape is densely cratered and heavily eroded, indicating that it could be among the oldest terrains on the planet. Dried river canyons (too small to be seen here) wind through the region and empty into the large northern lowlands. (NASA) #
An enhanced NavCam image taken on March 27, 2016, when the Rosetta orbiter was 329 km from the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. (ESA / Rosetta / NavCam) #
Rosetta’s lander Philae has been identified in OSIRIS narrow-angle camera images taken on September 2, 2016 from a distance of 2.7 km. The tiny lander can be seen at far right, in the shadow (enlarged detail inset.) Philae’s 1 m-wide body and two of its three legs can be seen extended from the body. The images also provide proof of Philae’s orientation. Philae had become lost in 2014 when it attempted to land on the comet, but bounced and lost communication. (ESA / Rosetta / MPS for OSIRIS Team) #
OSIRIS wide-angle camera image taken on 9 April 2016, when Rosetta was 29.9 km from Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The scale is 2.86 m/pixel. The unique viewing geometry is such that the spacecraft is positioned almost exactly between the Sun and comet, revealing characteristics of the surface that cannot be seen otherwise. (ESA / Rosetta / MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS / UPD / LAM / IAA / SSO / INTA / UPM / DASP / IDA) #
A cluster of bright areas in Ceres' Occator Crater are seen in this image from NASA's Dawn spacecraft in orbit around the dwarf planet. These areas are not as bright as the material at the center of the crater. Dawn took this image on June 16, 2016, from its low-altitude mapping orbit, at a distance of about 240 miles (385 kilometers) above the surface. The image resolution is 120 feet (35 meters) per pixel. (JPL-Caltech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA / NASA) #
Storm systems and weather activity unlike anything encountered in the solar system are on view in these color images of Jupiter's north polar region from NASA's Juno spacecraft. The JunoCam instrument took the images to create this color view on August 27, when the spacecraft was about 48,000 miles (78,000 kilometers) above the polar cloud tops. A wavy boundary is visible halfway between the grayish region at left (closer to the pole and the nightside shadow) and the lighter-colored area on the right. The wavy appearance of the boundary represents a Rossby wave -- a north-south meandering of a predominantly east-west flow in an atmospheric jet. This may be caused by a difference in temperature between air to the north and south of this boundary. The polar region is filled with a variety of discrete atmospheric features. Some of these are ovals, but the larger and brighter features have a "pinwheel" shape reminiscent of the shape of terrestrial hurricanes. Tracking the motion and evolution of these features across multiple orbits will provide clues about the dynamics of the Jovian atmosphere. This image also provides the first example of cloud shadowing on Jupiter: near the top of the image, a high cloud feature is seen past the normal boundary between day and night, illuminated above the cloud deck below. While subtle color differences are visible in the image, some of these are likely the result of scattered light within the JunoCam optics. Work is ongoing to characterize these effects. (JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / NASA) #
At first glance, Saturn's rings appear to be intersecting themselves in an impossible way. In actuality, this view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the rings in front of the planet, upon which the shadow of the rings is cast. And because rings like the A ring and Cassini Division, which appear in the foreground, are not entirely opaque, the disk of Saturn and those ring shadows can be seen directly through the rings themselves. Saturn's rings have complex and detailed structures, many of which can be seen here. In some cases, the reasons for the gaps and ringlets are known; for example, the small moon Pan (17 miles or 28 kilometers across)--seen here near image center--keeps open the Encke gap. But in other cases, the origins and natures of gaps and ringlets are still poorly understood. This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings, and was taken on February 11, 2016. (JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute / NASA) #
Saturn's moon Epimetheus (70 miles or 113 kilometers across) is too small to have sufficient self-gravity to form itself into a round shape, and it has too little internal heat to sustain ongoing geological activity. Thus, its battered shape provides hints about its formation, and the myriad craters across its surface bear testament to the impacts it has suffered over its long history. North on Epimetheus is up and rotated 5 degrees to the left. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on December 6, 2015. (JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute / NASA) #
Saturn's rings appear to bend due to refraction of Saturn's upper atmosphere. The dark, night-side of Saturn, gives the effect of the brighter rings water falling into space. The A ring is much darker on the unlit face since light cannot easily pass through the large particles. But the F ring goes from a faint A ring companion, to a shining beacon thanks to the microscopic dust that makes up that ring. Small dust tends to scatter light "forward" (close to the original direction), making it appear bright when backlit. Image taken on July 24, 2016. (JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute / NASA) #
New images of Neptune obtained on May 16, 2016, by NASA's Hubble Space Telescope confirm the presence of a dark vortex in the planet's atmosphere. This full visible-light image shows that the dark feature resides near and below a patch of bright clouds in the planet's southern hemisphere. Though similar features were seen during the Voyager 2 flyby of Neptune in 1989 and by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994, this vortex is the first one observed on Neptune in the 21st century. Neptune's dark vortices are high-pressure systems and are usually accompanied by bright "companion clouds," which are also now visible on the distant planet. The bright clouds form when the flow of ambient air is perturbed and diverted upward over the dark vortex, causing gases to likely freeze into methane ice crystals. (NASA) #
Like a cosmic lava lamp, a large section of Pluto's icy surface is being constantly renewed by a process called convection that replaces older surface ices with fresher material. Scientists from NASA's New Horizons mission used state-of-the-art computer simulations to show that the surface of Pluto's informally named Sputnik Planum is covered with churning ice "cells" that are geologically young and turning over due to a process called convection. The scene here, which is about 250 miles (400 kilometers) across, uses data from the New Horizons Ralph/Multispectral Visible Imaging Camera (MVIC), gathered July 14, 2015. (Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory / Southwest Research Institute / NASA) #

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