There were some stunning cosmic imagery to feast on in 2020, from Hubble’s 30th anniversary image to images of a daring sample on an asteroid. Here is our selection of offers of the year.
The Hubble “Cosmic Reef”
The Hubble Telescope, one of the most important scientific tools ever built, celebrated its 30th anniversary in April.
To mark the occasion, an amazing image has been released showing a region of star formation close to our Milky Way galaxy.
In this beautiful portrait of Hubble, the giant red nebula (NGC 2014) and its little blue neighbor (NGC 2020) reside in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of the Milky Way located 163,000 light years away.
Nebulae are vast interstellar clouds of dust and gas where star formation can take place.
At the heart of NGC 2014 is a collection of bright stars, each 10 to 20 times more massive than our Sun.
The image has been dubbed the “cosmic reef” because astronomers thought the nebulae looked like an underwater world.
A BBC Horizon documentary, released to coincide with the anniversary, featured stunning 3D visualizations of iconic Hubble images – such as the Pillars of Creation, which are part of the Eagle Nebula.
Capture of asteroids
This year, NASA’s Osiris-Rex performed a bold “touch-and-go” maneuver with the asteroid Bennu, to collect rock and soil samples for delivery to Earth.
Asteroids like Bennu are primitive relics of the dawn of the solar system. They are the building blocks of free planets and provide a window into the birth of worlds like Earth.
In order to collect samples, Osiris-Rex used a long ramp with a ring-shaped collection chamber at the end. The spacecraft descended towards Bennu’s surface, delivering a burst of nitrogen as the arrow made contact with the asteroid.
This was to cause gas to stir Bennu’s surface, allowing fragments of the asteroid to float in the collection chamber.
The strategy seems to have worked, as the sequence of images above shows.
Meanwhile, on December 5, a Japanese mission to collect samples from another asteroid returned to Earth with its precious cache. The Hayabusa-2 spacecraft has released its sample return capsule, which parachuted safely into the Australian desert.
The samples will be analyzed at a conservation center in Sagamihara City, Japan.
Close up with the sun
In January, photos taken by the Daniel K Inouye Solar Telescope (DKIST) in Hawaii were released. showed the surface of the Sun in unprecedented detail.
The images show cell-like structures that are roughly the size of the US state of Texas. They are masses of hot, excited gas or plasma.
Light areas indicate where this material is rising; the dark pathways in between are where the cooler plasma flows.
DKIST is a brand new facility on Haleakalā, a 3000m high volcano on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Scientists want to use it to uncover new information about the dynamic behavior of our mother star, in the hopes of better predicting its energetic explosions.
These colossal eruptions of charged particles can damage satellites orbiting the Earth, harm astronauts and even knock out power grids.
Flying over Jupiter
Launched in 2011, NASA’s Juno spacecraft continues to return stunning images of the solar system’s largest planet – Jupiter.
The probe captured images of the gas giant’s swirling cloud bridges as it made its 27th close-up of the world on June 2.
Citizen scientist Kevin M Gill then turned the data into a video, which combines 41 stills taken during Juno’s close pass.
The still images were digitally projected onto a sphere, with a virtual “camera” offering views of Jupiter from different angles.
Among other things, the images provide a stunning view of Jupiter’s most notable feature, the giant red spot – which is actually a gigantic ongoing storm.
Looking a bit like a rocket from the golden age of sci-fi, Elon Musk’s Starship vehicle will – in due course, he hopes – transport humans to the Red Planet.
In December, SpaceX tested the first full prototype of the vehicle, sending it on a 12.5 km flight directly from its platform to the company’s Boca Chica plant in South Texas.
We’re cheating a bit with its inclusion here, since the images don’t come from space, as such. But we might see him there someday, in the not too distant future.
The test flight showcased some of the spacecraft’s unique characteristics, including its Raptor engines burning methane and a flight path that includes a descent belly toward Earth followed by a return to vertical just before the ‘landing.
It was at this point in the test that the Starship’s prototype, named SN8, approached the pad a little too fast and too hard, causing what Musk describes as a RUD – a quick and unplanned teardown. A crash, in other words.
But the flight will have given SpaceX vast amounts of engineering data to chew on, helping them improve the vehicle. And the next prototype – SN9 – awaits its turn on the launch pad.
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