At the end of 2015, we reflect on the year in space that’s gone by, with some pretty incredible achievements bringing with them some images that made us all stop and take notice of what’s above our heads.
It was pretty hard to choose the best space images of 2015, to be honest, as it’s been a rather special year as far as momentous achievements in space go.
While some achievements are arguably more monumental than others, there’s no ranking to where these photos are placed as each are an achievement unto themselves.
So, what better place to start than when a little craft called New Horizons sailed past the outer edges of our solar system to photograph little Pluto.
Getting to the heart of Pluto
On 14 July this year, New Horizons made its closest approach to Pluto after a gruelling nine-month journey navigating solar winds and other perils of the solar system to send back reams of data on a planet that had never been visited by a spacecraft before.
And with its visit came thousands of photographs of the planet itself, its unexpected topographical features and its other scientific abnormalities, which culminated a few days following its flyby with this false-colour image.
We’ve since had photos of New Horizons’ closest flyby, but when this photo was released it was like pulling back a curtain to reveal a long wondered about mystery. Pluto’s heart captured all our hearts.
Last September, NASA made the startling announcement that the rather dry, red planet we call Mars is not so dry after all.
For decades, scientists have been poring (no pun intended) over research data obtained from rovers and orbiters on and surrounding the planet for evidence of any sign of flowing water, but it was in 2015 that the discovery was finally made.
Researcher Lujendra Ojha made the discovery after he saw that liquid water had been running down the ridges of canyons and crater walls during the planet’s summer months, with it having left visible streaks down their slopes.
The false-colour image shows the water as dark streaks, but the origin of it still remains something of a mystery, with suggestions that it is originating from vast underground salty aquifers, Martian ice or even condensation from the planet’s thin atmosphere.
Either way, a pretty thought-provoking photo.
The moon tangos with Earth
It turns out that at a distance of 1m km from Earth, the moon looks very … fake. And yet in September this year, the Earth Polychromatic Imaging Camera (EPIC), a 4Mp CCD camera and telescope aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite, captured the unique view of the moon as it moved in front of the sunlit side of Earth.
The satellite, which was assembled by Irish-based Michael Tierney and his colleagues at the beginning of the last decade, has as its primary job real-time solar wind monitoring for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Even though we’ve seen the far side of the moon numerous times since it was first snapped by the Soviet Luna 3 spacecraft in 1959, it still leaves a lasting impression on those who see it.
An erupting black hole
8,000-light-years away from Earth there was a black hole that erupted in an almost incomprehensibly large cosmic explosion and, thankfully for astronomers here on Earth, we managed to capture it, something which hadn’t been achieved for more than a quarter of a century.
The v404 Cygni system had been honed in on by astronomers using NASA’s X-ray telescope, Swift, which was able to capture the beautiful red rings, which are believed to be the result of an X-ray light echo effect, which is reflected back to us thanks to surrounding cosmic dust.
Just look at it! That’s an enormous black hole erupting creating a bullseye of cosmic radiation and it’s something incredible to behold.
This photo is particularly staggering to look at.
Captured by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, this cluster – to put it mildly – is located close to the Arches Cluster just 100 light-years from the centre of the Milky Way and was first photographed way back in 1990.
But the space telescope’s photography skills have improved tenfold since then and this year it was able to snap the photo you see before you today.
It is referred to as a cluster due to the prominence of five stars, in particular, but is obviously home to thousands more.
These five stars are among the largest in the galaxy and are burning their fuel at an incredible speed, meaning they will have a very short lifetime, with an average cluster age of just 4m years.
In fact, NASA says that the cluster is not long for the universe and is on the verge of exploding into a vast supernova, but we won’t be around to see it, sadly.
Aurora Borealis over Ireland
Each year, people from around the world pay hundreds, if not thousands of euro on cruises that take them up to the further reaches of the northern hemisphere to witness the awesome sight of the magnetic-field light display known as the Aurora Borealis.
But, this year, people in Ireland didn’t have to travel far, and some didn’t even have to travel at all, as strong solar weather activity in October created an abnormally large aurora borealis effect in one of the phenomenon’s most southerly advances in many years.
It took many stargazers by surprise as the enormous burst of solar radiation only occurred the day before, but within hours it had sped its way past Mercury and Venus to gently bombard us with one hell of a show.
— Ken Cox (@coxcom15) October 7, 2015
Scott Kelly over Earth
Sticking with the Earth theme, someone not of this world – NASA astronaut Scott Kelly – has been keeping people on our planet informed of the wonders happening above them as he takes some snaps aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Continuing on his record-breaking year-long mission, Kelly managed to take this picture above the Earth in what is frankly an outrageously beautiful image that looks more like an illustration than anything else. With the planet’s lights twinkling away below, and the sun’s reflections off the moon beaming down, it certainly is a wonderful sight.
— Scott Kelly (@StationCDRKelly) September 5, 2015
Falcon 9 rocket launch
Elon Musk and SpaceX have been particularly busy this year, what with trying to create a rocket engine that is capable of taking off and landing again for re-use and signing a deal with NASA to do the grunt work for bringing up payloads to the ISS.
Back in March, SpaceX managed to launch what was the private space company’s and Boeing’s first-ever conjoined launch of a lighter-weight dual-commsat stack that was specifically designed to take advantage of the lower-cost SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket at $30m per launch.
But, anyway, when you take a long-exposure camera, a rocket launch, and shoot it all at night, it leaves a pretty amazing photo.
This hypnotic image was taken at La Silla by the European Southern Observatory’s (ESO) Photo Ambassador Alexandre Santerne, with each circular streak representing an individual star, taken over a long period of time to capture the motion of the stars across the sky caused by the Earth’s rotation.
La Silla is based in the outskirts of Chile’s Atacama Desert at some 2,400 metres above sea level, and is one of the best sites on Earth for long-exposure shots like this given that it experiences 300 clear nights a year.
Shrapnel from a star
Images released last September by NASA from the Hubble Space Telescope have only gone and revealed what is being described as the ‘shrapnel from an exploded star’.
Believed to have exploded 8,000 years ago, Veil Nebula is one of the best-known supernova remnants, spanning 110 light-years across, and is 2,100 light-years from Earth.
NASA explained that the bright regions are where the shock wave is encountering relatively dense material or what it describes as the ‘bed sheet’ ripples if they were viewed edge-on.
Person photographing the night sky image via Shutterstock