The 10 most mind-blowing space pictures of 2014

27 Dec 2014

US astronaut Reid Wiseman performs a spacewalk on the hull of the International Space Station. Image via NASA/ESA/Alexander Gerst

It has been a momentous year in space exploration and thankfully cameras and telescopes both here and on Earth were able to capture events including Philae’s landing on comet 67P and amazing shots of Earth from the ground and in space.

Rosetta/Philae mission

The European Space Agency’s (ESA) 10-year Rosetta mission has produced some of the most amazing photography of the year as a result of the monumental achievement of landing a probe onto a comet hurtling through space at thousands of kilometres per hour.

More people tweeted during the descent of the Rosetta spacecraft’s Philae lander onto comet 67p/Churyumov-Gerasimenko than they did about a certain celebrity’s posterior in a major win for space science and our sense of wonder about the universe.

The first amazing image to be taken, and featured as a Gigglebit, was Rosetta’s ‘selfie’ with the comet, taken just prior to the launch of the Philae lander.

The image that features an ultra-cool black and white colouring was shared hundreds of thousands of times on social media and rightly so.

Image via ESA

Despite its landing not going exactly according to plan, Philae was able to gather enough scientific data by drilling into the comet’s surface and begin the process of sending information back to Earth before it entered its hibernation until next spring, when its solar panels are to once again receive energy.

This shot shows the first panoramic image captured by Philae as it touched down on the comet’s surface.

Image via ESA

Jack-o-lantern solar flares

Almost as if it knew Halloween was just around the corner, US space agency NASA’s observatory satellite, the Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), captured a series of photos on 8 October that appeared to show the sun forming a jack-o-lantern face as a result of solar activity on its surface.

To get the ‘pumpkin sun’ image, NASA blended together two different wavelengths of light, specifically at 171 angstroms and 193 angstroms, which appear as gold and yellow and thus created the image’s distinctive creepy, orange appearance.


Osuga Valles, Mars

Last April, the ESA showcased one of its latest stunning visuals of a false-colour of Mars’ surface, in a region known as Osuga Valles. The region is one of the most visibly affected by ancient waterways and at a total length of 164 km is some 170 km south of Eos Chaos, which lies in the far eastern section of Valles Marineris.

The ESA believes the region was heavily flooded during some point in its history, creating the deep crevices that have scarred the Martian rock.

This particular colour-coded topography map of the central portion of Osuga Valles indicates that the white and red are the highest terrains, while blue and purple show the deepest areas.

Image via  ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

Saturn’s ‘odd trio’

Saturn’s orbit is a rather busy place, given that for our moon, the ringed planet has 61 more satellites of varying sizes orbiting at any one time, not to mention the billions of smaller particles that form its distinctive ring.

However, three of these moons in particular have been dubbed the ‘odd trio’ because of the degree of difference between them. They are Tethys, Hyperion and Prometheus.

Tethys is the largest of the three moons and is the centrepiece of the photograph. Tethys has a varied terrain, whereas Hyperion is called the ‘wild one’ for its dangerously chaotic spin.

Meanwhile, little Prometheus circles just on the outer edge of Saturn’s rings in the image.

What makes this image so unique is that the three moons are rarely captured in the same image. The Cassini spacecraft captured this image at a distance of about 1.9m km from Tethys.

Image via NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Panoramic view of Orion Nebula

Twenty-four years after it was first launched into orbit, the Hubble Space Telescope is still going strong, sending back stunning images of distant galaxies to those of us on Earth. 

One of this year’s most beautiful images captured by the telescope is that of the Orion Nebula, a system containing as many as 3,000 stars both old and young, which reside in a dramatic dust-and-gas landscape of plateaus, mountains and valleys.

Astronomers used 520 Hubble images, taken in five colours, to make this picture, adding ground-based photos to fill out the nebula.

The Orion Nebula is the nearest star-forming region to Earth, 1,500 light years away.

Image via NASA,ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team

Hubble captures Siding Spring comet

Sticking with Hubble’s amazing photography, another entry to this year’s round-up of some of the best space images is a comet traversing our solar system, Siding Spring. The comet has been named after the observatory in Australia that discovered the hurtling chunk of space debris.

While not in the same league as say, Halley’s Comet, Siding Spring was still visible to observatories and those with powerful enough telescopes.

This particular image of Siding Spring shows the eerie aura that surrounds it as its surface of ice evaporates.

Oh, and if you didn’t notice, that’s Mars sitting in the centre foreground as the comet sailed by our nearest neighbour.

Image via NASA, ESA, J.-Y. Li (PSI), C.M. Lisse (JHU/APL), and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

A Chinese take on ‘the pale blue dot’

Renowned and beloved astronomer Carl Sagan once compared the site of the Earth from a distance to a “pale blue dot”, on an otherwise pitch-black background.

In 2014, China’s Chang’e 5-T1 mission that sent a probe into space as part of an engineering test showed an Earth dwarfed by the moon, given its close proximity to our satellite.

The mission that lasted only eight days saw the craft return to Earth on 31 October. Hope are that the data obtained from this test mission will pave the way for Chang’e 5 mission that aims to land a robotic spacecraft on the moon, collect samples, and return them to Earth.

Image via Chinese National Space Administration, Xinhuanet

‘Speechless’ image of Earth from space

Joining the current batch of famous astronauts including Chris Hadfield, Reid Wiseman during his time in the International Space Station provided a daily look inside the largest man-made object currently orbiting the Earth, showed us the wonders of physics in space, as well as images of Earth from way up high.

One in particular that caught many people’s attention was featured in a tweet that asked, “What is the twitter version of speechless?” The photo taken above Egypt features clear, blue skies and even bluer seas.

Reign of the ‘blood moon’

And last, but certainly not least, was one of the thousands of images captured by people in Asia and North America during this year’s strongest lunar eclipse on 8 October.

More commonly known as a ‘blood moon’, the distinctive colour that gives the blood moon its name happens when the remaining sunlight passing through Earth’s atmosphere is scattered, eliminating all but red as the remaining colour seen on the moon’s surface.

People in Ireland were unable to view the spectacular sight and will have to wait until 20 March 2015 for the next opportunity.

Image via John W. Johnson of the Omaha Astronomical Society in Nebraska in the United States

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic