Space can be a wondrous place, and we’ve got the pictures to prove it! Take a look at our favorite pictures from space here, and if you’re wondering what happened today in space history don’t miss our On This Day in Space video show here!
Weather satellites observe apocalyptic Tonga eruption from three angles
Monday, January 17, 2022: Three weather satellites captured the massive underwater volcanic eruption that tore apart the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai island in the South Pacific Ocean on Saturday (Jan. 15), revealing the sheer force of the blast from different angles.
The uninhabited island 40 miles (65 kilometers) north of Tongatapu, the main island of the Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga, only existed since 2009 and was fortunately uninhabited. It was born out of another volcanic eruption that merged two smaller islands called Hunga Tonga and Hunga Ha’apai. The remnants of these two islands are now again separated by the ocean.
University of Auckland volcanologist Shane Cronin told Radio New Zealand (RNZ) on Monday (Jan. 17) that the eruption, revealed as a massive explosion in imagery captured by satellites from the altitude of 22,000 miles (36,000 km), may have been the most powerful volcanic eruption on Earth in three decades.
The videos compiled in this GIF were provided by Oxford University research fellow Simon Proud. The collage shows the eruption as seen by the Korean GK-2A satellite (on the left), Japan’s Himawari-8 (center) and the U.S. GOES-17 satellite (right), which is operated by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Fleets of low-Earth orbit satellites are now assessing the damage, which Cronin estimated to RNZ to be “apocalyptic” in scale. Scientists, however, think that although the sulfur dioxide from the volcano has already spread over Australia, the eruption is unlikely to have a lasting effect on Earth’s climate.
Powerful volcanic eruptions that inject vast amounts of ash particles into the stratosphere, the layer of the atmosphere above the altitude of 12 miles (20 km), can sometimes temporarily cool down Earth as these particles reflect sunlight away from the planet. The effect was observed, for example, after the 1991 eruption of the Mount Pinatubo volcano in the Philippines. That eruption produced a temperature drop that was measurable for three years. – Tereza Pultarova
Satellite images SpaceX nailing booster landing for tenth time
Friday: January 14, 2021: A satellite of U.S. Earth-observation company Planet took this video capturing the landed first-stage booster of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that lifted 105 small satellites into low Earth orbit on Jan. 13.
Planet was among the customers on the flight, SpaceX’s third dedicated to its new Transporter ride-sharing program. The 44 SuperDove Earth-observing cubesats on board will strengthen the company’s 240-strong fleet that can capture an image of every point of Earth multiple times a day.
It was already the tenth flight for the reusable booster that can be seen in this video sitting comfortably on the landing pad, proving that SpaceX has reliably mastered the ground-breaking rocket landing technology. – Tereza Pultarova
Filter wheel will help James Webb Space Telescope see all shades of the universe
Thursday: January 13, 2021: The filter wheel on the James Webb Space Telescope’s instrument MIRI will reveal the universe at 18 different wavelengths.
The filter wheel on the Mid-infrared Instrument (MIRI) was built by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Germany. Its shape reflects that of James Webb Space Telescope’s main mirror. The light gathered by the main mirror will, reach the instrument concentrated after it bounces off the secondary and tertiary mirrors.
MIRI is a combined camera and spectrograph, an instrument that instead of capturing a wholesome image, separates the individual wavelengths that reveal information about the chemical composition of the imaged universe.
The camera will be able to spot the most distant galaxies, detect newly formed stars and find faint comets at the edges of the solar system. – Tereza Pultarova
NASA’s new batch of astronauts reports for duty
Wednesday: January 12, 2021: NASA’s future astronauts officially started their two-year training earlier this week with an official swearing-in ceremony at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
The group of ten astronaut candidates was announced in December, 2021, after a year and a half long selection process that kicked off in March 2020. The new astronauts, six men and four women, will be among the lucky humans that have a good chance to visit the moon as part of the upcoming Artemis missions.
The group includes Nichole Ayers, Marcos Berríos, Christina Birch, Deniz Burnham, Luke Delaney, Andre Douglas, Jack Hathaway, Anil Menon, Christopher Williams and Jessica Wittner. – Tereza Pultarova
Tiny galaxy hides a ‘baby’ supermassive black hole
Tuesday: January 11, 2021: NASA’s X-ray observatory Chandra spotted a supermassive blackhole hiding inside a dwarf galaxy.
The black hole inside the galaxy Mrk 462 is one of the smallest known supermassive black holes, the researchers said, weighing ‘only’ 200,000 times as much as our sun.
In comparison, Sagittarius A*, the black hole at the center of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, weighs more than 4 million suns.
The black hole’s home, Mrk 462, is itself tiny, with only several hundred million stars compared to the Milky Way’s few hundred billion.
Black holes in such small galaxies are usually difficult to detect. Astronomers were able to spot this one by looking at the X-ray glow emanating from within the galaxy, a sign of a black hole devouring matter. – Tereza Pultarova
Moon rover tests its wheels in high-tech sandbox
Friday: January 7, 2021: A rover that will fly to the moon with NASA’s 2023 Artemis II mission has been put to test to make sure its wheels won’t get stuck in the “fluffy” lunar soil.
Although NASA has plenty of experience in driving rovers on Mars, the moon, with considerably lower gravity, is a different beast.
Engineers building the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) therefore partnered with Pittsburgh-based ProtoInnovations, to run a series of tests simulating as closely as possible what the rover will experience on the moon.
They tested the rover’s wheels in a high-tech sandpit fitted with cameras and sensors to monitor the wheels’ behaviour in detail.
The slopes, the size and distribution of the rocks in the sandpit, as well as the texture of the soil, were chosen to mimic what the rover is expected to encounter at its landing site on the lunar South Pole.
“Lunar regolith is fluffy due to the low gravity and lack of most weathering processes, and the particles are sharp like broken glass,” Arno Rogg, a rover mobility system engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley said in a statement. “Rocks of various sizes are scattered everywhere on the moon’s surface. All that presented some real engineering challenges to designing a lightweight, performant, and robust wheel for the half-ton rover.”
Every slip of the wheel on the simulated lunar surface was analysed to make sure that once on the moon, the rover won’t get stuck. The testing was done ahead of the project’s Critical Design Review, a key milestone that allows the engineers to finetune the flight model. — Tereza Pultarova
Europe’s next-gen heavy-lift rocket heading for tests
Thursday: January 6, 2021: The core and upper stages of Europe’s next-generation heavy-lift rocket Ariane 6 are on the way to the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, for a round of tests ahead of the rocket’s delayed maiden flight, which is currently expected in late 2022.
In Kourou, the two stages will for the first time be tested together on a launch pad. The test will involve the first hot-firing of the new Vulcain 2.1 engine, an iteration of Ariane 5’s Vulcain 2.
In development since the early 2010s, Ariane 6 will replace the reliable Ariane 5, which on Dec 25. 2021 launched the James Webb Space Telescope, the most expensive and complex space observatory ever built.
The new rocket will be able to launch payloads of up to 11.5 metric tonnes to geosynchronous orbit and up to 21.5 tonnes into low Earth orbit. For comparison, the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest payload ever carried by Ariane 5 weighs 6.2 metric tonnes. The heaviest payload Ariane 5 has ever launched weighed 10.2 metric tonnes and consisted of two telecommunication satellites. — Tereza Pultarova
James Webb Space Telescope sunshield layers pulled tight
Wednesday: January 5, 2021: The James Webb Space Telescope finished the most challenging part of its post-launch deployment sequence in half the expected time with all five layers of its tennis-court-sized sunshield now pulled perfectly tight.
The proper tensioning of the sunshield was a prerequisite for the telescope’s science operations. Anything but perfect execution would prevent the sunshield from correctly performing its task: reflecting heat from the sun and Earth so well that it cools the mirrors and instruments down to minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 235 degrees Celsius). It is only at this near-absolute-zero temperature that the telescope can make the observations it was designed for.
The challenging manoeuvre relied on an assembly of dozens of cables and motors, all operating in the extreme cold of space, in vacuum and weightlessness. Relief was palpable when NASA operators announced that the tensioning was complete during a live webcast on Tuesday (Jan. 4).
As the grand telescope carries no cameras (they would probably fall apart in the extreme cold of minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 235 degrees Celsius)), the operators couldn’t observe as Webb executed their commands. This animation shows the separation of the five hair-thin space blanket layers of the sunshield into their proper configuration. – Tereza Pultarova
Satellites reveal how volcanic eruption changed the La Palma island
Tuesday: January 4, 2021: The volcanic eruption on the island of La Palma, off the north-western coast of Africa, ended on Dec. 25 after three months of spewing streams of lava. This is how it changed the face of the island.
The 3D visualisation, based on images acquired by the European satellite Sentinel 2 on Monday (Jan. 3), shows the altered landscape on the island’s west coast where nearly 3,000 buildings have been buried by the scorching lava rivers since September. The town of Todoque was completely destroyed and so was a large swath of a popular beach.
The European Copernicus program, which operates the Sentinel satellites, said the lava submerged 4.8 square miles (1,241 hectares) of land, the equivalent of about 1,500 football fields, and destroyed 57 miles (92 kilometers) of road infrastructure. – Tereza Pultarova
Hello from Mars!
Monday, Jan. 3, 2022: China’s Tianwen 1 orbiter recently captured this amazing view of itself above Mars during a stunning selfie session at the Red Planet.
This photo and several others were captured by a tiny deployable camera that Tianwen 1 deployed in orbit above Mars to photograph itself. This view is a close-up of the Tianwen 1 orbiter, with its solar arrays, gold body and silver antennas clearly visible in the frame. Meanwhile, the north pole of Mars can be seen in the background as the orbiter sails overhead.
You can see more photos from Tianwen 1’s selfie session at Mars in our full story here, which also includes an update on the Zhurong rover as it begins 2022 on the Martian surface. — Tariq Malik
New Year begins above Antarctica
Friday: December 31, 2021: The International Space Station passed above Antarctica just as the New Year began for the crew aboard the orbital outpost.
NASA astronaut Raja Chari shared the image on his Twitter account today (Dec. 31, which was already January 1 in New Zealand and Australia), saying: “Started off the year with an amazing view of Antarctica while off the South American coast…the same area that Shackleton explored long ago with his crew, #Endurance.”
Ernst Henry Shackleton was a British polar explorer who in the early 20th century led three expeditions to Antarctica. His 1915 expedition on the ship Endurance, the namesake of the Dragon Crew capsule that brought Chari and his crew mates to the space station in November 2021, nearly ended in a disaster after it got stuck in ice. Let’s hope the crew of the spaceship Endurance continues having a smooth ride in space and lands safely back on Earth in the spring of 2022. – Tereza Pultarova
James Webb Space Telescope speeding away from Earth
Thursday: December 29, 2021: An Italian astronomer captured an image of the James Webb Space Telescope as it cruised towards its destination, at that time about 340,000 miles (550,000 kilometers) away from Earth.
The image was taken by the Elena telescope located in Ceccano, south of the Italian capital Rome, on Wednesday (Dec. 29) at 4.26 pm EST (21:26 GMT). The telescope, part of the Virtual Telescope project, spotted Webb at about 1.5 times the moon-Earth distance. Although it’s not visible in this image, the telescope was just extending its deployable tower assembly (DTA), a 48-inch-long (1.2 meters) shaft that connects the telescope’s two halves, NASA officials said in a statement.
The DTA creates necessary space between the part of the telescope that houses its enormous mirror and scientific instruments and the spacecraft bus, which houses its electronics and propulsion systems.
The image, taken in a single 120-second exposure, shows the tennis court-sized observatory as a small dot in the middle, marked by an arrow.
The James Webb Space Telescope, which successfully launched after three decades of development and many years of delays from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on Christmas Day (Dec. 25), is the most complex and most expensive space observatory ever built. The telescope is now heading to the Lagrangian point 2 (L2), a point on the sun-Earth axis behind the planet, where the gravitational forces of the two bodies will allow it to remain in a stable position. The telescope will reach L2, some 930,000 miles (1,5 million km) away from Earth, by the end of January. Due to its size, the telescope had to be folded for launch and is now building itself like an origami during its journey. – Tereza Pultarova
The darkness of Alaskan winter
Wednesday: December 29, 2021: A timelapse video showing the passage of 2.5 late December days in Alaska with the northern parts of the state submerged in continuous darkness.
The timeless, captured by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) GOES West satellite, shows how little sunlight the northernmost U.S. state receives in winter. Anchorage, on the south coast, gets 5 hours and 33 minutes of daylight this time of the year, Fairbanks, in the central region, only sees 3 hours and 51 minutes, while the northern Utqiaġvik (Barrow) won’t see any daylight until January 22, 2022. – Tereza Pultarova
High five for science!
Tuesday, December 28, 2021: NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen and French space agency head Philippe Baptiste celebrate confirmation that the James Webb Space Telescope successfully deployed its solar arrays on Dec. 25. The duo watched the launch from the Jupiter Hall of the European launch site in Kourou, French Guiana, from which the telescope launched aboard an Ariane 5 heavy-lift rocket. The observatory is now conducting a month-long deployment sequence and then must calibrate its instruments; scientists hope that it will begin observations in the summer of 2022. – Meghan Bartels