By Nick McCallum
The universe is a pretty big place, and humanity's understanding of it, while extensive, is still in its infancy. We've set foot just on one other celestial body, have sent probes and landers to a handful of others, and recently made it beyond the boundaries of our solar system with the Voyager 1.
Everything else we know is based on observations from Earth or space-based telescopes and cameras. Over the years, we've seen astounding shots of what lies beyond our rocky blue planet, and as technology continues to improve, so does our ability to look into the vast, dark, nether regions of creation. In the spirit of exploration and inspiration, I've compiled a personal top 10 list of what I consider to be the most impressive or important pictures taken of the heavens.
10. Jupiter Storm
Jupiter's famous Great Red Spot, seen here as the Voyager 1 & 2 spacecrafts flew by in 1979, is actually a 150-300 year-old storm much like the hurricanes of Earth. At the time this picture was taken, the storm was so big that it could fit 3 Earths inside, but scientists have since observed a considerable decrease in its size.
9. Enceladus Geysers
In 2004, the Cassini spacecraft discovered geyser-like plumes emanating from the southern pole of Enceladus, one of Saturn's 62 known moons, which is completely covered by miles-thick glacial ice. Further analysis revealed these upwellings blasting out into space consisted of ice particles and liquid water, thereby making Enceladus a viable candidate to support life deep within its subsurface oceans.
8. Milky Way Star Cluster
This stunning image of a massive cluster of stars, dubbed NGC 3603, was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and is found within our own Milky Way galaxy. These stars, burning bright blue, are thought to have formed a mere one million years ago, which is quite young given the universe's estimated age of 13.8 billion years.
7. Exoplanet Detected
Thanks to missions such as the highly successful Kepler Space Telescope, there are now 1,971 confirmed exoplanets that have been discovered, the majority of which are in the Milky Way galaxy. The traditional method of detection is indirect, and involves measuring the dip in a star's brightness as a planet passes in front of it (known as a transit). But in the case of 2M1207b, its tremendous size and relatively close proximity allowed for it to be the first exoplanet directly discovered using infrared light.
6. Crab Nebula Supernova
The Crab Nebula's intricate, web-like configuration is the result of a stellar explosion, or supernova, creating an expanding cloud of gas and dust into the cosmos. Light from the explosion was first recorded by Chinese astronomers on July 4, 1054 AD, and its brightness was visible for 23 days.
5. Pillars Of Creation
The Eagle Nebula rests some 6,500 light years away, and the portion known as the Pillars of Creation is one of the most celebrated photos taken by the Hubble Space Telescope. These gigantic columns of gas and dust are star-making factories which are in the process of being eroded by the strong stellar winds of their newly-birthed creations, showing the active and ever-changing nature of the universe.
4. First Photo From Another Planet's Surface
The Russian Venera 9 (Venera is Russian for Venus) lander successfully touched down on Venus on October 25, 1975, and was the first spacecraft to return an image from another planet's surface. Venera 9 also succeeded at taking atmospheric readings, detecting chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, hydrofluoric acid, bromine, and iodine. Because of the extreme conditions on Venus, including a surface pressure 92 times greater than Earth's, and a blistering temperature of 485°C, the lander only remained operational for approximately 53 minutes.
3. Apollo 8's Earthrise
As the Apollo 8 spacecraft made its return orbit around the moon on December 24, 1968, astronaut William Anders captured Earth rising above the lunar horizon in a breathtaking 70mm colour photo. Shot using a modified Hasselblad 500 EL camera, this photo is widely regarded as one of the most famous pictures in photographic history.
2. A Look Back In Time
Between September 24, 2003 and January 16, 2004, scientists focused the Hubble Space Telescope on a rather small region of the sky, capturing an estimated 10,000 galaxies, each hosting billions upon billions of stars. This image represents the furthest humanity has looked back in time, as the light from these galaxies has taken around 13 billion years to reach us, providing a staggering glimpse of the immense size of our universe.
1. The Pale Blue Dot
As the Voyager 1 spacecraft neared the edge of our solar system on February 14, 1990, NASA, at the request of astonomer Carl Sagan, turned the camera around to take one final photograph of Earth. Sagan aptly named this picture the Pale Blue Dot, and while it lends little in the way of scientific value, this photo serves to remind us of our place in the universe as we float through space on this tiny speck of rock we call home.
What are your favourites? Tweet us your space pics: @photographersWB, or on Instagram: @photographerswithoutborders.