Postcards from 2016

Why do we look up? Why do we stop ourselves from whatever we may be doing and take a minute to look up at that dark night sky, choosing to explore that vast, unbroken deadland? Why do we create more and more optical aids just for the sole purpose of observation? Well, astrophotography has provided us with insights into the Universe.

NASA/ESA’s Hubble Telescope turned 26 in 2016, and in those 26 years we have been gifted with astonishing photographs of the cosmos. The skill necessary to make astrophotography worth while has only been established in recent years, with the Hubble Telescope being the catalyst for aspiring astronomers to look into the sky with their cameras, and more and more often their smartphones, as well as their telescopes.

So why are we so fascinated by astronomy? By space? Why does astrophotography hold such a grip on human imagination, and why do scientists pursue it with such vigour? Why do nations invest so much money for research in astronomy?

Because, shots like these are possible… Thank you 2016.

Selfie at a sand dune



When the sun shines and you feel it’s warmth upon your face, the majority of us associate this feeling with being on holiday, where you can still feel the soft sand between your toes. Well, this 57-mosaic self-portrait of NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover shows that the rover is actually doing just that. But, this is no holiday for the rover as it explores the ‘Namib Dune’ and the Bagnold Dune Field that lies to the northwest of Mt. Sharp — Curiosity’s main target for its mission.


Lightning illuminates the International Space Station with the Milky Way as a backdrop


image credit: NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren

From a position of Earth’s orbit, a home from home for humans in space since 2000; a flash of lightning on Earth can be seen reflecting on the solar panels of the International Space Station. 17,150 miles per hour 250 miles above the surface of the planet, with the expanse of the Milky Way in the background.


Hazy Pluto


Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Ten years in the making and 4.67 billion miles from Earth, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft flew by Pluto in July 2015, but it would be months before all the data that it had captured had made its way back to Earth. In January 2016, and away from the headlines that other shots created (namely those of Pluto as a globe that gave humankind its first real look at the world the inhabits the frontier of our solar system), NASA and the New Horizons team released this image confirming the haze layers of Pluto’s atmosphere. What was totally unprecedented was the majesty of the mountains rising from Pluto’s surface on the horizon (to the right of the image).


Philae found



In September of 2016, less than a month before the dramatic end of ESA’s Rosetta comet mission, the final resting place of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) comet lander Philae was discovered, purely by chance. After almost two years of searching long and hard, after Philae’s planned landing on the 12th of November 2014 did not go as expected (after the anchoring harpoons on the spacecraft failed to deploy, it made a triple touchdown before skidding to a stop in a valley perpetually in shadow, and therefore Philae’s solar panels were unable to charge, falling silent 60 hours later when it’s batteries ran flat) the lander’s shadowy grave on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko was found in images sent from its orbiting mothership; Rosetta.


Ceres Bright spots



Mistaken identity? Life on Ceres even? The bright spots on the dwarf planet Ceres, orbiting within the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, continued to puzzle researchers throughout 2016, and arguably still does. When a team of astronomers led by Paolo Molaro of the Trieste Astronomical Observatory in Italy using NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, which is orbiting this dwarf planet, conducted initial observations of these features they found out something unexpected; These spots reflect far more light than their much darker surroundings, looking almost artificial. The mysterious bright spots on the surface are thought to be composed of hydrated magnesium sulphate, or, is a massive amount of sodium carbonate: a type of salt. The findings also suggest that the core of Ceres is hotter than previously thought, and that the sodium carbonate might be left over from an ancient body of water.

VAB Major overhaul


image credit: NASA/Bill White

NASA’s iconic Vehicle Assembly Building, or VAB, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC), the very building designed and used to assemble large space vehicles, such as the massive Apollo Saturn V and the Space Shuttle, is currently undergoing a major overhaul readying it for the launches of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Ready by 2018, in 2016 it had reached the halfway point of the installation of massive new access platforms required to enable assembly of the mammoth SLS boosters and fuel tank. The largest single-story building in the world, standing at a height 160.3 metres (526 ft), and possessing a volume of 3,664,883 cubic meters (129,428,000 cubic feet), this image looks vertically from ground to ceiling.

Tim Peake Selfie


Major Timothy Nigel “Tim” Peake CMG (Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George), is a British Army Air Corps officer, European Space Agency astronaut and a [former] International Space Station (ISS) crew member, who participated in the first spacewalk outside of the ISS by a British astronaut on 15 January 2016, along with American astronaut Tim Kopra. The purpose of the spacewalk was to replace a faulty sequential electrical shunt unit on the station’s solar arrays. Speaking on Twitter, Peake said: “Today’s exhilarating #spacewalk will be etched in my memory forever – quite an incredible feeling!” The tweet included this ‘selfie’ of the astronaut showing the reflection of the camera in his mirrored helmet visor.


Jupiter’s Aurora


Image credit: NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols (University of Leicester)

The Great Red Spot of Jupiter had some strong competition in 2016. Astronomers using the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope (supported by NASA’s Juno spacecraft which is currently orbiting the planet at the time of writing) are studying auroras on the poles of the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter.  This composite image shows the aurora observed in ultraviolet, which is created when high energy particles enter a planet’s atmosphere near its magnetic poles and collide with atoms of gas.

Unlike auroras on Earth, on Jupiter they never cease. While on Earth the most intense auroras are caused by solar storms (when charged particles rain down on the upper atmosphere, excite gases, and cause them to glow red, green, and purple) Jupiter has an additional source for its auroras; The magnetic field grabs charged particles from its surroundings and includes not only the charged particles within the solar wind, but also the particles thrown into space by its orbiting moon Io, known for its numerous and large volcanoes.

Plugging away


image Credit: NASA/Michoud/Steve Seipel

Within the cavernous liquid hydrogen fuel tank of NASA’s upcoming Space Launch System (SLS) at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, welders are plugging holes left after the tank was assembled. The liquid hydrogen tank, a liquid oxygen tank, four RS-25 engines and other elements will form the SLS’s core stage, which will also serve as the rocket’s structural backbone, much like on the Space Shuttle.


Martian Dust Devil


Image credit NASA/JPL-Caltech

From its perch high on a ridge, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity captured this image of a Martian ‘dust devil’ twisting through the valley below. The view looks back at the path the rover had taken up the steep slope of the “Knudsen Ridge”,  which forms part of the southern edge of “Marathon Valley.” NASA’s Opportunity rover took the image using its navigation camera (Navcam) on March 31, 2016, during the 4,332nd Martian day of the rover’s study of Mars.

Why is NASA’s image in black and white? It is because the image was taken with the ‘Navcam’ on Opportunity, a camera that’s essential for enabling the rover to make its way across the surface of this alien world … but which doesn’t have a color camera.


In Saturn’s Shadow


Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Captured by NASA’s Cassini orbiter, an unmanned spacecraft sent to the planet Saturn (Cassini is the fourth space probe to visit Saturn and the first to enter orbit), the giant planet hangs in the blackness and shelters Cassini from the sun’s blinding glare. The spacecraft viewed the rings as never before, revealing previously unknown faint rings and even glimpsing Earth amongst them. This panoramic view was created by combining a total of 165 images taken by the Cassini wide-angle camera. The mosaic images were acquired as the spacecraft drifted in the darkness of Saturn’s shadow for about 12 hours.


Turn the to glass


image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

The Utah sand turned to glass during this two-minute and six second burn that constituted as the final qualification test of the solid rocket booster for NASA’s Space Launch System, which is tasked with lifting NASA’s most powerful rocket off the ground and ultimately send astronauts beyond Earth’s orbit for missions to distant targets, namely Mars.

The success of the burn, and the data received cleared the five-segment booster design for the first SLS flight in late 2018.

Saturn’s swirls


Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

NASA’s Cassini mission was tasked with solving the mysteries of Saturn’s northern polar region, and to discover the cause of its famous hexagonal shaped pole and the bands that surround it, something that had perplexed scientists and astronomers alike, since it was first discovered in 1988 by scientists reviewing data from NASA’s Voyager flybys of Saturn in 1980 and 1981. Cassini found that each latitudinal band represented air flowing at different speeds, and clouds at different heights, compared to neighbouring bands. Saturn’s hexagonal shaped north pole, is understood to be the eye of a hurricane-like storm. One hypothesis, developed at Oxford University, “…is that the hexagon forms where there is a steep latitudinal gradient in the speed of the atmospheric winds in Saturn’s atmosphere. Similar regular shapes were created in the laboratory when a circular tank of liquid was rotated at different speeds at its centre and periphery. The most common shape was six-sided, but shapes from three to eight sided were also produced. The shapes form in an area of turbulent flow between the two different rotating fluid bodies with dissimilar speeds.”

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft now is entering the final year of its epic voyage, due to conclude in September 2017. But first, the spacecraft will first complete a daring two-part endgame. On the 30th of November 2016, Cassini began a series of 20 weekly orbits, just past the outer edge of the main rings. Cassini’s final phase, called the grand finale, when Cassini will leap over the rings to begin its final series of daring dives ‘between’ the planet and the inner edge of the ring, begins in April 2017.

Roll on 2017. Let’s see what you have to offer us, I’m sure we won’t be disappointed.

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