The most stunning space images captured in 2023, so far

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Spacecraft are zipping around our solar system, snapping wondrous views of moons, planets, and ancient galaxies. In 2023, the images beamed back to Earth have been jaw-dropping.

Here, you can see many of the cosmic vistas captured this year — so far — by the likes of the powerful James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s Jupiter-orbiting Juno spacecraft, and beyond.

Stunning Webb telescope photo shows actual bending of spacetime

The James Webb Space Telescope captured warped galaxies in deep space.

The James Webb Space Telescope captured warped galaxies in deep space.
Credit: ESA / Webb // NASA / CSA / J. Rigby

Astronomers pointed the giant Webb telescope at a cluster of galaxies around 6.3 billion light-years away.

This cluster of galaxies, called SDSS J1226+2149, holds so much star and planetary weight that it’s literally warping space, like a bowling ball sitting on a mattress. The warped cosmic area distorts and magnifies the massive objects in the distance.

“This effect, referred to by astronomers as gravitational lensing, occurs when a massive celestial object such as a galaxy cluster causes a sufficient curvature of spacetime for light to be visibly bent around it, as if by a gargantuan lens,” writes the European Space Agency.(opens in a new tab)

In the image above, in the lower right area, you can see poignant examples of distorted light caused by warped spacetime. These are the red, elongated shapes. In particular, there’s a red, “long, bright, and distorted arc spreading out near the core,” the space agency explains, an object dubbed “the Cosmic Seahorse.” Such powerful magnification allows scientists to peer into this galaxy and grasp the star formation inside this distant realm of space.

NASA swoops by an erupting volcano world and snaps jaw-dropping images

Jupiter's moon Io, as imaged by NASA's Juno spacecraft on May 16, 2023.

Jupiter’s moon Io, as imaged by NASA’s Juno spacecraft on May 16, 2023.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS / Ted Stryk

NASA is creeping closer to a tortured world.

The space agency’s Juno spacecraft has been swooping ever-closer to Jupiter‘s moon Io, a place teeming with volcanoes and lava. It’s a truly volcanic orb. In early March, Juno passed some 32,044 miles from Io. On May 16 Juno returned, traversing just 22,060 miles from Io and capturing rich imagery.

Over the coming year, it’s only going to get closer, ultimately traveling within 930 miles, or 1,500 kilometers, from Io. That’s darn close. The Hubble telescope(opens in a new tab) orbits around 332 miles above Earth.

“We’re marching closer and closer,” Scott Bolton, the Juno mission’s principal investigator, told Mashable in March.

“Io is the most volcanic celestial body that we know of in our solar system,” Bolton said in a statement(opens in a new tab). “By observing it over time on multiple passes, we can watch how the volcanoes vary — how often they erupt, how bright and hot they are, whether they are linked to a group or solo, and if the shape of the lava flow changes.”

NASA helicopter captures glorious view of Mars, with some surprises

NASA's experimental helicopter Ingenuity snapped this Martian vista from 40 feet up in the air.

NASA’s experimental helicopter Ingenuity snapped this Martian vista from 40 feet up in the air.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

NASA’s extraterrestrial helicopter Ingenuity flew 40 feet into the Martian air in April and snapped an astonishing landscape on another world.

On its 51st flight, the experimental craft — with rotors reaching four feet long from tip to tip — rose atop a hill just beyond the rim of Belva crater. The view(opens in a new tab) is grandiose. It looks, dare one say, earthly. The rocky desert is in the foreground. Eroded, windswept hills roll through the horizon. The sky is bright.

And scattered among the vista are some curious signs of human exploration. If you look closely, you can find helicopter legs, the helicopter’s shadow, the car-sized Perseverance rover, and exploration debris.

Webb telescope snaps image of solar system that’s nothing like ours

The belts around the star Fomalhaut, as imaged by the James Webb Space Telescope.

The belts around the star Fomalhaut, as imaged by the James Webb Space Telescope.
Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / A. Pagan (STScI) / A. Gáspár (University of Arizona)

In our solar system, we know the asteroid belt is teeming with curious, ancient objects. This year, scientists peered into another solar system and found two of these belts in the inner system, along with a third farther out.

Astronomers used the most powerful telescope in space ever deployed, the James Webb Space Telescope, to reveal more rings around the young star Fomalhaut, located relatively close (in space terms) at some 25 light-years away(opens in a new tab). The research was recently published(opens in a new tab) in the science journal Nature Astronomy.

Previously, other strong telescopes, like the school bus-sized Hubble, observed Fomalhaut’s extremely distant outer ring, which lies 14 billion miles away from the star. Yet Webb, which views a type of light called infrared — light that’s invisible to our eyes but a common and potent source of energy — found two inner belts.

“Where Webb really excels is that we’re able to physically resolve the thermal glow from dust in those inner regions. So you can see inner belts that we could never see before,” Schuyler Wolff, an astronomer at the University of Arizona who worked on the research, said in a statement(opens in a new tab).

The James Webb Space Telescope captured three rings around the star Fomalhaut.

The James Webb Space Telescope captured three rings around the star Fomalhaut.
Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / A. Gáspár (University of Arizona). Image processing: A. Pagan (STScI)

NASA captured an unprecedented view of Uranus

The Webb telescope captured a view of Uranus and its rings.

The Webb telescope captured a view of Uranus and its rings.
Credit: NASA / ESA / CSA / STScI // Image processing: J. DePasquale (STScI)

The infrared-viewing Webb telescope allowed astronomers to capture a vivid image of the rings around Uranus, which are too faint and distant to see in visible light.

“JWST is a ring machine,” said Stefanie Milam, a NASA planetary scientist. “This is one of the first times we’ve seen the Uranus rings in a very, very long time. They are really, really hard to see, and that’s because they’re made out of ice and dust.”

In this image, you can see 11 of Uranus’ 13 known rings.

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Webb telescope captures astonishing view of deep space

A deep view of the cosmos. LEDA 2046648 is the large galaxy at the bottom.

A deep view of the cosmos. LEDA 2046648 is the large galaxy at the bottom.
Credit: ESA Webb / NASA / CSA / A. Martel

A galactic image from the European Space Agency, which runs the Webb telescope with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, shows a deep view of the cosmos that other telescopes can’t see. The universe’s most ancient galaxies are so far away that their light has literally stretched out into wavelengths that aren’t visible to our eyes. But “Webb’s speciality,” NASA emphasizes(opens in a new tab), is to view these longer, infrared wavelengths of light.

When Webb views such far-off places in space, the instrument is looking back in time billions of years. This image shows what those galaxies looked like when the light left, long ago.

Here’s what else you’re seeing in the image below:

  • In the foreground, near the bottom, is a glorious example of a spiral galaxy, called LEDA 2046648. At around 1 billion light years away, it’s much closer than the distant galaxies beyond. Our Milky Way is a spiral galaxy, too.

  • Everything else in this image is a galaxy, except for the six-pointed objects, which are much closer stars. (Bright points of light in a telescope like Webb can cause something called “diffraction spikes.”) “A crowded field of galaxies throngs this Picture of the Month(opens in a new tab) from the NASA/ESA/CSA James Webb Space Telescope, along with bright stars crowned with Webb’s signature six-pointed diffraction spikes,” the European Space Agency (ESA) explained(opens in a new tab).

  • Many of the distant galaxies look reddish or orangish. As the universe expands and these celestial objects move farther away, their light has stretched. “Webb’s keen infrared vision helps the telescope peer back in time, as the light from these distant galaxies is redshifted towards infrared wavelengths,” the ESA said.

Spacecraft swoops by the rarely-visited planet Mercury

The BepiColombo spacecraft swooped by Mercury in June 2022.

The BepiColombo spacecraft swooped by Mercury in June 2022.
Credit: ESA / JAXA

The robotic BepiColombo orbiter(opens in a new tab), a joint mission of the European and Japanese space agencies, made a rare swoop by the tortured planet Mercury in June. As the closest planet to the sun, it’s relentlessly bombarded with extreme heat and solar radiation.

The latest images show a world blanketed in impact craters and ancient lava flows. In the coming years, the spacecraft will finally settle into an orbit around the planet, allowing planetary scientists to better grasp how this unique world formed and evolved.

A star blew up, and scientists snapped a photo of the violent explosion

A supernova explosion spotted in the Pinwheel galaxy.

A supernova explosion spotted in the Pinwheel galaxy.
Credit: International Gemini Observatory / NOIRLab / NSF / AURA // Image Processing: J. Miller (Gemini Observatory / NSF’s NOIRLab) / M. Rodriguez (Gemini Observatory / NSF’s NOIRLab) / M. Zamani (NSF’s NOIRLab) / T.A. Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage / NSF’s NOIRLab) & D. de Martin (NSF’s NOIRLab)

Boom.

In May, astronomers spotted a star that exploded in the colossal Pinwheel galaxy some 21 million light-years away — which in cosmic terms is relatively close. The outburst of a massive star collapsing on itself, called a supernova, created a brilliant point of light in the galaxy, a light that is currently still visible with a small telescope.

Now, astronomers have pointed a powerful telescope at the space blast, and you can see the sustained bright flash. The huge, over eight-meter (over 26 feet) wide Gemini North telescope, located atop Hawaii’s Mauna Kea at 13,824 feet, captured this supernova event.

Where is it? The supernova, dubbed “SN 2023ixf,” is the radiant blueish point of light located on the far left of the image, on one of the Pinwheel galaxy’s (a popular stargazing object also known as “Messier 101”) spiral arms. The sun, and Earth, also inhabit a spiral arm of our Milky Way galaxy, though our medium-sized star is not massive enough to violently explode.

Spectacular new images of the sun

A close-up of a sunspot.

A close-up of a sunspot.
Credit: NSF / AURA / NSO // Image Processing: Friedrich Wöger (NSO) / Catherine Fischer (NSO) // Science Credit: Jaime de la Cruz Rodriguez (Stockholm University)

The new Daniel K. Inouye Solar Telescope, located atop Maui’s volcano Haleakalā, captured extremely detailed images of the sun in 2023.

The instrument’s 4-meter-wide (13-foot) mirror makes it the most powerful solar telescope on Earth. Many of these images show views of dark sunspots, which are cooler regions on the sun’s surface related to its solar cycle activity. Often, these spots are larger than Earth.

“As the Inouye Solar Telescope continues to explore the Sun, we expect more new and exciting results from the scientific community – including spectacular views of our solar system’s most influential celestial body,” the National Solar Observatory said.



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