Best space photos of 2013

December 23, 2013 • 1:31 pm

Head over to Slate and have a look at Phil Plait’s selection of “The best astronomy and space pictures of 2013“. I’ll show you just three, but believe me, you’ll want to see them all. And most of the photos are available in very resolution so you can use them as wallpaper on your computer.

Plait’s captions:

When stars die, they do it in style. This is NGC 5189, a glowing gas cloud seen by the Hubble Space Telescope. At the center is a white dwarf, the remains of what was once a star probably about twice the mass of the Sun. As it ran out of fuel, it expelled huge quantities of gas into space, exposing its dense core. White hot, spinning rapidly and possessed of a killer magnetic field, the white dwarf spewed out twin jets of energy and matter from its poles, energizing the surrounding material. However, the star is wobbling, so these lighthouse-like beams appear to carve out a gigantic S shape in the star’s former outer layers. At least, we think that’s what’s happening: This object isn’t completely understood, though that’s is the most likely explanation for this dramatic and lovely object.


The Mars Express orbiter has been circling the fourth rock from the Sun for 10 years now, taking thousands of observations. Bill Dunford collected quite a few of those images and created this jaw-dropping mosaic of the south pole of Mars. It’s not quite what the eye would see; what’s shown as red is actually near infrared, invisible to us but easily seen by the camera on the spacecraft. Kilometers-thick water ice covers the pole, capped itself by a layer of carbon dioxide ice a few meters thick. That is mixed with the rusty dust eternally blowing in the Martian winds, creating what looks more like something you’d order at a coffee shop rather than the frigid nether regions of a nearby world.


The second comet in this year’s list is none other than ISON. It may have disintegrated as it rounded the Sun—honestly, it’s amazing any comet can survive such a brutal gantlet—but on approach it was the picture of a perfect visitor. The image here, by Damian Peach, was taken on Nov. 13, 2013, not long before the end. The tail of the comet stretched for tens of millions of kilometers, and its interaction with the solar wind brought out wiggles and filaments that belied its eventual fate: an expanding cloud of dust as it rounded our star.


27 thoughts on “Best space photos of 2013

    1. He’s an astronomer, not a geologist (or areologist, jovologist etc etc).

      I can’t think of an appropriate verb for astronomers. Perhaps “vacuums”, but not in the sense of “sucks”? Or just “observes”‘ though that wouldn’t distinguish hm from any other scientist. He neologises a lot. Or, for simplicity, “gazes”!

  1. ISON’s tail…the lovely and discrete interactions between UV, solar wind, sodium, water/ice, and general scattering and momentum transfer properties of light with particles of various sizes.

    Stuff like this probably brought us the building blocks of life.

    1. I’m in mourning over ISON. I so hoped to see another comet in my lifetime because I’m greedy that way.

      1. Me too, comets are sooo disappointing. I want to see one that’s visible in the daytime before I go. Don’t think it’s going to happen though.

        1. Hale-Bopp & Hyakutake were pretty close. They were great comets but my photography equipment sucked back then with those comets showing up > < this much before the explosion of digital cameras.

          1. I managed to get a few good shots of Hale Bopp – I had two cameras, so I installed them on a tripod each. Not knowing the first thing about the technical requirements for making such shots, I improvised and fiddled around with the settings on both cameras, changing the settings in a totally random manner, changing the length of exposure, etc. In two reels of film, I got a fair amount of successful shots. Of course, I had no recollection of what the settings were!

            1. When I’m uncertain, I go back to old darkroom techniques and do a series of shots ramping aperture or exposure by a factor of one stop (sq,root of 2) each time so that I’ll exhaust the camara’s capability but still be able to work out from the film strips what the approximate settings were.
              It took hours of fiddling in the darkroom to work out this procedure. Or rather, it took hours before I finally realised that it really worked. It was the usual thing of doing the Right Thing after exhausting all the alternatives.

              1. I never had a darkroom (nor any knowledge of how to use them), nor any kind of “official” training in photography. I have no knowledge of all the technical settings one can use on a film camera, yet I do have an eye and have made some beautiful photographs since childhood (when I had a simple Brownie 127 camera). Everything technical is a mystery to me, save for the fact that the fastest films were grainy which could be an advantage with regard to the aesthetics of some photographs (and for taking pictures when there is little light). I have always gone by instinct and played around with the settings as if I knew what I was doing, but didn’t really 😀 Got some fantastic results most of the time.

              2. All the technlogy in the world is no substituste for the important lens in a camera – the one at the front of the photographer’s CNS.
                The controls on a digital camera are really just the same as on a film camera – they just hide them behind a mish-mash of menus and garbage that gets in way of the operator. Less is very definitely more when you’re talking about photography – including unfortunately, in price.
                My best friend – deceased almost exactly a year ago – had started getting together equipment to go back from doing digital to doing film photography – including if necessary going back to pouring his own plates if necessary. It’s not really that difficult – just like juggling Faberge eggs in variable gravity.

              3. Even more important than the physical camera at the front of the CNS is the virtual camera within the CNS itself. If you can’t see the final print before you release the shutter, you’re almost guaranteed to wind up with a snapshot rather than a photograph.

                Snapshots can be a lot of fun and can be quite important, and I wouldn’t want to discourage anybody from taking them. But…well, a snapshot is what the camera sees, and a photograph is what the artist sees, and what the artist sees is generally more interesting than what the camera sees.

                You also make a very valid point about the paradox of camera user interfaces. There really are only a very few variables that control how a camera works: format size (the physical dimensions of the film or sensor), sensitivity (measured in ISO), lens focal length, aperture diameter, shutter speed, and focus distance.

                With rare exception, the camera only has a single format size, though, through cropping, you can effectively change it to a smaller size.

                On a “pro” camera, the other variables are quick and intuitive to change. On “consumer” cameras? Not so much.

                Focal length for photographers is best imagined by holding a cutout the same size as the camera’s format in front of one eye. However far that cutout is from your eye, what you see is the field of view that you’d get with a lens of the same focal length. Pro lenses will often have a fixed focal length. When shooting with them, you either have that field of view in mind for your image or you’re planning on swapping lenses or cameras. Or, for pro zoom lenses, there’s a big, wide ring on the lens that you twist to zoom in and out — very quick, very simple, very intuitive. But for consumer cameras, there’re fiddly levers that drive motors that move the zoom at a fixed speed and always overshoot or undershoot and you can never get it right where you want it.

                On pro cameras, changing ISO is usually a matter of holding one big button under your thumb while spinning a big wheel under your finger. On many consumer cameras, if you can change it at all, you have to go through a dozen layers of menu.

                On pro cameras, you generally have four exposure modes: manual, aperture priority, shutter priority, and program. In manual mode, you spin one wheel with your finger to adjust the shutter speed and another wheel with your thumb to adjust aperture. In aperture and shutter priority modes, the wheel under your finger controls the one setting and the camera uses its meter to set the other. In program mode, the camera sets both values, but you can bias towards faster shutter + bigger aperture or slower shutter + smaller aperture by spinning the wheel under your finger. On consumer cameras, you have a bewildering array of icons to pick from, none of which seems to have much bearing on reality…and, if it offers any sort of manual control, you again have to go through all sorts of funky menus and then hold down seven buttons with your left hand and press three other buttons with your nose to change anything.

                And on pro cameras, there’s a big physical ring on the lens that lets you focus, and generally very sophisticated autofocus modes that let you control which part of the frame the camera tries to get in focus. You also generally have the option of dedicating an easy-to-reach button for autofocus, such that you can focus independently of releasing the shutter. You can use that to pre-focus on a set spot, and you can start and stop autofocus that way so that something passing in front of your subject doesn’t fool the camera into switching focus to the interloper. You can also mix-and-match manual and auto focussing, perhaps by using manual focus to get close and autofocus to touch up — very useful when shooting in scenes with lots of layers. Consumer cameras often don’t have manual focus; instead, you’re stuck focussing on whatever the camera thinks you should be focussing on. And, again, if they do offer manual focus, be ready to start mashing with multiple appendages.

                There’s no reason why consumer cameras can’t be as easy to use as a pro camera. Indeed, it takes a lot of extra engineering to fuck up ergonomics as much as what goes on in consumer cameras. And it’s not necessary to sacrifice ease-of-use; pro cameras also include a “hand it to Mom” one-button mode that makes it a true point-and-shoot camera, and it takes two seconds to tell Mom how to put it in that mode and take pictures. (Turn the dial on the top to the green square. Either look through the viewfinder or press the movie camera button next to the viewfinder to look at the picture on the back screen. Press the button on the front under your right finger to take the picture.)

                If ever there was an example of paying more to get less, cameras are it.



              4. My buddy and I (I was trying to persuade him back into SCUBA before his illness) thoroughly agreed with you about “more for less” with respect to cameras – and for some years he sold the damned things at a major computing equipment retailer. Which is why he was moving back to silver and celluloid for his interesting photography (though for point’n’shoot, he also used digitals). Similarly, I had decided to take the Big Camera Maker’s shilling and start investing in a proper multi-lens, multi-body system. (He had some relict investment in film cameras ; I’d been cleaned out by burglars. So we were both relatively unencumbered in this. But for point’n’shoot, in your pocket stuff – well, that’s what ‘phones are for. But don’t expect too much of them.

              5. You might be surprised at what the iPhone camera is capable of…but, yeah, it’s also easy to push it beyond its limits. In good light with relatively static subjects, it’s a damned good camera, assuming you don’t need large prints or were planning on doing a lot of post-production. Of course, if you’re looking to shoot fast-moving things in bad light and you want to make heavily-edited door-sized prints…well, just sign the deed to your house over to Canon or Nikon and be done with it.

                Incidentally, a lot of sports and wildlife photography is exactly the enterprise of making heavily-edited door-sized prints of fast-moving things in bad light….



              6. My dad used to develop his own film and that meant that I got locked out of the bathroom while he did it which sucked when you had an itty bitty kid bladder.

                The thing that sucks with developing your film is the noxious chemicals you are exposed to.

          2. We were lucky enough to see Hyakutake. My family and I, including our young daughter, went to a special site set up by generous cosmologists. The lines were long but we got to see it through a telescope and binoculars.
            The kids were quite impressed.

            1. I got back into the country from offshore (with hundreds of kilowatt lights all over the installation, 24×365) the day before Hyakutake’s closest approach, and on the night of the fly-by I managed to visit friends out in the country with a good dark sky. By eye, when fully dark-adapted, we could certainly see 90deg of tail. But through binoculars it was unspectacular. That was when I decided to get a telescoope, though I’ve never managed to arrange a regular site for it.

  2. Thanks so much for sharing this. I wouldn’t have known otherwise. The photos are breathtaking and humbling in equal measure. How fantastic it is to live at a time when we get to see such spectacular wonders.

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