These are our best space pictures ever

We have never seen images from space as stunning as those from the James Webb Space Telescope, which shared its first cosmic outlook in July. The images left us dazzled, amazed and excited for more. They also inspired us to reflect on the best past and present space images. These images have moved us with their drama, their beauty or their meaning. This is how eight Scientific News staff members answered the question: What is your all-time favorite space image?

Apollo 8 Earthrise, taken in 1968

This view of Earth taken during Apollo 8's lunar orbit shows Earth floating in the background and the lunar surface in the foreground.  This is one of our best space images.
The Apollo 8 crew made 10 orbits around the Moon in late December 1968, capturing this view of Earth.Nasa

Lisa Grosman, a writer specializing in astronomy, chose Apollo 8’s Earthrise as his best space image. She says: The feeling that you are there, sci-fi but real to see the Earth above the edge of the moon stimulates my imagination. And something about having the surface of the moon in the picture gives me deep chills. I can imagine my own feet in those gray craters, my own eyes looking at my own Earth. It’s wild. It’s strange. I love it.

I feel the same way about the selfie pictures of the martian rovers; here is NASA’s Curiosity rover at Mount Mercou in 2021.

Selfie of the Curiosity rover with the landscape of Mars including Mount Mercou in the background.  This is a finalist for our best space images.
NASA’s Curiosity rover used a camera on its head and one on its robotic arm to create this selfie with Mount Mercou in March 2021.NASA, JPL-Caltech, MSSS

You can see the rover and the landscape behind it. It’s our robotic avatar on this planet, rolling around doing our job. Although I’m lukewarm about sending people out for extraterrestrial exploration — I think the risks outweigh the scientific benefits — I’ve always been a sucker for imagining living in another world. Or at least visiting.

Close-up of Neptune by JWST, taken in 2022

A close-up photo of Neptune, showing its rings.  This is one of our best space images.
Neptune and its rings glow in infrared light in this image from the James Webb Space Telescope. This is the first direct look at the rings of Neptune in over 30 years.NASA, ESA, CSA, STSCI, JOSEPH DEPASQALE/STSCI

Nikk Ogasaeditor for physical sciences, says: There are so many awesome space images, but my favorite from this year was the The James Webb Space Telescope celestial shot of Neptune. That’s wonderful. The image captures the planet’s near-infrared glow in unprecedented detail. Not only can you see the glorious rings, but you can also make out the high-flying methane clouds as bright trails. I am amazed to see clouds over another world that is billions of miles away.

Pillars of Creation, first captured in 1995

New stars are born in these towers of gas and dust, called the Pillars of Creation, in the Eagle Nebula.  It's an iconic image and one of our best space images of all time.
After capturing the Pillars of Creation in 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope imaged them a second time in late 2014 (the visible-light image is shown here).NASA, ESA and Hubble Heritage Team, STSCI/AURA

Two members of our team selected the Hubble Space Telescope’s second view of the Pillars of Creation, taken in 2014, as the top space image.

design director Erin Otwell says: My first spatial image is of the Pillars of Creation in the Eagle Nebula. It’s my choice because of the impressive detail and painterly quality of the composition. For me, this image sums up the feeling of studying the cosmos and creation itself. Towers of gas and dust where new stars are born make up an almost solid figure. It looks more like a hand than pillars.

Maria Temmingdeputy editor at Scientific news explores, says: I know claiming the Pillars of Creation as my favorite space image is like saying Starbucks is my favorite coffee shop. But I don’t care! I love it. I have something of a sentimental attachment to this view, as it was on the cover of the Great Courses introductory astronomy DVD that first sparked my interest in space science.

The Pillars of Creation are shown in infrared light, revealing more stars hidden by gas and dust.
In an infrared light view of the Pillars of Creation, taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in late 2014, the stars inside and behind the towers of gas and dust are visible.NASA, ESA, Hubble and the Hubble Heritage Team

The iconic candy-colored images of the pillars in visible light aren’t the only versions captured by Hubble. In 2014, the space telescope also took a ghostly image of the scene in infrared light (above). Light at infrared wavelengths shines through the gas and dust of the pillars, revealing the baby stars swaddled inside those clouds.

Thomas Digges’ vision of the universe, published in 1576

Illustration of the universe that shows the sun at the center of the solar system and the stars beyond the solar system.  This is one of our favorite space images.
In this image published in 1576, English astronomer Thomas Digges depicts stars extending far beyond the solar system.Welcome collection

Tom Siegfried, contributing correspondent, chose this diagram as his favorite spatial image. He says: When Copernicus moved the Earth from the center of the universe, he imagined the stars as occupying a sphere surrounding the planets which orbited on smaller spheres surrounding the sun. But Thomas Digges, an English astronomer who championed Copernicus, thought stars extended far beyond the solar system.

In this image, published in 1576, Digges depicted many stars beyond the spheres of the planets, suggesting that the universe was “garnished with innumerable lights and reaching an endless spherical altitude”. With these words, Digges was the first follower of Copernicus to suggest that the universe encompassed an infinite expanse of space.

The Milky Way black hole, released in 2022

The bright orange ring shows the event horizon of the Milky Way's giant black hole, Sagittarius A*.  This is one of our best space images.
In May 2022, the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration released this first image of the black hole at the heart of the Milky Way.HORIZON TELESCOPE COLLABORATION EVENT

Helen Thompson, associate digital editor, says: Is it extremely blurry? Yes. Isn’t it even the first time we imagine a black hole? Yes too. But this is the black hole in our galactic backyard, and we’ve never seen it before. There is something breathtaking and heartwarming about seeing it for the first time. The Event Horizon Telescope first image of Sagittarius A* may not be as pretty as James Webb’s whimsical images, but all the difficulties of imaging black holes and particularly this black hole makes it so compelling.

Gravitational lens of quasar 2M1310-1714, captured in 2021

Quasar 2M1310-1714 is visible as four points of light around a central light thanks to the gravitational lens.  It is a superior spatial image.
Through gravitational lensing, predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity before it was observed, quasar 2M1310-1714 appears as four points of light sitting in a ring around two bright galaxies.ESA, Hubble, NASA, T. Treu

Elizabeth Quill, Special Projects Editor, says: In the ring of light in the center of this image are a pair of distant galaxies and a much more distant quasar behind them. The mass of the galactic duo warps the fabric of spacetime, bending and amplifying the quasar’s light to form what are four distinct images of the quasar, each sitting around the ring. It’s a powerful visual example of a phenomenon known as gravitational lensing, which has been predicted by Einstein’s theory of general relativity even before it is observed.

My first image of space impresses me every time. How amazing that the universe works this way. How incredible that the human mind, a motley product of the universe, can foresee this. And not just foresee it; today’s scientists use the gravitational lens as a tool to study otherwise inaccessible regions of space. It is both humiliating and stimulating.

Pale blue dot, taken in 1990

The Earth appears as a weak point in a beam of light.  This is one of our best space images.
NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft took this farewell image of Earth after completing its tour of the solar system in 1990.NASA, JPL-Caltech

Christophe Croquetassociate editor, says, “My all-time favorite space image isn’t of a colorful nebula, or a twinkling galaxy, or even some supermassive black hole. It’s a dot unique, seemingly nestled in a ray of light.

After completing his tour of the solar system in 1990, NASA Voyager 1 looked back and took a series of farewell images — a “family portrait,” as it was called — of several planets orbiting our sun. One of the images, known as the photo “pale blue dot”captured Earth seen from about 6 billion miles away – the most distant image of home ever taken.

The image, updated with modern image processing software and re-released in 2020 (above), remains a reminder of why we explore the universe. Yes, we want to better understand how space and time, stars and planets, galaxies and superclusters work, because we are curious. But all of these questions ultimately come down to trying to understand where we come from and how we fit into everything around us.

As Carl Sagan pointed out, nothing captures how tiny we are in the grand scheme of things better than seeing our entire planet reduced to a mere speck of light.

When I used to give public lectures on astronomy, I almost always ended with this image. And I usually read Sagan’s thoughts on this:

“Look again at this point. It’s here. It is the house. It’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you’ve heard of, every human being that ever was, lived their lives…on a speck of dust hanging in a ray of sunshine…He there is perhaps no better demonstration of the madness of human vanities than this distant image of our little world. To me, this underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the Pale Blue Dot, the only home we have ever known.

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