2017 Was an Astounding Year for Space Images - Atlas Obscura
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2017 Was an Astounding Year for Space Images

From super moons to Saturn’s rings to distant galaxies.

A series of color-enhanced images of Jupiter, taken by NASA's <em>Juno</em> spacecraft, September.
A series of color-enhanced images of Jupiter, taken by NASA's Juno spacecraft, September. JPL/ NASA

One of the best ways to experience wonder in 2017 was to look up. In August, Eclipse Madness seized millions of people across North America, who, for a few short minutes, saw the world differently—and captured some amazing photos. There was also a partial lunar eclipse, a big, bright super moon, and for astronomers with telescopes, the first sighting of an interstellar asteroid.

There were also stunning new images and insights about distant worlds. Back in February, NASA announced a breakthrough: a star system with seven planets, several of which could have conditions right for life, which quickly inspired fantastical but reality-based space art and fun travel posters. Since July, NASA’s Juno spacecraft has whipped around Jupiter nearly nine times, generating glorious photos and reams of data. And in September, the Cassini probe, launched in 1997, ended its epic observation of Saturn with a final, dramatic image before it plunged to its doom in the planet’s atmosphere.

An artist's impression of the TRAPPIST-1 system, announced by NASA in February.
An artist’s impression of the TRAPPIST-1 system, announced by NASA in February. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Images of celestial events have always been a source of fascination. Not long after the first daguerreotype cameras were launched, photographers used them, in concert with telescopes, to document the skies above. More than a century later, NASA put the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit, which, once its optics were adjusted, represented an epic advance: a clear view, from above the Earth’s atmosphere, of the universe. Seven years later, Cassini-Huygens left on its mission—past Venus, through an asteroid belt, and by Jupiter before finally sighting Saturn in 2002 (still, at that point, a full two years from its destination). The detail of the ringed planet that it provided is unprecedented, as are Juno’s close-ups of the solar system’s largest planet and its Great Red Spot, a storm 10,000 miles wide.

This year also commemorated 40 years of space exploration by Voyager 1. In 1990, this spacecraft—now cruising along beyond our solar system—captured one of the most famous images of Earth, of the planet as a “pale blue dot” against seemingly infinite space. Astronomer and writer Carl Sagan’s words about this image still ring true today: “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Atlas Obscura presents a selection of 2017’s most wondrous astronomical images.

The International Space Station transits the Moon, December.
The International Space Station transits the Moon, December. NASA/Joel Kowsky
The total solar eclipse seen from Casper, Wyoming, by a team of astronomers, August.
The total solar eclipse seen from Casper, Wyoming, by a team of astronomers, August. ESA/M.P. Ayucar , CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO
Saturn's hexagonal north pole captured by <em>Cassini</em>, January.
Saturn’s hexagonal north pole captured by Cassini, January. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
An image of Saturn captured by <em>Cassini</em>, consisting of a mosaic of 42 shots, September.
An image of Saturn captured by Cassini, consisting of a mosaic of 42 shots, September. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
A color-enhanced image Jupiter's cloud systems, shot by <em>Juno</em>, October.
A color-enhanced image Jupiter’s cloud systems, shot by Juno, October. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Gerald Eichstadt/Sean Doran
The moon's shadow on Earth, photographed by Astronaut Paolo Nespoli during the solar eclipse, August.
The moon’s shadow on Earth, photographed by Astronaut Paolo Nespoli during the solar eclipse, August. ESA/NASA
An image of the Crab Nebula, 6,500 light years away, created with data from five telescopes, including Hubble, May.
An image of the Crab Nebula, 6,500 light years away, created with data from five telescopes, including Hubble, May. JPL/ NASA
Saturn's irregular moon, Atlas, captured by <em>Cassini</em>, April.
Saturn’s irregular moon, Atlas, captured by Cassini, April. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
The moon Amalthea casts a shadow on Jupiter in this <em>Juno</em> image, September.
The moon Amalthea casts a shadow on Jupiter in this Juno image, September. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MS
A solar outburst, October.
A solar outburst, October. NASA/GSFC/Solar Dynamics Observatory
The super moon, viewed from Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., December.
The super moon, viewed from Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C., December. NASA/ Public Domain
One of <em>Cassini</em>'s last images, showing the moon Enceladus sinking behind the planet, September.
One of Cassini’s last images, showing the moon Enceladus sinking behind the planet, September. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
A Hubble image of Galaxy UGC 12591, just under 400 million light years away.
A Hubble image of Galaxy UGC 12591, just under 400 million light years away. ESA/Hubble & NASA