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Six of the most amazing space pictures from 2023


Wolf-Rayet stars are known to be efficient dust producers, and the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) on NASA?s James Webb Space Telescope shows this to great effect. Cooler cosmic dust glows at the longer mid-infrared wavelengths, displaying the structure of WR 124?s nebula. The nebula is made of material cast off from the aging star in random ejections, and from dust produced in the ensuing turbulence. This brilliant stage of mass loss precedes the star?s eventual supernova, when nuclear fusion in its core stops and the pressure of gravity causes it to collapse in on itself, and then explode. As MIRI demonstrates here, Webb will help astronomers to explore questions that were previously only left to theory about how much dust stars like this create before exploding in a supernova, and how much of that dust is large enough to survive the blast and go on to serve as building blocks of future stars and planets.

Right: Wolf-Rayet star WR 124 as glimpsed by JWST

NASA, ESA, CSA, STSCI and ERO Production Team

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has helped make 2023 a year of astonishing cosmic images. But the groundbreaking telescope was far from the only source of visual wonderment, because a series of new missions sent back pictures from space, and the view from Earth wasn’t bad either. Here are six of the images that dazzled us the most.

The star in the top picture was caught by JWST getting ready to explode. It is called WR 124 and is about 30 times the mass of the sun.

When stars that big run out of hydrogen to burn in their core, they begin to fuse heavier elements instead. This fusion creates powerful blasts of energy, blowing out gusts of wind at velocities in the millions of kilometres per hour. When those powerful winds strip away the outer layers of the star, it becomes what is known as a Wolf-Rayet star.

Within a few million years of being stripped, it blows up in a supernova. The purplish blotches in this picture are the clouds of dust and gas that used to be WR 124’s outer layers – it has already lost about 10 times the mass of the sun – and without those layers intact, it is now doomed to go supernova.

Andrew McCarthy and Jason Guenzel 140 megapixel image of the sun

A solar tornado seen from Earth

Andrew McCarthy and Jason Guenzel

Next up, we have the tallest solar tornado ever recorded (above). The event occurred on 14 March, when the rotation of the sun’s magnetic fields churned up the plasma near its north pole. This feature rose from the sun’s surface until the giant flare reached 178,000 kilometres tall – that is nearly 14 times the diameter of Earth.

This image was the result of a painstaking collaboration between astrophotographers Jason Guenzel and Andrew McCarthy. They used a high-speed camera to record the event, and took five days and 90,000 individual shots to create their picture. The sun looks furry in the image because it is covered in millions of churning geysers of plasma that last only a few minutes each.

https://webbtelescope.org/contents/media/images/2023/141/01H9NWH9JEBFPKVD3M1RRTGGQJ Caption NASA?s James Webb Space Telescope?s high resolution, near-infrared look at Herbig-Haro 211 reveals exquisite detail of the outflow of a young star, an infantile analogue of our Sun. Herbig-Haro objects are formed when stellar winds or jets of gas spewing from newborn stars form shock waves colliding with nearby gas and dust at high speeds The image showcases a series of bow shocks to the southeast (lower-left) and northwest (upper-right) as well as the narrow bipolar jet that powers them in unprecedented detail. Molecules excited by the turbulent conditions, including molecular hydrogen, carbon monoxide and silicon monoxide, emit infrared light, collected by Webb, that map out the structure of the outflows. Credits Image ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, Tom Ray (Dublin)

Newborn star Herbig-Haro 211, captured by JWST

ESA/Webb, NASA, CSA, Tom Ray (Dublin)

This luminous explosion (above) reveals a newborn star’s incredible supersonic jets. These make it what is known as a Herbig-Haro object. The star itself is hidden in the dark cloud of gas from which it formed, but as the jets shoot out on either side of it, they slam into surrounding gas and dust, creating huge shock waves and lighting up.

This particular object, called Herbig-Haro 211, is about 1000 light years from Earth in the constellation Perseus. That makes it one of the nearest Herbig-Haro objects we know of, which is why JWST was able to capture the most detailed image of one ever taken. This revealed strange wiggles in the jets, which may indicate that Herbig-Haro 211 actually has a companion star.

Jupiter's moon Io

Jupiter’s moon Io

NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Brian Swift/CC BY

Getting back to our own solar system, we move on to Jupiter’s moon Io (above). In October, NASA’s Juno spacecraft passed just 11,645 kilometres over this moon’s surface, taking this stunning image as it passed by. This is one of best photographs of Io ever taken, detailed enough to show the shadows of some of its enormous volcanoes.

Despite being only slightly larger than Earth’s moon, Io is thought to be studded with more than 400 active volcanoes, making it the most geologically active object in the solar system. The lava flows from those volcanoes give Io its distinctive mottled colours, which are enhanced in this image. In 2024, Juno will get even closer to this strange little moon’s surface, providing even more detail on its ever-changing geology.

India’s Vikram lander on the lunar surface

India’s Vikram lander on the lunar surface, part of the Chandrayaan-3 mission

ISRO

And on to our own moon. On 23 August, India’s Chandrayaan-3 mission became the first to land near the south pole of our moon. This picture (above) of the Vikram lander on the lunar surface was taken a week later by the mission’s Pragyan rover. Studying the south pole of the moon, which Chandrayaan-3 began, is particularly important because of the large amounts of ice there, which could be useful for future human exploration and possible permanent moon bases.

The comet was discovered on August 12, 2023 by Hideo Nishimura during 30-second exposures with a standard digital camera. Taken in Nerja, M??laga. Andalusia. South of Spain.

An amateur astronomer’s view of comet Nishimura

Javier Zayas/Moment RF/Getty Images

Our final image is of a more fleeting nature. Above is the comet Nishimura, seen from Earth as it streaked across the night sky.

Two rare green comets made dramatic appearances in the skies this year. First, in early February, the comet C/2022 E3 made its first close pass to Earth in 50,000 years. Then, in August, amateur astronomer Hideo Nishimura discovered another comet – now named after him – which remained visible for about two months. These comets appear green because the gas around their rocky nuclei contains diatomic carbon, which is a relatively rare substance made of pairs of bound carbon atoms.

Make the most of the image of Nishimura now because the comet takes about 437 years to orbit the sun, so won’t be seen again until the 25th century.

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