Neil deGrasse Tyson’s reboot of “Cosmos,” as I discussed in my recent review, relies heavily on blockbuster computer-generated imagery to ground viewers in the immense scale of the universe. However, humanity has acquired plenty of actual images from the cosmos that are no less inspiring. Moving outward from our own planet, here’s a small collection of thought-provoking shots from space.
Looking down from the International Space Station, astronauts can see Earth’s cities aglow with electric light. But one of the most interesting features in Tokyo is instead conspicuous by its darkness. The dark spot in the middle of this photograph represents the palace of the Japanese emperor and his household, set off from the urban sprawl of the city by a large park.
If this picture of the Moon looks somehow off, it’s because this view is impossible to obtain from Earth. Because the Moon’s rotational period is exactly the same as its orbital period, only one of its hemispheres is visible on our planet’s surface. The Apollo astronauts, however, were able to snap this picture of the far side in the course of their mission.
The fame of Comet ISON was much like its lifespan: brief. As seen in this composite image of the comet’s path, it swung in from the outer solar system to pass barely over a million kilometers from the surface of the Sun, absorbing heat and being torn apart by gravity.
While Saturn’s rings are by far the most famous in the solar system, others of the gas giants have their own systems of orbiting particles. Neptune has five rings, but they are so faint that their existence wasn’t definitively established until the flyby of the Voyager 2 probe in 1989.
The Hubble Space Telescope, over the course of its nearly 24 years in orbit, has revealed unforeseen beauty in the outer reaches of space. This mountain of gas resides in the Carina Nebula, 7500 light-years from earth, and contains an array of young stars within itself that release the dramatic jets seen in the image. Yet the “Mystic Mountain” wouldn’t appear as beautiful to the naked eye; the colors of this picture represent different elements present in the nebula.
Earth’s location, as Carl Sagan so often discussed on the original version of “Cosmos,” is nothing particularly special. But it does afford us some spectacular vantage points of astronomical objects, such as this edge-on view of the Sombrero Galaxy taken by Hubble. The swirl of dust on the outside of the galaxy stretches over 300,000 light-years, and the galaxy itself is 28 million light-years from Earth.