Space: the final frontier. Those classic words from Capt. James T. Kirk have proven true for Earthlings during the past half-century that we’ve been exploring the cosmos. This year marks 50 years since America’s first spacewalk, and 50 years since we started to experience other worlds through the magic of photography. No more is the moon a slice of Swiss cheese or Jupiter a tiny dot of light in the night sky.
As space travel has evolved, so has our understanding of the heavens, thanks to hundreds of images we could never see with Earthly telescopes or the naked eye. Who could have imagined the full glory of Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s moons or the birth of stars in faraway galaxies?
While astronauts provided us with the first spectacular views of outer space, space telescopes showed us worlds so far away a man couldn’t reach them during a lifetime. Images of galaxies and nebulas emerged, so striking they could easily have been the imagined worlds of George Lucas or Gene Roddenberry brought to life only through modern computer software.
Some images of space have become so iconic they are now known to nearly everyone on Earth – everyone with a television or computer, that is. Check out these 15 iconic photos of Space.
15. First Space Walk
Astronaut Ed White was the first American to walk in space during the Gemini 4 mission on June 3, 1965. It was just before 4 p.m. when White opened the hatch and propelled himself into space using a hand-held Oxygen jet. Finally, an American was able to touch the cosmos that had been the object of Earthly fascination and speculation since the dawn of time.
White’s spacewalk began somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, near Hawaii, and by the time it ended just 23 minutes later, White was above the Gulf of Mexico. Thanks to a now-iconic photograph taken by Commander James McDivitt, the entire world was able to rejoice in White’s endeavor.
14. Pillars of Creation
Fast-forward 40 years, and images of faraway galaxies were sent to Earth thanks to the groundbreaking Hubble Space Telescope. According to Wikipedia, Pillars of Creation is the now-iconic name assigned to a photo of interstellar gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula, some 7,000 light years from Earth. The photo, taken April 1, 1995, captures the nebula’s creation of new stars, as it is also being eroded by the light from nearby stars that have recently formed. Since the nebula is roughly 7,000 light years from Earth, the Pillars of Creation had already been destroyed when the image was captured, but because light travels at a finite speed, that destruction won’t be visible on Earth for about 1,000 years.
The now-iconic Earthrise was taken by astronaut William Anders during an orbit of the moon as part of the Apollo 8 mission. According to NASA, the first manned mission to the moon, Apollo 8, entered the Moon’s orbit on Christmas Eve 1968. That same evening, the astronauts held a live broadcast where they showed pictures of the Earth and moon.
Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell – yes, the same guy portrayed in Apollo 13 – said of the moment: “The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.”
12. Blue Marble
One of the most iconic and widely-distributed images in human history, The Blue Marble was taken Dec. 7, 1972 by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft, at a distance of about 28,000 miles. “The first time the Apollo trajectory made it possible to photograph the south polar ice cap with the Southern Hemisphere heavily covered in clouds,” according to Wikipedia.
Taken just five hours after the Apollo 17 launched, it is one of the few times an almost fully illuminated Earth has been captured on film since the astronauts happened to have the sun behind them.
11. Casini’s Saturn
The Cassini spacecraft launched Oct. 15, 1997, and headed for Saturn, finally nearing its destination on July 2004 after an interplanetary voyage, which according to the BBC included flybys of Earth, Venus and Jupiter. Cassini reached Saturn’s moon Titan on Jan. 14, 2005, and descended to the surface, “the first landing ever accomplished in the outer solar system.” After a seven-year voyage, Cassini became the first spacecraft to ever orbit Saturn when it flew through the gap between two of the planet’s rings. During its mission, Cassini captured many images, including those of Saturn and its moons.
10. Sombrero Galaxy
Discovered May 11, 1781 by a European astronomer, the Sombrero Galaxy was captured in all its glory in 2003 when the Hubble Space Telescope team took six pictures of the galaxy and combined them to create the final composite image of the unbarred spiral galaxy in the constellation Virgo, located 28 million light-years from Earth. Although it’s not visible to the naked eye, the Sombrero Galaxy can be seen with even terrestrial telescopes, although without the vivid detail captured by Hubble. At 30 percent the size of the Milky Way, the galaxy is characterized by a bright nucleus and a dark dust lane which give this galaxy the appearance of a sombrero.
9. First Moonwalk
Some of the most famous images ever captured by NASA include those taken by the Apollo 11 crew during the first moon landing in 1969. One in particular, a photo of astronaut Buzz Aldrin taken by fellow cosmonaut Neil Armstrong, is the image many Americans forever associate with space travel. Armstrong may have been the first to set foot on the moon, and may have made the ever-famous statement about the giant leap for mankind, but it’s Aldrin’s image that will forever find its place in history books. But if you look into his space helmet, you can see Armstrong’s reflection as he takes the iconic photo. In fact, because of the reflection, Popular Science proclaimed Aldrin’s moonwalk photo “One of the Best Astronaut Selfies” in 2013.
8. Earth’s Atmosphere
We know what the Earth’s atmosphere looks like from below – and even from outer space – but what does it look like from atop its surface? Actually, not much different than the view experienced from a plane. Crew aboard the International Space Station captured the breathtaking image from their orbit above the South China Sea in 2006. A thick sea of clouds sit below a blue sky that deepens swiftly to the black of space, adorned by a crescent moon. The photo makes it clear that the Earth’s atmosphere becomes thinner and thinner with increasing altitude, with no definite boundary between the atmosphere and outer space.
7. Pluto’s Heart
Pluto may have lost its planetary status, but that doesn’t mean the world has forgotten about the cold and icy world 3 billion miles away in the outskirts of our solar system. Just over three months ago, Earthlings got their first up-close look at Pluto when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft captured the planetoid in vivid detail from just 476,000 miles above its surface.
It took New Horizons a decade to reach Pluto, soaring through space at 30,800 miles per hour, and images traveling at the speed of light took four hours to reach Earth. The already-iconic image includes a large feature informally named Pluto’s “heart,” which measures approximately 1,000 miles across. While the heart-shaped area borders darker equatorial terrains, much of its interior lacks features, a possible sign of ongoing geologic processes.
6. Veil Nebula
The Veil Nebula may have been discovered in 1784, but the already-iconic imagedepicting the supernova remnants were captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1997 and released in more vivid detail in 2015. A cloud of heated and ionized gas and dust in the constellation Cygnus, the Veil Nebula is the remnant of a supernova that exploded between 5,000 and 8,000 years ago. While the exact distance to the nebula is unknown, it’s thought to be about 1,470 light years from Earth.
5. Jupiter’s Eye
The third-largest object in the night sky, Jupiter was first observed by Babylonian astronomers as early as the 8th century B.C., but it wasn’t until 1973 that images from the Pioneer 10 Space Probe transmitted the first photographic images of the gas giant. The iconic image popularly known as Jupiter’s Eye was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope and depicts a black spot in the planet’s Great Red Spot, simulating a giant eye on the surface of Jupiter. The “eye,” however, is nothing more than a well-timed shadow, captured by Hubble’s cameras as Jupiter’s moon Ganymede passed by.
4. The Eye of God
The Helix Nebula, located within the constellation Aquarius, is located about 700 light years from Earth and has popularly been referred to as the Eye of God. Formed at the end of a star’s evolution, the core of the Helix Nebula is destined to one day be a white dwarf. While the first images of the nebula were captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, the already-iconic infrared image was taken by the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2007.
3. Sun Flare
In September 2015, the sun emitted a mid-level solar flare, captured by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, which constantly watches the sun. The particular flare can be seen in the bright flash in the lower right hand side of the sun. According to NASA, the image shows a subset of extreme ultraviolet light that highlights the extraordinarily hot material in flares and is typically colorized in red. Powerful bursts of radiation, solar flares cannot affect life on Earth, but when strong enough can disturb the atmosphere in the layer where GPS and communications signals travel.
2. Crab Nebula
A supernova remnant and pulsar wind nebula in the constellation Taurus, the Crab Nebula was first observed in 1731 and corresponds with a supernova recorded by Chinese astronomers in 1054. It’s the first astronomical object identified with a historical supernova explosion. While it isn’t visible to the naked eye, the Crab Nebula can be made out using binoculars under favorable conditions. The most iconic image of the Crab Nebula is actually a mosaic of 24 separate exposures taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1999 and 2000.
1. Spiral Galaxy
It’s unlikely humans will ever be able to capture an image of the Milky Way, since our own galaxy is thought to be as much as 180,000 light-years across, but the Hubble Space Telescope has provided images of other spiral-shaped galaxies, such as NGC 1566, a beautiful galaxy located 40 million light years away in the constellation of Dorado. An intermediate spiral galaxy, NGC 1566 has a small but extremely bright nucleus, indicating strong bursts of radiation and possibly super massive black holes that are many millions of times the mass of the sun.