A Trip Across the Solar System

The Atlantic

Alan Taylor

Right at this moment, robotic probes launched by NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), and others are gathering information all across the solar system. We currently have spacecraft in orbit around the Sun, Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and Saturn. Several others are on their way to smaller bodies, and a few are heading out of the solar system entirely. Although the Space Shuttle no longer flies, astronauts are still at work aboard the International Space Station, performing experiments and sending back amazing photos. With all these eyes in the sky, I’d like to take another opportunity to put together a recent photo album of our solar system — a set of family portraits, of sorts — as seen by our astronauts and mechanical emissaries. This time, we have some closer views of the asteroid Vesta, a visit to the durable (if dusty) Mars rover Opportunity, some glimpses of Saturn’s moons, and lovely images of our home, planet Earth.

A view of the Sun seen in extreme ultraviolet wavelengths by the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly aboard NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory. Looping lines reveal solar plasma that is rising and falling along magnetic field lines in the solar atmosphere, or corona. The brighter prominence at upper left is named solar active region 1429, which has already released several large solar flares, some accompanied by large explosions of solar plasma known as coronal mass ejections.

 

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A partial solar eclipse, as seen from space when the Moon moved in between NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO) satellite and the Sun.

NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft, in orbit around the planet Mercury, sent back this image of the central peaks of Eminescu Crater. Eminescu crater is 125 kilometers (78 miles) in diameter, and was only recently named – in honor of Mihai Eminescu, an accomplished and influential poet who is still considered the national poet of Romania.

 

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The International Space Station (top left) flies past the moon, as seen from Houston, Texas. The station was flying in an orbit at 390 km (242 miles) with six astronauts aboard.

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On the Moon, the Apollo 15 landing site, imaged from an altitude of 25 km by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Apollo 15 was the ninth manned mission in the Apollo space program, and the fourth to land on the Moon on July 30, 1971. Commander David Scott and Lunar Module Pilot James Irwin spent three days on the Moon, including lots of time in LRV-1, the first Lunar Rover, which they drove across 17.25 miles (27.76 km) of lunar surface. In this image, the descent stage of Apollo 15 is just right of center, the white spot with a surrounding shadow. Dark tracks to the right lead to the LRV-1, left parked on the moon. The trail of astronaut footprints at center-left surround the ALSEP experiments package. If you look closely at the left edge, you can see rover tracks leading off toward Hadley Rille, some 2km beyond.

 

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European Space Agency astronaut Andre Kuipers, Expedition 30 flight engineer, enjoys the view of Earth from the windows in the Cupola of the International Space Station.

 

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Russian support personnel arrive to help meet the Soyuz TMA-02M spacecraft shortly after the capsule landed with International Space Station Expedition 29 Commander Mike Fossum, and Flight Engineers Sergei Volkov and Satoshi Furukawa outside of the town of Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, on November 22, 2011. Fossum, Volkov and Furukawa were returning from more than five months aboard the ISS.

 

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Russian support personnel work to help get Expedition 29 crew members out of the Soyuz TMA-02M spacecraft shortly after the capsule landed outside of the town of Arkalyk, Kazakhstan, on November 22, 2011.

 

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A Delta II rocket launches with the NPOESS Preparatory Project (NPP) spacecraft payload from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base outside of Lompoc, California. NPP is the first NASA satellite mission to address the challenge of acquiring a wide range of land, ocean, and atmospheric measurements for Earth system science while simultaneously preparing to address operational requirements for weather forecasting.

 

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An unpiloted ISS Progress resupply vehicle approaches the International Space Station, carrying 2,050 pounds of propellant, 110 pounds oxygen and air, 926 pounds of water and 2,778 pounds of spare parts and experiment hardware for a total of 2.9 tons of food, fuel and equipment for the residents of the space station.

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A swirling cloud formation and the lights of the Aurora Borealis, seen from the International Space Station, high above the Gulf of Alaska.

 

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Russian cosmonaut Anton Shkaplerov, Expedition 30 flight engineer, participates in a session of extravehicular activity (EVA) to continue outfitting the International Space Station. During the six-hour, 15-minute spacewalk, Shkaplerov and Russian cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko (out of frame), flight engineer, moved the Strela-1 crane from the Pirs Docking Compartment to begin preparing the Pirs for its replacement next year with a new laboratory and docking module. Both spacewalkers wore Russian Orlan spacesuits bearing blue stripes and equipped with NASA helmet cameras.

 

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The surface of Mars, in an enhanced-color image provided by NASA. The image shows sand dunes trapped in an impact crater in Noachis Terra. The area covered in the image is about six-tenths of a mile (1 kilometer) across.

 

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What eight dusty years on Mars will do to a rover. This pair of self-portaits from NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity shows dust accumulation on the rover’s solar panels as the mission approaches its fifth Martian winter. The dust reduces the rover’s power supply, and the rover’s mobility is limited until the winter is over or wind cleans the panels. The photo on the left side was taken in February of 2005, when Opportunity had only been on the planet for 322 Martian days (sols). The right side was taken in December of 2011, after some 2,800 sols. Total distance driven by Opportunity to date: 34.36 km (21.35 miles).

 

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Saturn’s fourth-largest moon, Dione, can be seen through the haze of the planet’s largest moon, Titan, in this color view of the two posing before the planet and its rings from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

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