Near-infrared, color mosaic showing the sun shining off of Titan's north polar seas as captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona / University of Idaho

Top 5 Space Photos Of 2014 As Chosen By Space Advocates

2014 has been an amazing year for space science and NASA. With Orion’s first test flight and, of course, the European Space Agency’s historic comet landing there are a plethora of photos to pick from. However, we asked five space advocates which space photo in 2014 was their favorite and why? Let’s jump right to it!

Angela Gibson

Angela Gibson

A wonderful, passionate space / STEM advocate who has contributed a great deal to the space community. If you’ve ever attended a NASA Social in Florida then you’ve surely seen or at least know of Angela Gibson. She makes everyone feel welcome and has been supporting NASA and science for many years. Be sure to follow her on Twitter.

Moon seen from the International Space Station with the Earth illuminated by an aurora. Image Credit: Alexander Gerst

Moon seen from the International Space Station with the Earth illuminated by an aurora. Image Credit: Alexander Gerst

“Taken by European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut Alexander Gerst while aboard the International Space Station on September 3, 2014. Known as @Astro_Alex on Twitter, and a geophysicist, volcanologist, and explorer on Earth, this German astronaut captures an amazing moment in time. From his vantage point, the photographer puts into frame the Earth aglow with a green aurora, the shinning Moon, and parts of the International Space Station. Orbiting above the Earth in low space orbit, the ISS makes its way across the globe approximately every 90 minutes. A reminder of the international cooperation that brought together this research station in space, the picture captures several of the stickers and labels from countries in partnership on this new frontier. Thank you to the Astronauts on the Station who give us the privilege to see these wondrous marvels through their eyes.”

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell

As one of the best space science journalists out there, Elizabeth has an array of amazing articles. She’s a senior writer at the renowned Universe Today and a regular contributor to big names like Space.com, Space Exploration Network, the NASA Lunar Science Institute, NASA Astrobiology Magazine and LiveScience. When she’s not writing, Elizabeth is off pursuing a Ph.D in aerospace sciences at the University of North Dakota. She’s spoken at many events like the Planetary Society Live show and her contributions to the space community are felt by many. Highly recommend following Elizabeth Howell on Twitter.

Images of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko captured by ESA's Rosetta spacecraft on July 14, 2014. Image Credit: ESA / Rosetta / MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS / UPD / LAM / IAA / SSO / INTA / UPM / DASP / IDA

Images of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko captured by ESA’s Rosetta spacecraft on July 14, 2014. Image Credit: ESA / Rosetta / MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS / UPD / LAM / IAA / SSO / INTA / UPM / DASP / IDA

“My favourite space picture of the year is this image series of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko taken from the Rosetta spacecraft in July. This was the first to reveal the “rubber duckie” comet shape, which took scientists by surprise; they’re still trying to figure out how it formed. It also sparked a few amusing comments on social media. My favourite was the person who joked they should try to land the accompanying Philae spacecraft on the neck and break the comet apart.”

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Matt Schultz

Matt Schultz

Most famously known for Oh, Star Stuff, Matt has a talent for bringing knowledge and gorgeous photos of the cosmos right to our screens. Matt has been a big space advocate for a while and has been increasing his massive followeng on Instagram. In fact, you should check out Oh, Star Stuff’s Instagram right after you read this post (not kidding). Most people leave with a little inspiration in their day from reading his awesome posts. Definitely check Oh, Star Stuff for more great content on the cosmos.

Near-infrared, color mosaic showing the sun shining off of Titan's north polar seas as captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona / University of Idaho

Near-infrared, color mosaic showing the sun shining off of Titan’s north polar seas as captured by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / University of Arizona / University of Idaho

“Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, is one of the most mysterious places in our solar system. It’s the only object other than Earth on which clear evidence of stable bodies of surface liquid has been found. Unlike Earth, Titan’s liquid is methane, CH4, better known on Earth as natural gas. Regular Earth-water, H2O, would be frozen solid on Titan where the surface temperature is -292°F.

The possibility that there were seas on Titan was first suggested based on Voyager 1 and 2 data but due to a very thick atmosphere, the surface and the methane seas have been extremely difficult to observe. That’s what makes the images collected by Cassini this past August so extraordinary. As it flew past Saturn’s largest moon Titan, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft caught a glimpse of bright sunlight reflecting off its north polar seas. The reflection, known as the specular point, can be seen in the south of Titan’s largest sea, Kraken Mare. This color mosaic image is actually in “near-infrared” light meaning it is not the natural color the human eye would see. The unaided human eye would see nothing but haze so by using this wavelength it allowed scientists to break through and collect much more information.

It has been suggested that life could exist in the lakes of liquid methane on Titan, just as organisms on Earth live in water. Perhaps life on Titan might use a liquid hydrocarbon, such as methane or ethane demonstrating a different way in which it could begin and populate the cosmos. It will be fascinating to see what scientists will be able to learn from Cassini and future missions to this incredible moon.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. Arizona/Univ. Idaho
Description sources: jpl.nasa.gov, ESA, Space.com

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Sophia Nasr

Sophia Nasr

A huge space / STEM advocate who contributes to many science sites like All Science, All the Time. When Sophia isn’t busy pursuing her astrophysics degree at York University, she’s attending events like the recent NASA Social for Orion’s first test flight. She’s well known in the community by engaging through various outlets, including Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. She’s also no stranger to Penny4NASA with her numerous contributions that keep us asking her to come back for more. Definitely follow Sophia on Twitter or her other social profiles as you will not be disappointed.

Hubble See's Ghost Galaxy Light

Hubble image released on Oct. 30, 2014 shows what scientists have described as the “ghost light” of dead galaxies in a group of galaxies known as Pandora’s Cluster. Image Credit: NASA / ESA / IAC / HFF Team, STScI

“For me, the most intriguing astronomical image taken in 2014 is Pandora’s Cluster, also known as Abell 2744. Captured by the Hubble Space Telescope, this image features a cluster of some 500 galaxies located at a distant 4 billion light-years away… 4 BILLION light-years. But that’s not what makes it interesting.

You’ll notice a faint bluish glow among the galaxies, and this glow comes from stars that were thrown out of host galaxies that were gravitationally shredded apart a few million years ago, leaving these stars to roam among the cluster, bound to no galaxy at all. According to astronomers, these stars come from about 6 galaxies that were ripped apart some 6 billion years ago, leaving a plethora of stars stranded in this giant galaxy cluster… THAT is what makes this image so interesting!

See the image here: NASA

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Jonah Miller

Jonah Miller

If you love the crazy side of physics with concepts like differential gravity, general and special relativity, or even quantum gravity, then Jonah is the perfect person for the job! He has a number of publications under his belt and has a passion for space advocacy and science. He writes for his website called The Physics Mill and writes with great enthusiasm and depth. You surely do not want to miss a post from Jonah.

Image Credit: Cornell University / arXiv.org / Gunther Witzel, et al.

Image Credit: Cornell University / arXiv.org / Gunther Witzel, et al.

“Most galaxies have supermassive black holes at their center, and our galaxy, the Milky Way, is no exception. Buried in the Sagitarius constellation is a complex radio source called “Sagitarius A,” which consists of three objects: a supernova remnant, Sagitarius A East; a spiral-shaped cloud of gas, Sagitarius A West; and a supermassive black hole, Sagitarius A*.

Usually, the black holes at the centers of galaxies glow incredibly brightly. This is because as a black hole sucks in matter, its rotation torques it up to incredibly high velocities and launches it out the poles. This is called a “jet” and it’s one of the most energetic events in the universe. If a supermassive black hole at the center of a galaxy does this, it’s called an “Active Galactic Nucleus” (or “AGN” for short).

Somewhat surprisingly, Sagitarius A* is not an AGN. The light of an AGN fills its region of the sky, overpowering everything else. But the light from Sagitarius A* is so dim that it’s overpowered by the light of the gas nearby and by the rest of Sagitarius A. (Indeed, the only way we know where Sagitarius A* is, or what mass it has, is by plotting the orbits of nearby orbiting stars.) This means either that Sagitarius A* can’t be spinning very quickly or that not much is falling into it… in either case, it’s a mystery.

In 2012, we discovered something we hoped would shed light on the mystery of Sagitarius A*: A small, compact object was on a course that would take it right next to Sagitarius A*. It would pass harrowingly close to the sleeping monster: a distance from the black hole equal to about 3000 times the radius of the event horizon. (I know that sounds far, but in cosmic terms, it’s incredibly close!) We named this object G2 and pointed our telescopes at it, waiting and watching with baited breath.

At the time of discovery, scientists postulated that G2 was a ball of condensed gas about the mass of the Earth, a pseudo-planet that never made it into a gas giant. If this was the case, G2 would get torn apart by tidal forces as it approached Sagitarius A* before being consumed by the black hole.

Just this year, G2 made its approach to the black hole and, amazingly, G2 survived! That’s what this picture shows… It’s a four-frame time-lapse video of G2 passing by Sagitarius A* and leaving unmolested. This means that we were wrong about the makeup of G2. The current best theory now is that G2 is much more massive than we thought. The current best theory is that it’s the remnant of the merger of two neutron stars, forming a single humongous neutron star.

Of course, this is a little disappointing, because we didn’t get to see a black hole break up and consume a meal. But on the other hand, we discovered a cool new object, G2, and we gained one more piece of the puzzle surrounding Sagitarius A*.

And, most importantly, we got to watch a neutron star pass right by a supermassive black hole. That’s really cool. And that’s why this is my favorite space image from the last year.

A preprint of the G2 discovery paper (which was published in Nature) can be found here: http://arxiv.org/abs/1112.3264

A preprint of the paper discussing the survival of G2 (accepted for publication in the prestigious Astrophysical Journal) can be found here: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1410.1884v2.pdf

For a more blow-by-blow account of the odyssey of G2, see these blog posts by astrophysicist Brian Koberlein:
https://briankoberlein.com/2013/09/21/massive-evidence/
https://briankoberlein.com/2014/04/07/consume-mass-quantities/
https://briankoberlein.com/2014/11/06/holding-together/

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