Space Photos of the Week: A Stormy Summer on Mars

Mars has a low atmospheric pressure compared with Earth, and that makes it a dusty place. Storms occur frequently, and the warmer months are notorious for them, as hotter temperatures and rising air currents lift particles from the surface. Sometimes, though, the phenomenon goes global. Several dust storms developed in April and May and over the following weeks grew to consume the skies of the red planet, turning our detailed view of Mars into a haze of orange. The European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter took this photo near the the north polar ice cap. Here you can see the storm as it rolls across the landscape.

Now you see it, now you don’t: Here’s Mars before and after the massive dust storms that grew and eventually enveloped the entire planet. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took these photos, and seen side by side the comparison is startling. The image at left is from late spring, and the one at right is from earlier this month, in the thick of summer. For Mars watchers, there’s no choice but to wait for things to settle down.

They say you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. What you really need is a satellite. Meet Aeolus (“keeper of the winds” in Greek mythology), scheduled to launch in late August by the European Space Agency. This photo is a sneak peek at the view Aeolus will have of Earth during its mission. Its job: to study the winds of Earth in real time, helping scientists gather data about our ever changing climate. Aeolus will be the first-ever space instrument to measure winds at all altitudes from our surface to the stratosphere.

Neptune is rather far from Earth. So far, in fact, that it’s difficult to get a good look at it unless you send something all the way out to the edge of our solar system—which we’ve only ever done once, with Voyager 2 in the late 1980s. But wait: This image of Neptune is new! The European Southern Observatory’s Very Large Telescope used a technique called adaptive optics, where laser telescopes on Earth account for and correct the effects of turbulence in our atmosphere as well as Neptune’s. Astronomers now can peer through the thick clouds to get a detailed image like this—sharper than they can get from the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Hubble Space Telescope and other instruments we’ve sent into space have taken our long-standing awe and amazement, and massively expanded it. Consider this image, a stellar example of Hubble’s ability to peer into the great beyond: The galaxy cluster seen here, known as SDSS J1336-0331, sits 2.2 billion light years from Earth. That the light in this photo took 2.2 billion years to reach Hubble’s camera isn’t the half of it. The cluster contains so much mass it is literally bending space—and as a result bending the light around it.

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