A visualisation of the polarisation of the Cosmic Microwave Background, or CMB, as detected by ESA’s Planck satellite on a small patch of the sky measuring 20º across.
The CMB is a snapshot of the oldest light in our Universe, imprinted on the sky when the Universe was just 380 000 years old. It shows tiny temperature fluctuations that correspond to regions of slightly different densities, representing the seeds of all future structure: the stars and galaxies of today.
A small fraction of the CMB is polarised – it vibrates in a preferred direction. This is a result of the last encounter of this light with electrons, just before starting its cosmic journey. For this reason, the polarisation of the CMB retains information about the distribution of matter in the early Universe, and its pattern on the sky follows that of the tiny fluctuations observed in the temperature of the CMB.
In this image, the colour scale represents temperature differences in the CMB, while the texture indicates the direction of the polarised light. The patterns seen in the texture are characteristic of ‘E-mode’ polarisation, which is the dominant type for the CMB.
For the sake of illustration, both data sets have been filtered to show mostly the signal detected on scales around 5º on the sky. However, fluctuations in both the CMB temperature and polarisation are present and were observed by Planck also on larger as well as smaller angular scales.
This glittering tapestry of young stars flaring into life in the star cluster Westerlund 2 has been released to celebrate the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope’s 25th year in orbit and a quarter of a century of discoveries, stunning images and outstanding science.
The cluster resides in the prolific stellar breeding ground called Gum 29, some 20 000 light-years away in the constellation Carina.
The image’s central region, containing the star clusters, blends visible-light data taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys and near-infrared exposures taken by the Wide Field Camera 3. The surrounding region is composed of visible-light observations taken by the Advanced Camera for Surveys. The red colours in the image represent hydrogen; the bluish-green hues, hydrogen and oxygen.
The IXV Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle, installed on its payload adapter, is being prepared for launch, at Europe's Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana, on 28 January 2015.
IXV will be launched 320 km into space on top of a Vega rocket, VV04, climbing up to 420 km before beginning a long glide back through the atmosphere. In the process, IXV will gather data on reentry conditions to help guide the design of future spaceplanes.
More about IXV: http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Launchers/IXV
Connect with IXV on Twitter: twitter.com/esa_ixv
A portion of the Earth during night time, covered by layers of the atmosphere, as seen through LISA Pathfinder's star trackers on 3 December 2015. Beyond the horizon of our planet, several stars are visible, above as well as through the atmosphere.
LISA Pathfinder, ESA's mission to test technology for gravitational wave detection in space, blasted off on 3 December at 04:04 GMT (05:04 CET). The Vega rocket delivered it to a low-Earth parking orbit and, from there, the satellite will perform a series of six critical burns to raise the highest point of the orbit. Eventually, it will reach its operational orbit around the Lagrange point L1, 1.5 million km away from Earth towards the Sun.
Since taking over control of the spacecraft after it separated from the upper stage of the Vega launcher, the mission control teams at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany, have been checking that various subsystems on board LISA Pathfinder are working well ahead of the critical orbit raising phase. Among these operations, they also tested the two star-tracker cameras, located below the science module, that are used for navigating the satellite using the stars as reference points.
During the science mission, the images taken by the star-trackers are not sent to Earth but processed on board. However, during the commissioning of the spacecraft, the operators are collecting data from the star-trackers, and so obtained a one-of-a-kind image – at least for a non-imaging satellite such as LISA Pathfinder.
ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen, Soyuz spacecraft commander Gennady Padalka and Kazakh cosmonaut Aidyn Aimbetov landed on 12 September 2015 at 00:51 GMT (02:51 CEST) in the steppe of Kazakhstan, marking the end of their missions to the International Space Station.
Andreas became Denmark’s first astronaut when he left our planet on 2 September on his 10-day iriss mission. The trio undocked from the orbiting complex on 11 September at 21:29 GMT (23:29 CEST) in an older Soyuz spacecraft, leaving the new vessel they arrived in for the Station crew.
ESA used the mission to test new technologies and conduct a series of scientific experiments.
The Soyuz TMA-19M spacecraft is rolled out by train, on 13 December 2015, from the MIK 112 integration facility to the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch pad 1, in Kazakhstan.
ESA astronaut Tim Peake left for the International Space Station from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 15 December at 11:03 GMT (12:03 CET) with NASA astronaut Tim Kopra and Russian commander Yuri Malenchenko.
Follow Tim Peake and his mission via timpeake.esa.int.
ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti points at the Dargon spacecraft she just grappled on 17 April 2015 with the 16m-long International Space Station robotic arm.
A special item on the Dragon spacecraft was the ‘ISSpresso’ machine that should offer a fresh brew of coffee for the Italian astronaut and her five crewmates. Spending months on the Station cut off from the world can be difficult, but a fresh cup of coffee can work wonders. Future capsules will extend the menu to include tea and soup.
Samantha published this image with the text: “There’s coffee in that nebula... ehm, I mean... in that Dragon.”
Follow Samantha via samanthacristoforetti.esa.int
A short-lived outburst from Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko was captured by Rosetta’s OSIRIS narrow-angle camera on 29 July 2015. The image at left was taken at 13:06 GMT and does not show any visible signs of the jet. It is very strong in the middle image captured at 13:24 GMT. Residual traces of activity are only very faintly visible in the final image taken at 13:42 GMT.
The images were taken from a distance of 186 km from the centre of the comet. The jet is estimated to have a minimum speed of 10 m/s and originates from a location on the comet’s neck, in the rugged Anuket region.
Full story: Comet’s firework display ahead of perihelion
Acquired on 27 June 2015 at 10:25 UTC (12:25 CEST), just four days after launch, this close-up of France’s southern coast from Nice airport (lower left) to Menton (upper right) is a subset from the first image from the Sentinel-2A satellite. This false colour image was processed including the instrument’s high-resolution infrared spectral channel.
This image from Sentinel-2A shows how Saudi Arabia’s desert is being used for agriculture. The circles come from a central-pivot irrigation system, where the long water pipe rotates around a well at the centre.
This spectacular image captured by Sentinel-2A on 13 July features Lake Amadeus, in Australia’s Northern Territory.
It shows the variety of the sandy, rocky and salty formations within the lake. Around 180 km long and 10 km wide, Amadeus is the largest salt lake in the Northern Territory, just 50 km north of Uluru/ Ayers Rock.
Lake Amadeus contains up to 600 million tonnes of salt. However, harvesting is not feasible because of its remote location.
Owing to the aridity of the area, the surface of Lake Amadeus is often a dry salt crust. When rainfall is sufficient, it becomes part of an east-flowing drainage system that eventually connects to the Finke River.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Australia’s most recognisable landmarks, Uluru/Ayers Rock is a large sandstone rock formation standing 348 m high, rising 863 m above sea level and with a circumference of 9.4 km.
Also clearly visible in the lower-central part of the image are the Petermann Ranges. These mountains run 320 km across the border between Western Australia and the southwest corner of the Northern Territory.
Their highest point is 1158 m above sea level. The range was formed about 550 million years ago as compression folded a section of Earth’s crust.
Launched in June, Sentinel-2A – the most recent satellite in orbit for Europe’s Copernicus programme – provides detailed information about Earth’s land cover and inland water bodies, helping us to understand Earth’s varied landscape.
This image is also featured on the Earth from Space video programme.
This false-colour image featuring the Manicouagan Crater was captured by the Sentinel-1A satellite on 21 March.
Carved out by an asteroid strike some 214 million years ago, this crater in Quebec, Canada is known to be one of the oldest and largest impact craters on the planet. Experts believe that glaciers have since played a large part in its erosion.
Its concentric structure results from the shock waves transmitted by the impact. These somewhat resemble the rings that form when a pebble is dropped into water. So big and distinct, the crater can easily be observed from space.
The multiple-ring structure is some 100 km across, with the 70 km-diameter inner ring its most prominent feature. The annular Manicouagan Reservoir lake stretches more than 550 km from the source of its longest headstream.
This image was taken by Sentinel-1A, illuminating the landscape with horizontal and vertical radar pulses, from which the artificial colour composite was generated.
Diverse colours highlight variations of land cover. The varying tones of the same colour represent a difference in the land’s condition. Hence, while the blue tones represent bodies of ice and some water, the yellow and orange tones denote ageing vegetation of different types, mixed with patches of snow and ice.
Sentinel-1A satellite has been in orbit since 3 April 2014. It is a polar-orbiting, all-weather, day-and-night radar imaging mission for land and ocean services.
This image is also featured on the Earth from Space video programme.
ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet revealed the name and logo for his six-month mission to the International Space Station starting next November
He will be the 10th astronaut from France to head into space and his mission name of Proxima continues the French tradition of referring to stars and constellations.
The announcement was made in France’s ministry for higher education and research in Paris, in the presence of secretary of state Thierry Mandon, ESA Director General Johann-Dietrich Woerner, and the president of France’s CNES space agency, Jean-Yves Le Gall, on 12 November 2015.
On 9 November 2005, 10 years ago today, ESA’s Venus Express spacecraft left Earth and began its 153-day journey to Venus. The craft then spent eight years studying the planet in detail before the mission came to an end in December 2014.
One of the mission aims was to observe the planet’s atmosphere continuously over long periods in a bid to understand its dynamic behaviour.
The atmosphere is the densest of all the terrestrial planets, and is composed almost entirely of carbon dioxide. The planet is also wrapped in a thick layer of cloud made mostly of sulphuric acid. This combination of greenhouse gas and perennial cloud layer led to an enormous greenhouse warming, leaving Venus’ surface extremely hot – just over 450ºC – and hidden from our eyes.
Although winds on the planet’s surface move very slowly, at a few kilometres per hour, the atmospheric density at this altitude is so great that they exert greater force than much faster winds would on Earth.
Winds at the 65 km-high cloud-tops, however, are a different story altogether. The higher-altitude winds whizz around at up to 400 km/h, some 60 times faster than the rotation of the planet itself. This causes some especially dynamic and fast-moving effects in the planet’s upper atmosphere, one of the most prominent being its ‘polar vortices’.
The polar vortices arise because there is more sunlight at lower latitudes. As gas at low latitudes heats it rises, and moves towards the poles, where cooler air sinks. The air converging on the pole accelerates sideways and spirals downwards, like water swirling around a plug hole.
In the centre of the polar vortex, sinking air pushes the clouds lower down by several kilometres, to altitudes where the atmospheric temperature is higher. The central ‘eye of the vortex’ can therefore be clearly seen by mapping thermal-infrared light, which shows the cloud-top temperature: the clouds at the core of the vortex are at a higher temperature, indicated by yellow tones, than the surrounding region, and therefore stand out clearly in these images.
Venus Express has shown that the polar vortices of Venus are among the most variable in the Solar System. This series of images of Venus’ south pole was taken with the VIRTIS instrument from February 2007 (top left) to April 2008 (bottom right).
The shape of this vortex core, which typically measures 2000–3000 km across, changes dramatically as it is buffeted by turbulent winds. It can resemble an ‘S’, a figure-of-eight, a spiral, an eye, and more, quickly morphing from one day to the next.
Each of the images in this frame is roughly 4000 km across.
Aerial image of a rover egress test performed in the outdoor Mars Yard at the Toulouse site of France’s CNES space agency.
Getting a robotic rover off its lander will be the next most nerve-wracking moment for Europe’s 2018 ExoMars mission after landing.
On 28 and 29 October a simulation took place between France and the Netherlands to let ESA’s Planetary Robotics Laboratory test such an ‘egress’ scenario.
A half-scale model resembling the ExoMars lander and a rover prototype sat in the Mars Yard in Toulouse, while its operators worked a thousand kilometres away from ESA’s ESTEC technical centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands.
The ESTEC team – from ESA, Thales Alenia Space and Altec – received only limited information to guide them: still images and telemetry from the rover and lander.
The operators had to decide in which direction to drive – forwards or backwards. The lander has two sets of tracks for the rover to descend in case one side is blocked by the Mars-like terrain.
Five separate egress simulations were performed over the course of two days, the final score: 4 successes and 1 failure.
This sweeping view by ESA’s Mars Express extends from the planet’s south polar ice cap and across its cratered highlands to the Hellas Basin (top left) and beyond. Click here for an annotated image.
The image was acquired by the high-resolution stereo camera on ESA’s Mars Express on 25 February 2015. It is a ‘broom calibration’ image, acquired while the spacecraft performed a manoeuvre such that its camera pans over the surface far above the planet, at about 9 900 km.
The ground resolution is about 1 km per pixel at the closest point to the surface. The image was created using data from the nadir channel, the field of view of which is aligned perpendicular to the surface of Mars, and the colour channels of HRSC. These channels have been co-registered using ‘markers’ on the surface, such as a mountain or dark spot, to achieve a common geometry. That is, for each colour channel, these markers are overlain to produce the colour image. This process is not needed for ‘normal’ nadir observations because the geometry is known here, unlike in this broom observation.
Where expressly stated, images are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO) licence. The user is allowed to reproduce, distribute, adapt, translate and publicly perform it, without explicit permission, provided that the content is accompanied by an acknowledgement that the source is credited as ‘ESA/DLR/FU Berlin’, a direct link to the licence text is provided and that it is clearly indicated if changes were made to the original content. Adaptation/translation/derivatives must be distributed under the same licence terms as this publication.
ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen, commander Sergei Volkov and Aidyn Aimbetov were launched into space on 2 September at 04:38 GMT (06:38 CEST) from Baikonur cosmodrome, Kazakhstan.
The launch marks the start of ESA’s 10-day ‘iriss’ mission that will focus on testing new technologies and ways of running complex space missions.
The astronaut’s Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft was pushed into Earth orbit as planned accelerating 50 km/h on every second for the first nine minutes of their launch.
Their docking is planned on 4 September at 07:42 GMT (09:42 CEST) but they will not enter their new home in space until the astronauts on both sides of the spacecraft hatch to ensure that there are no leaks.
Connect with Andreas at: andreasmogensen.esa.int/
ESA-sponsored medical doctor Beth Healey shared this image on Twitter, commenting: "We enjoyed a small aurora over the base this evening". Beth is spending nine months in Concordia to run experiments for ESA in preparation of space exploration missions.
As Concordia lies at the very southern point of Earth, the Sun does not rise above the horizon in winter and does not set in summer. This week the crew saw the return of the Sun for the first time in four months. At 3200 m above sea level in the world’s largest desert, the air in Concordia is very dry and holds less oxygen.
The outline of our Galaxy, the Milky Way, and of its neighbouring Magellanic Clouds, in an image based on housekeeping data from ESA’s Gaia satellite, indicating the total number of stars detected every second in each of the satellite's fields of view.
Brighter regions indicate higher concentrations of stars, while darker regions correspond to patches of the sky where fewer stars are observed.
The plane of the Milky Way, where most of the Galaxy’s stars reside, is evidently the brightest portion of this image, running horizontally and especially bright at the centre. Darker regions across this broad strip of stars, known as the Galactic Plane, correspond to dense, interstellar clouds of gas and dust that absorb starlight along the line of sight.
The Galactic Plane is the projection on the sky of the Galactic disc, a flattened structure with a diameter of about 100 000 light-years and a vertical height of only 1000 light-years.
Beyond the plane, only a few objects are visible, most notably the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, two dwarf galaxies orbiting the Milky Way, which stand out in the lower right part of the image. A few globular clusters – large assemblies up to millions of stars held together by their mutual gravity – are also sprinkled around the Galactic Plane.
Acknowledgement: this image was prepared by Edmund Serpell, a Gaia Operations Engineer working in the Mission Operations Centre at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.
This work is licenced under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO (CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO) licence.
Mosaic art installed at ESA’s Redu Centre in Belgium, where satellites are controlled and tested as part of ESA’s ground station network.
The French artist known as Invader has established his urban artwork in more than 60 cities all over the world, including Rome, Paris, New York, Manchester, Hong Kong and Los Angeles. In 2012 he sent a mosaic into the stratosphere on a balloon.
Following the invasion of Earth orbit, the artwork has been spotted not only in the Space Station but also in ESA establishments all over Europe. The first invaders were seen at ESA’s astronaut centre in Cologne, Germany.
Mission control believes Invader will organise more invasions and activate aliens at other ESA establishments throughout the year. Follow their progress on Twitter via #space2iss and #SpaceInvader.
The NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope has revisited one of its most iconic and popular images: the Eagle Nebula's Pillars of Creation.
This image shows the pillars as seen in infrared light, allowing it to pierce through obscuring dust and gas and unveil a more unfamiliar – but just as amazing – view of the pillars.
In this ethereal view the entire frame is peppered with bright stars and baby stars are revealed being formed within the pillars themselves. The ghostly outlines of the pillars seem much more delicate, and are silhouetted against an eerie blue haze.
Single-frame OSIRIS narrow-angle camera image taken on 10 December 2015, when Rosetta was 103.3 km from the nucleus of Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. The scale is 1.87 m/pixel.
Galileos 11 and 12, mated with their dispenser on top of their Fregat upper stage being encapsulated within their Soyuz fairing.
The latest Galileo satellites lifted off at 11:51 GMT on 17 December (12:51 CET; 08:51 Kourou time) from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana on a Soyuz rocket. They are expected to become operational, after initial in-orbit testing, next spring.
This is the sixth Galileo launch overall and the third this year, set to bring the number of satellites in space up to 12.
ESA astronaut Tim Peake on the International Space Station shortly after arriving at his new home and workplace for six months. Tim sent this picture to thank everyone who followed his launch on the Soyuz TMA-19M into space on social media and at launch events around the UK.
Tim wrote: "The support for our launch was outstanding, and I want to thank each of you for the #GoodLuckTim messages. From the schoolchildren who watched the launch in class, people watching on the underground, and viewers outside of UK, your messages have shown how much interest there is in space and they mean a great deal to me. A big thank you to those who attended launch celebrations up and down the country and especially the school kids who attended the event at the Science Museum. We are very busy up here but I promise to start sharing more of our life in space soon."
Follow Tim and his six-month Principia mission via timpeake.esa.int
This image shows the 35 m-diameter dish antenna of ESA’s deep-space tracking station at New Norcia, Australia, illuminated by ground lights against the night sky on 3 August 2015.
New Norcia (DSA-1) is part of the Agency’s Estrack ground station network; it is located 140 km north of Perth, Western Australia, about 8 km from the town of New Norcia.
Estrack is a global system of ground stations providing links between satellites in orbit and the European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany. The core network comprises 10 stations in seven countries.
The essential task of all ESA tracking stations is to communicate with spacecraft, transmitting commands and receiving scientific data and spacecraft status information.
Our technically advanced stations can track spacecraft almost anywhere – circling Earth, watching the Sun, orbiting at the scientifically crucial Sun–Earth Lagrange points or voyaging deep into our Solar System.
Like its sister 35 m stations at Cebreros, Spain, and Malargüe, Argentina, New Norcia station uses advanced European technology to communicate with deep-space missions such as Mars Express, Rosetta, BepiColombo and Gaia.
ESA shares Estrack capacity with other space agencies, who in turn support ESA missions. For example, NASA’s Deep Space Network routinely supports Rosetta and Mars Express, while Estrack is working with Japan’s Hayabusa-2 asteroid mission.
In recent years, Estrack has supported missions operated by China and Russia, as well as tracking the descent of NASA rovers to the surface of Mars.
This global cooperation allows all agencies to make use of a wide number of ground stations in geographically advantageous locations, maximising efficiency and boosting scientific returns for all.
In 2015, Estrack turns 40 and will celebrate four decades of linking people with spacecraft travelling to the frontiers of human knowledge.
To help mark this milestone, ESA is hosting the ‘Estrack 40th Anniversary Sound Contest’ and is inviting composers to submit their audio compositions, one of which will be selected as the new theme audio for Estrack (see link below for details).
Credit: D. O’Donnell/ESA – CC BY-SA 3.0
Year in images
a selection of our favourite images for 2015