The Coolest Space Images of 2022

The Coolest Space Images of 2022

From black holes to the oldest light in the universe, we saw a remarkable cosmos this year.

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If you’ve ever looked up into the night sky and seen a bedazzlement of stars, you know awe: the rare moment that bewilderment feels good. The scale of the universe and huge diversity of the objects within it never fail to inspire amazement.

This year, we got to see some of those objects in newfound resolution and vibrance. State-of-the-art technologies—especially the recently launched Webb Space Telescope—have revolutionized our view of the cosmos and allowed scientists to peer farther back in time, at some of the faintest light in the universe.

Here are some of the images that captured our attention in 2022.

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An arresting protostar hourglass

An arresting protostar hourglass

In this stunning shot, light breaks forth in an hourglass shape from the dark cloud L1527, about 460 light-years from Earth. The Webb telescope team released this shot back in November. At the core of the hourglass shape—concealed by a thin horizontal line—is a protostar.

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The Southern Ring Nebula

The Southern Ring Nebula

These two shots of the Southern Ring Nebula taken by the Webb telescope reveal very different aspects of the same structure. The nebula is about 2,500 years old, and scientists recently looked at the Webb data to create these two images and decipher the circumstances that may have given rise to this colorful, heavenly oval.

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Pillars of Creation (redux!)

Pillars of Creation (redux!)

Hubble (left) and Webb (right) shots of the Pillars of Creation.
Hubble (left) and Webb (right) shots of the Pillars of Creation.
Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI; Joseph DePasquale (STScI), Anton M. Koekemoer (STScI), Alyssa Pagan (STScI)

Webb captured a fresh view (right) of the Pillars of Creation, tendrils of gas and dust in the Eagle Nebula that were famously imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope (left) in the 1990s. The Webb image reveals never-before-seen details of the pillars’ star creation.

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Sagittarius A*

Sagittarius A*

The black hole at the center of our galaxy.
The black hole at the center of our galaxy.
Image: EHT Collaboration

The Event Horizon Collaboration produced an image of the black hole at the center of our galaxy this year, a supermassive black hole named Sagittarius A* (pronounced A-star). The bright ring around the 4-million-solar-mass black hole is superheated material.

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Two very ancient galaxies

Two very ancient galaxies

Galaxies (labeled) that existed 450 and 350 million years after the Big Bang, respectively.
Galaxies (labeled) that existed 450 and 350 million years after the Big Bang, respectively.
Image: SCIENCE: NASA, ESA, CSA, Tommaso Treu (UCLA) IMAGE PROCESSING: Zolt G. Levay (STScI)

Two galaxies spotted in deep fields taken by the Webb telescope were extraordinarily ancient. Highlighted in the image above, galaxies 1 and 2 sit at redshifts of 10.5 and 12.5, dating them to just a few hundred million years after the Big Bang (it’s now been nearly 14 billion years since the beginning of the universe.)

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Europa up close

Europa up close

Europa as recently seen by Juno.
Europa as recently seen by Juno.
Image: NASA/SwRI/MSSS/Thomas Appéré

NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured this image of Jupiter’s moon Europa back in September. The probe was about 219 miles above the moon’s surface, making it one of the most intimate views we’ve yet gotten of the mysterious moon.

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The Sun’s south pole

The Sun’s south pole

A view of the Sun's South Pole from Solar Orbiter.
A view of the Sun’s South Pole from Solar Orbiter.
Image: ESA & NASA/Solar Orbiter/EUI Team

Though the Sun’s nature is common knowledge—it’s a piping-hot gaseous sphere—NASA & ESA’s Solar Orbiter is giving us our best-ever views of the star. The orbiter has even dipped into the Sun’s corona, making it the only human-made object to literally touch a star. This view of the Sun’s south pole makes our local star intimately familiar—I almost want to touch it now.

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Neptune’s rings in sharp relief

Neptune’s rings in sharp relief

Webb (yeah, here it is again) captured an image of the deep blue world Neptune in September. Yes, this is a shot of Neptune—not Saturn, the planet most typically associated with rings. Neptune has rings, too, which are seen in dramatic relief in this infrared shot.

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Stephan’s Quintet

Stephan’s Quintet

A quintet of galaxies in an image made up of more than 150 million pixels.
A quintet of galaxies in an image made up of more than 150 million pixels.
Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Stephan’s Quintet is a group of five galaxies that appear very close to one another in the sky. The galaxies are actually distant from one another, but our view of them makes them resemble a busy dance floor, with galaxies twirling around one another in a crowded tableau. This view by Webb is a composite image, totaling more than 150 million pixels.

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A galactic overlap

A galactic overlap

Overlapping galaxies seen by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Overlapping galaxies seen by the Hubble Space Telescope.
Image: ESA/Hubble & NASA, W. Keel

The Hubble telescope captured these two spiral galaxies more than a billion light-years from Earth that give the illusion that they’re colliding. They’re really just overlapping visually, making space look more crowded than it actually it.

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The Tarantula Nebula

The Tarantula Nebula

The Tarantula Nebula, as seen by Webb.
The Tarantula Nebula, as seen by Webb.
Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

The Tarantula Nebula is a gossamer of young, nascent stars. Its name comes from its resemblance to a tarantula’s burrow (very comforting, we know). It’s the largest stellar nursery in the local universe (about 161,000 light-years away), and was imaged by—you guessed it—Webb, in early September.

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The Phantom Galaxy

The Phantom Galaxy

Data from the Hubble and Webb space telescopes of the Phantom Galaxy.
Data from the Hubble and Webb space telescopes of the Phantom Galaxy.
Image: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, J. Lee and the PHANGS-JWST Team; ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Chandar Acknowledgement: J. Schmidt

Try not to get dizzy staring at this shot of the Phantom Galaxy seen in optical and mid-infrared wavelengths. The image was taken using data from both Webb and Hubble. The galaxy is about 32 million light-years from Earth and features clouds of gas, dust, and star-forming regions.

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A trippy vision of Jupiter

A trippy vision of Jupiter

You’ve never seen Jupiter as it was recently captured by Webb: instead of the traditional milky-orange marble, the solar system’s largest planet is an iridescent blue. If you squint, you can also see Jupiter’s rings.

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The Cartwheel Galaxy

The Cartwheel Galaxy

The Cartwheel Galaxy as seen by Webb.
The Cartwheel Galaxy as seen by Webb.
Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI, Webb ERO Production Team

This image looks about like what space looks like when I’m asked to watercolor it. The Cartwheel Galaxy (you can see why it’s called that) is seen by Webb amid a flurry of other light sources—mostly galaxies—in the distant universe.

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Webb’s first deep field

Webb’s first deep field

SMACS 0723, Webb's first deep field image.
SMACS 0723, Webb’s first deep field image.
Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Webb’s first deep-field image captured a galactic cluster called SMACS 0723, which, thanks to gravitational lensing, magnifies much more distant light sources in the early universe. Webb will continue to use gravitational lensing to its advantage in observing the oldest light in the universe.

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The Cosmic Cliffs of the Carina Nebula

The Cosmic Cliffs of the Carina Nebula

The Carina Nebula as seen by Webb.
The Carina Nebula as seen by Webb.
Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

One edge of the Carina Nebula is seen in this vision from the Webb Space Telescope. Called the Cosmic Cliffs, the massive structure is shown here in infrared. Within the cliffs are manifold stellar nurseries, and in the distance other light sources—stars and galaxies in the distant universe—are visible.

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Merging galaxies, seen by two telescopes

Merging galaxies, seen by two telescopes

Webb (left) and Hubble (right) shots of the distant galaxy merger IC 1623.
Webb (left) and Hubble (right) shots of the distant galaxy merger IC 1623.
Image: ESA/Webb, NASA & CSA, L. Armus & A. Evans; CC BY 4.0 Acknowledgement: R. Colombari

These two galaxies are in the process of becoming one. According to the European Space Agency, “Their collision has ignited a frenzied spate of star formation known as a starburst, creating new stars at a rate more than twenty times that of the Milky Way galaxy.”

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Io’s volcanic activity

Io’s volcanic activity

Io as seen by the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper.
Io as seen by the Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper.
Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/ASI/INAF/JIRAM

Jupiter’s moon Io is peppered with bright splotches in this shot by NASA’s Jovian Infrared Auroral Mapper. The bright spots are volcanic hotspots on the moon, which fuel the aurorae above Jupiter.

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Milky Way strands

Milky Way strands

A multi-colored image shows long vertical streaks of magnetic filaments in the Milky Way's core.
A multi-colored image shows long vertical streaks of magnetic filaments in the Milky Way’s core.
Image: Northwestern University/SAORO/Oxford University

A mosaic image by the MeerKAT radio telescope in South Africa revealed nearly 1,000 multi-light-year-long strands of cosmic ray particles in the center of the Milky Way. The strands have been known about for several decades, but researchers didn’t know there were so many.

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The oldest known star

The oldest known star

The bright red dot at the end of the arrow in the inset of the image is Earendel, a 13-billion-year-old star that astronomers found this year. It’s the oldest known star to date, and was observed by the Hubble Space Telescope. It was spotted thanks to gravitational lensing, something which will continue to reveal the earliest light in the universe.

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