From slow-mo footage on YouTube to deep-space satellite imagery to weird washcloths on the International Space Station, this was a big year for beautiful science. Here for your visceral viewing pleasure are thirty-three of our favorite photos and videos from 2013.
Above: Cdr. Chris Hadfield shows what happens when you wring a washcloth out in space
It should go without saying that this is by no means a comprehensive list, but we'll say it anyway. Here you will find photos that gave us pause. Here you'll find footage that brought the hair on the backs of our necks to attention, that kept us up late into the night reading more about what it was, exactly, we were seeing. You'll find imagery that moved us, inspired us, or made us laugh in sheer amazement. But the experiences brought on by these images are of course subjective – and so this list is incomplete. (It's also damn near impossible to fit a year's worth of beautiful science images into a single list. We can't post every single ISS time-lapse, now can we?)
With that in mind, we invite you to share the images you think we missed in the comments below, along with a brief description and a link to where we can learn more.
The Clearest Photo of a Sunspot Ever Taken
The unprecedented view was released in August by scientists at Big Bear Solar Observatory in the mountains of East L.A. Imaged by the New Solar Telescope (aka the "NST"), the photograph is among the first to be captured by the NST's newly equipped Visible Imaging Spectrometer (VIS).
Cassini Captures a Rare Overhead View of Saturn
On October 10th, the spacecraft's wide-angle camera captured a set of 12 RGB "footprints" (36 photos total, acquired with red, green and blue filters which, when combined, approximate true color) of Saturn and its rings, as seen from above. Software developer and "amateur" planetary image processor Gordan Ugarkovic converted the photos into the composite you see here. Hands down one of our all-time favorite images of the Ringed Planet.
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo Completes its First Rocket-Powered Test Flights
Virgin Galactic's air-launched space plane blew us away this year with a series of picturesque (and – more importantly – successful) drop tests and rocket-powered test-flights. Back in May, Richard Branson announced that the first public flight of his company's sub-orbital space plane was scheduled for Christmas Day, and that he would be aboard. With another rocket-powered test launch scheduled for this month, it's unlikely that he'll deliver – but you never know.
The Grand Canyon Fills with Clouds in a "Once in a Lifetime" Event
The Canyon came to be filled with fog due to what's known as a "temperature inversion," a phenomenon whereby warm and cool air (which typically reside at lower and higher altitudes, respectively) swap places. More breathtaking photos from photographer Erin Whittaker here.
Apollo F-1 Engines Recovered From the Atlantic Ocean
In March, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos' eponymous Bezos Expeditions successfully recovered F-1 rocket engines – used during the Apollo missions – from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. "I want to thank NASA," wrote Bezos. "They extended every courtesy and every helping hand – all of NASA's interactions were characterized by plain old common sense, something which we all know is impressive and uncommon."
A Spinning Moon
Using imagery collected by its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, NASA created this gobstopping video of the Moon rotating 360° about its axis. It's a view of our satellite unlike any ever seen from Earth (curse you, tidal locking!).
Tour the Large Hadron Collider on Google Street View
Google Street View is becoming our virtual tour guide to some of the coolest and most unusual places in the world. In 2013, it expanded its VR-tourism offerings to include CERN, The Galápagos and the Grand Canyon.
The Planck Telescope Discovers Extra Dark Matter in the Universe
In March, the Planck Satellite team announced major findings from over a year of observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background (the radioactive sludge that lingers in our universe from the beginning of time, right after the Big Bang), and released the map pictured above, which depicts the oldest light in the Universe with unprecedented precision.
A Remarkable Video of... Sand?
YouTube science-and-illusion wizard Bruspup performed a modern rendition of 18th Century physicist Ernst Chladni's eponymous plate experiment. Bruspup used sand instead of flour, and made his metal plate vibrate with a tone generator instead of a violin bow, but the end result is the same: when the plate vibrates at a steady frequency, the particles on its surface arrange into a series of beautiful patterns. You'll want to watch the original footage of this one.
Comet ISON Fizzles in Style
It may not have turned out to be the "Comet of the Century," but Comet ISON still managed to put on one hell of a show in the final days of its inexorable dive toward the Sun. This photo, captured by astrophotographer Mike Hankey, shows ISON on the morning of November 14th, when it brightened by an order of magnitude and first became visible to the naked eye. A few days later, ISON made its daring pass of the Sun, and astronomers agreed the comet was no-more. Then, a Thanksgiving day miracle: remnants of ISON appeared to have survived! But alas, the comet was merely toying with us – several days later, ISON was declared really, truly, definitively dead.
The Chelyabinsk Meteor Rips a Hole in Russia's Skies
Details are still emerging about the fireball that entered Earth's atmosphere over Russia on February 15th. The near-Earth asteroid blazed through our skies at upwards of 41,000 miles per hour, injuring hundreds and incurring more than a billion rubles (~33-million U.S. dollars) in damages.
A Moonrise Unlike Any You've Ever Seen
Astrophotographer Mark Gee exploits the moon illusion to great effect in his remarkable video of a New Zealand moonrise. The most important thing to remember about the video – which you can watch here – is that it is not a time-lapse. We repeat: this video is NOT a time-lapse.
An 18-foot Reason to be Terrified of the Ocean
While snorkeling in Toyon Bay this October, marine biologist Jasmine Santana of Catalina Island Marine Institute discovered the remains of this incredible 18-foot (5.5 m) long oarfish. It took almost 20 people to move the rare specimen to the beach.
After 69 Years, the Pitch Finally Drops!
In 1944, physicists at Trinity College Dublin set up an experiment to demonstrate that, firm and stable appearances aside, tar pitch is, in fact, a liquid. The pitch-drop experiment was born. This year, the climax of the experiment – seven decades in the making – was captured on video.
An Otherworldly Vortex Forms Over Tampa Bay, Florida
The waterspout (a non-supercell tornado that formed over water) was photographed doing its best Daniel Day Lewis impression back in July. The image was later shared to Facebook by WDRB meteorologist Jeremy Kappel. Said one Facebook commenter: "Thats freakin aliens stealing our water........."
IBM Creates the World's Tiniest Stop-Motion Film
Called "A Boy and His Atom," the one-minute clip was compiled by manipulating a few dozen carbon atoms on a copper surface.
The First-Ever Footage of a Giant Squid in its Natural Habitat
Squid researcher Tsunemi Kubodera and his colleagues spent upwards of 400 hours — logged across 100+ missions — plumbing the depths of the Pacific in search of the behemoth, before teaming up with Japanese public broadcaster NHK and the US Discovery Channel. The footage was aired for the first time back in January.
We still have no clue what built this crazy-complex structure (but researchers say they're close to finding out!)
Earlier this year, graduate student Troy Alexander discovered an oddly intricate maypole-like structure in the Peruvian Amazon. Since then, nobody has been able to conclusively say what made it. Now, a team of biologists says it's close to solving the mystery.
The Earth Breathes, and it is Beautiful
Datavisualization expert John Nelson downloaded 12 cloud-free satellite images of Earth from NASA's Visible Earth Team, "wrapped them into some fun projections, then stitched them together into a couple animated gifs." The end result is a pair of pulsing visualizations he calls "A Breathing Earth." See the second version here.
The First Complete Map of Mercury
Instruments aboard NASA's Mercury-orbiting MESSENGER spacecraft revealed a rich variety of chemicals, minerals and physical features in the first-ever complete map of our solar system's innermost planet.
The Bead-Chain Experiment Makes Us Doubt the Laws of Physics
Inside this beaker is a 50-meter string of 8,000 beads. Watch what happens when you toss one end of the string out of the beaker. Prepare yourself – this is pretty wild.
A Year's Worth of Solar Activity in a Single Image
A composite of 25 images recorded in extreme ultraviolet light by the Solar Dynamics Observatory between April 16, 2012 and April 15, 2013.
Our Clearest View Yet of Saturn's Mysterious Hexagon
This 8-frame movie of Saturn's hexagonal cloud system is the highest-resolution footage ever acquired of the massive six-sided maelstrom atop the ringed planet's north pole.
Hydrogen Bonds Look the Same Under a Microscope as they do in Schematic Diagrams!
Using a technique called high-resolution atomic force microscopy (AFM), researchers in China visualized the hydrogen bonds in 8-hydroxyquinoline – and they look just like they do in ChemDraw!
The First Direct Image of a Hydrogen Atom's Orbital Structure
Earlier this year, researchers equipped with a new quantum microscope were able to make the first direct observation of a hydrogen atom's electron orbital.
Every Single Test-launch of SpaceX's Grasshopper
SpaceX's reusable, vertical takeoff vertical landing (VTVL) vehicle stands to revolutionize the way we catapult spacecraft into Earth-orbit and beyond. Grasshopper had its fair share of impressive test-launches this year, but its latest launch – which also happened to be filmed by a hexacopter-mounted camera – was easily its most impressive to date.
The Most Accurate 3D Map of Our Galaxy to Date
Two groups of astronomers pooled their data to create the most detailed map yet of the galaxy's core — and its shape came as a surprise.
A Deadly Lake Lures Animals to their Doom and Petrifies Them
Tanzania's Lake Natron is the most caustic body of water on Earth. That makes it a terrifying, if eerily beautiful, place, as arresting photographs by Nick Brandt reveal.
Time-lapse Satellite Images Show How Earth has Changed in 28 Years
Google's Earth Engine gave us an incredible satellite tour through the recent history of our planet, showing year-by-year images from 1984-2012. Watch as cities expand, glaciers retreat, and seas vanish in a matter of decades.
A Frog Gets WAY Too Close to a NASA Rocket Launch
Back in September, NASA set its LADEE spacecraft blazing on a course to the Moon. While the launch was visible from much of the East Coast, those spectators nearest the VA launchpad were afforded the most breathtaking views. One amphibious Virginian, in particular, was especially moved by the spectacle.
The Day the Earth Smiled
On July 19th, people the world over took part in one of the greatest photo opportunities of all time. It was "The Day the Earth Smiled," a
worldwide solar-system-wide event – organized by Cassini imaging lead Carolyn Porco and NASA's Wave at Saturn Project – that saw NASA's Cassini spacecraft enter Saturn's shadow and turn to image the planet, its entire ring system, seven of its moons and – far, far away in the distance – Earth, where countless humans smiled, waiting, with the advanced knowledge that millions and millions of miles away, their picture was being taken.