Space Photos: On Mars, Clues About the Origin of Life


Scientists are still trying to understand what Mars looked like in its early days. This new image from NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows evidence of deposits that were likely formed by volcanic activity below a water source—conditions similar to those on Earth, when early life was evolving here.

It’s a bird AND a space station! A group of astrophotographers with the European Space Agency astronomy club pulled off this incredible photo a bird and the International Space Station flying in front of Earth’s parent star. The station speeds around Earth at 18,000 mph, and yet the bird and the ISS both took 1.2 seconds to cross the sun’s face.

This eerie image shows galaxy NGC 4874—the bright object to the right of the frame—surrounded by star clusters. Astronomers recently studied the region more closely and found that what they thought were star clusters were in fact dwarf galaxies made up of older stars, causing their appearance to resemble the haze of stellar clusters.

The wonky, potato-shaped object pictured here is Phobos, one of Mars’ two moons. NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter finally got its chance to record the misshapen satellite’s surface temperatures by observing it in infrared wavelengths. Mission researchers combined that data with visible-light observations to produce the image you see here, which color-codes the moon’s surface temperatures.

The European Space Agency snapped this gorgeous photo of the red planet from its Mars Express spacecraft on May 16th. This no-named crater serves as a collection site for material swept around on Mars. The winds blow miscellaneous material into these depressions, forming dunes and patterns similar those seen on Earth.

This massive orange star is V766 Centauri, seen here with its partner star passing just in front, creating a lighter patch in the image. At 1400 times the diameter of our sun, it’s one of the ten largest stars ever discovered. This photo, taken by ESO’s Very Large Telescope confirmed that this beast of a fusion reactor is currently an evolved red supergiant, but will soon become a yellow hypergiant.

How life formed on Earth remains a mystery—meanwhile, scientists are still wondering whether life ever existed on Mars. The first photo in this week’s roundup could harbor clues to both. Captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, the image reveals a swath of Martian terrain covered in deposits that may have formed when volcanic activity combined with standing water—conditions similar to those on Earth, when early life was evolving here.

Next, in the spirit of spooky season, is an eerie photo of star clusters swarming a massive galaxy named NGC 4874. Its gravitational pull is strong enough to attract more than 30,000 globular clusters of stars—more than any known galaxy.

Back in our own solar system, a photo taken by the European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter resembles areas of home. An impact crater on the red planet has been collecting wind-swept materials and creating picturesque dunes inside the depression.

Also on Mars—or around Mars, rather—NASA’s Mars Odyssey orbiter imaged Phobos, one the red planet’s moons, in infrared. The potato shaped moon’s varying surface temperatures are depicted here by a range of colors.

Finally, the true star of this week’s photo series is the sun. The European Space Agency’s astronomy club took an amazing photo of a bird and the International Space Station passing before Earth’s parent star, creating an X-mark.

Check out the entire collection