This year may not have panned out how anyone thought it would, or wanted, but that doesn't mean some spectacular science didn't come out of 2020. In the case of space news, that often materialized in ridiculously good-looking space images, whether it was the Sun giving its finest Blue Steel or the Milky Way giving up its deepest secrets.
You may not remember what happened last week, let alone last month, and the start of the year feels like decades ago, so let us remind you that however chaotic Earth is, space can be relied on to prove breathtakingly beautiful. Anyone mourning their holidays this year, let us take you off-planet.
MIND-BLOWING CLOSE-UPS OF THE SUN
2020 was quite an astonishing year for photos of the Sun. January kicked off with the highest resolution photos of the Sun's surface ever taken, thanks to the Daniel K Inouye Solar Telescope. Here we can see features as small as 30 kilometers (18 miles) in size for the first time ever. Each cell-like structure is the size of Texas. Pretty incredible, but quickly followed up by the High-Resolution Coronal Imager (Hi-C)'s highest resolution images of the solar corona, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Solar Orbiter's closest images of the Sun ever taken at just 77 million kilometers (48 million miles) away, and the upgraded GREGOR telescope's incredible high-res images, which includes a mesmerizing sunspot GIF you feel like you could fall into.
ICONIC IMAGES GOT SOME SHARP UPGRADES
To mark the Hubble Telescope's 30th anniversary, NASA released a new infrared image of one of its most iconic photographs, the Eagle nebula's Pillars of Creation. Also in infrared was this incredible new image of the Carina nebula taken by the Gemini South telescope, the sharpest ever taken by a ground telescope. To mark another occasion, NASA released a new updated version of the famous "Pale Blue Dot", when Voyager 1 looked back and captured its last ever images, including a tiny insignificant-looking blue planet, 30 years ago.
THE PLANETS IN DETAIL
Thanks to ongoing missions, we got some incredibly detailed images of the objects of their affection. Not many things will beat Juno's view of Jupiter's swirling storms during a flyby in February – and to appreciate it properly you need to see it full length – although newly processed images from the Galileo spacecraft of Jovian moon Europa's scarred surface are pretty impressive. We saw Mars in more detail than ever this year too, from shifting dunes and swaths of rippling ice caps to spectacular images of the Red Planet's own "Grand Canyon".
If you've ever wanted to explore Mars then let us direct you to the phenomenal 1.8-billion-pixel sweeping Marscape snapped by Curiosity. Did we mention it's interactive, so you can span around, zoom in, and explore like you are right there with the rover. It's not just Mars you can visit though. OSIRIS-REx made a historic landing on asteroid Bennu in October to collect samples to return to Earth. In order to do so, it had to study the surface of Bennu in exquisite detail, and thanks to NASA's visualization studio, you can now experience that in a glorious 3D video that makes you feel like you are actually standing on the surface of an asteroid. If you'd prefer to visit the Moon, China's Chang'e 5 mission that recently successfully returned lunar samples to Earth stopped and snapped a panorama that makes you appreciate the beautiful stillness of our natural satellite.
Comets PUT ON A SHOW
It was a rollercoaster of a year, comet-wise. After hopes for Comet C/2019 Y4 (ATLAS) – for a short period thought to be the best comet we’d see in years – were dashed by its break-up in April, Comet C/2020 F8 (SWAN) swept in in May and made many an astrophotographers' dreams come true. That's not to say ATLAS bowed out quietly. After it met its fateful end as it journeyed around the Sun, it disintegrated into at least 30 pieces, each the size of a house, and Hubble was there to capture the fragmenting comet in crisp resolution.
LOOKING DOWN ON EARTH
It was a fun year for looking down on Earth and capturing some beautiful and unusual occurrences, too. In August, a gorgeous photo taken from the International Space Station (ISS) captured two spectacular atmospheric phenomena around Earth in one picture: a glowing aurora (green) and airglow (orange). Not to be outdone by ATLAS and SWAN, Comet Neowise popped up in July and though it provided photographers on Earth with spectacular views, none of them can match watching the comet rise with the Sun from the ISS, which you can do in this incredible time-lapse video. Perhaps the most fun, though, was watching a meteoroid bounce off Earth's atmosphere. Earth-grazers are rare, but we can forgive this one for looking at Earth in 2020 and thinking, nope, not today.
Brand new portraits of the planets
Hubble snapped a brand new portrait of the best-looking planet in our Solar System (sorry, other planets, get some rings and we can talk) in the midst of summer, capturing stronger, bolder colors than its portrait last year, due to a red haze that spreads across the planet's hemisphere during spring and summer. It even caught two of its moons, Enceladus and Mimas, as little bright specks orbiting the gas giant. Not to be outdone, Jupiter also got a new portrait, along with icy moon Europa. Hubble captured its swirling clouds and giant storms that move across its atmosphere in incredible detail. And last but not least, China's Chang'e 4 treated us to a new family portrait of Earth and the Moon together in the sky via the Queqiao relay satellite.
MOST DETAILED MAPS OF THE SKY
It was a good year to stand back and look at the entire sky, get some perspective and some excellent science. ESA's Gaia observatory published its third data release, and with it we got the most detailed map of the Milky Way ever, revealing the location of almost 1.812 billion stars with unparalleled precision. The eROSITA X-ray instrument at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics also revealed the deepest X-ray view of the universe, observing over 1 million objects and single-handedly doubling the number of X-ray sources we knew about. It's also spectacular to look at.