The National Aeronautics and Space Administration as well as the European Space Agency have managed to capture some impressive videos and images over the years. Some of them are legendary, and you’ve likely seen them all over the news or even inside your science textbooks in school. Some of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA are not always what you think. Sometimes, it could be the appearance of our planet or those in our solar system. Sometimes it might be of a star local to us. Other times, they’re showing us images that are jaw-dropping and change everything we once knew.
Sure, the latter does not happen as often as we’d want. However, the fact that it has before is significant. Moreover, what these amazing organizations have done is help everyone fall in love with space again, just like we did in the 1960s. Back then, our mission to space was built on things like war. The United States did not want the Russians to beat them into space, but they did. Therefore, America had to beat them to the moon. Since then, the love of space dropped but in recent times we’ve seen it pick up again. NASA and the ESA are to thank for this in many ways, so let’s check out some of the best images they have captured!
Large Magellanic Cloud
The Large Magellanic Cloud has been discussed on Science Sensei in the past. However, we never get over the amazing appearance. It is by far one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA. This happens to be a satellite galaxy connected to our Milky Way Galaxy. This is not very uncommon to see for large galaxies like ours. Satellites galaxies are simply smaller galaxies that are caught by the gravity of a larger galaxy. It does not enter our galaxy at all, but it does go wherever the Milky Way goes in space. Like satellites above Earth, they do not swing off into random space but are kept in place by immense gravity.
The LMC is the third closest galaxy to us at 50 kiloparsecs or 160,000 lightyears. They call this the “Large” Magellanic Cloud for a reason. Based on what can be seen, the LMC is roughly 10 billion solar masses, with a diameter of 14,000 lightyears. This might be pretty big, but it is only a hundredth as massive as our Milky Way, which is why it’s a satellite obviously. We classify this as a Magellanic Spiral, as it contains a stellar bar that is off-center, making scientists assume it was previously a barred dwarf spiral galaxy before the spiral arms were somehow interrupted. It is possible that this interruption was even caused by the Milky Way’s gravity.
The Helix Nebula is beautiful to see. It is like staring into the “Eye of God,” according to religious people. However, it is the “Eye of Sauron” to the rest of us nerds. It is not shocking why so many feel it is one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA. Located in the Aquarius constellation and discovered by Karl Ludwig Harding sometime before 1824, this happens to be one of the closest nebulas to us. The Gaia mission managed to measure it at 655 light-years, give or take 13 lightyears. This is massive and would take several lifetimes to fully explore if you started at the far left or right and went to the other side.
This happens to be a Planetary nebula, meaning it contains planets inside of it next to several of its stars. This does not mean every star or planet is in great shape, of course. This nebula was originally formed by an intermediate to low-mass star as it shed outer layers near its death. You can easily see the gases from the star now surrounding the nebula. We also now know that the central star in this nebula will become a white dwarf star. It is so energetic that the star expelled gases to make the nebula’s light even brighter. The estimated age of the Helix Nebula is roughly 10,600 years old, give or take a few thousand years.
Infrared streams or waves are not very uncommon in space. However, it is not every day that you can capture this sort of thing in an image. Yet that is exactly what happened, making this one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA. How does all of this work? Essentially, infrared waves have longer wavelengths than visible light. Thus, they are able to pass through dense regions of gas and dust in space without scattering or being absorbed as easily if at all. It makes infrared very valuable to use for NASA and the ESA as well as other space programs.
This infrared energy is able to reveal objects in the universe that are not able to traditionally seen in visible light using an optical telescope. That allows us to now find and see several things we never could before. In fact, a lot of neutron stars are now easier to find and see using infrared as they emit radio waves on top of other high-energy waves, such as x-rays. Many stars in their end-time lifecycles are known to emit infrared waves too, but some might emit more than others. Overall, streams like what you see above are rare to come across. However, we’ll likely see a lot more infrared stuff in the future…just maybe not in stream form very often.
It is not hard to see how this nebula ended up getting its name. Nicknamed the “Ghost Nebula,” science refers to it as Sh2-136, VdB 141. This is in connection to the scientists/researchers that discovered it. The nebula is next to a cluster known as NGC 7023, known as the Iris Nebula. Both of these nebulae are reflection nebulas, or those that reflect the light of a nearby star or stars due to their interstellar dust. Of course, star energy is not enough to ionize the gas of the nebula to create emission nebulas. However, it is certainly enough to scatter things out and make dust visible.
This creates a frequency spectrum that is presented by reflection nebulae acts just like that of illuminating stars. While a lot is present here, among the microscopic particles responsible for the nebula scattering are carbon compounds. This is often referred to as “diamond dust.” The compounds of other elements like iron and nickel combine with carbon compounds. The two then go on to align with the galactic magnetic field of the nebula, which causes scattered light to be ever so slightly polarized. Overall, our Ghost Nebula is over 2 lightyears across and is clearly one of the most recognizable nebulas in space.
The Cartwheel Galaxy is one of the most beautiful in space. The lighting all over makes it just stand out as gorgeous to all who see it. This is both a lenticular and ring galaxy. Lenticular galaxies are those that seem to fall right in-between a spiral and elliptical galaxy. As you can see, the galaxy is not technically either but it has the makings of each. Of course, it is also a ring galaxy for the obvious reason you can see for yourself. The Cartwheel Galaxy is absolutely massive too. Scientists have estimated it is roughly 150,000 lightyears in diameter alone. It’s also an estimated 1 billion solar masses, give or take 2.9 to 4.8 solar masses.
The velocity of the outer ring is an estimated 217 kilometers per second or km/s. That equals 485,415 miles per hour, which is faster than the highest speed any machine built by humans has ever gone with humans inside. However, NASA’s unmanned Parker Space Probe did manage to reach 400,000 mph when it was observing the outer corona of our Sun. This specific Cartwheel Galaxy is part of the Cartwheel Galaxy Group, which consists of four physically associated spiral galaxies of which this galaxy is the largest. It houses several compelling stars and was even found to have a type II supernova in late 2021.
The Medusa Merger is a terrific and beautiful place in space that sits at the center of the Eye of Medusa and is roughly 500 lightyears across. It’s clear that the area is quite large but the story behind how it is named has often been compelling. It is claimed that the monster Medusa named it after her as two galaxies merged together to create the galaxy we see today. Apparently, this happened when one large galaxy collided with a smaller one that was rich in gas. The larger galaxy simply ate up the smaller one, sending out a ton of dust and stars as it did so.
Of course, it was the streams of dust spreading out into outer space that ended up giving us the name. The red strands reaching out into space are technically dust tendrils, thought to resemble snakes. Obviously, the Medusa monster is known for having hair made of living snakes. Thus, since it seemed like snakes were coming out just like Medusa’s hair, the name stuck. Some believe that Medusa upon being turned into stone by Perseus, made her way into the stars to be part of this area. Of all the legends connected to astronomy, this seems pretty cool. Either way, it is one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA.
Back in the second century, an astronomer and mathematician named Claudius Ptolemy added Canis Major into his 48 constellations, which are all now added to the 88 modern constellations we know today. In Latin, Canis Major means “greater dog.” This made sense as a name because Canis Major connects with the Orion constellation. Of course, he is the “hunter” and it makes sense a dog would be present with him. Interestingly, our Milky Way passes right through Canis Major and several open clusters are present within the Major’s borders.
We know Canis Major most for its infamous Sirius star, the brightest star in the night sky. Often referred to as the “dog star,” it happens to be so bright to us because of how close it is to our solar system. Interestingly, Canis Major has several bright stars we are able to see. This is likely due to the galaxy having several large stars including yellow-white supergiants like Delta as well as blue-white supergiants like Eta. Obviously, the galaxy is beautiful which is why we love this image so much. It is easily one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA.
Cosmos Redshift 7 is very big in the astronomy community. Currently, it is the oldest galaxy we’ve ever been able to find in space. It can be dated back at least 12.9 billion years. It is also the most distant star from us, which is not shocking. As space keeps expanding, things keep moving further away every single day. The speed of this has been debated, but we have since found that the universe is expanding at a much faster rate than previously believed. Overall, due to being so old, it is widely assumed to be the first galaxy to exist.
Others believe it was not the first galaxy, but is merely the oldest we can still see. In fact, there are some who believe since it is 12.9 billion lightyears from us, we’re seeing it clearly 12.9 billion years in its past. Thus, if we were to somehow get there today, it might not even exist any longer. The fact it is so far from us allows us to see light from the galaxy that is now 12.9 billion years old. Scientists also believe that it was formed only 800 million years after the Big Bang was believed to have taken place. That’s pretty incredible to think about. On top of that, the image taken is one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA.
We’ve always loved Mayall’s Object, as it’s one of the most incredible stories in astronomy. This galaxy essentially displays a major collision between two different galaxies. Yet we see galaxies colliding all the time that do not look like this at all. How did the galaxy end up looking like a bullet was shot through it? Scientists wanted to find this out too. Apparently, after studying the galaxy more they determined how it happened. It appears as if, upon colliding with each other, a shockwave took place that thrust some of the matter into the center. That led to the formation of the ring around it.
That’s right, the galaxy did not form by the longer portion going through the ring. Rather, the longer portion came first and the shockwave burst sent the other material out to form the ring around the previous portion. The Hubble Space Telescope was responsible for taking the image back in 2008, as it used a Wide Field and Planetary Camera 2 instrument to fully capture it. Of course, this galaxy is 500 million lightyears away which is why it is not the most perfect image ever taken. Either way, we find it to be awesome. Certainly, it is one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA.
We know The Amazon is filled with a lot of trees and happens to be the home of the most infamous and largest rainforest on the planet. While we already know that dust from Africa floats over to the Amazon to help the forest grow, the Amazon gives back. The rainforest actually soaks up a lot of carbon dioxide each year. It actually soaks up roughly 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually. That adds up to around 1.7 billion metric tons in the last 20 years. Of course, this is quite a lot and the Amazon is doing a good job.
However, the sad part is that emissions by the same nine nations that host the rainforest are much higher than this. Brazil alone in the last 20 years has produced 3.6 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, and this does not include the amount produced by the other eight nations. This has resulted in news stories that claim that “The Amazon emits more CO2 than it absorbs.” This is a misnomer, as the rainforest does not do this at all…it’s the nations that the rainforest is hosted by. However, this image shows the rainforest absorbing CO2. That makes us feel is it one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA.
Hoag’s Object is yet another place in space that seems so unique. It is one of the few galaxies that can claim to have an actually perfect ring. It is very rare to see perfect ring galaxies in space. However, that is exactly what we see here. What is so odd is not really the perfect ring but the inner core just sitting there completely separate from the main ring itself. At first, upon being discovered it was assumed we were seeing the image and experiencing gravitational lensing. Later, that was proven incorrect. Some then naturally assumed a few galaxies must have collided to allow this inner nucleus to be present.
However, there are no signs of any second galaxy “bulleting” its way through. Other studies conducted also failed to find any galaxy fragments to confirm any collision scenario. That led some to assume that if a collision did ever occur, it must have happened at least 3 billion years ago, at minimum. Others believe it was a victim of bar instability that took place a few billion years ago in a barred spiral galaxy. No one is entirely sure of what happened, but it is still a really cool-looking galaxy to check out. It is also obviously one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA.
Perhaps one of the most amazing images taken, trying to capture a spinning black widow pulsar is nearly impossible. That alone should make this one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA. However, some might be unaware of what the Black Widow Pulsar actually is. It is located 6,500 lightyears away from Earth (scary close in space terms) and orbits a brown dwarf star companion. A pulsar itself is simply a highly magnetized rotating neutron star that emits beams of electromagnetic radiation out of its magnetic poles. The Black Widow Pulsar is known as a “millisecond pulsar.” Thus, it rotates for less than 10 milliseconds.
There are other versions of pulsars beyond this, but we won’t bore you with those details. The origin of how these specific pulsars form is believed to be via a rapidly rotating neutron star that is spun up through the accretion of matter from a nearby companion star. That is also likely why it is called a “recycled pulsar” too. In the case of the Black Widow, it is actually an eclipsing binary millisecond pulsar likely formed by the destruction of a companion star by the neutron star, giving it the “black widow” name. The pulsars surrounding it also took on the same name. Our image above simply shows the pulsar spinning, which is pretty awesome to see.
When Saturn was first discovered, it was widely assumed to have moons where the rings were present. Later on, we ended up seeing the rings perfectly but there simply was not a perfect image that could be captured. That was until the Cassini Space Probe was launched with the mission of making it to Saturn to study it entirely before finishing its mission by crashing into the planet itself. The crash into the planet was not technically planned out. However, since Cassini used up all of its rocket propellant, there was no need to crash or land Cassini on one of Saturn’s amazing moons.
They felt by crashing Cassini into Saturn, they could ensure the moons stayed in pristine shape for future exploration. Before crashing, it took several amazing images of Saturn that were sent back to the teams at NASA, the ESA, and many other space programs. Among them is the image we shared above, likely the best image we’ve ever seen of Saturn. It captured everything from the infamous rings to the coloring and much more. Just imagine too that the rings are actually debris spinning around the planet in its orbit, so think about how fast they must be moving. Overall, this is easily one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA.
For years, we have heard that there will one day be a move to colonize Mars. However, in order to do this, it’s clear that something like terraforming would take centuries and might not even work. The atmosphere on Mars is very thin, especially compared to Earth. That is why you do not see any life on the barren planet, outside Martian Manhunter of course, but he’s an exception. It is clear that Mars was once similar to Earth and likely did contain an atmosphere that allowed for life to be possible. Yet if we’re going to live here one day, we need to be able to have a fresh supply of water.
While it is hard to believe now, Mars used to have weather similar to us where rain would come down on the regular. The rain came down so often that water was able to create many of Mars’ vast crater lakes and valley networks. Of course, rain last happened here roughly 3.7 billion years ago. That rain build-up made it underground and eventually led to ice formation. However, there is still some ice that can be seen above ground near the poles. The image taken above shows ice in one of the craters, as you can see. NASA and the ESA have found several more craters just like this too.
Did you know Mars is exclusively home to more robotic vs sentient life than any other planet in existence? To be fair, we do not know of any current life on Mars. Thus all known things with any intelligence are going to be robotic here. Perhaps the most famous is the Curiosity Rover, which also happens to have its own Twitter account where pretty much every image it captures is instantly uploaded. There was a situation when it was widely assumed the rover died, which was going to be a huge bummer considering how important it has been to Mars exploration.
While there are still many other robots or AI on the planet sent by several space programs, the Curiosity Rover is special to us. You might be shocked to hear that it is actually still alive right now, as of this article. It might not update us as much as it used to, but this is likely due to NASA wanting to expand its life. After all, it has been on Mars for 9 years and 250+ days as of this writing. One of its last images can be seen above, as it took an image on the Mars surface, showing ground that changed in color and looks muddy. That gave us the idea that water could be underground in this area.
It is hard to really appreciate the universe we live in. However, if you look at the stars in the night sky it can really be a beautiful thing to behold. Just imagine seeing more than just the white coloring of those stars. In the image above, you can do just that! What you’re seeing is a massive cluster of stars filled with blue and red stars. Some of the stars are large supergiants, especially some of the brighter blue stars. Yet you will also see several white stars in the middle, each of them seems brighter than the others around them.
Usually, blue supergiants are far more bright than white dwarf stars. That is actually what you’re seeing in the middle and not white stars as you might assume. It’s an easy mistake to make due to how freaking bright those stars are. Yet if you look close, they are all blue. It is amazing to think about how many stars there are. In just the Milky Way, there are over 100 billion stars! Around some of those stars, planets are present. Some of the planets are in habitable zones where life is possible. Of course, outside the Milky Way, there are quintillions of other stars with planets surrounding them.
While we have already discussed the Orion constellation in this article, we have to sort of reference it again. As this Inky Abyss happens to be located there. Known as NGC 2022, the Abyss is actually a massive orb of gas that was cast off by an aging star. Smaller amateur telescopes can actually see this in the night sky, but for years it was hard to really make out. It looked a lot like a small glob of light and nothing more. That was until the Hubble Space Telescope had a chance to take a closer look at it. You can actually see the star in the middle that cast off all the gas to start with.
It is known as a Red Giant star, which is not uncommon to see. Our own Sun or Sol will eventually become a red giant too. Stars like our Sun and obviously this star will expand and glow red as they age. Upon doing this, outer laters will be shed and thus go off into space. A lot of the layers can be shed too, up to half of the star’s total mass in fact. At the same time, the core of the star will shrink and only become hotter. That caused it to emit ultraviolet light that causes the gases to glow like what we see here. That said, this is clearly one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA for sure.
If there is anything that could be considered one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA on this list, it’s obviously Messier 57. Of course, this is a gorgeous ring nebula that is actually the glowing remains of a sun-like star. If you look closely, you can see a white dot in the center of the nebula. This happens to be the star that caused all of this. It is a white dwarf star, which can certainly be bright but nowhere near the luminosity level of any blue giant or supergiant star. Yet the nebula happens to be relatively close to us in the Orion arm of the Milky Way.
Due to being in our galaxy, you can actually see it in many amateur telescopes. In fact, that was how it was discovered. A man by the name of Antoine Darquier de Pellepoix first saw it in 1779. He went on to describe it but the drawings never do the nebula justice. Thus, the Hubble Space Telescope was tasked with capturing high-resolution images like the one you see above. M57 differs from other star guts you might see in space. The deep blue color is from helium, the light blue color is from hydrogen and oxygen, and the reddish color ring is from nitrogen and sulfur.
It is not uncommon to see a nebula with various colors spread around it. However, the Crab Nebula is certainly one of the most beautiful nebulae you will ever come across. How did this nebula come to be? It is actually a supernova remnant and pulsar wind nebula. That is a lot to unpack, so let’s explain. A supernova remnant is the result of a supernova explosion, where remnants are bounded by an expanding shockwave. All of the ejected material expands from that explosion. As this expansion occurs, it will collect other interstellar material which will also be swept up in the shock along the way.
Meanwhile, a pulsar wind nebula is often found inside the shell of supernova remnants. They are powered by the winds generated by the central pulsar itself and happen to have extreme radiation, including infrared, optical, x-ray, and gamma-ray sources. It is actually the brightest known gamma-ray source we can see near us. The Crab Nebula’s magnitude is around the size of Saturn’s Titan moon. It might not be visible to the naked eye, but can be seen through proper professional telescopes. The Crab Nebula image is certainly beautiful, and one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA.
The Stellar Forge is absolutely gorgeous to see. This is often what many of us think about when we think about space, and that is by design. This image has likely been seen all over the place for several years now. While known to science as NGC 1792, it stands out as a forge for obvious reasons. At the center, you’ll see an orange glow. Meanwhile, the blue you can see throughout this galaxy shows that it is filled with young, hot stars while the various orange shade shows that it contains several cooler, older stars too. The Stellar Forge is both a spiral and starburst galaxy. By now, you know how it ended up getting the spiral galaxy tag.
Yet how is it also a starburst galaxy? These galaxy types are known for having extremely high rates of star formation. As referenced earlier, there are several young stars here so that makes sense. However, it seems that the large reservoir of gas within this galaxy leads to short-lived starburst phases. That causes mergers and even tidal interactions. It seems supernova explosions and interstellar winds produced the starbursts, which then inject energy into the gas to then disperse it out. It allows for star formation to halt before it can completely deplete the galaxy of its fuel. Thus managing to reserve it until the right time.
Perhaps the most beautiful bubble we’ve ever seen, this Bubble Nebula gets its name honestly. It happens to be located close to Messier 52, an open cluster. How did the “bubble appearance” come to be? Apparently, it was a happy accident that was created by the stellar wind of a massive and hot young central star. The star inside the Bubble Nebula is known as SAO 20575 and can be seen in the image above. On top of all of this, the nebula is also near a giant molecular cloud that contains the expansion of the nebula. That is all while being excited and primed by its own hot central star, which causes it to glow.
The Bubble Nebula is another example of an emission nebula. Previous nebula or objects we discussed, such as Messier 57, happen to be part of that family. Of course, these are just nebulae that emit light of numerous wavelengths caused by ionized gases. However, not all of the nebulae part of the emission nebulae look the same. They all do have one thing in common it seems, a seemingly circular figure. The difference between the Bubble Nebula compared to, say, Messier 57…is that it was also affected by the giant molecular cloud too. Regardless, it is one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA.
Some might start to believe in a higher power after viewing this beautiful nebula. The name is easy to understand, as the nebula looks a lot like mountains. Thus, the “Mystic Mountains” name was given to it. Located in the Carina Nebula, many feel it looks like a bizarre landscape you’d see in fantasy films or television shows. Yet the real story behind how these mountains might beat what you’d see in the realm of fantasy. The mountains are filled with interstellar dust and gas that are actually three lightyears tall. Yet at the same time, the light from nearby stars bleeds through them.
The stars are essentially attacking it from within, as young infant stars inside are firing off gases that you’ll see streaming out of the mountain peaks. It sort of makes these mountains look like interstellar volcanoes. The Carina Nebula is filled with a massive stellar nursery roughly 7500 lightyears from Earth. Massive radiation and fast winds from hot newborn stars are actually shaping the pillar. That only causes new stars to form from within. Veils of gas and dust, lit up by starlight, float around the peaks to give it an amazing look. Overall, this is clearly one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA.
It is not hard to see why so many are obsessed with AG Carinae. We referenced already how the Carina territory is home to a massive star nursery. However, AG Carinae stands out here in a big way. Seriously, you cannot miss it. Technically, it is classified as a “luminous blue variable” or LBV. These are massive stars that are heavily evolved and often show unpredictable, dramatic variations in their spectra and even their brightness. LBVs are very rare, with only 20 currently known to science as of this writing.
Of course, AG Carinae happens to be one of the brightest stars in the entire Milky Way Galaxy. However, it happens to be 20,000 lightyears away from Earth. Combined with interstellar dust, the star is usually not capable of being seen with the naked eye in spite of how bright it is. On top of this, we did reference how LBVs can be unpredictable, remember? AG Carinae certainly lives up to that as its brightness varies massively between a magnitude of 5.7 and 9.0. Of course, on a bright day, the decision was made to get a great image. This led to one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA.
Seeing stars form or go supernova is not exactly easy to capture on camera. Yet we were treated to one of the most breathtaking photos captured by NASA and the ESA when they actually caught stars being born. This image looks like an amazing art piece that you’d see an artist put together. However, it is actually an image of a real event in space. It comes from one of the turbulent stellar nurseries that NASA and ESA observed over 30 years. The image shows a giant nebula known as NGC 2014 and its smaller neighbor NGC 2020.
Together, they are part of the infamous Large Magellanic Cloud that we discussed earlier in the article. After taking a look at it, many began calling it the “Cosmic Reef,” due to how it looks like an undersea reef in space. The Cosmic Reef might be 163,000 lightyears away but the image captured is tremendous. To be able to capture such an image took incredible skill and timing. However, what’s so interesting here is that this particular image was not taken at the exact time these nebulae were interacting. It actually happened 163,000 Earth years ago, which makes you obviously wonder what’s going on there today!
Ghostly Star-Forming Pillars Of Gas and Dust (Taken By Hubble Telescope)
The Hubble Space Telescope supplied a lot of the images on this list. It should not shock you that it managed to collect the final image too. The image might frighten some people, as it has often been referred to as a beast from your nightmares. However, the celestial object is simply a pillar of gas and dust known as the Cone Nebula. The name comes from the ground-based images showing a conical shape. The pillar resides in a very wild, turbulent star-forming region of space. This image only shows 2.5 light-years of the total Cone Nebula.
The height takes so long to reach that you’d need to make 23 million roundtrips to the Moon to reach a nearly equivalent distance. The pillar alone is 7 lightyears long, which is quite a lot. Obviously, radiation from hot, younger stars has managed to slowly erode the nebula for millions of years now. Today, ultraviolet light heats up the edges of the darker cloud. In turn, this releases gas into a relatively empty region of space. Ultraviolet radiation then causes hydrogen gas to glow, producing the red halo of light you see around the pillar. The arc with halo is actually 65 times larger than our entire solar system!