An astronaut floats untethered in space. The sun smiles with a Halloween grin. A camera on the space station sees a single airplane below. These are all space-related images that border on the unreal, but no Photoshop or CGI was used to create them. Space really is that crazy.
There's a camera on NASA's Deep Space Climate Observatory satellite that sits a million miles away from Earth. In 2015, it looked back at its home planet and captured a series of images showing what rock band Pink Floyd refers to as the "dark side" of the moon (more aptly known as the "far side" of the moon) as it passed between the camera and Earth. It's an almost startling perspective from a satellite that has a primary mission of monitoring solar winds.
Space station and space shuttle
A person took this image. Look closely. You can see the International Space Station with the Space Shuttle Endeavour attached on the left side. So if both the ISS and the shuttle are in the image, then who took the photo? The answer is European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli. He was on board a Soyuz TMA-20 that undocked from the station in 2011 to carry a crew of astronauts back to Earth. That gave Nespoli the freedom to snap this spectacular, almost unreal image.
It looks like a prankster got loose over at NASA, but this image of a freaky smiling face on the sun is really just a fortunate coincidence. It comes from the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which imaged the sun in early October 2014 and caught it looking like a carved Halloween pumpkin.
The SDO sees things a bit differently than the human eye. The image blends two sets of wavelengths to create the orange glow. The facial features are active regions of greater light and energy.
This isn't a scene from the 2013 Sandra Bullock and George Clooney space thriller "Gravity." This is a photo of NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless roaming free in space after leaving the Space Shuttle Challenger. McCandless' adventure in 1984 was made possible by a nitrogen jetpack called the Manned Maneuvering Unit. He maxed out at 320 feet away from the Challenger and made it back safely.
Auroras are a fascinating phenomenon involving swirling lights. When viewed from Earth, they light up the night sky and might make you think magical fairies really exist. This image from the crew of Expedition 32 on board the International Space Station in 2012 looks like the product of an artist's imagination, but it's real.
The piece of equipment in the center is a mechanical arm attached to the space station. These spectacular light shows are one of the perks of being an astronaut on the ISS.
There will always be a certain subset of people who don't believe humanity managed to reach the moon. Those people will doubt the veracity of this image showing an Earthrise from the perspective of the Apollo 8 mission in 1968.
This image isn't fake, it's just really, really lucky. An astronaut aboard the space station in 2015 looked down at Great Exuma Island in the Bahamas and snapped a picture of the jewel. The photo just so happens to also show an airplane with white contrails streaming out behind.
"Thanks to the astronaut's steady hands in controlling a long lens in weightlessness, this photograph is detailed enough to show a single aircraft and its twin condensation trails," NASA notes.
No, George Lucas isn't having a laugh. That's not the Death Star hanging around with Saturn's rings in the background. It's actually Saturn's moon Mimas, which just so happens to have an 80-mile-wide (130 kilometers) crater called Herschel that looks an awful lot like the Death Star's superlaser focus lens. NASA's Cassini spacecraft took this scenic shot of Mimas in 2005 as the sun lit up the crater.
Space station transits the moon
It would be easy to open Photoshop, take a fantastic image of the moon and add the silhouette of the International Space Station to it, but that's not what NASA photographer Bill Ingalls did. He went the hard way of patiently calculating what it would take to capture the ISS in transit across the moon and then carefully pulled off the rare feat. Look for the tiny "Z"-shaped dark spot near the upper right center.
Ingalls took the challenging shot last summer, not long after Australian astrophotographer Dylan O'Donnell captured the ISS in front of a full moon.
Space isn't big on squares. There are lots of round planets and stars. There are nebulae that spread out in cloudy lumps. What we don't see are a lot of straight lines. That why space fans are fascinated by the Red Rectangle, a dying star with an unusual signature. This Hubble image from 2007 uses wavelengths of red light to highlight the gas emissions reaching out into the corners of a rectangle.
"The X-shape revealed in this image suggests that something is preventing the uniform expansion of the star's atmosphere. Instead, a thick disc of dust probably surrounds the star, funnelling the outflow into two wide cones. The edges of these show up as the diagonal lines," explains the European Space Agency.
Bonus image: Startling blue in a field of white
Taken out of context, this image is perplexing. There's an almost supernaturally blue blob in the middle of a field of white. What you're seeing here is the Arctic in summer. The white is snow and the blue splotch is a melt pond as seen from a camera on NASA's ER-2 airplane. The pond was located on top of an Alaskan glacier when the photo was taken in 2014.
This may not have been taken from space, but the ER-2 flies at about twice as high as commercial jets and the data it gathers is used by NASA research scientists.