From Pluto to viral structures, this year produced an array of dazzling pictures.
NASA’s New Horizons probe won headlines and hearts this year as it sent back pictures of Pluto from the edges of the Solar System. But NASA scientists were not the only ones with images for us to wonder over. Animals at war, shock waves made visible and close-ups of objects normally beyond the limits of our vision were among the shots that caught the eye of Nature’s art team.
The biggest lizards on Earth — Komodo dragons — stage brutal fights over territory in Indonesia. This shot of such a bout was a finalist in the 2015 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.
S upersonic boom
The shock waves generated by a US jet moving at supersonic speed were imaged from another plane above the Mojave Desert. NASA researchers exploited a technique called schlieren photography, first developed in the nineteenth century by German physicist August Toepler, to capture changes in light as the jet passed through air of different densities.
M agellanic magic
The Planck satellite provided a fresh view of the Large Magellanic Cloud (dark dots, centre) and the Small Magellanic Cloud (bottom left) — two galaxies close to our own Milky Way. The image uses data captured at microwave and sub-millimetre wavelengths.
T he weevil’s head
This detailed picture of the head of a boll weevil (Anthonomus grandis) was one of the winners in this year’s Wellcome Image Awards. The head, which measures just millimetres across, was imaged using a scanning electron microscope.
These eerie, skull-shaped objects are actually a vital part of the papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus). Photographed by David Maitland at 200 times life size, the image is a slice through the ‘vascular bundles’ that plants use to transport fluids through their tissues.
It took hundreds of 2D snapshots of the large virus that infects Acanthamoeba polyphaga to produce this 3D structure. Researchers showed that powerful X-ray free-electron lasers could reconstruct a single particle of the giant virus despite its not being amenable to crystallization.
This ghostly vision is a planetary nebula — the gently glowing remnants of a dying star. Nicknamed the Southern Owl Nebula, it was captured by the Very Large Telescope in Chile.
The sheer number of images and wealth of data sent back from NASA’s New Horizons probe as it flew past Pluto this year were overwhelming at times. But the Nature team was won over by the beauty of this picture, sent back minutes after the probe’s closest approach to Pluto, when it revealed a cold, odd world, silhouetted by the Sun.
To some people, thunderbolts and lightning are very, very frightening. But to a team at the International Center for Lightning Research and Testing in Florida, they are study subjects that can be triggered by firing rockets into storms. This long-exposure image captures the aftermath of one such researcher-elicited lightning event.
This disco-map of the human body catalogues the chemicals and microbes found on the largest of all organs: the skin. Swabs from 400 sites on two healthy people were taken after the willing volunteers did not bathe for three days in the name of science.
Body of evidence
Day-to-day life for African vultures is thrown into sharp focus by this ‘carcass cam’ shot. Although the scene is a bit gruesome, the birds’ feeding habits play a key part in keeping the ecosystem healthy.
The US ‘golden state’ has been hit hard by four years of severe drought. As locals and wildlife struggle to adapt to the dry spell, the frequency of fires, such as this one near Clearlake in August, has increased.
Planetary scientists have been finding water on Mars in different forms for some time now. But the dark streaks visible here are particularly exciting as they form part of the strongest evidence so far of liquid brine at the surface. The image was created by fitting images from NASA’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment over a model of the terrain of the Garni Crater.
THE ONES THAT GOT AWAY
The selection process for this year’s print collection of the year’s best images involved much heated debate among the members of Nature’s art team. Each person had to sacrifice at least one personal favourite picture to reach the final choice. As an added online bonus, here are the ‘ones that got away’.
Ffion Cleverley (Picture research assistant): “This incredible multihued photograph of April's eruption of the Calbuco volcano in Chile was taken from the city of Puerto Montt. The eruption resulted in the evacuation of around 1,500 residents from neighbouring towns, and the unfurling ash column reached more than 16 kilometres high.”
CAUGHT IN A TRAP
Daniel Cressey (Senior News reporter): “There have been many remarkable portraits of birds this year. They include the ‘carcass cam’ shot, which features in Nature’s 'Images of the year', National Geographic’s ‘When penguins attack’, and some truly arresting photography by Gary Heery. But the images that have stayed with me most strongly are Todd Forsgren’s pictures of birds that had been captured by scientists in mist nets, from his book Ornithological Photographs , released this year.”
Barbara Izdebska (Managing picture researcher): "I wish this photo of the vast expanse of silk created by spiders on a meadow in Balatonfökajár in Hungary had made it into print, as I feel that it’s stunning and unique — but it wasn’t to be. Credit goes to local photographer László Novák for taking it, and to the judges of this year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year for giving Novák a spot as a finalist in that competition."
THE MUMMY RETURNS
Kelly Krause (Creative director): "This poor seal lost its way in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica. The animal ended up kilometres from the sea with no hope of survival, and was mummified by the harsh conditions. This is, of course, very sad — but look at those gorgeous teeth!"
Chris Maddaloni (Photo editor): “This photo, of an altercation between the president of the French League for the Protection of Birds and a local farmer in Audon, alas, didn’t make the final round. Why do comedies so seldom win Best Picture at the Academy Awards? Maybe we could ask the man with the shovel.”
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Cressey, D. 365 days: The best science images of 2015. Nature 528, 452–457 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/528452a