Boosters, bacteria and human-sized drones — February’s top science images

The month’s sharpest science shots — selected by Nature’s photo team.

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Skate specimen with skeletal structure visible

Credit: Jun-An Chen/National Taiwan Science Education Center

Skating around. These ethereal fish are skates, close relatives of sharks and rays that can walk on the sea floor. In February, researchers revealed that these primitive fish have the genes and nerve cells that allow people and other mammals to walk. The findings suggest that the nerve cells essential for walking evolved millions of years earlier than previously thought.

A single positively-charged strontium atom held in place by electric fields

Credit: David Nadlinger/University of Oxford

A single atom. You’ll need to look closely at this one. This contraption is an ion trap that, using electric fields, allows physicists to suspend single atoms for quantum-computing research. Look carefully at the bright pixel between the metal probes: that’s one strontium atom. The snap earned graduate student David Nadlinger, at the University of Oxford, UK, a photography award from Britain’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, a funding agency.

Differently coloured colonies of bacteria

Credit: Colin Ingham (Hoekmine BV)

All natural. These glittery forms are microbes called flavobacteria, which produce striking metallic colours when they group together in colonies. The hues are produced by a phenomenon called structural colouration — also seen in peacock feathers and butterfly wings — which is produced by light at certain wavelengths reflecting off the specimens’ internal structures, rather than by pigments. Research published last month was the first to explore the genetics of structural colour.

Falcon Heavy demo mission

Credit: SpaceX

Eyes to the skies. A space launch captivated the world on 6 February, as Elon Musk’s behemoth rocket Falcon Heavy soared into the skies and record books. The 27-engine machine is the most powerful commercial rocket ever built, and the event marked a transition in spaceflight: private companies have finally cracked access to deep space, wrote Nature in an Editorial.

Footage of the Falcon Heavy demo mIssion

Credit: Space X

One missing. Many marvelled at the synchrony and control of two of the Falcon Heavy’s reusable booster stages landing back on Earth, on pads at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The third booster, however, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean when some of its engines did not ignite as planned.

A mahout bathing his elephant in a river

Credit: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Big, small, living, extinct. Geneticists last month published an evolutionary history of elephant species. The wide-ranging genomic analysis sequenced animals including the woolly mammoth, a straight-tusked elephant and living African and Asian elephants (one pictured here, in New Delhi). The study found that different elephant species interbred regularly in history, and confirmed that African forest and savannah elephants are different species.

Inauguration of the first prototype dish for Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope

Credit: Mu Yu/Xinhua/eyevine

Dawn of a telescope. A ceremony last month in China celebrated the first fully assembled dish of the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an ambitious international project to build the world’s largest radio telescope. The SKA should eventually consist of thousands of radio dishes in Africa and up to a million antennas in Australia that will allow it to peer deep into the Universe’s past. But the project has been controversial among South African residents. This dish, designed by a Chinese laboratory, is a part of the final stage of design work before construction.

The EHANG 184 Manned Passenger Drone

Credit: EHANG

Flying future. Drones are now spacious enough to fit an adult inside. Chinese manufacturer Ehang in Guangzhou last month released footage of test flights of its crewed passenger drone. The vehicle is autonomous, just like smaller, remote-controlled drones, but it can carry one person at speeds of up to 130 kilometres an hour. Just don't expect much leg room.

Polarised light micrograph of Sassafras tree

Credit: Steve Lowry

Optical illusion. This image might look like a magic eye puzzle, but it’s actually the internal structure of a sassafras tree. Photographer Steve Lowry produced the image using polarized light and wave-retarding filters. This picture and others won Lowry a silver prize in the International Garden Photographer of the Year competition, announced last month.

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