Jaw-dropping views of the Milky Way and more — May’s best science images

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

Two bright stars and the Milky Way photographed in the sky over a blue lagoon in the Atacama Desert

Credit: Yuri Beletsky

Credit: Yuri Beletsky

Bright skies. The Milky Way Photographer of the Year competition celebrates the best images of the Milky Way taken around the world — and this year’s crop of winners showcases a dazzling range of shots, on a journey through remote deserts, spectacular glaciers, volcanoes, mountains and beaches . Photographer Yuri Beletsky said that the scene captured in his image ‘Blue lagoon under the stars’ — taken in Chile’s Atacama desert — offers “a reminder of the wonderful sights that exist in the world and the endless beauty that can be found when we simply look up at the night sky”. See below for a selection of other winning entries.

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The Milky Way arcs over a colourful sandstone rock formation in the Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, Australia.

Credit: Baillie Farley

Credit: Baillie Farley

 The Milky Way photographed over trees and the Morning Glory hot spring in Yellowstone National Park

 Credit: Jerry Zhang

 Credit: Jerry Zhang

Night shot of wildflowers blooming in front of a group of hoodoos called the Three Sisters in Goblin Valley State Park in Utah, with Milky Way in the background

Credit: Marcin Zajac

Credit: Marcin Zajac

Red clouds in the Milky Way and a green light on the horizon seen over wind-carved rock formations of an ancient lake, Mungo National Park, Australia

 Credit: John Rutter

 Credit: John Rutter

Signs of surgery. This 4,000-year-old skull provides evidence of the oldest known attempt at treating cancer. Cut marks around several round lesions caused by tumours suggest that ancient Egyptians tried to treat the condition with surgery. Researchers discovered the etchings while using a microscope to examine the skull, which is thought to belong to a 30- to 35-year-old man who lived between 2687 and 2345 BC.

A skull and mandible dating from between 2687 and 2345 BCE

Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024

Credit: Tondini, Isidro, Camarós, 2024

Credit: Rubin Observatory/NSF/AURA/T. Vičuna/S. Deppe. This video has no sound.

Credit: Rubin Observatory/NSF/AURA/T. Vičuna/S. Deppe. This video has no sound.

Big shiny thing. The Vera C. Rubin Observatory in Chile is scheduled to begin operating some of its instruments later this year, ahead of a planned ten-year survey of the entire Southern Hemisphere sky. Engineers have now finished applying the reflective coating to the telescope’s largest mirror, which has a diameter that is roughly the size of a tennis court and two optical surfaces with different curvatures. Using the telescope and a giant 3,200-megapixel camera, the observatory’s mission is to capture enough data to help reveal the dark energy that moves the Universe.

Credit: Chris Law. This video has no sound.

Credit: Chris Law. This video has no sound.

An otter’s toolkit. Sea otters (Enhydra lutris) use tools to feed — they smash open the shells of snails, clams and mussels with the help of stones, as shown in this video. Now, researchers have identified some of the advantages of this technique. Their observations suggest that sea otters that use tools — most of which are female — consume a more varied diet and avoid damaging their teeth when prying open the shells of prey. “Tool use is an important behaviour for survival,” said study co-author Chris Law, a biologist at the University of Texas at Austin, in a press statement. “The females are likely using tools to overcome their smaller body size and weaker biting ability. Raising pups takes a lot of energy, and the females need to be efficient in their foraging.”

Two scientists in in cold weather gear and life jackets take a sample of water from over the side of a boat in Svalbard

Credit: Alfred-Wegener-Institut/Paolo Verzone

Credit: Alfred-Wegener-Institut/Paolo Verzone

Arctic heatwaves. Scientists collect a sample of single-celled algae from a fjord near the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard to investigate how these organisms are affected by heatwaves. Back in the laboratory, they subjected the algae to varying temperatures, including fluctuating ‘heatwaves’ and constant, but higher-than-normal, temperatures. They found that heatwave conditions have a different effect on algal growth than do steady elevated temperatures. Such studies aim to determine the potential impacts of climate change on marine life in the Arctic — these algae underpin many food chains in the region, so changes to their growth or health could have knock-on effects for the whole ecosystem.

A part of the Horsehead Nebula is seen close-in, as a curved wall of thick, smoky gas and dust. Above the nebula are various distant stars and galaxies.

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Karl Misselt (University of Arizona), Alain Abergel (IAS, CNRS)

Credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, Karl Misselt (University of Arizona), Alain Abergel (IAS, CNRS)

Top of the head. Structures at the edge of the iconic Horsehead Nebula have been captured in unprecedented detail in a new set of images taken by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. The nebula’s distinctive shape is formed by dense clumps of material jutting out of a cloud of interstellar dust and gas, illuminated by a nearby star. Scientists uncovered how dust particles are swept away from the cloud, forming the ‘mane’ area. The observations are allowing astronomers to investigate how the particles block and emit ultraviolet light, and to better understand the shape of the nebula.

A fossilised spider with thick spiny legs

Credit: Paul Selden

Credit: Paul Selden

Ancient arachnid. This 308-million-year-old spider-like fossil’s unusual body plan and robust, spiny legs set it apart from all known arachnids, living and extinct. Researchers have named the specimen Douglassarachne acanthopoda, but it is unclear which living creatures it is most closely related to. “The fossil’s very spiny legs are reminiscent of some modern harvestmen, but its body plan is quite different,” said study co-author Jason Dunlop, a palaeontologist at the Natural History Museum in Berlin, in a statement. The animal could represent an extinct branch of a wider group including spiders, whip spiders and whip scorpions.

Pink Aurora Borealis lighting up the Sonoran desert and silhouetting Saguaro cacti

Credit: Jack Dykinga/Nature Picture Library

Credit: Jack Dykinga/Nature Picture Library

Desert lights. The aurora borealis was visible at much lower latitudes than usual owing to a massive solar storm on 10 May. Here, the Northern Lights appear above the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. The colourful spectacle happens when blasts of magnetized plasma from the Sun collide with Earth’s magnetic field, releasing energy that ionizes particles of oxygen and nitrogen in the upper atmosphere, causing them to glow. Researchers say that similar solar storms could happen at any time: the biggest ones typically occur after the Sun’s official maximum, the peak of its 11-year cycle of activity, which is expected sometime this year.

A veterinarian in yellow gloves feeds with a syringe a young howler monkey rescued amid extremely high temperatures in Tecolutilla, Tabasco state, Mexico.

Credit: Luis Sanchez/AP/Alamy

Credit: Luis Sanchez/AP/Alamy

Monkey rescue. This young howler monkey was one of dozens found in Mexico with heatstroke, fever and dehydration during a severe heatwave that began in early May. More than 130 of the primates were found dead in the state of Tabasco, having fallen out of trees as temperatures soared to 45 °C. Others were rescued by residents and taken to a nearby vet. Biologists say other factors could have contributed to the tragedy, such the removal of essential shade and food sources due to logging activities and forest fires, or an unidentified infectious disease.

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