The top astronomy pictures of 2012

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Astronomy is a beautiful science.

I mean that literally and figuratively. Of course, astronomy is literally telling us our place in the Universe, how everything works, how it fits together . . . and it's done on the grandest of scales. There's a beauty in the tapestry of the cosmos.

But it's also just beautiful. Nebulae, galaxies, stars, planets, aurorae; from the near sky to the most distant realms, the Universe is filled to overflowing with pure, simple beauty.

That's why, every year, I gather together my favorite images taken over the past 12 months and present them to you, my readers. It's a difficult task, winnowing down the thousands of pictures taken of the sky that I've seen, gathering them into groups, picking the best of the best, and then putting them together. I pick them for their beauty, of course, but also for their remarkableness, their outstanding nature. Something different, something unique, something just plain cool.

So, from our Earth's atmosphere to quite literally the very edge of the observable Universe, may I present to you: The Top Astronomy Pictures of 2012.

The Explosive Sun

On Aug. 31, 2012, the Sun had a major hissy fit: A vast arch of material was lifted up off the surface by the Sun's powerful magnetic field. Sometimes these arches collapse back down, but this one erupted, blasting literally hundreds of millions of tons of superheated plasma into space at a speed of 1,400 kilometers per second (900 miles per second) — over a thousand times faster than a rifle bullet. The scale of this is crushing — the arch was 300,000 kilometers (200,000) miles) across, 25 times larger than the Earth. As we near the peak of the Sun's magnetic cycle, we'll be seeing even more activity like this in the coming months.

The Best Vacation Photo Ever

One of the single biggest events of the year was the successful — if hair-raising — touchdown of the Mars Science Laboratory, aka Curiosity, on the surface of the red planet. The most advanced piece of hardware ever to set foot-wheel on another world, Curiosity is equipped with an array of cameras, geological tools, and even a high-powered laser to zap rocks and determine their composition. On Halloween, it used its Mars Hand Lens Imager to take 55 high-resolution pictures of itself, which were assembled to create this amazing self-portrait. The reason you can't see the arm holding the camera is that it was essentially edited out of the final shot by careful selection of which pictures were used in the mosaic.

This picture stands as proof of what we humans can do: fling a spacecraft to another planet and safely land a one-ton, laser-eyed, nuclear-powered mobile chemistry lab.

When a 30-Octillion-Ton Baby Throws an Epic Fit

When humans are babies, they tend throw lots of tantrums and, um, spew material out of both ends. Stars do that too: Meet Sharpless 2-106, a baby star just getting its start but still capable of throwing epic fits. At 30 octillion tons, it packs a bit more oomph than your standard human baby! You can see it in this Hubble Space Telescope picture just below center. Like many young stars, it has a disk of material swirling around it (too small to see here), and this can focus twin beams of matter and energy which blast away from it like the beams of a lighthouse. This expanding material slams into the surrounding cloud of gas and dust, pushing it aside and creating the hollowed-out region you can see in blue. The actual process is fairly complex and not perfectly understood, but what's not hard to understand is the terrible and stunning beauty of this scene.

In fact, this picture is so gorgeous it inspired my friend, space artist Lucy West, to paint it, and the results are remarkable, to say the least.

Rocket. Laser. Aurora

If you asked a space nerd what the ultimate picture would be, they would say one that has a rocket, a laser and the aurora in it. Behold! Your wish is granted. This picture, taken by Lee Wingfield, shows a rocket launch on Feb. 18, 2012, from a launch facility near Fairbanks, Alaska. The rocket carried an instrument on board to measure how the Earth's magnetic field interacts with storms from the Sun that cause aurorae. The laser is a nice touch, but also has a scientific purpose: It can be used to measure the properties of the atmosphere at different heights, dovetailing with the observations made by the detector on the rocket. Experiments like this will help scientists understand the phenomenon of "space weather," which can affect satellites in orbit and our power grid here on Earth.

Very Large Telescope, Very Large Nebula

Stars are born in clouds of gas and dust that collapse (perhaps when they collide with each other, or a star nearby explodes and compresses the cloud). These nebulae can be small, enough to form a single star, or huge, forming thousands. The Carina Nebula is one of these monsters: Even from more than 7,000 light years away, it's bright enough to see with the unaided eye. This stunning image is from the VLT Survey Telescope and shows very nearly the entire cloud, a span of about 100 light years.

To see more images on Slate: http://slate.me/WqTgMh

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