Even for astronauts, this was a rare sight indeed: an aurora hovering over the southern Indian Ocean.
Auroras occur when charged particles from the sun collide with Earth's upper atmosphere, causing atoms of oxygen and nitrogen to gain energy and then release it in the form of light.
Auroras typically are visible only near Earth's Poles, where magnetic field lines channel charged particles toward the planet. But this aurora australis, photographed in May from the International Space Station, occurred during a geomagnetic storm, which can temporarily shift the planet's magnetic field—and hence its auroras—closer to the Equator.
Photograph courtesy NASA and NASA Earth Observatory
Star Formation in Bean Nebula
In space, a little color can indicate a lot of action. A prodigious burst of star formation gives N11, also known as the Bean Nebula, distinctive pink and purple shadings in a Hubble Space Telescope picture released June 22.
One of the most active star-forming regions near Earth, N11 is part of a complex network of gas clouds and star clusters in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a neighboring galaxy. N11 has seen three successive generations of star birth, each occurring farther from the center of the nebula.
In the foreground, a sharp image of Dione reveals the moon's "wispy" terrain—actually a system of braided canyons with bright walls.
Behind Dione, hints of atmospheric banding can be seen on the north pole of hazy Titan, the only known moon with a fully developed atmosphere.
Image courtesy NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Workers use a process called friction stir welding to join the bulkhead and nosecone of the Orion spacecraft at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. After confirmation of the weld's integrity, Orion is slated to begin ground testing in flight-like environments.
Orion was originally intended to serve as a crew capsule for the Constellation program, an ambitious NASA project to return humans to the moon and eventually create a full-time lunar base. But after Constellation was scrapped in early 2010, U.S. President Barack Obama called for Orion to be used only as a rescue vehicle for astronauts on the International Space Station.
Photograph courtesy NASA
Bright loops of plasma arc over the sun's surface after a solar eruption, as seen by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory in May. Dark regions in the picture, released June 21, show where material was swept up during the eruption.
The picture was taken with an instrument called the Atmospheric Imaging Assembly, which records the solar atmosphere in multiple wavelengths to help scientists link changes in the sun's surface to activity deep inside.
In an unusual take on a self-portrait, a camera aboard Japan's Ikaros spacecraft separated from the main body on June 15 to snap this first picture of the craft's fully deployed solar sail.
Ikaros, launched on May 21, is the world's first space probe to use a hybrid solar sail—one propelled partly by solar pressure, partly by traditional solar power. The craft's thin membrane is just 46 feet (14 meters) wide, but mission managers expect it will help propel Ikaros up to 328 feet (a hundred meters) a second.