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Journalists dressed in special suits are briefed inside the Clean Room at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California on the agency's Low Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project on April 9, 2014. The rocket-powered, flying saucer-shaped test vehicle will soon be sent to Hawaii from where it will be propelled into near-space in June from the US Navy's Pacific Missile Range Facility on the island of Kauai, Hawaii.

PHOTOGRAPH BY FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published April 11, 2014

Aliens haven't landed—the flying saucer seen in this April 9 picture belongs to NASA, not invaders from Mars.

In fact, the saucer is planned for an earthly invasion of Mars. The rocket-powered test vehicle belongs to the space agency's Low-Density Supersonic Decelerator (LDSD) project, an effort to test better supersonic parachutes and high-altitude landing brakes for future Mars explorers.

On display this week at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, the device will be fired from Hawaii this summer, almost into space, to undertake a series of tests aimed at safely delivering heavier cargoes, and astronauts, to the red planet someday.

Dust Glints on Martian Dunes

 Sand on Mars is typically dark in tone, as it commonly derived from volcanic rocks like lava flows.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/JPL/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA

High-flying winds on Mars lead to twin-toned dunes, seen in this Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter image released on April 9.

The HiRISE camera aboard the orbiter sees into the infrared spectrum, revealing the dual coloring of the dunes located in the Meridiani Terra region of Mars.

Rusty, light-colored dust coats the lower-lying folds of the dunes. That's because they are left unmolested by fierce winds that flow at higher altitudes. (See "Pictures: Looking Back at Visions of Life on Mars.")

Higher up on the dunes, the winds scour their surfaces, removing the dust and revealing the dark blue sands underlying the dune crests.

Fireball Flares Above Watchful Eyes

ALMA, located at 5000 metres above sea level on the remote and empty Chajnantor Plateau in the Chilean Andes
PHOTOGRAPH BY Christoph Malin, ESO

High above the Chilean Andes, a fireball zooms past the high-precision antennas of a desert space observatory, as seen in this April 7 time-lapse picture released by the European Southern Observatory.

The shooting star is just a bit of space dust burning up as it zips through the upper atmosphere, leaving a fiery wake. (See "Star Found Shooting Water 'Bullets.'")

Beneath the meteor, some of the 66 antennas of the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) observatory keep an eye on far more distant space phenomena from their perch some 16,404 feet (5,000 meters) above sea level.

Just above the antennas, in the center of the image, Mars and the star Spica, the brightest star in the constellation Virgo, burn brightly in the night sky.

Ancient Mars Vent Dusted Over

south of Ascraeus Mons on Mars, which is a large volcano within the Tharsis volcanic plateau.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NASA/JPL/UNIVERSITY OF ARIZONA

Just outside an ancient volcano, this curious heart-shaped feature rears above the Martian plain, as seen in an April 9 view by NASA's HiRISE camera.

Most likely, the ridges enfolding the mount reveal that it's a long-dormant, dusted-over volcanic vent. Winds eroded the softer rocks surrounding the vent ridges, leaving only fortress-like walls behind. (See "Strange Lights in Mars Photos Are Not Alien Bonfires.")

Such "inverted terrains" are a hallmark of Mars, its surface sculpted by hundreds of millions of years of dusty winds blowing over volcanic rock.

Milky Way Meets Desert Sky

A Milky Way shot over the NTT 3.6m telescope at La Silla observatory, southern Atacama, Chile.
PHOTOGRAPH BY BABAK TAFRESHI, TWAN

Our Milky Way galaxy gleams in all its splendor, as seen from a desert observatory in a recent picture released by the astronomy-education project The World At Night (TWAN).

The clear, dry desert air provides a perfect home for the La Silla Observatory, where the 11.8-foot (3.6-meter) New Technology Telescope (NTT) makes its nightly rounds of the sky's far reaches. The telescope rests between the open doors in the photo.

The Milky Way spans more than 100,000 light-years across, putting Earth in the cosmic suburbs, some 27,000 light-years away from the brightly glowing center of the galaxy, seen at the center of this image.

11 comments
rahul singh
rahul singh

no words to express, how beautiful these images are

Raja Arasa RATNAM
Raja Arasa RATNAM

More than 8 decades after my parents drew my attention to the night sky, I remain entranced.

Nate Paris
Nate Paris

Vent is a heart? I'd say rubber duck..

Rob Cook
Rob Cook

Amazing picture,,can't wait to see what's to come as technology is getting more advanced every day...

Darius Lundberg
Darius Lundberg

Why do I always begin pondering Yoeman Janice Rand in her short red Star Trek frock whenever I read articles about Outer Space?

Dennis M.
Dennis M.

@Nate Paris  That's funny.  It does look like a rubber duck when you turn your head sideways.  

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