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100 Best Science Photos of the Year

Stellar life and death

The X-ray binary Cygnus X-3, where a massive star is slowly being eaten by a companion black hole or neutron star, is blasting X-rays toward us and toward the nearby stellar nursery called 'Little Friend,' which then reflects the rays back to us. Jets of

The X-ray binary Cygnus X-3, where a massive star is slowly being eaten by a companion black hole or neutron star, is blasting X-rays toward us and toward the nearby stellar nursery called 'Little Friend,' which then reflects the rays back to us. Jets of gas (whose carbon monoxide here is shown in red and blue) indicate star formation within Little Friend.
(Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/M.McCollough et al, Radio: ASIAA/SAO/SMA)

It's the circle of life on a galactic scale. A gorgeous image captured by NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Smithsonian's Submillimeter Array (SMA) shows the death of one star in the cloud Cygnus X-3 as it is being devoured by a black hole, while nearby cloud Little Friend is a stellar nursery, giving rise to bright little lights in a gas and dust cloud known as a Gok globule.

The life and death in the two clouds are occurring relatively close together, with the two stars being 20,000 and 24,000 light-years away, respectively. Cygnus X-3 is emitting powerful X-rays as it dies, producing a bright burst of light, while Little Friend produces the dimmer glow on the right.

Antarctic Pyramid

Pyramid-mountain-Antarctica

This Antarctic mountain bears a striking resemblance to a pyramid.
(Image credit: Google Maps)

Alien superstructure? Evidence of ancient civilization? It turns out, a mysterious pyramid structure on Antarctica is actually just a mountain, carved into its eerily symmetrical shape by hundreds of millions of years of erosion.

The unnamed mountain may have gotten its unusual shape thanks to freeze-thaw cycles, in which snow or water seeps into cracks in the rock, then freezes and expands overnight, causing the cracks to expand. Over time, this can cause large chunks of the rock face to fall off.

Shrinking lake

salt-lake-shrinking-nasa

Decreasing water levels in the Farmington Bay basin of Great Salt Lake not only affect the ecology of the area, but could divert the bird populations who migrate to the basin for food.
(Image credit: Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory)

Utah's Great Salt Lake is gradually becoming less great, at least if size is any measure. The lake has been shrinking by about 35 percent since settlers arrived in the 19th century. In October, the lake reached its lowest height in recorded history. The shrinking lake was captured in a NASA satellite image earlier this month (December).

The Great Salt Lake, which is the country's biggest body of water, is shrinking thanks to the steady diversion of river water that would normally fill it, NASA scientists say.

Swapping spit

When carpenter ants (<em>Camponotus floridanus</em>) swap spit, they are doing more than share food. Turns out, they're sending messages, too.

When carpenter ants (Camponotus floridanus) swap spit, they are doing more than share food. Turns out, they're sending messages, too.
(Image credit: Adria C. LeBoeuf )

If a kiss is worth a thousand words, then these ants are having an epic conversation. Florida carpenter ants swap spit to pass along chemical information to the colony, according to research published in December.

The chemicals in the saliva may help make ants in a colony smell a like and may even affect who the insects grow.

Massive crack

A huge crack can be seen in the Antarctic Peninsula's Larsen C ice shelf in this aerial image snapped on Nov. 10, 2016, as part of NASA's IceBridge mission.

A huge crack can be seen in the Antarctic Peninsula's Larsen C ice shelf in this aerial image snapped on Nov. 10, 2016, as part of NASA's IceBridge mission.
(Image credit: NASA/John Sonntag)

A massive crack in the ice-shelf in Antarctica was recently captured in a dramatic satellite image. The cavernous rift in the ice shelf, called Larsen C, was spotted off the Antarctic Peninsula by scientists working on NASA's IceBridge mission.

The crack is as big as a football field, and when it finally splits the shelf in to, it will give rise to an iceberg the size of Delaware, researchers say. That, in turn, could lead the entire ice shelf to collapse, experts say.

Cosmic dust

A cosmic dust particle collected from an urban rooftop.

A cosmic dust particle collected from an urban rooftop.
(Image credit: Imperial College London)

A jazz musician and amateur scientist recently discovered cosmic space dust lurking in the gutters of London.

For years, John Larsen, a Norwegian musician, has been collecting debris from gutters and sending it to Matthew Genge, a geologist at Imperial College London. Though sorting out space dust from the detritus of modern life was written off as too difficult, his seemingly quixotic search paid off when he found cosmic particles that date to early in the solar system's history, when the sun was still a fledgling star.

Fly, parrot, fly!

Obi the parrotlet wearing protective goggles.

Obi the parrotlet wearing protective goggles.
(Image credit: Eric Gutierrez)

An intrepid parrot wearing a pair of red-hued goggles could help scientists discover the secrets to bird flight. The parrot flies through an artificial fog, and its wings flap away particles of moisture. By tracing the trajectory of these jostling water droplets with laser beams, researchers are discovering that past models of animal flight weren't as accurate as thought. The new study could help scientists build better autonomous flying robots.

Tangled web

NGC 4696

The tangled, thread-like filaments of NGC 4696 spiral inward toward the galaxy's bright core, where a supermassive black hole lies.
(Image credit: NASA, ESA/Hubble, A. Fabian)

Untangling these knots would require a massive hair brush. A gorgeous new image from the Hubble Space Telescope has captured a close-up view of the swirling, tangled structure inside the galactic core of NGC 4696.

NGC 4696 is about 150 million light-years distant from Earth, and is part of the sprawling Centaurus galaxy cluster, a group of hundreds of galaxies bound together in the constellation of Centaurus.

Tail feathers

A small coelurosaur approaches a resin-coated branch on the forest floor.

A small coelurosaur approaches a resin-coated branch on the forest floor.
(Image credit: Chung-tat Cheung)

A feathery dinosaur tail was recently discovered trapped in amber. The tail feathers, which once belonged to a non-birdlike theropod known as a coelurosaur, were captured in the sticky tree sap about 99 million years ago, with even a bit of the soft-tissue preserved.

Such finds can provide an unprecedented look at dinosaur biology that is not revealed by fossils, scientists say.

Oldest toothy tumor

gorgonopsian odontoma tumor

A magnified view of the gorgonopsian's odontoma tumor.
(Image credit: Christian Sidor | Megan Whitney)

The world's oldest benign "toothy" tumor was recently discovered hiding in the jaw of a 255-million-year-old relative of mammals known as a gorgonopsian.

The benign tumor, called an odontoma, looks like a group of tiny teeth. The gorgonopsian's jaw was unearthed in 2007 in Tanzania, but the harmless tumor was only discovered years later when the researchers decided to slice open the jaw bone into thin sections.