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The Best Science Photos of 2017

Smokey Blue

This image of the Great Smoky Mountains is a mosaic that was stitched together from the most cloud-free pixels snapped by the satellites Landsat 5 and Landsat 7 between 1986 and 2013.

(Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory)

Blue mist fills river valleys and hollows in an image of the Great Smoky Mountains taken from space. This dreamy shot is actually stitched together from multiple images taken between 1986 and 2013 by the Landsat 5 and Landsat 7 satellites. It took that many years to get enough cloud-free coverage to put together a clear shot of this typically humid area. [Blue Mist Over the Great Smoky Mountains Visible from Space]

Pillars of Light

Light Pillars

(Image credit: Darlene Tanner/ ZUMA)

No, this is not a "Beam me up, Scotty" moment. A stunning photograph, taken in Ontario on Jan. 6, shows a phenomenon called "light pillars." Basically, flat ice crystals wafting down from the upper atmosphere catch human sources of light, like car headlights, and concentrate them into beautiful beams. The light show lasted about 45 minutes, according to the photographer. [Alien Glow? Brilliant Light Pillars Appear Over Canada]

Lave Firehose

firehose of lava

(Image credit: USGS)

The volcano Kilauea put on some stunning pyrotechnics in January, sending a "firehose" stream of hot lava steaming into the sea. The volcano on the Big Island of Hawaii has been erupting for 30 years and had a particularly showy early 2017, when lava poured from various points along a cliff face in Volcanoes National Park into the ocean, creating billows of steam. [Massive Stream of Lava Plunges into Sea in Stunning New Video]

Bag-like ancestor

A scanning election microscope (SEM) took this detailed image of the deuterostome with the extra-large mouth.

(Image credit: Jian Han)

Speaking of ancient weirdos, this 540 million-year-old blob could well be in your family tree. Discovered this year, the speck-sized, baglike creature (Saccorhytus coronaries) may be an early deuterostome, a primitive marine creature that eventually gave rise to vertebrates, including (eventually) humans. [Tiny, 540-Million-Year-Old Human Ancestor Didn't Have an Anus]

Walking Fish

A sea toad, which is a fish that can "walk," waits for its next meal to swim by.

(Image credit: Courtesy of the NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Deepwater Wonders of Wake)

A bristly "sea toad" looks a little put-out at the presence of a remotely operated vehicle in a shot taken in the deep sea. Sea toads are anglerfish and use bioluminescne to lure prey into their waiting jaws; they can also "walk" on the seafloor with their modified fins. The ROV Deep Discoverer on the research ship Okeanos Explorer captured this shot of the rarely-seen fish. [Undersea Robot to Hunt for Strange Life of Deep Pacific: Watch Online]

Saturn's Rings

Saturn

(Image credit: Ian Regan/Space Science Institute/JPL-Caltech/NASA)

NASA's Cassini mission sent a spacecraft to Saturn, with flybys of Venus, Jupiter and more along the way. The Cassini spacecraft ended its mission with a suicide plunge into Saturn's atmosphere in September. This shot, taken by the spacecraft in 2016 and released in February, is a tribute to the amazing information the mission sent back to Earth. The composite of 21 photos shows Saturn's rings in crisp black-and-white. [Put a Ring on It! Saturn Impresses in Stunning Valentine's Day Photos]

Nano-frog

tiny frog

(Image credit: SD Biju)

How cute can you get? This new frog species, discovered in the Western Ghats of India, is barely as big as a thumbnail. Vijayan's night frog (Nyctibatrachus pulivijayani) was among seven new tiny frog species discovered after a five-year survey of the mountain range. [Frogs Fit on a Fingertip: Tiny New Species Discovered in India]

Turtle Swims Across the Sun

Large sunspot Dec. 18, 2015

(Image credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO))

Is that a … turtle? A strange-shaped sunspot seems to swim across the sun in an image released in January (and taken in 2015). The turtle-shaped cool spot in the sun's chromosphere (the layer above its surface) is twice the size of Earth.[Turtle the Size of 2 Earths: Stunning Sunspot Revealed in New Radio Images ]

Crystal Cave

naica mine

(Image credit: Penelope Boston / New Mexico Tech)

There is no place on Earth quite like the Cave of the Crystals in the Naica Mine of Chihuahua, Mexico. This year, researchers revived microbes found inside pockets of fluid inside the giant selenite crystals that fill the cave — microbes that may be as old as 50,000 years. Here, University of New Mexico scientist Mike Spilde gazes as the enormous crystals. [Microbes in Glittering Crystal Cave Revived After 10,000 Years]

Chaco Canyon

chaco canyon

(Image credit: NPS)

A stunning desert landscape surrounds Peublo Bonito, a Pueblo settlement that researchers discovered this year was run by a matrilineal system. One kinship group controlled the society here for more than 300 years, from A.D. 800 to 1130, researchers reported in February in the journal Nature Communications. [Moms Rule! Excavation at Chaco Canyon Reveals Maternal Lineage]