February is branded as heart month by corporations, but I say we should feel the beat all year long.
I have a complicated relationship with my heart to say the least, but if anything, it's made me realize the importance of friendship, love, and appreciating the Universe on a daily basis. So on this last day of February, and a bonus one at that, I thought I would share some of my favorite celestial symbols of love.
The photo at the top of this post is of the surface of Mars, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in 2009. Launched by NASA in 2005, MRO had a two-year primary mission to study the history of water on Mars. Now almost ten years later, it continues to function, still taking data while also assisting in relaying communication from other satellites and rovers on the Red Planet.
Our other planetary neighbor, Venus, is of course named after the goddess of love herself. Venus is practically an Earth-twin in size, but an anti-twin in everything else. This image is a composite of radar data taken by the Magellan spacecraft NASA sent to Venus in 1989. The planet itself is shrouded in thick cloud layers, but NASA was able to make this image with radio waves that penetrate the atmosphere and bounce off the planet's surface, giving us a picture of the topography. While on Venus, this dense atmosphere is toxic to life, from here on Earth, it's what allows Venus to shine so bright in our morning and evening skies - and perhaps inspire our imaginations from time to time.
Eros is a member of the asteroid belt, orbiting the Sun in an orbit similar to Mars, sometime further and sometimes closer. Fittingly, it's a member of the Amor group of asteroids. In 2000 NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR Shoemaker) mission was the first spacecraft to visit Eros and send back high resolution images like this one. Even more incredible is the fact that NEAR Shoemaker successfully landed on the asteroid's surface at the end of its mission life in February of 2001, just over fifteen years ago today.
Hopefully this image needs no introduction, but if Pluto hadn't captured your heart before, I hope this picture seals the deal. Less than eight months ago, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft arrived at Pluto and snapped this phenomenal image - our first ever glimpse of this distant world. The heart shaped feature (aka Sputnik Planum) became an instant symbol of our love of exploration and discovery.
Lastly, moving out into the galaxy, I leave you with these nebulae colloquially called Heart and Soul. Located over 6,000 light years away from us, these regions of gas and dust, called nebulae, are where are stars are actively being formed (or at least they were 6,000 years ago!). This image was taken with NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) which was launched into Earth orbit in 2009. WISE uses infrared light to detect emission from dust, asteroids, brown dwarfs, stars and galaxies. It captured the glow of these striking regions, IC 1848 (aka Soul Nebula) on the right and IC 1805 (aka Heart nebula) on the left, in 2010. I think it's safe to say, it also captured my heart for now and evermore.
I hope you'll take this opportunity to look around you and realize that love is everywhere, here on Earth and throughout the Universe, not only during "heart month" but everyday.
Summer Ash is the Director of Outreach for Columbia University’s Department of Astronomy. Having been both a rocket scientist and a radio astronomer, she’s now harnessing her powers for science communication. She is the "In-House Astrophysicist" for The Rachel Maddow Show and has written for Scientific American, Slate, and Nautilus Magazine. She tweets as @Summer_Ash and is also one-half of Startorialist.