2021 was quite the year for space exploration. It kicked off in February when NASA successfully landed its Perseverance Rover at Mars’ Jezero crater, allowing researchers the best chance yet to search for signs of ancient life on the Red Planet. Over the summer, space companies Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic launched private citizens into low Earth orbit. And on Christmas morning, NASA successfully launched the James Webb Space Telescope—the largest space telescope of all time. Here are the best images of space from a truly extraordinary year for cosmic exploration.

The Perseverance Rover began its long journey to Mars in July 2020. On February 18, 2021, the rover touched down on the Red Planet’s surface. Above is the first high-resolution, color image to be sent back by Perseverance’s Hazard Cameras (Hazcams).

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Since Perseverance landed back in February 2021, the rover has been surveying rocks in Jezero Crater, a place that scientists believe previously experienced violent flash floods. Here, in a photo uploaded by NASA in November, the rover is cutting near-perfect circles into the Martian surface and collecting rock samples for further analysis.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech NASA
On December 4, Earth perfectly aligned with the moon to create a total solar eclipse—the only one of 2021. This sent Antarctica into complete darkness, as seen at the bottom of the image above. NASA
The 18-mile wide and 4,000-feet deep Grand Canyon in Arizona has nothing on the Tithonium Chasma (pictured above), a feature of the Valles Marineris canyon on Mars. The canyon is roughly ten times longer and five times deeper than the Grand Canyon, making it the largest canyon in the entire solar system. The HiRISE camera on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took this shot, which the University of Arizona released in early January. Scientists are still puzzling out how this enormous canyon formed.

Credit: NASA/JPL/UArizona NASA/JPL/UArizona
The Hubble Telescope, which is now 31 years old, snapped this image of what NASA calls a “superbubble.” The structure is one of the defining features of N44, a nebula characterized by glowing hydrogen gas, dust, and stars of varying ages. Scientists still don’t understand exactly what the “superbubble” is, but they think it was formed by the remnants of old supernovae.

Credit: NASA, ESA, V. Ksoll and D. Gouliermis (Universität Heidelberg), et al.; Processing: Gladys Kober (NASA/Catholic University of America) NASA, ESA, V. Ksoll and D. Gouliermis (Universität Heidelberg), et al
At 7:20 am Eastern on December 25, the James Webb Space Telescope hitched a ride on the Ariane-5 rocket, lifting off from the Guiana Space Center in Kourou, French Guiana. Over the next several weeks, the biggest space telescope of all time will make its way to its final destination: a gravitationally stable spot known as Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2 (L2), which is nearly 1 million miles away from Earth. This location will enable the telescope to remain aligned with Earth as the planet orbits the sun. Above is the final view of the scope before leaving Earth’s orbit. NASA
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