Saturday, December 30, 2006

Saturn: The Best Astronomy Picture of 2006

What else could it possibly have been?

This image has it all. (click for a full sized view of the photo) It’s of a familiar object, seen in an unfamiliar way: back-lit by the Sun, a view impossible from Earth. It shows the whole planet, a rarity from space missions. The image shows very faint details and has very high resolution, a must.

The spacecraft Cassini viewed the rings as never before, revealing previously unknown faint rings and even glimpsing its home world. This was taken on September 15, 2006 using Cassini’s wide angle camera. Cassini was approximately 2.2 million kilometers (1.3 million miles) from Saturn when the images in this mosaic were taken.

But there is sheer artistry at work here. The colors, the lighting… look at the sun splash in the lower left limb of the planet, and the fans of ethereal mistiness shooting out from the rings. The shading on the planet itself is lovely, while the rings provide a geometric symmetry that is very appealing to the eye.

All this is necessary for the image to be the best, and together they may even be sufficient. But like all true winners, it has that extra addition, the over-the-top detail that pushes it into "all-time" status:

That dot in the center of 2nd image is the Earth. It’s us. Cassini was nearly one billion miles from us when it took this image, orbiting a giant ball of gas as exotic and alien as any place we can imagine. From such a terribly removed location, the entire Earth is reduced to a single point of light, just one among an anonymous many as seen from our robotic proxy as our generation, for the first time in all of history, seeks out our neighborhood and takes a really good look.

That’s why this is the best astronomy image of 2006. And it’s one of the best of all time. For more info about the source of this picture click here

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