2009 was a spectacular year for the Cassini spacecraft, which in July celebrated five years in orbit around Saturn. I've been following the mission pretty closely since then, and the results cease to amaze me. So to wrap up the year, I decided to join in on all the "best-of-09" blog action with my very own 2009 Cassini All-Star Team! The following are, in my mind, the 12 most captivating images to have hurdled a billion miles through space this year, from the eyes of Cassini's cameras to a few desktops in Colorado, and then out onto the World Wide Web for all to enjoy. Kudos to Carolyn Porco and the rest of her CICLOPS team for a job well done. Can't wait to see what's in store for 2010! &infin
12. View From Down Under
A lovely natural-color view taken from roughly 48 degrees below the plane of Saturn's rings. The dark stripe across Saturn is actually the shadow created by the sun shining on the rings edge-on.
11. Ring Around Titan
Not the most detailed image ever taken of Saturn's largest moon, Titan, but this eerie view won me over nevertheless. Look closely and you'll see a very thin ring around the moon's outer edge, demarcating the boundary of Titan's thick atmosphere. This shot is best viewed enlarged.
10. Slopes of Enceladus
In November, Cassini performed two flybys of Saturn's sixth-largest moon, Enceladus. One of the most intriguing moons in the entire solar system, Enceladus features rare geological activity at its southern pole. This close-up of the "tiger stripe" region, taken from only about 1,000 miles above the surface, highlights icy ridges that seem ripe for ripping up on skis or snowboard!
9. Shades of Gray
While I of course enjoy the color views that Cassini's cameras occasionally capture, there's something stark and haunting about a scene like this one, with the planet's rings shown in various shades of gray. Simply stunning.
8. Prometheus Streaming
This one really surprised me. On the lower left you'll notice the 53-mile-wide potato-shaped moon Prometheus making its way through Saturn's ribbony F ring. But also cool are the dark trails to the right, which Prometheus left previously on the ring!
7. Into the Darkness
Taken as the coming winter approached Saturn's southern pole and prepared to cloak it in darkness, this image bespoke to me the enormity of the jeweled planet; the stormy vortex seen here is roughly as large as the Earth! Looking closely at the whorls and eddys within, you can't help but be humbled by the scale of it all.
6. Spouting Plumes
Down is up in this shot of Enceladus, taken during one of the November flybys. Spouting from the moon's active southern pole are jets of water and other volatiles, which are believed to spew out like water geysers here on Earth. I love that the image is so off-center; though likely done to make sure Cassini captured the full extent of the plumes, to me it just makes the composition that much more compelling.
5. ...Now You Don't
I love, love, love this image...so much going on! For one thing, you have Saturn's shadow making the rings seem to disappear, which is spooky and awesome. The fact that Saturn's night side is visible at all here is a result of "ringshine," an effect in which the light bouncing off the lit part of the rings scatters and hits the planet's surface, faintly illuminating it. You'll also notice the long shadow of Saturn's moon Tethys on the rings at the upper right. And last but not least, the small moon Janus can be seen hovering above the top ring. Amazing!
4. Pock-marked Moon
Sure, Saturn has many small, cratered moons, and yes, a lot of them look alike. But in my mind, this shot of the 660-mile-wide Tethys belongs in an art gallery. Gouging the surface at right is the large crater Penelope.
3. Titanic Shadow
What a beautiful shot of Saturn, its thin ring plane, and that ginormous shadow cast by the Saturnian system's largest moon, Titan. Wow.
I don't even want to spoil this one with words. If it weren't for the next shot, this would be my winner for 2009. Don't miss the closeup.
1. The Rite of Spring
I have to say, it was pretty difficult to sort through Cassini's cache of images to pick my favorite dozen from this year. But there was never any doubt as to which one would top the list. My photographic Cassini All-Star of 2009 is this truly mesmerizing view of Saturn during the planet's equinox this past August. In the interest of keeping this post to a manageable length, I'll say no more, but I urge you to visit the image's description page to read about how the shot was taken and what, exactly, is going on. You can also check out this brief summary from Time Magazine, which named the photo to its 2009 Year In Pictures.
Honorable Mention: The Seven Sisters
Okay, I had to add one more to the list, for personal reasons! This photo of the Pleiades cluster was actually taken in 2008, but it was released to the public back in April. As you might have noticed, these familiar stars (especially one in particular) are near to my heart, so it was wonderful for me to find out that Cassini would take a moment give them a look-see :)