Thursday, February 24, 2005

Fantastic images from Mars and Saturn

At right is a thumbnail of the most detailed image of Saturn ever taken. If you click on the image, you'll get the full-sized (gigantic!) photo with all the amazing detail intact. This image is what every amateur astronomer wishes he could see through the eyepiece of his earthbound telescope. The picture is actually a composite — a mosaic — of many smaller pictures, all stitched together. The pictures were all taken by the Cassini satellite that is currently exploring the Saturnian system. JPL has a nice write-up about the image here.

Every time I see stunning images like this, I am reminded once again of the high value of these robotic missions as compared to manned spaceflight. Somehow the visual image has far more impact, emotionally, than reading about the results of other instruments that are returning data perhaps even more important than the images. But those images...they are what really gets my imagination soaring. I can use the image as a tool to imagine actually being there, in orbit around Saturn, witnessing in person what this image is showing me. Somehow a graph of (say) ion energy over time doesn't have quite the same impact...

The bottom image at right is yet another fantastic panorama taken by a Mars rover. This time it's Spirit that took the pictures, pausing on its trudge up the Columbia hills toward Larry's Lookout. Once again, if you click on the thumbnail you'll get the original gigantic picture from NASA. The large image is rich in interesting detail of rock formations, boulders strewn about, and the hills through which Spirit is roving. There's plenty of detail to give you a real appreciation of just how far up in the hills Spirit is right now.

I'd give a lot for a (safe) chance to stand there alongside Spirit...

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