Monday, January 12, 2009

Backlit Saturn...

Cassini – NASA's robotic explorer in orbit around Saturn – recently traveled into Saturn's shadow, where it took this spectacular photograph (click to enlarge). From Cassini's perspective, the sun is behind Saturn. This causes the bright ring around the edges of the planet, where the sunlight “leaks” through the thinnest parts of Saturn's atmosphere. The rings are all backlit by the hidden sun, providing the best view of them that I've ever seen.

Cassini was launched almost 12 years ago, and has been in orbit around Saturn for the past 4 and a half years. During that entire time, it has been steadily returning solid science results. Our understanding of Saturn and its moons has been vastly increased by Cassini's observations, at a cost of roughly 1/60th that of the International Space Station (best known for its malfunctioning toilets and utter lack of useful contributions to anything except NASA's budget).