The photo, released in September and dubbed
"The Rite of Spring," was the first up close
view from a spacecraft from Earth of Saturn's equinox, when the
sun's disk is directly overhead at Saturn's equator. That sun angle
illuminates the gas giant's famous rings edge-on, opening up a new perspective.
As Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco tells Time,
"The geometry revealed structures and phenomena in the rings we had
never seen before. We saw this famous adornment spring from two
dimensions into three, with some ring structures soaring as high as
the Rocky Mountains. It made me feel blessed."
The spectacle occurs twice during each orbit Saturn makes around
the sun, which takes approximately 10,759 Earth days, or about 29.7
Earth years. Earth experiences a similar equinox phenomenon twice a
year; the autumnal equinox will occur Sept. 22, when the sun will
shine directly over Earth's equator.
For about a week, scientists used the Cassini orbiter to look at
puffy parts of Saturn's rings caught in white glare from the
low-angle lighting. Scientists have known about vertical clumps
sticking out of the rings in a handful of places, but they could
not directly measure the height and breadth of the undulations and
ridges until Saturn's equinox revealed their shadows.
"It's like putting on 3-D glasses and seeing the third dimension
for the first time," said Bob Pappalardo, Cassini project scientist
at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "This is
among the most important events Cassini has shown us."
Time isn't the only publication recognizing NASA for
outstanding imagery this year:
The Boston Globe selected four NASA images for its three-part gallery, including the launch of
"Top Ten Space Pictures" of the year showcases
images of Mars, Saturn and colorful views of the cosmos from Hubble
The Wall Street Journal marks the passing of aeronautics
pioneer Richard T. Whitcomb in the "Remembrances" section of its photo
Britain's Telegraph Web site offers a year in space gallery with several images from
Hubble and other NASA spacecraft.