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Happy holidays: NASA captures stunning image of backlit Saturn

The Cassini spacecraft has captured a stunning image of backlit Saturn and its rings, according to NASA. After orbiting Saturn for more than eight years, Cassini continues to snap amazing photos of the planet, the latest of which arrived just in time for the holidays.

According to the space agency, Cassini was in a perfect position on October 17, 2012, to take a backlit photo of Saturn as the spacecraft made its 174 orbit around the gas giant. On that day, Cassini was positioned within Saturn’s shadow, a location that astronomers say is the best from which to face the sun and snap a backlit view of the rings and the dark side of the gas giant.

Astronomers contend that looking back towards the sun is a geometry known as “high solar phase;” near the center of your target’s shadow is the high phase possible. This is the best viewing position for Cassini because it can unearth details about both the rings and atmosphere that cannot be spotted in lower solar phase.

In September 2006, Cassini was positioned in a similar location. The spacecraft snapped a full system mosaic, entitled “In Saturn’s Shadow.” That mosaic can be viewed here. In that mosaic, which is processed to look like natural color, the Earth made a “special appearance.” According to the space agency, the image is one of the most popular Cassini images of all time.

While the mosaic being gifted to the public in time for the holiday does not contain planet Earth (because our planet, just like the sun, is hidden behind the gas giant), the image of backlit Saturn is likely to become popular in its own right. NASA notes that the image was captured when the spacecraft was closer to Saturn and therefore reveals more detail in the rings than the one taken six years ago.

An image gallery of Cassini’s photos can be viewed here. The spacecraft’s latest mosaic contains 60 images captured in the violet, visible and near infrared part of the spectrum.

“This one is our special gift to you, the people of the world, in this holiday season that brings to a close the year 2012,” wrote Carolyn Porco, Cassini’s imaging team lead based at the Space Science Institute, in the Captain’s Log. “We fervently hope it serves as a reminder that we humans, though troubled and warlike, are also the dreamers, thinkers, and explorers inhabiting one achingly beautiful planet, yearning for the sublime, and capable of the magnificent. We hope it reminds you to protect our planet with all your might and cherish the life it so naturally sustains. From all of us on Cassini, the happiest of holidays to everyone.”