It's been a while since I've seen a photo that took my breath away and deserved the title "Coolest Picture Ever." I got one today.
The European space probe Rosetta just flew within 2000 miles (3200 km) of the asteroid Lutetia, on its way to rendevous with comet Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014, shooting pictures coming and going. Most of them are swell pics of a never-before-seen asteroid left over from the formation of our solar system. I'm sure scientists will learn much from them, but these days they're pretty routine. Then there was this one:
That's Lutetia in the foreground and the planet Saturn far in the background. Holy cow! I don't think most people who went through school thinking of the solar system as a styrofoam-ball mobile hanging from the classroom ceiling have a feel for how relatively small the planets are, the enormous distances between them, or how much nothing there is out there. The idea that for a few seconds Rosetta, Lutetia, and Saturn were near enough to each other and lined up just right to get this shot astounds me.
In WHTTWOT I wrote about Mariner 4, the first successful probe to take close-up photos of another planet (Mars) in 1965. Until then, the best pictures in existence of anything farther away than the Moon were blurry blotches from ground-based telescopes. Now, probes like Rosetta are dully routine. We're orbiting Saturn, heading into interstellar space, flying past asteroids, landing on comets. All in my lifetime.
Any picture that can make me stop and reflect on that is the Coolest Picture Ever.
More at The Planetary Society and Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy blog.