Top 10 Astronomy Pictures of 2007: Runners Up

By Phil Plait | December 23, 2007 10:52 pm

I’m not exactly a wishy-washy kind of guy, but choosing this year’s Top Ten Astronomy pictures was really tough. First, there are literally hundreds of images to go through. Maybe thousands. I can usually narrow that choice down to a few dozen. But then I’ll have three pictures of the same sort of thing: colliding galaxies, or Jupiter’s moons, or whatever. Then I have to figure which of those three is the best. Framing, color, science, simple devastating impact… whatever criteria I can use. Then I have to make sure I can use the one I pick. Some images are from amateur astronomers, and I need to know if they are copyrighted, and what credit to give.

For whatever reason, some images just didn’t make the cut. I never heard back from the owner, the image wasn’t high enough resolution, whatever. In some cases they were too similar to last year’s picks (I may ease up on that next time). For others, I just screwed up; I thought they were from 2006, or I simply never saw the image in the first place.

The following pictures are one that fall in this category. They are all gorgeous, of course, and very cool scientifically, but they just didn’t make my Top Ten. Still, I think you’ll like them! Clicking on them will take you to a high-resolution version from the original image site. Some are extremely high-res and totally amazing.

Crescent Saturn

After I had compiled my final Top Ten list and written everything up, I realized with utter horror (no exaggeration) that not one Cassini image was on the list! And this, with a) the Saturn image being my #1 pick last year, and b) Carolyn Porco — the Cassini imaging team leader — being a friend of mine! The reason I left Saturn off were manyfold, and I tried, oh I tried. Here are the pictures I considered.

This spectacular Cassini image of the crescent Saturn is impossible to see from Earth; the orbiter was high over the plane of the rings, capturing this mesmerizing view. I love this picture, and was one of my first choices for the Top Ten. But then I realized it was a little too much like last year’s winner, so I cut it. That hurt to do.


Saturn’s moons are weird, but none weirder than Iapetus. First, it has two totally different hemispheres; the leading gone (the one that faces into its direction of travel as it orbits the ringed planet) is very dark, and the trailing hemisphere is very bright. This is because of the junk it slams into as it moves around Saturn. Also, the moon has a giant raised ridge around its equator, kilometers high. Theories abound about it (including some silly pseudoscience ones, of course), but its exact origin is still something of a mystery. This picture is a mosaic of several smaller images made by Cassini. I didn’t include it on my list because I’m an idiot, and thought it was from 2006 (even though it was on my blog recently)! It was Fraser from Universe Today who told me (too late) that it was recent. Figures. Obviously, this would have made the cut had I been thinking.


In February, a rocket booster exploded high in the sky over Australia. Robert McNaught, famed comet hunter, caught it on camera and created a short animation as the debris cloud moved across the sky as it orbited the Earth. You just don’t see stuff like this every day, and it’s totally cool. You can even see small streaks from the solid debris! This image is from Space Weather, which is a great daily stop for amazing images and info.

Comet McNaught from STEREO

Speaking of McNaught…

Comet McNaught graced our skies in January 2007, and was magnificent. It was near the Sun, and so bright it was easily visible in broad daylight! I took many terrible pictures of it, but my favorite is this one from NASA’s STEREO spacecraft. Thing is, I already had a STEREO animation on my Top Ten list, and another comet as well, so I dropped this one. There are dozens, hundreds of incredible images of McNaught on the web; my second favorite is this one from McNaught, the man himself. APOD has many more, too.

The Moon Eats Saturn

I love this multiple image of Saturn passing behind the Moon. It comes from Peter Lawrence via LPOD, the Lunar Picture of the Day. It’s rare, but sometimes the Moon appears to pass directly in front of a planet. Peter took a series of images and made this composite. It’s very cool, and gives you a sense of depth to the solar system. Saturn is huge, but it’s a long way away.

Chaos in Cluster Abell S0470

How many Hubble images can you have in a Top Ten list? Maybe next year I’ll expand the list to 15. That way I won’t have to leave out pictures like this one, of the galaxy cluster Abell S0740. Pictures like this floor me; the sheer variety, complexity, and beauty of galaxies in a cluster always brings me to a standstill. Just examining the image can tell you so much about galaxies behave in such an environment! Careful analysis also reveals a lot of information about the way the Universe itself behaves, and that’s why we do this, isn’t it? That, and to simply gape at the pageantry of the cosmos.


The Milky Way Galaxy is lousy with dense clouds of gas and dust, stellar nurseries where stars are born. This phenomenal Hubble mosaic has so much going on in it that it’s hard to know where to start, and it’s harder to know where to stop! That link will take you to a lengthy description I wrote, and had a huge amount of fun putting together. Scroll to the bottom for one of my favorite astronomical images of all time.

Barred for Life

I don’t need to give too many reasons for loving this image of barred spiral NGC 1672, taken by Hubble. I just love spirals, and barred spirals too. Love love love. Sigh.

I Zwicky 18

… or this picture of I Zwicky 18. This galaxy is cool for more than just its odd beauty: it was thought to be a young galaxy, but it turns out to have some very old stars in it. It is also 59 million light years away; the observations making this image showed it to be 10 million light years farther away than previously thought.

HAWK-1 and the Stellar Cocoon

This image from the Very Large Telescope in Chile is very cool, showing dust and gas in a star-forming region. I discussed it in depth in an earlier blog entry. It’s nice, but not quite what I was looking for for my Top Ten. Still… cool.

I love whimsical pictures, too, and this one kills me. The effort that went into it must have been phenomenal; the Moon is actually very small in a camera, and I would think that if the tripod had even been bumped slightly it would have totally screwed this image up. Not to mention the timing! Wow.

Spitzer maps a distant planet

In 1995, the first planet was discovered orbiting a sun-like star. We’ve come a long way: well over 200 have now been found; one has been directly imaged, and some have even had their atmosphere detected! This image is the very first temperature map ever made of an exoplanet, in this case HD 189733b, which orbits its star so closely that it is extremely hot. Spitzer can detect that heat, and as the planet orbits its star we see different aspects of it. By mapping the amount of heat detected very carefully over time, astronomers were able to create this temperature map of the planet. The hot spot is the part of the planet that permanently faces the star (where it’s always high noon), and fierce winds distribute that heat around the rest of the planet.

Mapping Dark Matter

It is no exaggeration to say that this is one of the most important maps ever made: a three-dimensional layout of dark matter in the Universe. Dark matter is invisible, but for decades has been known to exist. An extraordinary series of observations led to astronomers being able to map out its location in the Universe. Distance increases to the right, and, since we see more distant objects as they were in the past, we are actually getting a timeline of the cosmos. Note how the dark matter is smoother back when the Universe was young; over billions of years it has fragmented and aided the development of the galaxies and clusters we see today. This was an incredible confirmation of dark matter science and theory!

Spitzer Helix

The Helix Nebula is a favorite: it’s a planetary nebula, a cloud of gas created when a dying star sheds its outer layers, which expand outward in dramatic fashion. Spitzer Space Telescope captured this incredible view of it. It’s possible the Sun will look like this in a few billion years, when it runs out of hydrogen fuel in its core and starts its final paroxysms… though some current reading I have done indicates the Sun won’t be bright enough to light up the gas. It will still blow off its envelope, but the gas won’t be lit up in this way. Too bad, I suppose; aliens viewing our eventual demise won’t get such a pretty show.

Earthrise, Earthset

The US and Russia are no longer the only countries to have sent probes to the Moon, Japan now belongs to this exclusive club (as do India and China as well). The Japanese orbiter Kaguya captured this incredible series of images as the Earth appeared to set over the limb of the Moon. It doesn’t look real! But don’t tell Bart Sibrel.


Does this count as astronomy? Maybe. But after traveling millions of light years across the Universe, sometimes the best sight of all is the approach of home.

And there you go. Next year, well, we’ll see. Making the Top Ten cut is so hard I may very well expand the list. If you are an amateur astronomer — or a pro — better get cracking! Obviously, the competition is fierce. But I’m already looking forward to seeing what will rise over the horizon in 2008.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (31)

  1. Michael Lonergan

    Wow! Amazingly beautiful images! Did you notice the image of an angel in the Hubble Mosaic? I think Jesus was in there too. :)

    Why don’t you expand your “Top” list to a “Top 25”, or “Top 100” list?

  2. Bunkie
  3. David

    The picture of I Zwicky 18 is, perhaps, the most beautiful image I have ever seen in my life. I’ve never been so profoundly affected by a photograph. I think I may actually cry. Thank you, Phil, for bringing the wonders of the universe to everyone.

  4. John

    Ah, now I remember why this is my favorite time of the year on your blog. ūüėÄ

  5. marzia

    I’ve noticed that growing older I appreciate more my “neighborhood” than pictures from far far away. Saturn is spectacular, and Earth rising from the Moon horizon is touching (even though I can’t help imagine capt. Koenig & doc. Russel hugging and looking at the Earthset from the windows of Moonbase Alpha…:-))

  6. The photo of Iapetus must have been deliberately altered by a NASA conspiracy. There is no trace of a giant black magnetic monolith (cf Clarke 1968).

  7. The moon on a crane picture proves that not only the moon hoax is real but also that the moon itself is a government conspiracy!

  8. Bob Brashear

    The last picture … Those cool green hills of Earth.

    Happy New Year everyone.

  9. Gary Ansorge

    The Helix Nebula reminds me of the Chapa Eye in SG1. I wonder if we’ll ever see evidence of a wormhole? Hey, after finding such for the existence of dark matter, we can dream, right?

    Hope your holidaze are good.


    gary 7

  10. Ken B

    Your final runner-up “Home” just happens to be my current wallpaper. :-)

    I’m sure it was a tough job narrowing it down to just 10.

  11. Wow, awesome pictures. I’ve got most of ’em on my blog, but I think we have a habit of looking and quickly dismissing the latest, greatest news in search of the next big breakthrough. Iapetus definitely should have been in the Top Ten though!

    Oh well… it’s been a great year for discoveries. I’m looking forward to next year.

  12. I love your pick of these pictures. I dont think I could ever choose a top ten. Many times I visit the hubble site and just totally lost in the beauty that excists on that sight. I can spend hours there and I never get any work done.

    I really like the “mooncrane” picture I wish I could be that creative.


  13. That last one always gets me. To think we may be destroying our own existance on this blue pearl just hurts.

    The only thing more beautiful would be the same motif just substituted with an exoplanet. That would be truly profound.

  14. Jasso

    I love the brilliant blue of the picture of Earth. I think that might be my new favorite color!

  15. CR

    All the pics are wonderful, but the pic of Iapetus blew me away…
    Until that last one of Earth. After travelling through the solar system and to the depths of the universe, it’s good to be home!

    BTW, I followed the Earth link, and there’s an image of the eastern hemisphere there as well as the western hemis BA posted. Be sure to check it out!

  16. i liked the runner up list more! thanks for this great summary of some fantastic images…. i missed a few of these!

  17. chip

    wow. you can’t beat that hubble deep field stuff. makes you think of carl sagan’s, “billions and billllliiiiioooonnnnns.”

  18. Brando

    That last image reminds me of Crow on MST3K:

    “And there’s the Earth the way we left it, with the USA IN CHARGE!”

  19. Much as I like being on the 2007 runner-up list, colleagues and I made the image of the Earth in way back in 2002. We’ve made a few similar images more recently: (2005) (2007)

  20. terry

    Dec 24 Micheal said he saw an angel & maybe Jesus in the hubble mosaic .
    I see the from left to right at least four distinct figures on the left I see a skull,then i see a winged figure ,then I see a face like a demon it has his shoulders and collar bones . then i can see a small hooded skull kind of like the grim reaper.
    If you look around you can make out smaller skulls .
    The mossaic kind of looks like the gates of hell opened .
    This is the same picture titled carina. o.k. what else can anyone see?

  21. WOW! That picture of Earth! It looks like a beautiful Jewel!

    SKY Jewelry! :]

    I love the pictures! Breath taking! Thank you.

  22. arturo

    Best, Nice, gorgeous, all these pictures from Natura, congratulations.

    Fron Mexico

  23. zbo

    wow. simply gorgeous….

  24. Darwin

    QUe bello.. tantas cosas que hay en el universo y todavia nos preguntamos si hay vida en otros `planetas..

  25. shiney

    that top ten is the most amazing thig i have seen on the web so far thanks for the images and your time to sort it out for all to see


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