Top Ten Astronomy Pictures of 2009

By Phil Plait | December 15, 2009 6:00 am




And the number one Astronomy Picture of 2009 is…

<Drum roll>

#1: That First Small Step

At first, you might think I’m nuts. But if you haven’t seen this image before, take a good, close look. See that shiny white thing in the upper left?

That’s where humans first slipped the surly bonds of Earth, and walked on another world.

I was too young at the time for me to now remember Neil Armstrong stepping on the surface of the Moon in July, 1969. I do remember later missions, including watching from Cape Canaveral as Apollo 15 thundered off its launch pad. The excitement of those times was palpable, and is still fresh in my mind all these years later.

Still, there’s nothing like seeing it again, and having all those memories pour back…

And this image released the floodgate. Taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, this high-resolution picture clearly shows the landing site of the Eagle, just a few meters from West Crater. Large boulders and rubble are strewn to the left of the crater; the very same debris that caused Armstrong to take control of the Lunar Module from the computer and find a safe, flat place to land. He made it with mere seconds left in the fuel reserves, showing just why it’s sometimes critical to have a human at the wheel.


And there the lander sits, not even a half kilometer from certain destruction, showing how the history of humanity sometimes rests on a razor’s edge. In the zoomed section of the image, you can see the lander, its four footpads, and even the darker material around it as the astronauts’ bootprints stirred the lunar dust for the first time in perhaps millions of years. The arrow marks the position of the ladder affixed to the lander’s leg, the very place where Armstrong left the manmade vehicle and stepped into completely unknown territory.

For two and a half hours after that, two men from Earth scampered, played, measured, sampled, and photographed the environment, and in doing so drew a line right through history. Forever more, there will be a time before humans walked on another world, and a time after.

And that, of course, is why I picked this image as my Top Astronomy Picture of 2009. It may not be the prettiest, but its import is inarguable. This image reminds us of how far we’ve gone, and when I look at it I’m reminded of how far we have yet to go. It’s been nearly 40 years since a human walked on the Moon, and if we want to set our sights even farther, we’ll still have to cover that old ground again before taking another giant leap.

Original news story

BA Blog post

Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University





Comments (131)

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  1. SionH

    Couldn’t agree more. Good choice Phil.

  2. Rowan

    All I am seeing in #2 is someone’s nude posterior with some sort of tribal tattoo..

    Great choices, they are all mind-blowing.

  3. RBH

    Phil, Phil, Phil. Not the Hubble ultra deep field in the near infrared? That is in my view the most important and striking astronomical photograph ever taken, just barely ahead of the original visible light ultra deep field.

  4. I agree with Rowan. Without the hint of scale, #2 looks positively humanoid.

  5. Picture #2 was my desktop at work for about a month before I saw the beautiful Galactic Center picture from Chandra.

    Picture #1 is printed and stuck to the wall of my cubicle not 4 feet from where I currently sit, always there reminding me how freakin’ awesome humanity is.

  6. Huron

    #6 reminds me of the TOS episode “Who Mourns for Adonais?”

  7. Great selection and, as always, amazing commentary.

    I just wish Phil had picked a few images/photos from amateur astronomers. There are tons of stunning photos out there (just look at AAPOD).
    I, personally, am still amazed at Robert Mikaelyan’s Fireball Meteor Over Groningen:

    Fireball Meteor Over Groningen

  8. scibuff (#9): that one was in my list of choices, but I simply couldn’t fit them all in.

    RBH (#5): I liked that one too, but I liked the NGC 4522 one I posted better, and it has lots of little galaxies too. I try not to have the pix overlap in content too much, which is one reason the choice is so hard every year.

    I may yet collect the ones I didn’t post and make a second entry for them.

  9. Phil, nicely, nicely done. I used to be an astronomer myself before budget cuts forced me into a new line of work. I must say that I’ve been a little more than inspired by your work to find a way back into the field “by hook or by crook.” Though I may not land a paying gig any time soon, you’ve helped me realize there’s no reason I cannot re-embark on the public outreach side of astronomy. I’ll be starting a new blog and continuing to offer my services to give public talks. Thanks again Phil for reminding me why I got into this business in the first place. Have a wonderful holiday season.

  10. Phil, your comment on Pandora’s Galaxy (#10) reminds me of the game Euphloria: “I rather like the poetic image of babies erupting out of the galaxy like dandelion seeds on the intergalactic wind.”

  11. Patrick OConnell

    I remember the Apollo 11 landing, which happened in the evening. My family stayed up to watch the live pictures. So did the rest of the world with access to TV, except for the “lunar deniers” apparently.

    A few months later, I attended a convocation at Purdue University, where Neil Armstrong was awarded an honorary doctorate. Needless to say, that was a highlight of my college experience.

  12. Wow! I don’t envy you the task of culling images for the Top Ten list this year! I can’t help but wonder which was the Number 11 you tweeted about? That glorious and ginormous shadowy Saturn at equinox..? The impact on Jupiter..? But yes, truly the number one image of the year is indeed the Apollo lander.

  13. ND


    That photo, unfortunately, reminds me of the Columbia disaster.

  14. !AstralProjectile

    I thought #2 was the BA’s tatoo. Maybe it is.

  15. @AstralProjectile … saw his tattoo at TAM London, it’s actually quite different 😀

  16. jr

    Love the Spinal Tap reference!

  17. Wow! I am always amazed at the staggering beauty of the universe we live in!

  18. Sean
  19. gopher65

    Hmmm. This is the first year you’ve done this segment that I’ve disagreed completely with you. Not a single one of those images would have been in my top ten of 2009. 9 out of my 10 would have come from Cassini though, and I suspect that you wanted some variety.

    Speaking of which, I just had an idea that you may or may not like: perhaps next year you could do a “best picture in AAAA category”, with 10 or 15 different categories:).

  20. What, no Saturn equinox pictures? I’m surprised considering how many times you’ve posted them.

  21. I’m sorry, since I just don’t have a sense of wonder, I cannot fully appreciate these photos.

    Nevermind that some of them nearly moved me to tears!

  22. I love the crescent earth, but I guess it’s not very exotic compared to some of the others.

  23. Ooooh! Aaaaah! Oooooh! Aaaaah!

  24. Francesco Iacopino

    Wow, what a post Phil! And what pictures. I don’t comment much, but I follow your blog and your work pretty much daily. Please keep on doing it!

  25. Anders

    Great choices! I do not envy your task of of leaving out so many others, but I feel that you made so very good picks. My favorite is #10, for some reason, I just love looking at different kinds of galaxies. By the way, I really like the meshing of the Nietzsche quote into the title of #7.

  26. gorillo

    #6 reminds me of Red Dwarf… “Coke Adds Life”

  27. skylyre

    #2 was my desktop since you put it up until about a week ago when I switched to “Hothmas”.

    I love love love that picture and that’s awesome it was your #2 :)

  28. DD

    I don’t like the “Top Ten Astronomy Pictures Of 2009” banner image… Phil, you should really do something of better to introduce such amazing images. :-)

  29. Mitch G

    When I first saw that image of Mars’ surface, I thought it was a tattoo!

  30. Pandora’s galaxy looks just immense – something James Cameron would be proud of !

  31. Helioprogenus

    I have an idea Phil. Perhaps next year, in addition to your top 10 pictures, each of us can submit a picture that we feel is left out. It would be like a supplemental to the top 10 list. You can filter out the people who post similar pictures. Perhaps, it can be a special link that Discover can set up; considering that you have power and influence over the Hive Overmind, it’s certainly possible.

  32. L Jon Lindsay

    Can’t… Quite… Reach…

  33. Deepsix

    Whoa. #9 has a bonus feature – it moves.

  34. DJ Fitz

    Cosmic Sausage would make a great band name.

    Anyways, really amazing image.

  35. Bahdum (aka Richard)

    On Number 6, you can easily see it’s the hand of Adonais. That is, if you squint your eyes to turn that orange sausage into the USS Enterprise.

  36. DrFlimmer

    I was sure, Saturn’s equinox and the shadows across the rings of the small perturbations would be included in the list. Well, I was wrong.

    Still: Nice choices! Thanks a lot, Phil. This is a year-review I always enjoy (not those horrible TV shows…)

  37. I’m amazed this image didn’t make it into the Top 10…

    After all, it’s a transit of two human spacecraft across the face of a star and a pretty spectacular shot at that. I understand why Apollo 11 would be number one and completely agree with that, but this should be at least #3…

  38. I agree with #1 for sure.

    The giant blue ‘hand’ made me think of one character in particular. Doctor Manhattan anyone? :)

  39. Mike

    When the sun goes and the nebula forms, what happens to outer planets…what will happen to Neptune, etc. Will they be reached by the blast, ripped up…or will they drift off afterwards or float around in the nebula?

  40. Naomi

    Number three is really pretty. I’d love to go there one day.

    And I still maintain that number six is Master Hand reaching for the Brawlers, being controlled by Tabuu *grin* (And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, get thee to a Wii!)

  41. StevoR

    Wow! This is early – the year still has a few weeks to run – I was kinda expecting these in January 2010! New Years day maybe? 😉

    But I’m not complaining – I love this yearly tradition of yours and the images are always breath-taking! 😀

    Thankyou Bad Astronomer, Dr Phil Plait, sir. I love these! 8)

  42. Asimov fan

    @ 48. Lewis Says:

    I agree with #1 for sure.

    The giant blue ‘hand’ made me think of one character in particular. Doctor Manhattan anyone?

    No, Londo Mollari actually from Babylon 5. Plus the Vorlons and Shadows.

    “… A great hand reaching out from the stars..”

    I am surprised by the absence of the Milky Way’s core (composite Chandra HST & UVE) & the Hubble Deep Field. I felt sure they’d be in there & the shuttle-ISS as human sunspots one too.

    Still love them though – maybe you should expand it to atop 20? Or top 40 even? Its not like there’s a shortage of candidates! 😉

    THanks BA. :-)

  43. I'd rather be fishin'

    There you go again. Do you know how many people you annoyed in the past year alone by not posting astronomy topics? Then you go and do this. You CAN’T call this blog ‘Bad Astronomy’!! I demand the name be changed to ‘OH WOW! Is that ever neat Astronomy…’

    Stay warm!

  44. TXjak

    #2 was surely the work of the Intelligent Designer! 😉

  45. Spectroscope

    For # 9 – ‘A Computer’s Spot in the Sun’:

    Dark blemishes on the Sun have been known since antiquity; when the setting Sun’s disk is dimmed by dust in the air, you can sometimes see sunspots against its reddened face. Those are monster spots, and very rare, but even the normal run-of-the-mill sunspots aren’t well understood.

    As I understand it, Galileo Galilei was the first to see sunspots back in 1609 and before that it was wrongly believed the Sun was flawless and “unblemished” by any markings.

    Given 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy in commemoration of Galileo’s remarkable first year of telescopic observations I would’ve thought the BA would have been a bit more aware and mentioned this fact rather than erroneously claiming we always knew of them.

    Basic history of science FAIL there – bad Bad Astronomer! 😉

    True, monster sun spots have been recorded visually but I’m pretty sure those observations were made after Galileo & so not in “antiquity” – unless the Renaissance or seventeenth century counts as “antiquity”! 😉

    Also ‘A computers spot in the Sun’? A computer inside the Sun would vapourise in a nano-second. Poor choice of words there BA. You mean, I’d think, ‘A Computerised Sunspot’ or ‘A computer spots like the Sun’ maybe?

    I must confess I’m a little disappointed by some of your choices here, BA – the impact on Jupiter (how *could* you have left that one out?), the Hubble Deep Field, more galaxies, the ISS and shuttle captured transiting the Sun and a few more of Saturn would have my preferred pictures. As well that composite image our Galactic centre, some of the dramatic meteorites we’ve had and the Norweigan rocket spiral would all have been on my list instead – although I guess the latter may not strictly count as astronomical. Your blog and thus your choice but I am feeling a bit puzzled & let down to be perfectly honest.

    However, having the Moon landing site photographed from Lunar orbit as this year’s no. 1 – now that I do agree with! :-)

  46. toothbrush

    thanks, mister Plait!

    if you haven’t seen vista pictures yet, i think it is time to take a look there
    the pics are just…amazing

  47. Richie

    Amazing selection Phil. Looking forward to what 2010 will show us.

  48. @ spectroscope:

    I may be wrong (there’s always a first), but I believe sunspots were observed many centuries before Galileo screwed up his eyes by pointing his optik tube at them.

    I think there are references to sunspots in seriously ancient Chinese records (ca. 1st century CE), and a European monk or two made note of them in the middle ages.


    RE: Sunspots.

    Extract from Wikipedia — Sunspot (History):

    Apparent references to sunspots were made by Chinese astronomers in 28 B.C.E. (Hanshu, 27), who probably could see the largest groups of spots when the wind-borne dust filtered the Sun’s glare in Central Asian deserts. A large sunspot was also seen at the time of Charlemagne’s death in C.E. 813. On 17 March 807, the Benedictine monk Adelmus observed a large sunspot, which was visible for eight days. Adelmus thought he was observing a transit of Mercury. Sunspot activity in 1129 was described by John of Worcester. Averroes also provided a description of sunspots in the 12th century. However, these early observations were misinterpreted until Galileo gave the correct explanation in 1612.

    They were first observed telescopically in late 1610 by the English astronomer Thomas Harriot and Frisian astronomers Johannes and David Fabricius, who published a description in June 1611. At the latter time Galileo had been showing sunspots to astronomers in Rome, and Christoph Scheiner had probably been observing the spots for two or three months. The ensuing priority dispute between Galileo and Scheiner, neither of whom knew of the Fabricius’ work, was thus as pointless as it was bitter.

  50. That looks a bit like a tattoo on someone’s bottom

  51. Autumn

    I saw it when you first posted it, and I’ve seen it many times after, but I still get really close to tears whenever I see the pictures showing our first steps onto another world. I just looked again for the second time tonight, and I was still just as moved by that image. I also love your line, as much as it has been said in some form or another, about a clear demarcation in human history.
    Just wow, and thanks.

  52. Brian G

    I think #6 looks more like a hand grabbing at a banana, thus proving Ray Comfort is correct in whatever it is he’s claiming. I love #1 and had a feeling you’d use it or another like it as the #1 pic of the year.

    Yes, I was joking with that first part

  53. Yeebok

    Hi Phil, thanks for a nice collection of images. For me, though the Hubble IRDF was a special picture, it’s not a ‘good’ picture. You have to know what you’re looking at to get the awe from it. The “tattoo” ones of Mars, when I had that as my desktop thanks to your headsup I think half the people who went past my desk liked the pic.
    I must confess to some dismay at none of Cassini’s lovely pictures of Saturn, but hey.
    The only one I disagreed with was the sunspot one, on some logical level my mind revolts at an “artist’s representation” being an “astronomy pic” but I get the significance of it. Either way, thanks for the pics! The pictures you’ve chosen, and the detail and enthusiasm with which you present them to us is fantastic. I enjoy the way you wrote up the moon landing.

  54. J_w23

    Totally agree with you phil! There’s one thing I still feel confident to predict: #1 2008 will not be beaten anytime soon!

  55. CEKREZ

    “Amaizing Perfection”. It was all so beautiful…Enough said for us who were around for the start of the space race and remember Apollo 11 like it was yesterday….AND all this we are viewing, will it be some type of reward to play about once we’re gone? The young and upcoming to toy with in reality I bid good luck & give you my blessings, while I continue my mortal voyage & reach the apex to the ultimate question we all await inside in shear terror…..maybe it won’t be so terrifying afterall…….cek

  56. Nigel Depledge

    Mike (49) said:

    When the sun goes and the nebula forms, what happens to outer planets…what will happen to Neptune, etc. Will they be reached by the blast, ripped up…or will they drift off afterwards or float around in the nebula?

    Good questions!

    If only some astronomer would write a book about things like that, then we could have the answers at our fingertips…

  57. Nigel Depledge

    Spectroscope (67) said:

    Also ‘A computers spot in the Sun’? A computer inside the Sun would vapourise in a nano-second. Poor choice of words there BA. You mean, I’d think, ‘A Computerised Sunspot’ or ‘A computer spots like the Sun’ maybe?

    Yeah, but “in the sun” also has the figurative meaning of “in the sunshine”. Have you never heard of people holidaying “in the sun”?

    Thus, Phil’s title takes on what I assume is an intended double meaning.

  58. tayga


    There’s some confusion of terms in the text accompanying a few of these images.

    #9 Magnetic fields don’t have that sort of effect on neutral gas but they will collimate a plasma. So the description of the sunspot needs amending. The “hot solar gas” in question is a charged plasma and it’s not looping back to the Sun’s surface because it cools but because it follows the magnetic field. It’s also worth noting that because the charged particles in the plasma are moving they’re also generating further magnetic fields.

    #6 There is no such thing as a magnetic wind. There are winds which comprise neutral gases or there are electrical currents which contain charged particles and their associated magnetic fields.

    #4 Gas doesn’t glow until you ionise it and then it becomes a plasma even if a tiny percentage of its constituent atoms/molecules are ionised. It’s interesting to note that the electromagnetic force is a 10^36 times stronger than gravity so there might be something a bit more significant than gusts of wind in shaping this phenomenon.

  59. Grant McCahon

    Great shots brought to us by superior technology and the spirit of man. The amateur shots I saw at The Royal Observatory, Greenwich, London, amply demonstrated that high quality photography is now in the hands of the masses. We reach out, we share, we learn.

  60. Paul Newman

    I was stuck, amongst all these wondeful pictures, by #3, which shows a rainbow. It’s the arc to the left of the monolith and to my eyes clearly seperates the red, yellow and blue hues. Off hand, I cannot think of another rainbow picture photographed at night, and I wonder what the light source was?

  61. Spectroscope

    @ 71 Kuhnigget & 72 IVAN3MAN :

    Okay, you’re right. Some obscure Chinese astronomers and a monk or two saw & recorded sunspots earlier than Galileo without knowing what they really were. As later on & with more knowledge did Galileo’s contemporaries, the two Fabricus’es, Harriott & Scheiner. Thanks for that extra info quoted there I didn’t know or remember all of that.

    However, it is still true that Galileo was first to correctly understand and publicise them which is significant and could have been mentioned. It is also true that most people before Galileo thought of the Sun as flawless and without blemish and Galileo’s overturning of this belief – aided & complemented by the likes of Thomas Harriot, Christoph Scheiner and Johannes & David Fabricius, – was a major event and paradigm shift in our understanding.

    I still think the BA could have mentioned Galileo’s role there in doing that esp. given the reason why 2009 is the IYA. The good Doctor Plait could also have mentioned the earlier observations briefly too – a line like :

    “Although earlier observations of sunspots had been made incl. some back in ancient China and medevial monastries, Galileo was among the first and the best known astronomer to draw attention to sunspots and overthrow the Ptolemaic, church sanctioned mindset that held the Sun to be perfect and unspotted. This is one of the reasons’s why this year has been designated the IYA in his honour.”

    Would have been nice.

    It’s certainly true that Thomas Harriott, for one, has been unfairly overshadowed by Galileo’s brilliance but then we all know the high personal price Galileo paid for his prominence.

    @ 81. Nigel Depledge Says:

    … Yeah, but “in the sun” also has the figurative meaning of “in the sunshine”. Have you never heard of people holidaying “in the sun”? Thus, Phil’s title takes on what I assume is an intended double meaning.

    “In the sunshine” has a slightly different sense because we’re talkingabout sunlight as oppsoed to shade which make sense. But “holidaying in the Sun” has always struck me as a really dumb saying. I know its metaphorical but still. Call me a pedant if you like but I kind of like accuracy in language.

    @ 90 Paul Newman Says:

    … Off hand, I cannot think of another rainbow picture photographed at night, and I wonder what the light source was?

    The Moon as the BA mentioned in the accompanying text. Moonbows are rare but do occur and have occassionally been photographed before.

  62. John V

    These are all incredible images (Of the ones you chose Enceladus is my favourite), but I think you forgot about Fomalhaut b! Hubble saw an extrasolar planet!

    Edit: My bad, that was 2008

  63. @ Spectroscope:

    Call me a pedant if you like



  64. Plutonium being from Pluto

    @ 10. Phil Plait Says:

    scibuff (#9): that one was in my list of choices, but I simply couldn’t fit them all in. RBH (#5): I liked that one too, but I liked the NGC 4522 one I posted better, and it has lots of little galaxies too. I try not to have the pix overlap in content too much, which is one reason the choice is so hard every year. I may yet collect the ones I didn’t post and make a second entry for them.

    Please do that! Please!

    I’d love to see more of these. I’ve been looking forward to this post all year and ten just isn’t enough! 😉 :-)

    @ 93 John V : Indeed – but also don’t forget about the less memorably named and less bright (although still visible with unaided eyesight) HR 8799 which had its trio of exoplanets imaged on the same day as Fomalhaut’s.

    Click on :

    fo0r more incl. a good finder chart photomap. :-)

    Perhaps we should grant HR8799 a proper name too rather than the current merely numerical deisgnation?

    I’d suggest “Gadolabove” signifying this individual star being a unique combination of Gamma Doradus variable, Lambda Bootis metal poor star and Vega-style dusty protoplanetary disk star … But that’s just me! 😉

    PS. Its okay by me John V – Fomalhaut b was if I recall announced right at the end of the year anyhow. Besides Flying Sphaghetti Monster knows I’m as fallible as anyone else maybe even more so! 😉

  65. Kim

    Of course other groups have posted their own favorites.
    From The Crew Earth Observations Team some ISS photos:

  66. Jojo


    December 1, 2009

    Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar 2009

    Once more, we enter the month of December and the traditional western Holiday Season, and once again, I’d like to present a Hubble Space Telescope imagery Advent Calendar for 2009. Keep checking this page, because every day, for the next 25 days, a new photo will be revealed here from the Hubble Space Telescope, some old and some new. I have felt extremely fortunate to have been able to share photographs and stories with you all this year, and I wish for a Happy Holiday to all those who will celebrate, and for Peace on Earth to everyone. – Alan (25 photos total – eventually) [previously: the 2008 calendar]

  67. i watched the July 1969 lunar landing with my grandmother, who was bedridden, and who would die later that year. she was 74 at the time, and while we were watching men land and, then walk, on the Moon, she told me about the first car that had come through our town in 1899. that’s the year her grandfather died, and being a prominent local man, had quite a funeral. they weren’t expecting out of town visitors to appear in a horseless carriage though. she was only 4, but apparently the entire funeral was disrupted with everyone mesmerized by this vehicle. can you imagine, in one’s lifetime, seeing a car for the first time, and living to see a man on the Moon? her sense of wonderment and amazement has never left me.

  68. Colin

    Noticed that at the end you took the chance there to slide in your own idiosyncratic views about the future of manned space flight. Very subtle…

  69. The Hubble telescope did good after all it been punched a lot of holes from light speed traveling dust.

  70. It’s spooky how celevr some ppl are. Thanks!


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