Behold, Saturn!

By Phil Plait | September 21, 2009 6:03 pm

Not getting enough Holy crap! in your life? Then try this on for size:

Holy crap!

Oh yes, you definitely want to click on that to embiggen the heck out of it. This teeny 610 pixel wide version does nothing to give you the sense of awe and glory in this spectacular picture. The full size image is a whopping 7227 x 3847 pixels! Warning: you’ll lose an hour of your life gaping at it.

That, duh, is Saturn, taken by the ever-amazing Cassini spacecraft. It’s actually 75 different exposures stitched together, and was taken on August 12, just a little over a day after Saturnian equinox, when the Sun shines straight along the rings. The illumination from the Sun is about the same everywhere, but on the left the rings are illuminated by Saturn-shine glowing down on them, making them a bit brighter.

This picture keeps on giving, too. You can spot several moons if you look in the embiggenatisized version (most obvious is Janus on the left; all of the moons have had their brightness enhanced to make them more easily visible in this image). You can also see the subtle swirls and whorls of storms in Saturn’s upper atmosphere. And what’s that dark line on Saturn’s equator? That’s the shadow of the rings themselves, narrowed to a thin line due to the Sun angle.

Holy crap.

And yet, there’s more. Check. This. Out.

[Update; Oops: I got this image mixed up with another. I’ve struck through the old mistake, but leave it up as evidence that I blew it here. It happens sometimes. Sorry about the confusion, and my thanks to Joe Mason
CICLOPS Media Relations Coordinator, for pointing out my error.]

This is an old image (taken by Cassini in 2005) that shows a long streak, which I’ve highlighted with red arrows. New images taken in the past month at Saturnian equinox confirm that this streak is actually an expanding cloud of debris from the impact of a small meteoroid, probably about a meter across and moving at several dozen kilometers/second. It came in almost exactly parallel to the rings, leaving a path of wreckage and destruction many thousands of kilometers long.

This image, also taken at equinox, shows an elongated streak, marked by the red arrows. That streak, it’s been determined, is actually from the impact of a small meteoroid, probably about a meter across and moving at several dozen kilometers/second. It came in almost exactly parallel to the rings, As the debris cloud expanded, different orbital motions sheared it, leaving a path of wreckage and destruction 5000 kilometers long. [Update II: My thanks to Carolyn Porco for pointing out this explanation to me in the comments.]

Can I hear one final holy crap?

The image here was enhanced to bring out the streak. It turns out old images had similar streaks, but at the time they weren’t sure what they were.

It’s been thought for a long time that the rings were constantly bombarded by interplanetary interlopers, and now we have pretty good proof. This also makes me think this picture of Saturn’s rings from August really does show some object slamming into them at speeds dozens of times faster than a rifle bullet.

Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since 2004, and these images show the true power of being able to go to a place and stay there, taking picture after picture for many years. Every picture has a use, and old images can be reinterpreted when new data come in.

And we keep learning! Saturn is a forbidding, remote, fascinating, and enchantingly beautiful world, with secrets and surprises to keep us guessing and fascinated for decades. I’m very glad Cassini is there bring us these delights.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (74)

  1. Kevin

    Holy Crap!

    And I mean that.

    Now I can watch the season premiere of Big Bang Theory even more psyched up.

  2. ParrotSketch

    I wish we had such a spacecraft in orbit around every planet in the solar system.

  3. Bigfoot

    My wife suspects the REAL reason I “have to have” a 30-inch monitor for my work is to view beautiful images like this. She may be correct.

  4. HOLY CRAP!!!


    That is all I have to say about that really.

    Thanks Phil!

  5. STUNNING…I will be downloading this image.

  6. Mick

    Well, we have satellites orbiting…

    – Venus
    – Earth
    – Our Moon
    – Mars
    – Saturn
    – The Sun

    And we will have some orbiting other objects in the near future also:

    – Mercury (Messenger will be making a flyby shortly, then eventually settling into orbit)
    – Asteroids/Dwarf Planets (Dawn which is aiming at Vesta and Ceres, and there is other spacecraft planned as well)
    – Jupiter (Juno orbiter which is presently in development)

    Plenty of interesting stuff happening out there, not to mention all the different lander missions being planned and other sample return missions also. Also, with a planned human return to the moon, and on to Mars, its an exciting time to be alive imo!

  7. Jue

    Does anyone know if NASA is going to sell posters of this picture? Cause I want to buy one!

  8. I think I wet myself a little when that big image loaded up.

  9. Lizzyshoe

    Shouldn’t the colors of the rings be continuous? I mean, it looks like they change and get darker when they are in front of the disk and lighter when they are in front of space. Is this an optical illusion?

  10. Crudely Wrott

    Didn’t Cassini fly through the rings when it arrived at Saturn or shortly thereafter? Did it ever image that part of the rings again?

    These pictures are just too good . . . and I want more!

  11. a lurker

    Look at the rings at the right-hand side of the image and you can clearly see two moons (ring shepherds?).

  12. PlanetGirl

    Thank you for a new AMAZING and JAW DROPPING desktop image of Saturn!!!

  13. More Holy Crap!:

    Ring material, pulled to spectacular heights as high as Earth’s Rocky Mountains (4 km) above the ring plane by the gravity of the moon Daphnis, casts long shadows on Saturn’s A ring in this Cassini image taken about a month before the planet’s August 2009 equinox. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

  14. MarkAH
  15. Syd

    Thank you for such an amazing image. Saturn was the first planet I ever saw through a high power telescope and it was beautiful even when it was only the size of the tip of a pen. Being able to see my favorite non-earth planet in such awesome detail stole the air from my lungs. I almost cried!
    New desktop image on my widescreen iMac. A new distraction from college admissions :)

  16. Bob

    I can’t help but notice there’s no stars in the background. 😀

  17. tripencrypt

    Thanks Phil! A beautiful image.

  18. JohnW

    You know, I don’t think I’ve ever embiggened one of your “holy crap” images before. I’m sorry that I didn’t – that is terrific. After a few unwarranted “What is THAT?!” moments, I find I do need to clean my monitor, though.

  19. Larry

    Wow, I think I can see TMA-2 in that picture and …

    Oh my god, its full of stars!

  20. gopher65

    Great posting:). Thanks for that. I’m always eager for more Saturn and Jupiter news. Personally I find those to be the most interesting places in the solar system. They’re mini systems in and of themselves, and there are just so many cool things to see there.

  21. dashoshee

    Roger that Bigfoot :)

  22. jtradke
  23. gopher65

    Yeah, I just set the quarter-res version as my desktop background too:). This image looks tailer made for wallpapering. All of the black space means there is plenty of room for your icons around the central image. Looks great on 16:9 or 16:10 screen reses.

  24. hatgirlstargazer

    Holy Crap!

    I don’t have a big enough monitor for this. Hmm, where can I get access to a bigger monitor. Guess I’m going hunting for fancy computer labs on campus tomorrow.

  25. Matthew Feinberg

    Holy Crap is right. Thanks for sharing!

  26. Sundance

    I just love the way the knowledge that the rings are illuminated in “front” by Saturn-shine adds to the holy crap-ness of it. Nice blend of left and right brain stimuli.

  27. The Mad LOLScientist, FCD

    Whooooooooaaaaaahhhhhhh AWSUMOSITY!1!! BTW, you owe me a new keyboard to replace the one I just shorted out by slobbering all over it………….. =^..^=

  28. Sarah

    Speaking of Cassini, check out the article about a certain Carolyn Porco …

    Hey! We have the same favorite movie ( of all time ).

  29. Kernan

    I’ve been stopping by Cassini’s website on an almost daily basis since it threaded the cosmic needle and settled into orbit five years ago. What an honor to glide through the icy majesty of this planetary system and see new wonders like the peaks of the moonlet’s shockwaves and the vast paint thinner “seas” of Titan. As a child I always loved Saturn and hoped I would go there someday (hey, I thought we’d have jetpacks and moon vacations by now). I got my wish after all. Thanks JPL, NASA and ESA for one of the coolest experiences of my lifetime.

  30. Wow, look at the bottom right moon and the ring. Looks like the gravity of one of the moon distorts the ring a little bit in a wavey line!

  31. Holy crap! *said with a scottish accent*

  32. davem

    What’s happening on the outermost ring? Looks like it contains something tumbling, maybe? It has an dashed on-off brightness.

  33. Pieter Kok

    Yes, that is something else…

    I think this picture is even more beautiful than the one where Saturn was back-lit by the sun.

  34. StevoR

    @ 32 Pieter Kok – Not quite but its close! That earlier Saturn picture with the rings backlit and the Earth in a gap in the rings, now that was just unbeatable for the best solar system image *ever* in my book. :-)

    This “quarter Saturn” image is right up there though along with an earlier shot of crescent Saturn from behind shot by one of the Voyagers back in the 1970-80’s and which featured on the reverse of a National geographic solar system poster.

    Saturn is so spectacularly, breath-takingly beautiful though isn’t it just!

    I’m very glad Cassini is there bring us these delights.

    Me too.

    Thanks BA – & a very big thankyou to all the folks working on the Cassini mission too. 😀

  35. I looks like a scratch on the Saturn LP. Will Saturn skip now? Ask someone over 30 if you do not understand my comment.

  36. dhtroy

    You know, for a moment, I had this “vision” of DISCOVER magazine’s front cover showing this remarkable picture of Saturn, and under that photo, in large magazine print, the words


    Yup. That bout sums it up.

  37. Franky

    Indeed. HOLY CRAP!

  38. @Jue,

    As far as I know, all of NASA’s images are public domain and thus can be used in any way you see fit. So you can download that huge photo of Saturn, go to and order some posters.

    Basically, the only two things you can’t do with NASA images are: 1) Use the NASA logo and 2) imply that NASA endorses your work (unless they actually do which I suspect is pretty rare). You can even use NASA’s photos commercially (again, without the logo or implying endorsement). If a person appears in the photo, a model release might need to be obtained, but photos of space should be fine. (Which, of course, is making me go “hmm……”)

  39. Asimov Fan

    Magnificent, awe inspiring image there and I’m still picking my jaw off the floor. I second (# 7) Jue’s call for this to become a poster of anyone at NASA / JPL / whoever it is that organises posters production is listening.

    The BA’s suggested response to this astounding picture though seems a tad crude, unimaginative and profane to me.

    It reminds me of a real life story related by Isaac Asimov :

    “But zero was reached and a cloud of vapour enveloped the rocket. I held my breath and waited for it to rise in sick suspense. It did rise at last and the vast red flower at its tail bloomed. What was surely the most concentrated man-made [sic] light on an enormous scale that the world had ever seen, illuminated the night-bound shores of Florida.

    As I have said briefly in my introduction to chapter 2, the night vanished from horizon to horizon. We, and the ship, and all the world we could see, were suddenly under a dim copper dome of a sky from which the stars had washed out while below us the black sea turned an orange-grey.

    In the deepest silence, the artificial sun that had so changed our immediate world rose higher and higher, and then – forty seconds after ignition – the violent shaking of the air all about the rocket engines made its way across the seven miles of sea that separated us and the shore, and reached us. With the rocket high in the air, we were shaken with a rumbling thunder so that our private and temporary day was accompanied by a private and temporary earthquake.

    Sound and light ebbed majestically as the rocket continued to rise until it was a ruddy blotch in the high sky. The night was falling once more; the stars were coming out, and the sea darkened. In the sky there was a flash as the second stage came loose, and then the rocket was a star among stars; moving, and moving and moving and growing dimmer …

    And in all this, it was useless to try to speak, for there was nothing to say. The words and phrases had not been invented that would serve as an accompaniment to that magnificent leap to the Moon, and I did not try to invent any. Had I the time and the folly and had I not been utterly crushed under sights and sounds so much greater than anything I had ever experienced, I might have tried to apostrophise the world about me and say : Oh, wonder of wonders! Oh, soaring spirit of man that conquers space and reaches indomitably towards the stars …

    But I couldn’t and didn’t, and it was some young man behind me who contributed the spoken accompaniment to the rise of the spaceship.

    With all the magnificent resources of the English language at his command, he chose the phrase that perhaps most intimately expressed his inner workings.

    “Oh, shit”, he said, as his head tilted slowly upward. And then, with his tenor voice rising over all the silent heads on board, he added, “Oh, shi-i-i-i-i-i-t!”

    Well, to each his own. I said nothing.”

    – Page 210-211, ‘The Tragedy of the Moon’, Isaac Asimov, Mercury Press, 1972.

    (On Asimov watching the launch of Apollo 17 from the cruise liner SS Statendam. )


    Now speaking personally I’d much rather give an awed whisper of “wonder of wonders” than utter a flat obscenity. However, as Asimov noted, to each his own. 😉

    PS. Tried to post this a while before but it doesn’t seem to have come through. Not sure why not. Anyway, my apologies if this turns up twice.

  40. PaleGreenPantsWithNobodyInsideThem


    You use that word alot…embiggen.

    It’s not very cromulent.

  41. Kim

    @38 TechDad, thanks for the suggestion of WinkFlash. That gives me some ideas. And don’t worry, they are good ideas. Dad’s birthday is coming up.

  42. When I looked at this photo, I was suddenly struck by something very basic and yet very amazing. We have devices orbiting other worlds. Now, I know that nowadays it is pretty much taken for granted that we can toss a probe into space and send it where ever we want it to go, but think about it for a second. We can design and build a device that will fly across the vastness of space, take instructions from us way back on Earth, and send data like these amazing photos back to us.

    The distances involved to send a probe to Saturn are amazingly huge. Saturn is over 800,000,000 miles from the Earth. If you got in a car and drove to Saturn at 90mph, traveling for 24 hours a day, never stopping once, it would take you over 1,000 years to arrive. It even takes light, the speediest thing around, 73 minutes to travel between the Earth and Saturn. (And that’s not even getting out of our solar system – I won’t even get into Voyager 1 or 2.)

    And yet, we can control a space craft from that far away, plan it’s route through space, and get photos from areas that no human could possibly get to (at least not with today’s technology). It’s mind-boggling when you think of it and NASA (along with everyone who made this possible both past and present) deserve a nice, long standing ovation!

  43. GA

    @ Asimov Fan – That was brilliant and totally apropos.

  44. I don’t consider the hour I spent staring at that image “wasted” at all.

  45. Peter

    @TechyDad (#42)

    That’s the sensation I have when I see such pictures as well.

    Sometimes I picture we show these images to 17th century people. Imagine the awe and disbleief f.i. photos from Mars’ surface must invoke.

  46. Asimov Fan

    @ 43 GA – Thanks! Glad you liked it! :-)

  47. davem:

    That’s the F ring. It’s shepherded by Prometheus and Pandora, which also do a number of funky things to the ring. (It’s been amazing us since Voyager at least.) Search for “F ring” on the CICLOPS site and you should get a lot of amazing, weird images of that ring, plus some explanations as to how it gets like that.

  48. Mark M

    Great image. Thanks.
    #6. Thanks for your comment. Made me think. I am 32 years old. I am crossing my fingers in the hope that I see a moon landing during my lifetime. Funny, if this was 1963, I wouldn’t have been 40 yet when it occurred.

  49. Great imagery. Can even see the color changes near the pole.

  50. Chanelle

    Took me 3 tries to get the page to load so I can even select which image size to view. Still haven’t gotten the big version to load. Apparantly the site must be a little busy right now.

  51. Grimmy

    When I consider your heavens,
    the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars,
    which you have set in place,

    what is man that you are mindful of him,
    the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8)

    “In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
    They will perish, but you remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
    You will roll them up like a robe;
    like a garment they will be changed.
    But you remain the same,
    and your years will never end.” (Hebrews 1)

  52. comatus

    Chesley Bonestell was really, really good, wasn’t he?

  53. bala

    The Full Size Image link seems broken when i click the link im getting details explaining Saturn equinoxes but not the image?

  54. Russell

    For some reason this picture made me wonder up a question. Why do the rings form? I understand that they come from dust that either failed to form into a moon or as part of the planet… but why do they form in such uniform and extending bands from the equator of a given planet? Perhaps due to EM fields pushing them out between the poles? Any idea’s? Thanks! What an amazing picture.

  55. Hello, desktop background!

  56. Phil and everyone: So glad you’re enjoying our Equinox images. They are incredibly beguiling, aren’t they? But one necessary correction, Phil. The streak does NOT imply that the impactor came in parallel to the rings. The streak is a streak in this image because of the spreading that occurs due to differential orbital motion. That is, the cloud subtended a range of orbital distances from Saturn. The inner portion then traveled around Saturn faster than the outer portion, and you end up with not only a streak but a tilted streak: ie, NOT parallel to the rings. And it is from the length and tilt of the streak, and knowledge of the orbital motions in this part of the rings, that we can tell the impact happened only a day or two earlier than this image was taken. You should ask us first before giving scientific interpretation to our images. It’s safer that way. 😉

  57. coriolan

    A Blast from the Past – remember all the anti-Cassini hysteria regarding
    the Plutonium that was allegedly a threat to everything that lived and breathed on Mother Earth?

    Had these folks succeeded, we would have never glimpsed the astonishing vistas of Saturn and his satellites that NASA and Cassini have provided.

  58. Unless you can convince people that space is an immediate threat, exploration of it will always sit on the backburner.

  59. Unless you can convince people that space is an immediate threat, exploration of it will always sit on the backburner.


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