Saturn rages from a billion kilometers away

By Phil Plait | April 30, 2010 10:01 am

[In a weird coincidence, I wrote this post up mere hours before this news story on the same topic came out at JPL.]

With all the stunning images and animations coming from the Cassini probe, it’s easy to forget that some pretty cool stuff can be seen from Earth, too. Amateur astronomer Emil Kraaikamp sent me this animation he made of Saturn taken with his 25 cm (10″) telescope in The Netherlands. Keep your eyes on the upper half of Saturn, above the rings.

See the white spot? That’s actually a huge storm… and by "huge", I mean about the same size as the Earth! I usually think of Jupiter as the stormy planet, but Saturn has its share as well. A lot of the time, these storms are discovered here on Earth by amateur astronomers, who spend more time looking at planets globally, as opposed to professional astronomers who aren’t always observing every planet all the time. Last year, a "storm" seen on Jupiter by an amateur turned out to be the impact cloud from a collision by an asteroid or comet!

Here’s one of the images Emil used in his animation:


You can see two moons, the rings (and the dark Cassini Division, a gap in the rings), banding on the planet itself, and of course the storm. Note that when he took these shots, Saturn was 1.3 billion km (almost 800 million miles) away! Astronomy is one of the very few sciences where amateurs — and by that, I mean people who aren’t paid to do it as a career — still make an incredibly important, and even critical contribution. With observations like Emil’s, you can see why.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Cassini, Saturn

Comments (32)

  1. Any idea of the location of the storm so we can try to figure out transit times?
    I’ve got an 18″ F/4.5 scope and this might be within my grasp to see visually (if seeing permits).

  2. Michel

    Very cool. Maybe a good idea to name those storms?
    This one being “Emil” (And if you´re from The Netherlands and you were a kid in the seventies you might remember the tv series “Emil” about a little boy who always wrecked havock. I can still hear his dad yelling EEEEEEMMMMMIIIIIILLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!! and since storms wreck a lot too, this might be appropiate for starters).

  3. Forget about the storms. I think Saturn stopping its rotation and reversing direction would be bigger news. :-)

  4. Paul Claessen

    I’m a complete ‘newbie” when it comes to sky observations.
    So I have a question: have the colors in that animation been doctored, or can you actually SEE those colors with a 10″ telescope?
    Last week I looked (for the first time in my life) through an 8″ telescope, and watched Saturn. It was very bright and I could clearly see a ring. But no detail, and certainly no color.
    The picture above that appears to have different shades for the red, green en blue versions of the planet seems to indicate that these colors were ‘arrived at’ in some other way than direct observation. True? If so, how is that done?

  5. That storm kind of looks like an eye… An eye that moves back and forth… I wonder if it’s a “Cylon-ic” storm? :)

  6. Gus Snarp

    @Ken B Yeah, and the moons reverse their orbits in concert with Saturn’s rotation! So why is it animated this way? I don’t know what we’re supposed to be seeing other than the storm, but the animation makes it look to me like somebody’s trying to fake something.

  7. AGus: You’re kidding right? The video is scrolling backwards and forwards to show you the storm in the northern hemisphere…

    this is absolutely brilliant non-pro video. I wish I had the resources (and local weather) to join in!

  8. Michel

    What you can see with your eye through a telescope is something completly different from what a camera can see.
    Our eyes (yours included) kinda suck in the dark.
    Hence less to no color and just black and white.
    They were made for something else than stargazing.
    Simple as that.
    That´s also why so many people are so disappointed when they look through a scope hoping to see glorious color etc like on the pic.
    Anyway, keep looking and take your time so your eyes will adjust as much as possible.
    There are many beautiful things to see out there. Even with your naked eye at a dark location.

  9. Chris

    One question that no one, not even Phil, has answered for me is whether I could ever see a galaxy as brightly or as well defined as they appear on websites. For example, I have the Whirlpool Galaxy as my screen saver. Would it ever be possible to have that kind of view if I were standing on a hypothetical planet, say, 200,000 light years away from it, so that it filled the sky? Or would it be very faint its structure and barely discernible?

  10. Wayne on the plains

    My first thought, due to the way it’s animated, was a cylon eye, but I see I’m not the first to mention it.

  11. Kris

    @Paul Claessen:

    Human eyes do not see color unless there is enough light. Through a 10″ scope I can see cloud belts on Saturn as darker/lighter strips, but that’s about it.

    However, the guy who did this image used a camera. Cameras can see colors on dark objects.

    Well, not quite. Truth be told, cameras do not see colors either. They only register black and white image. However, if you take three exposures through red, green and blue filters (this is what you see at the bottom of the image), you can combine them into what will APPEAR to a human as a color image. Your monitor simply displays red, green and blue independently at each pixel, and your eyes perceive that combination as a single color (e.g. yellow). But if you ran the light from your monitor through a prism, you would not see a single yellow line, but 3 lines: red, green and blue, with different intensity. So yes, you are being cheated :-)

    (And by the way: a color camera is simply three cameras with filters — all on one chip).

    Also, you are not limited only to red-green-blue filters when taking image. One can, for example, use infrared, red, and green filters and then use the infrared image as red, red as green and green as blue. The reason we do this is that it allows us to see infrared, which we can’t see normally.

    As for “doctoring” the image: there is of course room for manipulation when preparing the image (color enhancement, contrast enhancement, etc.). But human vision is really weird, and it often happens we do not perceive the information in the image, although it is actually there. So you have to, um, “doctor” the image to make the details visible.

    So, yea, if you went to Saturn, you would probably see things differently. It is quite possible you would be disappointed.

  12. Sili

    And if you´re from The Netherlands

    Emil was Swedish and one of Astrid Lindgren’s creations.

    So. Where’s Cassini? I don’t see that in the pictures. IT’S ALL A CONSPIRACY!eleventy

  13. Michel

    You can see a galaxy filling the whole sky!
    Our own.
    You know it as the Milky Way. Here is a terrific video of the Milky Way rising: (He used a HIII filter so you see more nebolousity).
    Go to a really dark place and be awed.
    But remember, all the pics you see are compositions of many fotos through various filters etc. and sometimes from various telescopes, showing a variety of colors. Phil always explains what color is what in the picture.

  14. Kris

    @Paul Claessen:

    Oh, I forgot. Not everything in the ‘scope is black-and-white — you can see colors on double stars. At this time of the year, aim your ‘scope (or binoculars) at Albireo (Beta Cygni) and enjoy.

  15. !astralProjectile

    Back in the ’70’s, SciAM had an Amateur Scientist project where you use LN2 to chill film. Apparently it enhances it’s color sensitivity, although I don’t know how.

  16. I follow Emil’s work through his posts over at the cloudynights forums. His work is top notch and I would group him with some of the elite amateur astronomy imagers.

    I’ll try to answer some of the questions from above, but I am not the expert on the subject, more of a newbie amateur :).

    “So I have a question: have the colors in that animation been doctored, or can you actually SEE those colors with a 10″ telescope?”
    —I would say the colors have been “enhanced”, but not “doctored”. I am pretty sure that you can see colors with a 10″ telescope (I only have a 6″), but our atmosphere really works against you in observing. Unless you have some really steady skies, the image will get kinda blurred and any colors washed together. On top of that our eyes work against us: If the image is too bright looking through a telescope, colors get washed out, if the image is too dim our eyes have trouble picking out colors to begin with.

    As for how Emil put together that image. He has what is basically a monochrome webcam. To get the colors he uses Red, green and Blue filters. For each filter he captures a movie, and uses a program (Emil has actually written his own program to do his processing), to pick the best images (many are blurred because of the atmosphere), and then aligns and stacks the images. The resulting stacked image is then sharpened to bring out detail, and finally the red, green and blue images are then combined to get the final color image. How the final colors look is kinda subjective and is up to the person who images.

    If you want to see something more in depth about capture and processing of planetary images check out this webpage:

    “One question that no one, not even Phil, has answered for me is whether I could ever see a galaxy as brightly or as well defined as they appear on websites.”

    —Right now….unfortunately no with a typical amateur telescope. Even large “bright” galaxies like Andromeda, are kinda faint with smaller telescopes. Many backyard observers actually have to “learn” how to observe (because our eyes don’t like dim things and they usually have to use averted vision (kinda like looking at things out of the corner of the eye).

  17. Oh…by the way, I captured the storm a couple of months ago with my lowly 6″

  18. Chis: Allow me!

    The Whirlpool Galaxy is listed as magnitude 8.4. That scale is inverted and logarithmic, with base 2.512, so the Whirlpool’s linear brightness is 2.512^(-8.4). I see it’s 24 million light years away, and since light falls off with the inverse square of the distance, the linear brightness would be boosted (24000000)^2/(200000)^2 times. Converting that back to magnitude scales, we get -1.9, or a smidge brighter than Sirius.

    Big problem: that number is for the total amount of light given off by the Whirlpool. As it got bigger in the sky, it would fill a great area of your vision and all that light would be spread out. If that galaxy were uniformly bright like a dinner plate, the increased brightness would exactly match its increased size, and no part of it would be brighter than magnitude 8.4, which isn’t visible to the eye. If all its light came from the black holes, the increased size would be negligible and it really would be brighter than Sirius. The truth lies somewhere between those extremes, and depends greatly on what parts of the Whirlpool are spitting out light and how much.

    I’m guessing it’d be similar to the Milky Way. From a city, you *might* see a small blob at the centers of each galaxy. From the countryside, in perfect conditions, you’d probably see a fairly bright core with arms branching off, but they wouldn’t extend as long as the photos show and the stuff between the arms wouldn’t be visible.

  19. almo

    Funny, I happened to be listening to “Around the world” by Daft Puck when I saw the video and the combination made me smile.

  20. jcm

    This storm puts to shame the storms we have here on earth.

  21. Paul Claessen

    Thanks Michel and Kris!
    Much appreciated!

  22. @ Michel:

    Donning official picker of nits hat…

    They were made for something else than stargazing.

    Uh, sort of. They weren’t made for anything. They didn’t evolve the capacity to see colors in low light situations because that didn’t present any evolutionary advantage.

    In fact, Moonwatcher* to the contrary, I suspect lengthy bouts of stargazing might have considerably shortened a hominid’s lifespan, back in the day.

    Taking off hat.

    *A. C. Clarke fans will know.

  23. Jeff Fite


    Yeah, but Moonwatcher would just bash any nits with a thighbone.

    Speaking of nit-bashing…you’re technically correct in pointing out that eyes–or any other natural thing–weren’t ‘made,’ but evolved. But I think it’s okay for a writer/speaker to use casual language for casual conversation. Heck, I’m a strong agnostic and I say “oh, my God!” all the time. It’s just an expression–unless I’m talking to someone devout and the topic is religious.

    BTW, I loooooove your forum handle. Cracks me up every time.

  24. @ Jeff Fite:


  25. Jeff Fite

    Sorry!…sorry! LOL

  26. Michel

    “They weren’t made for anything.”

    So I should stop using them?
    Damn, just when the beaches are getting more crouded here, he comes with something like that.
    Forget it pal.

  27. Ah, that’s more like it.

  28. fernando

    I see the white spot! It’s the face of Jesus

  29. Joseph G

    @Jeff: Apparently I’m slow. I know that kuhnigget’s name isn’t just a random assortment of characters, but for all my trying, I still don’t “get” it. I give up, what’s the deal? :)

  30. Jeff fite

    @JG: go see Monty Python and the Holy Grail (or Spamalot) and pay attention to the taunting franchman. If either of these are new to you, and you like British humor, it’ll be worth it!


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