The stark beauty of Cassini's Saturn

By Phil Plait | June 2, 2011 11:30 am

Speaking of Cassini…

The spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn for nearly 7 years now, and has returned many thousands of images of the rings, moons, and planet back to Earth. Many times, the images are part of a series — tracking the large moon Titan, for example, or following one of the outer, faint rings — and while looking at them, videographer Chris Abbas got an idea. What if he strung them together into a video…?

[You definitely want to make sure HD is on, and make this full screen!]

Wow. I was pretty surprised something like this would have as much drama as it does! I was also surprised at how fitting it was that Abbas used the raw, unprocessed data. In many of the sequences you can see black donuts caused by dust in the camera system (the donut shape is due to the way light refracts (bends) around small particles near the detector), cosmic ray hits on the detector, and other things that astronomers call "defects" because they get between us and the science we’re trying to do.

But art doesn’t always perfectly intersect science. In this case, those defects add to the overall sense of the video itself. I’m impressed. The music was a good choice, too. All together it makes for a dramatic, eerie, beautiful, unbalancing ride through the solar system’s sixth planet.

Related posts:

Video of Cassini’s Hyperion flyby
Putting the spin on Saturn’s hex
Cassini takes home video of Saturn’s aurora
The rings of Earth

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Cool stuff, Pretty pictures
MORE ABOUT: Cassini, Chris Abbas, Saturn

Comments (51)

  1. K.S. Kirby

    That is fantastic. It’s like a David Fincher version of 2001.

  2. Carey

    That. was. awesome.

  3. Paul Hardy

    Not merely awesome… a fine interpretation of the data that makes you forget, for a moment, everything but the sheer beauty of what you’re seeing.

    And I loved the way the soundtrack added vinyl crackle and hiss when the visual noise in the source images became more prevalent. Wonderful way to submerse you even more in the experience.

  4. Branko

    That was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen.

  5. While it is a wildly popular “favorite planet” I must say that Saturn is just so spectacular that it’s hard not to pick it as a favorite. This video just reaffirmed Saturns position as the coolest of them all.

  6. artbot

    That….was stunning. I am stunned.

  7. Pete Jackson

    Unbelievable! You know what this reminded me of – the travels of Dave Bowman through the stargate in 2001, A Space Odyssey! A series of disconnected sequences showing the Universe as a living entity.

  8. Yup, if you’re browsing through the comments trying to figure out from us if it’s worth the two minutes to watch the video.

    It is worth it.

    Those are real pictures of Saturn, its rings, and moons. Amazing.

  9. Rachel

    Ah, when some of those clips showed up in Wonders of the Solar System I thought all those glitches and artifacts were an affectation by the programme makers. Clearly I should have more faith.

    Where did all that dust come from though? Don’t they go through amazing lengths to make these things in dust-free environments? Or is that dust picked up during the mission? It’s been to some scratchy places…

  10. Rachel

    Actually the ‘dust on the lens’ effect on some of the CGI effects shots in Wonders of the Universe were more annoying, precisely because they *were* fake, and unnecessarily so, and in some cases actually obscured what we were trying to see.

  11. Jen L

    Beautiful. The music was fabulous. Thanks, as always, for sharing such awesome stuff!!

  12. Tim T.


    That was exactly my first thought too. Very cool.

  13. Stan9fromouterspace

    That’s what I’m talkin’ about.

  14. Suz

    That’s dizzying ride. I loved the music and the disjointed feeling.

    With all of Saturn’s strange beauty, my favorite heavenly body is still Io.

  15. Now imagine seeing this right after watching 2001: A Spacy Odyssey… yowsa

  16. Hot Video. I love it! I especially love the stars at the end. Left me in awe.

  17. Is it supposed to have more edits than an MTV commercial? It seemed that every time I was going to see something good, 10 quick edits would happen and I’d be looking at something else. Then, 3 seconds later the same thing would happen.

    And it totally didn’t match the music at all. Would have been better served with the opening theme from Buffy the Vampire Slayer or something.

    If that is the way it’s supposed to be, I have to say I’m unimpressed. :(

  18. Shaemus McGee

    It should have been a snuff film.

  19. Chief

    Could have sworn I saw Moon Base Alpha on one of the retreating moons.

    Cue the theme music…..

  20. Justin

    Pretty sure most of those optical defects were added by the editor in post to give it a more dirty, film-like appearance. Smells like Adobe After Effects to me.

  21. Alan D

    Some lovely stuff, but the word “hodgepodge” came to mind.

  22. Helmholtz

    Wonderfully surreal.

  23. Dutch Railroader


    Nope, the defects are there because the artist decided to use the raw images off the Cassini site. All the defects, artifacts, cosmic ray hits, zebra striping are familiar to anyone who’s looked through the Cassini archive…

  24. amstrad

    Nine Inch Nails works well with astronomy.

  25. Justin

    @25 Dutch Railroader

    Count me among the converted. I was clearly wrong. What threw me was the shot starting at 1:30. It’s over Saturn looking down (from our vantage point) at the rings and the donuts are moving independently of the CCD imager, both toward the lower right and toward upper left.

    Did the editor superimpose two sequences of unrelated frames over one another? If someone finds the frames on the Cassini site, please provide a link.

    Edit: The editor definitely used an After Effects type program to create certain shots. You can see how he created a mask around Saturn from frames 2338-2416 (or 1:37-1:40) and did a false rotation of the planet (or in this case, the spacecraft).

  26. Dutch Railroader

    @27 Justin

    I think the donuts (which are due to dust in the optics) are moving because the artist is doing his own tracking within the images. He is not showing you a domain constant in detector space for all the sequences. The sequences with the small moons against Saturn often stay centered on the moons, while I would presume that the source images are for atmospheric monitoring of Saturn, and are thus more likely to keep the pointing constant on Saturn. And, as you noted, he certainly made up the rolls seen in various sequences. On the other hand, on some of the sky exposures I can see a constant pattern of hot CCD pixels, so in that case the domain is fixed WRT the CCD.

    You can get the raw images at

  27. Mejilan

    A pretty amazing short film. It was actually quite creepy/disturbing at times, and only partially due to the music.

  28. WJM

    Sweet. Gentle. Fudge.

  29. Jody


    I guess the dust isn’t on the CCD itself, it is on the optics. So changing light angles will change the position of the “donuts” and other optical defects. Some others are caused by electrical interference produced by things like cosmic rays, so they will appear in the CCD and won’t move.

  30. Messier Tidy Upper

    Loved it . Thankyou. :-)

  31. Joy Edwards

    Breathtakingly beautiful. Thank you.

  32. Brian Short

    That was fantastic! Perfect choice of music too.

  33. Joseph J Marcus

    I watched this while listening to Pretty Lights “Pink Floyd Time Remix”. The video started about 1:30 into the song. It was pretty awesome.

  34. Modern Dog

    Long-time reader, first-time commenting. Just had to say how awesomely beautiful this is. Have watched it now 3 or 4 times, and the planet rising at about the 20-second mark gets me every single time.

    Thank you so much for posting this.

  35. icewings

    Seriously, some of you people are complaining about the image quality and/or quick edits of a compilation of data sent from a 14-year-old spacecraft that has traveled over 2 billion miles and uses a 20-watt transmitter?

    What does it take to impress you?

    And a question that I’m sure is ignorant but here I go anyway: At 1:24 why do the two moons appear to be orbiting in opposite directions?

  36. Sir Craig

    Combining raw images (which I’m pretty sure wasn’t intended to be used in a video), editing for dramatic effect, and locating just the right soundtrack, and people want to argue whether or not the footage has been ‘shopped or AE’d. Seriously?

    This was a great video. Period.

  37. Dutch Railroader


    The moons appear to be orbiting in opposite directions for the same reason that a car that you’re passing on the highway appears to be going backwards compared to both your position and the *distant* background. You are only seeing relative motion from a spacecraft that is itself in orbit, and moons at different distances.

  38. That made me feel like I was watching the video from The Ring…

  39. Yeebok Shu'in

    I saw a collection of 1-2 second bits of film, most of it pretty much uninterpretable to anyone who didn’t know what it was from. Shame, I really wanted to like it but it was more disjointed than subliminal advertising. It’s as if with a wealth of images and sequences to choose from, the stuff on the bottom of the pile was used :(

  40. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Yeebok Shu’in : I disagree.

    Okay, I’ll grant you that it was a bit disjointed and it certainly helped to have some idea of what you were seeing. Also it did sometimes move a little too quickly perhaps, jumping from one shot to another. But, “bottom of the pile” it wasn’t.

    When you know what you’re looking at – & even I’d think when you don’t* – that was beautiful and thought provoking and evocative. At least I and many others thought so. Art is always subjective and a matter of personal taste I guess.


    * Plus how can you NOT know “where it is from” when looking at Saturn’s and it’s rings? Okay, an astronomer who realises that they’re seeing actual images captured by a car-size space probe that has taken years to reach Saturnian orbit and that knows more of what they’re looking at may appreciate this more than somebody who is a non-astronomer might not recognise Titan in the murky RADAR map or know the name of the battered moonlet that recedes into the Black or the moons that dance along the ringline in orbital symetry but Saturn surely has to be the most iconic of all planets in our solar system!

  41. Messier Tidy Upper

    @16. Sebastian : “Now imagine seeing this right after watching 2001: A Spacy Odyssey… yowsa”

    Especially when you remember that in Clarke’s ‘Space Odyssey : 2001’ novel, the Stargate Monolith was originally located out in the Saturnian rather than Jovian planetary system. On Japetus (more commonly known as Iapetus) to be precise. Stanley Kubrick’s movie shifted the second Monolith to orbiting Jupiter and Arthur C. Clarke then followed suit for the novel sequels.

  42. Merkuri

    @42 That’s actually the same thought I had. It’s a marvelous video, but undeniably creepy.

  43. Joseph G

    Just…… makes me wish I had the brains, determination and education that it’d take to get to work on a mission like this.

    Oh, and all the people who didn’t want Cassini to launch because ‘OMG its got radyashuns!!1’ (RTGs) can suck it. Hard.

  44. panini

    Lole love LOVE the analog quality. Very unique and inventive, yet so simple.
    It’s like a space crew from the early 60s went to Saturn and shot this video.

  45. Very cool indeed. Beautiful and strange.


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