Watch out, Titan! Vader's onto you!

By Phil Plait | August 8, 2011 7:00 am

When digital imagery in astronomy came along about 25 years ago, I knew right away it would change everything, but one thing I didn’t expect was the advent of citizen science. Spacecraft and observatories store their images on hard drives, and anyone with access and the knowledge of how to process that data — no simple task, I assure you! — can use it to do their own work.

It also means smart, talented people can take that data and put it together to make stunning pictures of space that otherwise may never see the light of day. Gordan Ugarkovic is one of these people. He’s a Croatian software developer, but in his spare time takes data from spacecraft and makes simply devastating portraits from them. Like this one of Saturn’s moons Tethys and Titan as seen by Cassini:

[Click to enchronosenate.]

Didn’t I see this in Star Wars? And here I thought Mimas was the Death Star moon*.

Anyway, the detail is stunning in his original high-res version. You can see craters on Tethys, and the thick atmosphere enshrouding Titan (including the north polar haze cap). The image is very close to natural color, so this is approximately what you would see if you were there (shortly before freezing and asphyxiating, but what a way to go).

Gordan has done many, many such images, including this moody shot of Titan and Rhea, and this simply incredible wide-angle shot of Titan and background stars shown inset here (click it to embiggen, and trust me, it’s awesome).

Wanna give this a try? Raw Cassini images are stored online, but it’s not as simple as you might think. Still, you might have fun, and Emily Lakdawalla from The Planetary Society Blog (who does this herself as well) pointed out to me that this Web interface has raw data from Cassini, Galileo, and Voyager, and more missions other missions are online too.

In general, there are so many images from these spacecraft that the scientists on the teams themselves don’t have time to look them all over. It’s entirely possible you’ll find something new and interesting. If you do, make sure you check out the Unmanned Spaceflight forum, which has loads of space enthusiasts who spend a lot of time working on this stuff. I go there fairly often to see what’s new, and you should too.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute/Gordan Ugarkovic (used with his permission)


* The first person to leave a comment saying "That’s no moon" will get a light saber up their Tauntaun.


Related posts:

- Jaw-dropping mosaic of Mercury’s battered, beautiful face
- Iapetus writ large
- Peek-a-moon
- Megameter chasm on an icy moon

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (45)

  1. Jason

    That’s no small celestial body that orbits a larger celestial body that orbits a star…

  2. mechbill2112

    That’s no moon. There.

  3. zzz

    May I point you to a small typo in your article? His name is Gordan, not Gordon.

  4. Oooo! Cruelty to tauntauns! PETA’s gonna be on your case!

  5. Dennis

    That entire photostream is stunning!
    I wish I had time to go through all 563 images.

  6. I can’t believe I misspelled his name when I posted this! I fixed it.

  7. ajollynerd

    “That’s no moon. That’s a spa- wait. Let me get a closer look. Oh, it is a moon. Never mind.” – Obi Wan on seeing Titan

  8. G Wilkins

    You haz a lightsaber?
    Anyway – yes, amazing photos!!

  9. Patrick L

    Phil, do you know what’s causing that reflected light coming from the right side of Mimas? Could it be Saturn?

  10. Mark

    Mimas, Tethys, and the Death Star all go to a party together wearing the same exact outfit…

    Awwwkward…

  11. Important trivia question: What’s the internal body temperature of a Tauntaun?

    A: Lukewarm.

    Beautiful pictures. I like my space images with as little manipulation as possible (not a big fan of those “family snapshots” that cut and paste moons around planets into impossible configurations with wildly different lighting) so these have an authenticity and integrity I appreciate. There’s a lot of skill and at least a little artistry involved in doing it right.

  12. Oh NASA, don’t be too proud of this technological marvel you’ve created in Cassini. The ability to photograph a planet is insignificant next to the potential of Star Wars to destroy it.

  13. Vera

    “one thing I didn’t expect was the advent of citizen science”

    Astronomy was huge during the Renaissance, and there were thousands of people who learned astronomic methodology and made their own observations and sketches. I would say that 25 years ago was the *rebirth* of “citizen science” (the return of a good thing!).

  14. Pete Jackson

    “After Alderaan, this one’s going to be a piece of cake!”

  15. Eugene

    Out of curiosity, I looked up info on Tethys, this second Death Star pretender, and found this: “The impact scar spans more than two-fifths of the satellite with a diameter slightly larger than Saturn’s moon Mimas.”

    Good god. It doesn’t just out-do Mimas, it *swallows* it!

  16. mike burkhart

    ”Since you are reluctant to give us the location of the rebel base we will test this stations destucive power on Titan”You may fire when reddy.

  17. QuietDesperation

    I thought Star Wars was out of fashion since the prequels?

    Wanna give this a try? Raw Cassini images are stored online, but it’s not as simple as you might think.

    Well, it’s not that hard if you know your way around Photoshop.

  18. DrFlimmer

    @ #17 QuietDesperation

    Does Photoshop correct for cosmics and pixel errors? Then it might have a chance. ;)

  19. Phil wrote:

    “The image is very close to natural color, so this is approximately what you would see if you were there (shortly before freezing and asphyxiating, but what a way to go). ”

    Balderdash! You think I’d visit the moons of Saturn without hitching a ride on Discovery? (HAL optional)

  20. Thomas Siefert

    I thought Star Wars was out of fashion since the prequels?

    What prequels?

    These are not the prequels you are looking for.

  21. Rift

    Star Wars out of fashion? gasp

    You haven’t been down the lego isle have you? Or the action figure isle, or the…

    And I really don’t remember the prequels, I think I blocked them from my memory.

    Of course I’m an old fart and saw the original in ’77 in the theater. No “Episode IV” and I’m not sure but I don’t recall a “New Hope” before the scrawl. And Grand Moth Tarken was the real bad guy, made Vader look like a wimp. Hence the line “I knew some one must be holding Vader’s leash”

    Lukas may claim he had it all planned out from the beginning, but it must have been on the back of an envelope.

  22. Bill

    “* The first person to leave a comment saying “That’s no moon” will get a light saber up their Tauntaun.”

    Help! Help! I’m bein’ repressed!

  23. @ Quiet Desperation:

    I thought Star Wars was out of fashion since the prequels?

    The what, now? Prequels? Were there some kind of movies made after Return of the Jedi? (Well, after 2/3′s of Return of the Jedi…)

  24. Gary Ansorge

    I just wonder if Titan has one of these,,,

    http://www.technologyreview.com/blog/arxiv/27058/?nlid=nldly&nld=2011-08-08

    ,,,and anti-proton radiation belt, to deflect Dark Stars weapon,,,

    Gary

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    Whoah! Awesome photo. Great work by Gordan Ugarkovic – thanks. :-)

    Hmm.. It’s probably just an effect of perspective but Titan makes the planet Alderaan look tiny by comparison! Which is apt when you think about it. ;-)

    @16. Eugene Says:

    Out of curiosity, I looked up info on Tethys, this second Death Star pretender, and found this: “The impact scar spans more than two-fifths of the satellite with a diameter slightly larger than Saturn’s moon Mimas.”
    Good god. It doesn’t just out-do Mimas, it *swallows* it!

    I didn’t know that neat fact before. Thanks. :-)

    @12. Brian Fies :

    Important trivia question: What’s the internal body temperature of a Tauntaun? A: Lukewarm.

    I LOL’d! Classic. :-)

    As for the prequels folks have mentioned, I will admit at least the last one was kind of good. The other two had their moments. No way in Mustafar they were near the original trilogy of course but still.

    * The first person to leave a comment saying “That’s no moon” will get a light saber up their Tauntaun.

    But ..but .. I don’t have a tauntaun! ;-)

    So that one is officially too old now? Sigh. I liked that tradition. Oh well. :-(

    Can we still use “My God! Its full of stars!” when appropriate? ;-)

  26. QuietDesperation

    The what, now? Prequels?

    Y’all need to face your fears.

  27. Jim Starluck

    That’s no space station. It’s a moon!

  28. Well now that is spiffy. *ME GUSTO FACE*

  29. Robin

    Looking at photos from Cassini never gets old, unlike watching Star Wars movies (save for the Empire Strikes Back). Luke Skywalker would have been Kirk’s beyatch, no matter which Kirk you chose (Heck, Kirk Cameron might have even bested that whiney Luke.).

  30. @ QD:

    I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain. I, and the 2.66 REAL Star Wars movies. :P

    @ Robin:

    Splutter! Sput! Kaff! Master Luke could whup Kirk six sides to Tuesday. And he’s way cuter, too! Well, at least he was. I’ll grant you the whiney bit, though.

  31. CB

    @ 31, 32:
    Nobody likes characters with an arc anymore. Nope, they have to start as Cap’n McBadass, and end that way. :P

    @ 29: Ha!

  32. Nigel Depledge

    @ Kuhnigget (32) -

    2.66 real SW movies?

    I guess RotJ was the 0.66, but why? It had everything – 3PO being ineffectual and fussy, R2 being the little stalwart (serving drinks!), Leia throttling Jabba (and, if you read the book, using the Force for the first time), Luke becoming more powerful than you can possibly imagine (or was that someone else?), lasers, gunfights, witty remarks from Han (or “hun” as they all seem to call him – short for “honey”, I guess), and teddy bears taking on Imperial troops. Oh, plus the evil empire showing how lax their security procedures are (it’s an old code, sir, but it checks out. I was going to let them through”). And Vader turning all blue and glowy at the end, just like Ben and Yoda.

  33. Nigel, you (and the film) lost me at the Teddy Bears. The beginning of the end of the Great God Lucas can be traced to the moment he penned the Ewok sequence…over Lawrence Kasdan’s protestations, I sincerely hope.

    Even Mark Hamill all dressed in yummy black couldn’t make up for that.

    //geek prime

  34. Nigel Depledge

    @ Kuhnigget (35) -
    What, not even when they smashed the “head” of an AT-ST with two tree-trunks???!!

    What’s not to like?

    Oh, wait. Yeah …. unrelenting comic relief with little substance or style behind it…. yup, OK, got it.

    Maybe the Ewoks were the precursor to JJB in TPM.

  35. Pepijn

    So this data is in the public domain, coming from NASA, isn’t it? I wonder if Gordan Ugarkovic is allowed to slap his copyright on it and redistribute it with all rights reserved? I would not have thought so, at least not without creating a derivative work. I would not have though processing the image data and cropping the image counts as creating a derivative work, it’s still basically redistributing the image as provided by NASA. Any legal experts here care to comment?

  36. Pepijn

    @flip: it doesn’t really. It appears to be mainly about the website, not the raw source material, and it’s very vague anyway, using “may” twice, and linking to two further documents. One of those does give permission for images from JPL websites to be used in any way you like, but the point is that this image didn’t come from a JPL website.

    It’s not important, I was just curious.

  37. Gordan

    @Pepijn: To answer your question, the real reason the copyright notice is what it is is simply because I didn’t *know* what to put. I don’t understand the legal language behind all those different licenses offered by Flickr, especially because English is not my first language so I just kind of picked one that looked vaguely OK to me. I didn’t think of it as a big issue since nobody complained so far.

    In essence, the proper license I’d like to have picked from that forrest of suggested licenses is one where my work is freely redistributable provided I get credited (for Cassini images since they comprise the vast majority of the gallery, instead of adding the credit to every single image I put it into my profile page). A link back to the gallery would also be nice, but not mandatory. What I *don’t* want is this work being used to make money by someone without my explicit agreement. I don’t do this to make money, this is an effort of love and the more people get to see these images, the better IMHO.

    “I would not have though processing the image data and cropping the image counts as creating a derivative work, it’s still basically redistributing the image as provided by NASA.”

    No offense, but have you actually done work with any raw PDS data, developed your own software for calibrating the images and put the effort to composite, clean up and color-balance the images? If it is as simple as “redistributing the image as provided by NASA”, why isn’t Cassini imaging team releasing more color images than the sporadic few they do?

  38. Pepijn

    @Gordan: I didn’t mean to criticise you, I was just curious. I can imagine it must be a lot of work to process the images (and I thank you for it!), but it could be that it makes no difference to copyright law, since you’re “merely” converting it from one format to another. Unfortunately copyright law does not care how much work you put into it…

    May I suggest the Creative Commons BY-NC-SA license? That allows people to redistribute your work without having to ask you for permission, as long as they credit you (BY), it is not for commercial use (NC) and they redistribute it under the same license (SA – “Share Alike”).

    That license allows people to create derivative works based on yours (under the conditions mentioned). If you don’t want that you could go for the BY-NC-ND license, which only allows redistribution of unmodified copies.

  39. Gordan

    @Pepijn,

    Thanks for the suggestions, I’ll have a look at those. I really have to sort this out in the near future, been putting this off long enough.

  40. Matt B.

    Why does Titan have a northern “polar cap” of haze? And why only in the north? It’s in both the pictures given in this post, so it must be fairly constant.

  41. Roger

    I think of Mimas not as the “Death Star” moon but as the location of the Starfleet Emergency Evacuation Station that Wesley Crusher and Nova Squadron had to beam out to in the episode “The First Duty.” (ST:TNG Season 5, Episode 19)

    That, or the moon where Dave Lister woke up from his pub crawl in “Red Dwarf.” :-)

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