A panoply of moons and rings

By Phil Plait | October 24, 2011 4:43 pm

Take four moons, some rings, a schoolbus-sized spacecraft, and mix them together. What do you get?


That stunning shot is from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. The big moon is Titan, and by big, I mean bigger than the planet Mercury. Big enough to have a thick nitrogen atmosphere, clearly visible in this picture. The bright moon superposed right on top of Titan is Dione, its icy surface shiny and white.

On the right, just outside the rings, is tiny, flying saucer-shaped Pandora. And the fourth moon? That’s Pan, the tiny white spot in the gap in the rings on the left, barely visible in this shot. But that’s understandable, since Pan is less than 30 km (18 miles) across, and this was taken from a distance of nearly 2 million kilometers (1.2 million miles) away!

I love pictures like this; they remind me that even after 7 years of Cassini touring around Saturn, there’s still much to see and much beauty to behold there.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Related posts:

A trillion and five moons
Cassini’s pentaverate
The bringer of fire, hiding in the rings
Cassini’s slant on the rings

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Pretty pictures

Comments (29)

Links to this Post

  1. Cuatro lunas de Saturno : vooLive.net | October 25, 2011
  2. Moons and rings… | Blog, by Shannon | October 25, 2011
  1. I was surprised to see Titan looking so dark, so I went to the link and found exactly what I expected to be the explanation:

    The image was taken in visible blue light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Sept. 17, 2011.

    Given it’s strongly yellowish hue, Titan looks particularly dark in blue light.

  2. Chovat

    This makes my eyes happy! Thanks, Phil.

  3. Daffy

    The remarkable thing to me is how many human beings have gone before who never got see—or even imagine—these beautiful scenes. Makes me wonder what amazing things the next generations will see that we never dreamed of.

  4. Beautiful pics and a Clash reference. That’s a nice afternoon indeed.

  5. WJM

    As they say in American: HOLY HALEAKELA!

  6. Jerry

    “That’s no moon.”

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  7. Really gives a good sense of the size of Titan: Everything we see is closer to the camera than Titan is. Frackin’ awesome!

  8. CoffeeCupContrails

    Awesome. Simply awesome!!!

    I have a burning question. What do astronomers (planetary scientists?) actually learn from new photographs like these? I’m sure scientists do learn a lot, but all I see here is a pretty (awesome) picture. Do multiple images like these add incrementally to our knowledge of… something?

    To elaborate, don’t we have thousands of images of each of these objects in the image above? In different regions of the spectra?

    My view (please correct me): The only thing I can think of is that Cassini snaps these shots at very opportune moments on its way to some serious study elsewhere in that system. Which begets the question – are these scenarios modeled before the camera gets the command to snap?

    (Before the mob beats me up…) Let me repeat that these pictures are beautiful.

  9. Sam H

    My God…look at the way Titan just looms out of the blackness. Instead of a bright object against a black background it’s like it’s coming out of the background, making us realize the haunting depth of the void… ūüėģ

  10. Eugene

    I like how Titan looks so large in that image, it almost makes you think it’s stealing Saturn’s rings

  11. Denis Loubet

    I remember when the first images started coming in from cassini. Seeing moons superimposed in front of the obvious megastructures of the rings was jaw-dropping. And as an artist I really enjoyed the play of light that bounced off the rings and onto the night-side of the planet. A complex play of soft lighting.

  12. Mephane

    Forget about Titan. Look at the surface details visible on Dione!

  13. Fascinating. How small the rings particles are. They look flat and featureless, wonder how close one must get to resolve individual components. We should build rings around Earth too. Would be gorgeous.

  14. Nigel Depledge

    Stunning pic!

    Oddly, I get absolutely no impression of the relative distance Dione is from the camera or from more-distant Titan. Well, it feels odd, but I guess it isn’t really, because there are no distance cues.

  15. Nigel Depledge

    @ Sam H (9) –
    Nicely put.

  16. Nigel Depledge

    @ Jerry (6) –
    Aw, you beat me to it!

  17. JurijD

    Seat thyself sultanically among the moons of Saturn, and take high abstracted man alone; and he seems a wonder, a grandeur, and a woe. But from the same point, take mankind in mass, and for the most part, they seem a mob of unnecessary duplicates, both contemporary and hereditary.
    – Melville, Moby Dick

    Melville was wrong. It took thousands of people from all walks of life from two different continents to get the Cassini-Huygens mission where it is today. The robotic astronaut that they seated among the moons of Saturn is a testament that they were not unnecessary neither individually or as a whole.

  18. Stunning shot – not even a graphic designer or photographer could match its magnificence.

  19. Dragonchild

    @8. CoffeeCupContrails –
    Scientists don’t learn much, if anything, from shots like these. However, interplanetary missions are funded by the public these days, most of whom have little interest in helping out with the mundane number crunching, so pretty pictures is a form of giving back to the community. It’s also a necessary part of the process; without stuff like this to ogle over, public interest in funding these missions would decline. (It’s an uphill battle as it is.)

    As for modeling them in advance, I’m not part of NASA but I’m sure they are. If anything, that’s a certainty and the real question should be how far in advance. The Mars rovers were physically roaming a surface (given Mars HAS a surface) at low speed for a LONG time so they had plenty of chances to view the scenery. New Horizons will be a single high-speed flyby so every second is precious; the beauty shots are being planned months in advance to avoid wasting fuel or compromising primary mission objectives. Cassini lies in the middle, I’d say. Despite the longevity of the mission, Cassini is still ranging over a very huge area with limited amount of fuel. Any beauty shots would have to be determined to be reasonably within its orbital path.

  20. Take four moons, some rings, a schoolbus-sized spacecraft, and mix them together. What do you get?

    An awful lot of crushed ice and rock with traces of shattered spaceprobe? ūüėČ

    Great pictures – Cassini never fails! :-)

    @16. JurijD : Interesting quote & reflections upon it – thanks. :-)

    PS. Thanks to everyone else (except the trolls) esp. the regulars (you know who you are) who comment on this blog too. Y’all provide some great food for thought and amusement – thanks. Hope I do likewise for y’all too.

  21. JohKir

    I love this example of the different planes the rings and the larger moons have as they orbit Saturn. I still don’t know why they aren’t moving in the same plane. But with so many moons, I’m sure some are captured, some are effected by their own neighbors or even (extra solar?) passers-by, and I suspect Saturn’s own shifts in its magnetosphere, if possible.

  22. Chris Winter

    JurijD: Nice quote from Moby Dick. I’ll have to read it again.

    Up from Earth’s Centre through the Seventh Gate
    I rose, and on the Throne of Saturn sate;
    And many a Knot unravel’d by the Road;
    But not the Master-knot of Human Fate.

    – The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Verse XXXI

    There’s also a novel by Allen Drury, The Throne of Saturn, that deals with the U.S. space program.

    And to think the Cassini mission almost got cancelled…

  23. 21. Dragonchild Says:
    October 25th, 2011 at 6:33 am

    Cassini is still ranging over a very huge area with limited amount of fuel. Any beauty shots would have to be determined to be reasonably within its orbital path.
    It’s also orbiting Saturn, arguably the most picturesque object in our solar system. I’d wager that it’s pretty hard to snap a picture from anywhere along Cassini’s orbit and not end up with a pretty amazing image.

  24. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ The Math Skeptic : Provided the camera is pointing at Saturn &/or its moons and rings that is! If the camera is pointing out into the Black beyond, then not-so-much! ūüėČ [/Pedant.]

  25. Messier Tidy Upper

    @ ^ Henrik : Great image. Cheers. :-)


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