Saturn, raw

By Phil Plait | June 17, 2012 9:12 am

There are times when I see an astronomical image so powerful that I’m momentarily stunned, my brain kicked hard enough that all I can do is stare at it and soak it in.

This picture of Saturn is the latest to affect me this way:

[Click to embiggen.]

This astonishing image was taken on June 13, 2012 by the Cassini spacecraft when it was 2.6 million kilometers (1.6 million miles) from the ringed planet — that’s more than six times farther than the Moon is from the Earth. Even then Saturn’s rings span too broad a space to see completely. But artistically, perhaps, it works even better; their vast size is intimated instead of spoken aloud, the thousands of thinner component rings only hinted at. You can see their shadow on the tops of Saturn’s southern clouds thousands of kilometers below, the Sun shining down from the north — to the left as seen in this oddly-angled shot. The clouds themselves are almost featureless, but you can still see some boundaries between oppositely-blowing wind belts, and even the long, snaking remnants of a titanic storm that raged in the north last year. It’s incredible.

Moreover, this image has not been processed in any way: it’s raw, taken right off Cassini’s detectors and sent home to Earth (I shrank it a bit to fit the blog, but otherwise didn’t touch it). The sky behind the planet isn’t entirely dark, there are a handful of hot pixels you can see on the planet, and there are other defects here and there that catch the eye. But even that takes nothing away from the power of this image to me, and in many senses actually adds to it.

Cassini is out there. It’s well over a billion kilometers away from Earth and the Sun’s warmth, moving through space, enthralled by the deep and long-reaching gravity of this huge planet. Quietly, obediently, and with hardly any glitches or complaints, it takes picture after picture, reads and records the environment around it, saves the data, and then sends it via radio waves back to Earth, no more than a blue dot in its sprawling sky.

This is what I see, this is how my mind reacts once my brain has a moment to compose itself. It’s a fantastic tableau, a static shot of a magnificent planet such a long, long way away. And always, when I see these, I also think: we did this. We flung this complex machine into the distant solar system to study Saturn, and we did it because we want to find things out.

It is among the best things we do.

Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Thanks to Michael Interbartolo for posting about this latest batch of raw images in his Google+ stream.

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MORE ABOUT: Cassini, Saturn

Comments (22)

  1. Sagar
  2. Pete Jackson

    The sharpness of the shadows of the rings attest to the enormous distance from the sun. At Saturn’s distance, the angular size of the sun in the sky is only 3 arcminutes. On Earth, the sun’s angular size is more like 30 arcminutes, or half a degree, which makes shadows more fuzzy.

  3. John

    I love how knowledge enhances the view.

    To so many humans, lost in their little lives, this picture would warrant little more than a passing glance. But when the scientific mind puts the story in context, it’s majesty and astonishing situation unveils a universe of amazing possibilities.

    Understanding a rainbow makes it more beautiful, not less. Every sunset becomes more amazing than the colors for the story it tells. Science improves every view with the added light of knowledge.

    Thanks, Phil, for making every picture better.

  4. Zathras

    Zathras used to being beast of burden with sad life, but see picture like this once in awhile….

    A moment of perfect beauty.

  5. ceramicfundamentalist

    the more i see, read and think about the cassini mission the more i become convinced that it is possibly the most astonishing, profound, beautiful thing humankind has ever done.

  6. John Paradox

    I found the NASA APOD for 6/17 even more interesting…..
    especially since I can reproduce it in ASCII(in negative, anyhow):

    –( )–

    Makes a fascinating desktop.


  7. Thopter

    It must be good if Zathras starts talking like a Vorlon. :)

  8. Trebuchet

    Raw and Well Done at the same time!


  9. CoryT

    Is it as it is? It is. It is as it is.

  10. Dragonchild


    (Yes I know, different observatory. . . shut up and laugh at my brilliant joke)

  11. Lukas

    He’s gonna post something on the Chinese space mission.. any minute now…

  12. Steve

    I’m glad I’m not the only person who just… gapes at images like this. Anything that comes from Cassini, the rovers on Mars, any news of Voyager… I don’t think the reality hits them as hard as it hits people like us.

    It’s mind boggling. And I feel sorry for those who just don’t wonder or marvel at truly amazing things like this.

  13. Nigel Depledge

    Ceramicfundamentalist (5) said:

    the more i see, read and think about the cassini mission the more i become convinced that it is possibly the most astonishing, profound, beautiful thing humankind has ever done.

    I think Voyager 2 is a stronger contender.


  14. Cassini recently snapped a dramatic view of Mimas from high above its north pole:

  15. Kevin

    Why do saturn’s rings appear contiguous in space probe images? Is it because of the exposure time for the photo? If I were at that distance viewing with my eyes, would i see them a composed of dust and rocks?

  16. Ron Sharp

    During the Voyager 1 flyby of Saturn, radio amateurs at JPL retransmitted the images over slow scan TV as they came in. Sitting in the university ham station watching as the images came in “live” was an amazing experience, especially in those pre-Internet days.

  17. Dan

    I, too, feel sorry for those who can’t appreciate the magnitude of endeavors like Cassini and the photos that result. I don’t mean to cast aspersions, but I think most people are too small-minded and self-focused to appreciate anything beyond their little lives and the people in them. Kind of like ants.

    I’m so tired of hearing the idiots who believe the moon landings were a conspiracy, but I’m just as tired of people (some of whom are my friends), telling me that any money spent on space exploration is wasted because it could be helping people on earth. I don’t even have the patience or energy any more to argue back.

  18. ceramicfundamentalist

    Nigel (13) said:

    “I think Voyager 2 is a stronger contender.


    it would be a great debate to have. i realize of course that voyager 2 completed the grand tour, is one of a handful of probes we have in interstellar space, and will travel quietly through the galaxy for the rest of eternity. that’s some pretty profound stuff. cassini, by comparison, only really knows one planet, and will likely have a rather undignified end when it is smashed into saturn’s atmosphere in a few years.

    but there are so many things to love about cassini: the delicious orbital mechanics that carry it through it’s crowded neighbourhood; its long and intimate relationship with its host planet; the painfully slow and tantalizing way it is revealing titan to us; the discovery and repeated observations of geysers on a snowball; and yes, the thousands of MIND-BLOWING photos. gets me excited just thinking about it.

  19. Capella

    When I see these images nowadays, it brings mixed emotions. The science and imagery are tremendous, and yet there is the knowledge that it will end in 4 years to be replaced with….. nothing – for at least the next 20 years if not permanently. NASA has already publicly admitted that the United States cannot afford to fund missions such as Cassini any more – to the point of pulling out of missions that had begun to get underway. Seeing the “bake sales to raise funds for planetary exploration” protest recently, the likelihood that the US will be able to afford to build and launch spacecraft in the 2020’s to arrive at the outer planets in the 2030’s grows dimmer by the day as well.

    One of Phil’s point of emphasis is that “we did this” (!) Equally important is that “we won’t be able to do this in the future”.

    Enjoy the Cassini mission while you can. To paraphrase Hunter Thompson, it’s probably the high-water mark.

  20. creeper
  21. alanborky

    I know what you’re getting at Phil but the truth is this’s another of those astronomy ‘photos’ that’s really photo-like or at best a photo montage based illustration.

    They do it with these stunning images with titles like Pillars of Creation artistically composing what’re effectively highly stylised graphs from selected elements derived from ex-ray infrared etc shots before boosting them using vast suites of alogrithms and arbitrarily colouring and light enhancing them leaving the unwitting gazer believing this’s what they’d see if they were up in space whereas they’d be lucky to see amorphous greyness even if they had eyes the size of truck tyres.

    But you at least admit that (in an understated kind of way).

    And don’t worry me daughter’s already bollocked me for spoiling the romance of such imagery for her.

  22. @21: Aside from the particular (unknown) filter Cassini used, this IS an unmodified single-shot image. It’s not in color, which is nearly always the combination of multiple filters at a variety of (often invisible) wavebands, and it appears to be square and without seams, so it’s not a mosaic.


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