Angling in on Saturn

By Phil Plait | September 25, 2012 7:04 am

Pretty much every picture of Saturn sent back home from the Cassini spacecraft is devastatingly gorgeous, but it’s confession time: I prefer the greyscale ones to the pictures in color.

Why? Because this:

Holy ringed gas giant awesomeness! [Click to encronosenate.]

This shot was taken earlier this year, in June, when Cassini was about 3 million kilometers from the planet. Saturn has a thick haze above its cloud tops, obscuring much of the details of the clouds below (one of the main reasons it doesn’t sport the same spectacular cloud bands as its big brother Jupiter), but this image was taken using a near-infrared filter – just outside the normal range of human vision (centered at 752 nanometers, for those who want details) – that can see some light that gets through the haze. The white spots and elongated features are the tops of clouds of ammonia, some of which are thousands and even tens of thousands of kilometers long.

I love the angle on this picture. Cassini was south of Saturn’s equator, looking north. The northern hemisphere of the planet is edging toward summer right now, so the Sun is shining down on the rings, projecting their shadow on the southern hemisphere. We see the rings here from the unlit side, so they look a bit darker than you might be used to. However, since they’re made almost entirely of water ice, they’re transparent and scatter sunlight, so you can see them even from their shadowed side.

As a bonus, you can also see the tiny moon Enceladus on the lower left. Of course, when I say "tiny", I mean the size of my home state of Colorado.

This picture is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and I think a big part of that is that it’s greyscale (what some people call "black and white", which isn’t accurate since we see lots of shades of grey). While color images can be stunning, there is something about the contrast and chocolaty smoothness of greyscale that makes pictures like this more magnificent, more dramatic, and more brooding. I don’t know what it is – it’s the same phenomenon that happens with old movies, too – but for me it’s certainly a powerful effect.

As if Saturn needs any help.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


Related Posts:

The scale of Saturn (and The Scale of Saturn, redux)
Ice moon, ghost moon
Saturn broods while a storm dissipates
A shadow falls on the ice geysers of Enceladus

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Pretty pictures

Comments (18)

  1. I won’t argue with you there, Phil; this foto is made of awesome, but I gotta tell ya’, there’s nothing quite like the natural color images, as they’re the images that show you what it would look like if you were there, yourself, aboard a spacecraft, looking out at Saturn with your own eyeballs.

    Speaking of which, Cassini hasn’t sent back a lot of color fotos lately, and I miss them. Every time I see an image like this at Cassini’s Web site I think jeezus, I wish this was in color!

  2. dessy

    One of my favourite planets. Definitely in the Top Eight…

  3. Sheldonc

    I think the attraction lies in the simplicity and the graphic quality of the picture. The subtle greys of the planet and the bold stripe of the rings’ shadows across it are very striking.

    I do photography of my own (not astronomical, unfortunately) and often people are more drawn to the “black and white” versions of the photos. Simplicity in the statement, I guess.

  4. evilrizwiz

    I’m no great astronomer, so I have to ask: In the gray-scale image, are the dark bands on the lower hemisphere shadows created from it’s rings, or the cloud layers before a little more defined. In all I find that picture amazing.

  5. Javier

    I wonder… What if Earth had rings like Saturn? How would it look?
    The rings on Saturn seem to cast a very dark shadow, how dark would it be here on Earth?
    Greetings from Spain!

  6. The Bobs

    I still think it would look better in color. Color is chemical information, makes it more interesting for me.

  7. Joe W

    Greyscale images are definitely beautiful, no doubt, but I still prefer natural color.

    In fact, I prefer an image right through the eyepiece of a telescope to a Cassini image. (I don’t mean any disrespect of course. Cassini is an invaluable tool to scientific research, of course. I’m just saying that when I see Saturn with my own eyes through a telescope, it fills me with more awe than a picture normally would. :) )

  8. Jon Hanford

    Javier (5) asks

    “What if Earth had rings like Saturn? How would it look?’

    The BA covered this topic a few years ago: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy/2009/12/21/the-rings-of-earth/

    [make sure to check out the video for some great views of the “rings of Earth”]

    edit – I see Phil has added the link above.

  9. Pete Jackson

    Gotta love those ultra-sharp shadows of the rings on the planet. The sun is only 3 arcminutes in size as seen from Saturn, and so casts very sharp shadows. From Saturn, the sun would have the same angular diameter as a basketball at a distance of 900 feet away!

  10. kat wagner

    Thank you! Let’s hear it for black & white! You can feel more in b&w. I am talking film and yes, I’m old school. Digital is for quick and dirty.

  11. Magnum

    Nice to see you spelling grey correctly, now let’s get to work on colour :)

  12. Paulino

    Saturn is the Marilyn Monroe of our solar system…

  13. Darn, the universe always shows you you haven´t seen anything yet…

    btw I was hoping that you pointed at the little speck down left with something like “that´s us”. But you can´t have everything. Call me greedy.

  14. Michael Weir

    a modern computer generated rendering couldn’t do it this well…amazing.

  15. Javier

    Phil (#7) and Jon Hanford (#9): Thank you for the link!

  16. Infinite123Lifer

    “btw I was hoping that you pointed at the little speck down left with something like “that´s us””

    “As a bonus, you can also see the tiny moon Enceladus on the lower left”

  17. Matt B.

    I like greyscale too. And it seems to be a general thing with me. For instance, I find women more attractive when they wear black, white and grey outfits. I’m still pondering an evolutionary explanation for that. It might be that it allows one to pay more attention to shape.

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