Saturn, down under

It’s hard to believe that the Cassini mission to Saturn has been in operation for over a decade now. So much has been learned about Saturn, its rings, and its moons, but nothing of course compares to the steady stream of jaw-dropping images like this:

Saturn, seen from its southern hemisphere by the Cassini spacecraft on 1 October 2012. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

As winter starts to set in in Saturn’s southern hemisphere, the planet’s northern hemisphere and rings are tilted toward the Sun, casting an array of shadows into the cloud tops of the southern hemisphere. So this image is looking “up” towards the southern hemisphere of Saturn,¬†when Cassini was about¬†1,427,863 miles (2,297,923 kilometers) away.

That’s close enough to make out a range of features. The most striking feature is the thick black shadow cast by Saturn’s innermost ring, followed by a series of thinner shadows cast by outer rings. In fact, the shadows themselves create a kind of “negative” of the rings themselves, the rings are black and the main gap between the rings – the Cassini division – shows up as white!

Now, I love full-color images of Saturn as much as the next person. But there’s something about the raw, unprocessed black-and-white images of Saturn that are just incredible. In fact, this image was made with Cassini’s “clear” filters, which is as close to a truly raw, unfiltered image of Saturn you can get. In fact, you should really check out the full-resolution version which shows off the details in all of its awesome raw-iness.

This image also illustrates how fundamentally different it would be to live on the surface of a planet like Saturn (ignoring for the moment that Saturn doesn’t have a solid surface to live upon). Seasons would be very different at different latitudes within the hemispheres. Some regions would still see the sun during the daytime, while others would be in permanent shadow for several months. Imagine looking up at the sky to see the rings backlit by the sun every day!

To really get your mind going, imagine what would be like to live on a moon where the Sun is blocked by the rings, then unblocked, then blocked again by the rings, then unblocked, then blocked again by Saturn itself, etc. That would be an absolutely crazy diurnal cycle!