Saturn and Us

July 19, 2013 was a very special day in the history of humanity. From a distance of 898.414 million miles (1.445858 billion kilometers) from Earth, the Cassini spacecraft made this stunning mosaic of the ringed planet as it eclipsed the Sun. The result is nothing less than breathtaking:

Saturn, in all its majesty. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

There is simply no way to adequately convey the beauty of this image in mere words. Instead, I invite you to view the colossal 9000×3500 pixel mosaic itself. Take a moment for it to load and just scroll around for a while. (Be sure to check out the annotated version of the mosaic as well.)

Cassini was “behind” Saturn in the sense that it was on the side of Saturn opposite the Sun. This gave the Cassini team an opportunity to create a mosaic of the entirety of Saturn and its rings backlit by the Sun.

The planet itself appears in silhouette, but not completely. Notice that part of Saturn’s dark side is illuminated by light reflected off the rings themselves. In other words, “Ringshine.”

"Ringshine" on Saturn's night side. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
“Ringshine” on Saturn’s night side. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Cassini was about 17 degrees below the plane of the rings, allowing the rings to appear as an ellipse in this view. And that’s a good thing because it really allows us to explore the rings in a very unique way.

Enceladus with its geysers of ice crystals, creating its own silhouette. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
Enceladus. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

The outermost E-ring appears diffuse and ghost-like. It’s created by geysers of ice crystals erupting from Enceladus. If you zoom in on the left side of the image, sure enough you’ll spot Enceladus with geysers erupting!

There are several other moons to be seen in this image, and some background stars as well. But as amazing as this image is, what makes it truly interesting is that you, me, and everyone on Earth are in it.

The day Earth smiled

At the bottom right of the mosaic is a tiny pale blue dot. That’s us. That’s you and me and the whole of humanity right there on a tiny, pale blue dot.

Us, in the distance. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
Us, in the distance on the lower right. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
Earth and Moon. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
Earth and Moon. Photo by NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

We are 898.414 million miles (1.445858 billion kilometers) in the background in this image. Zooming in reveals both our home planet and Moon. That’s all of us, right there, looking up toward Saturn, and smiling.

That’s what makes this image of Saturn so special, and why July 19, 2013 is a special day in the history of humanity. Human beings from all over that blue dot looked up toward Saturn while Cassini was taking its picture, smiled, and waved.

I was so happy I could take part in that opportunity to wave at Saturn with my wife, one of my closest friends, and the wonderful people of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop.

The class of 2013 from left to right: Jennifer Campbell-Hicks, Claudine Griggs, Douglas Dechow, Jay O'Connel, Jennifer Marie Brissett, Brenda Clough, Jamie Todd Rubin, Liz Argall, Andy Romine, Caren Gussoff, Chaz Brenchley, Jeri Smith-Ready, Anna Leahy, Doug Farren. Kneeling in front: Andria Schwortz, Me, Mike Brotherton
The class of Launch Pad 2013, waving toward Saturn. Our photographer even stood up on a rock so we’re actually looking straight along the line of sight toward Saturn 🙂

Here’s looking at you, Saturn!

Update 2013-11-14: Emily Lakdewalla from the Planetary Society has an excellent walkthrough of the image and explains why things appear the way they do in the image. It is well worth your time to have a watch (be sure to go full screen and HD so you can really spot the details):

An Overhead View of Saturn

On October 10, 2013, the Cassini spacecraft took an image of Saturn that is unlike anything we’ve ever seen from Earth:

Overhead View of Saturn
Saturn captured by Cassini in red, green, and blue-filter images on October 10, 2013. Click to enringulate. Image credit: NASA / JPL / SSI / Gordan Ugarkovic

It’s unlike any view of Saturn we’ve ever seen from Earth because it’s a view we can never see from Earth! Cassini captured Saturn and it’s rings from high above the planet’s northern hemisphere on October 10, 2013. The image shown here is actually a composite of several mosaic images of Saturn and its rings taken in red, green, and blue filters.

And what an image it is! In a rare glimpse we see Saturn as its own planet, detached from its rings. Of course, we already knew that about Saturn, but seeing it this way seems to add a whole new…well…perspective.

The image reveals some striking features of the planet. At the north pole is a 1,250 mile-(2,000 kilometers) wide vortex with wind speeds up to 330 mph (150 meters per second). There’s no land mass on Saturn to break this storm and it’s likely that it’s been there since long before Cassini ever arrived, and will probably remain there for  centuries  to come.

The storm sits at the center of a complex region known as the hexagon, shown in light blue in this image.  Each side of the hexagon is over 8,600 miles (13,800 km) in length – more than the diameter of Earth itself! For some reason though, there is no similar hexagon in Saturn’s southern hemisphere.

Looking at the rest of the image, the first thing that jumped out at me was that you could still clearly see the night side of the planet. That’s because Saturn is being illuminated by the rest of the ring system itself!

Had they been able to, I’m sure NASA would have processed the images and shared it with the public in a press release. But due to the government shutdown, no image was produced. Fortunately, the raw data is public and  Gordan Ugarkovic at created this spectacular image on his own initiative.

On a personal note, I’m extremely grateful for this image because it was taken on October 10, my birthday. So thank you Cassini, and thank you Gordan for an amazing birthday present! 🙂

Bald Eagle Flies with Antares!

This morning, a Cygnus resupply ship launched to the International Space Station atop an Antares rocket. And who better to witness America’s latest leap into space than an American Bald Eagle?

Antares Cygnus Cargo Resupply
The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket, with the Cygnus cargo spacecraft aboard, is seen as it launches from Pad-0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS), Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013, NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Virginia. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls), Enhancement inset by Tom Wolf.

Here’s another view, cropped in:

Image Credit: NASA

My friend Tom Wolf first noticed this little guy / girl during our visit to the adjacent launch pad ahead of the LADEE launch:

Image Credit Tom Wolf

How cool is that?

Geek Girls Have Nothing to Prove

It always astonished me that there are such things as snobbery and sexism in geekdom. I mean, aren’t we the ones who were picked on as kids, and yearned for a world in which everyone was accepted for who they are? I suppose that for all of us in that camp, the former was in everyone’s priority list but the latter escaped the views of some.

Apparently, it’s become enough of a problem, particularly for women, that there needs to be a public service message about it, and the Doubleclicks have gone and done just that, with a little help from amazing people everywhere:

Sorry, I think I had something in my eye there…where was I? Seriously, geek girls (and all self- or society-proclaimed geeks) have nothing to prove to anyone, especially their fellow geeks.

So if you’re not sure how geek girls should be treated, here’s my suggestion:

Treat them how you would like to be treated. Unless you want to be treated as an object, in which case just treat them like human beings.
Treat them how you would like to be treated. Unless you want to be treated as an object, in which case just treat them like human beings.

Tip of the felt-tip marker to Liz Argall for showing me this. And for being a badass geek.

In Saturn’s shadow, part deux

The Cassini mission to Saturn has given us one astonishing view of the ringed planet and its moons after another since 2004, but this is one for the books:

Saturn’s night side, as seen by Cassini on Oct. 17, 2012 at a distance of approximately 500,000 miles (800,000 kilometers) from Saturn. Get the full-resolution image here! Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Is that amazing or what? And you really have to get the full-resolution, 6672×3104-pixel image to really grok the awesomeness. This image was created on October 17, 2012 by the Cassini spacecraft while Saturn was backlit by the Sun. In other words, this is Saturn’s night side. The image was taken when Cassini was looking “up” towards Saturn’s equator from an orbital latitude of about 19 degrees. The result is a stunning image of the planet’s silhouette, surrounded by the backlit rings.

There is a lot going on here and Phil Plait has a great breakdown of all of the features of the image, so I’ll refer you there. But I should like to point out that the green glow is light reflected by the rings onto Saturn’s cloud tops. In other words, forget moonlight, this is ringlight!

Another feature that is really cool is the diffuse band of light toward the bottom of the image. This is the outermost E-ring, which is the least dense and most diffuse of the rings. This ring comes courtesy of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which spews geysers of water vapor and ice as it orbits Saturn.

Enceladus in Saturn’s E-ring. Enceladus appears as the dark spot in the middle of the flare at center. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science InstituteNASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

It’s worth mentioning that these colors aren’t real, but are a combination of infrared, red and violet spectral filters. When combined, Saturn takes on a serene, eerie hue that reveals subtle details in its atmosphere that you simply cannot get any other way.

Since the only way to obtain an image like this is when the Cassini spacecraft is directly behind Saturn, such images are very rare. The last time this sort of image was taken was back in 2006. During that encounter, images were taken using filters to create a natural-color view of the backlit planet:

In Saturn’s Shadow – the Pale Blue Dot. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

And if you haven’t, you must click that image for the full view. If you look carefully, you’ll see a pale blue dot in that image on the left side just inside G-ring. That’s Earth. That’s home. That’s us.

And we made this.