An absolutely stunning astronomy picture was released last autumn: a picture of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft as it passed through Saturn’s shadow. Because I haven’t managed to keep up with what’s been happening with the Cassini mission, I didn’t realize the picture existed until yesterday, when it was featured as one of the Earth Observatory’s images of the day.
My jaw dropped when I saw the image. It looks like an artist’s rendering of the far side of Saturn, like a matte painting for some grand sci-fi epic. In fact, it’s a mosaic of 165 photos taken by the Cassini probe in September, when Saturn conveniently blocked out the glare of the sun for several hours, giving Cassini—and hence us—an unparalleled view of one of the most beautiful objects in the solar system.
Actually, it’s a view of two of the most beautiful objects in the solar system, for to left of Saturn, just beyond the border of the thick, bright main rings and slightly above a faint red lens flare, there is a tiny blue-white dot. And that tiny blue-white dot is Earth.
Seeing Earth like that, from a distance of over a billion kilometers, you could almost imagine what it would feel like to be an astronaut traveling into deep space for the first time and watching your home planet—which holds everything you or anyone else has ever known or loved—recede, and recede, and recede into the limitless darkness of the universe. I think you would feel an almost unbearable pang of longing and love for the Earth. I wish that those of us actually on Earth could feel something of that for our little planet sometimes. Maybe we’d treat the place a bit better if we did.
Anyway, the Cassini Imaging website is filled with spectacular pictures of the mission stretching all the way back to August 1999 (the pictures of Jupiter - especially the Io transit - are utterly breathtaking as well). And the Bad Astronomy blog features the Saturn picture as its best astronomy image of 2006, alongside nine other marvelous images from the course of the year; the picture of the space shuttle and ISS in front of the sun and the picture of the Opportunity rover on the surface of Mars are particularly amazing.
Thanks to the Cassini Imaging site, I now have a fantastic collection of color pictures of the Cassini-Huygens mission in permanent rotation on my desktop. The images are remarkably beautiful, a testament both to the wonders of the cosmos and the stupendous feats of which we humans—on our little speck of dust in space—are sometimes capable.
Pictures courtesy of the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations