Back on July 19, NASA turned the Cassini orbiter around so that the craft faced its home world, and took a snapshot of Saturn. Actually, it took a lot of snapshots. The space agency compiled the photos into a single image, the so-called “big pic,” which has now been released, and the back-lit photograph certainly is breathtaking to behold.
Composed of 141 wide-angled photos selected from the hundreds Cassini took, the final image shows the entire width of Saturn’s ring system, a distance of more than 405,000 miles, or 650,000 kilometers. It doesn’t look real, it looks like something painted digitally.
Over the four hour span when the pictures were being taken, there was movement to get the people of Earth to look up towards space and smile for the camera, a move that Carolyn Porco, the head of the imaging team on the project, has dubbed “The Day the Earth Smiled.” She said, “I hope long into the future, when people look again at this image, they will recall the moment when, as crazy as it might have seemed, they were there, they were aware, and they smiled.”
That’s a nice sentiment, and a fun moment for space enthusiasts everywhere, but the image is more than just an unusual photo op for Earthlings. Researchers have, and continue to glean a good amount of scientific data from these pics as well. According to Matt Headman, a Cassini scientist based out of the University of Idaho, “This mosaic provides a remarkable amount of high-quality data on Saturn’s diffuse rings, revealing all sorts of intriguing structures we are currently trying to understand…The E ring in particular shows patterns that likely reflect disturbances from such diverse sources as sunlight and Enceladus’ gravity.”
Take a look at this annotated version of the photo. It provides sort of road map of our galaxy, or at least helps you orient yourself. When you can pinpoint other landmarks, like Earth, Venus, Mars, and so on, it helps make the whole thing feel a little bit more real.
Cassini has been in space for more than 15 years, and is scheduled to continue its mission of studying Saturn for an additional four. After that, on September 15, 2017, an two decades of loyal service, NASA plans to dump the craft into the atmosphere, which will, of course, spell its inevitable doom.
Check out this huge gallery of Cassini’s Saturn photos.