As the Cassini mission continues to orbit the ringed gas giant Saturn, it’s hard to imagine what magnificent view the NASA spacecraft will show us next. Today, however, is one for the history books.
As a very special Christmas holiday treat, the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) team have processed a magnificent view of Saturn that is rarely seen — a portrait from the dark side of the planet.
“Of all the many glorious images we have received from Saturn, none are more strikingly unusual than those taken from Saturn’s shadow,” said Carolyn Porco, CICLOPS team lead based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.
Imaged in October as the spacecraft was in Saturn’s shadow, Cassini turned its cameras toward the planet. The sun is fully blocked by the disk of Saturn, casting a shadow through the ring system. The rings are back-lit by sunlight.
This isn’t just a spectacular photo opportunity either. The Cassini science team can use this period in probe’s orbit — in a very-high-phase viewing geometry — to gather fine detail in the rings and features in the planet’s atmosphere that would normally be hard to spot.
The last time Cassini was able to image Saturn’s silhouette was in 2006 — fortuitously, the Earth’s “pale blue dot” was also in the background. This time, the dot of the Earth is blocked by Saturn’s disk, but two Saturnian moons, Enceladus and Tethys, can be seen in the lower left of the scene (Enceladus is the dot closest to the rings).
Porco announced the image release via Twitter, saying that it’s images like these that “remind you we are capable of the magnificent.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI