In the shadow of a giant

17 Aug

For 12 hours in 2006 Cassini passed into the shadow of Saturn

Cassini launched in October 1997 along with the European Space Agency’s Huygens probe. The probe was equipped with six instruments to study Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. It landed on Titan’s surface on Jan. 14, 2005, and returned spectacular results.

Meanwhile, the Cassini probe’s 12 instruments have returned a daily stream of data from Saturn’s system since arriving at Saturn in 2004.

Among the most important targets of the mission are the moons Titan and Enceladus, as well as some of Saturn’s other icy moons. Towards the end of the mission in 2017, Cassini will make closer studies of the planet and its rings.

The image featured at the top of this page is one of the most stunning images I have ever seen. It was taken in 2006 when Cassini passed into the giant shadow of Saturn. It is a composite of 165 images taken by the wide-angle camera on board Cassini, and then compiled together. Colour in the view was created by digitally compositing ultraviolet, infrared and clear filter images and was then adjusted to resemble natural colour. Cassini was about 2.2 million kilometers above Saturn when it captured these images, and about 15 degrees above the ring-plane.

Two new sets of rings were discovered when scientists looked at Saturn in that image, as we had never seen it like this before.

And the part that makes this image all the more beautiful: you can even see Earth, a tiny dot just above the main rings on the left side of the image. Earth is about 1.5 billion kilometres away – the pale blue dot that we all share. To spot Earth in the image at the top of the page you’ll probably need to click on the image to view it in full size, because Earth is just so small.

Earth is 1.5 billion km away in this image

For more on the Cassini mission (including some of the most amazing images you’ll ever see), here is the mission homepage:

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