Tag Archives: Saturn

A Majestic End for a Faithful Friend

by Shane L. Larson

We live in an age where digital technology can make anything seem real. Movies have become immersive experiences where any landscape, real or imagined is possible. Physics defying stunts are rendered on screens as tall as buildings and with sound louder than thunder. Creatures long extinct or completely imagined spring to life, and actors long since passed from the world magically return to the screen, appearing as they did in their youth. Anything seems possible, and the boundaries of reality are blurred, to say the least.

Anything can be given realism with modern technology, whether they be long dead creatures, imagined aircraft, or an architectural plan for a new building. [all images from Wikimedia Commons]

We are so used to this, that when confronted by real pictures of the real world, we often forget what we are looking at. Fantastic and awe-inspiring pictures slip past us and don’t always capture our attention. Photographers capture massive migrations of animals across the land and sea, forlorn sights of abandoned corners of our cities, and the vibrant colors of rainbows and autumn leaves. When we see those pictures, at just the right moment, we experience a visceral moment of joy and set our phone screens and computer desktops to the image, to remind us of that moment of wonder. But more often than not, we don’t remember that real pictures of the real world can evoke emotional responses in us. Some small part of our brain remembers, of course, else we wouldn’t takes selfies in front of restaurants where we enjoy fantastic dinners, or pictures of sunsets against the skyline of our backyards.

On many days, as the woes of the world sidle past me on my computer screen, I am reminded of something that I became aware of in my youth: the true masters of real pictures of the real world are the folks at NASA. They have long been part of the storytelling narrative, reminding us that we are part of a far larger Universe, showing us that with concerted effort and imagination and perseverance, we can overcome tremendous obstacles, solve incredibly difficult problems, and discover that the world around us is filled with unimagined and awe-inspiring grandeur. The Cosmos is alive and breathing around you, reminding you that you are part of something greater that the usual bibble-babble washing out of your device screen.

NASA’s digital artists are masters of putting us at the center of the action, even if it is impossibly far away. L to R: Curiosity skycraning onto Mars; Juno arriving at Jupiter; Cassini arriving at Saturn. [Images by NASA]

In the last few years, our friends at NASA have upped their game. Not only have they regaled us with real pictures of the real world, but they’ve picked up the story-telling torch, and as masterfully as any filmmaker in the world catapulted us into the drama of exploring the Cosmos. You may remember this when they told us about the Seven Minutes of Terror as we lowered the Curiosity rover onto Mars using a robotic, rocket-powered skycrane. Last year, they told us the tale of returning to the unknown regions around Jupiter with a hearty spacecraft called Juno, diving into the radiation belts where anything could happen. But recently, they turned their attention to a far-away world called Saturn, and a steadfast spacecraft we sent there called Cassini….

Saturn has been known to humans since antiquity, one of the bright moving lights in the sky known as the planētes asteres, the “wandering stars.” Like the other naked eye planets, Saturn moved slowly among the stars, tracing out a path along the band of constellations known as the Zodiac, cementing itself in the folklore and mythology of sky-gazers who watched it closely. In the 17th century, the era of Saturnian exploration began when the first telescopes were pointed skyward. The first fuzzy, warbling views of the world showed it was not like the stars at all. Telescopes improved rapidly, as did the views they showed of this far away planet, until at last we discovered the truth — Saturn was magnificently bejeweled by a brilliant, encircling ring. Since that time, Saturn has reigned supreme among all the planets for the awe it evokes at its splendor and beauty. More than any other planet, it looks like it is supposed to look. Today, millions of telescopes around the world are set-up in backyards and on sidewalks on clear nights, giving ordinary people like me and you views of one of the Cosmos’ great spectacles — you can have your own Saturn Moment.

View of Saturn you will have through a modern backyard telescope, taken with an iPhone [Image courtesy of Andrew Symes]

Like most things in space, Saturn is unfathomably far away. At a distance of 1.3 billion kilometers from Earth, it would take you about 1400 years to drive to Saturn’s orbit in your car, or about 150 years to fly there at the speed of a passenger jet. We are, by and large, restricted to staring at it from afar, gleaning what we can from the meager light gathered in our telescopes. The arrival of the Space Age put a new possibility on the table: travelling across the void. Suddenly, we had the chance to see Saturn up close.

While there are effervescent dreams to send humans, Saturn is still too distant to imagine easily crossing the void ourselves, so our attention has been focused on sending quasi-intelligent emissaries in our stead: robotic explorers whose sole purpose is to gather as much information and take as many pictures as possible, and transmit all of that information back to Earth.

Our robotic emissaries, Pioneer 11 (left) and Voyagers 1 and 2 (right). These are the only spacecraft to have ever visited the gas giant worlds of the Solar System. [Images by NASA]

In the 60 years since the start of the Space Age, only 4 spacecraft have ever visited Saturn. The first was a resolute robotic explorer called Pioneer 11.  In 1979, it flew by Saturn skimming through just 20,000 kilometers above the cloud tops, returning the first up close pictures of Saturn, but only a few. It was followed by Voyager 1 in 1980, and Voyager 2 in 1981. The Voyagers returned wide planetary views of Saturn that became iconic to an entire generation of humans, and showed us an ensemble of moons that are each unique and tantalizing, demanding their own careful program of exploration. All of these missions flew past Saturn, returning quick passing views before sailing onward. Today, Pioneer 11 and Voyagers 1 and 2 are on an unknown voyage, destined to drift in the great cosmic dark between the stars for a billion years.

Closeup views of Saturn by Pioneer (left) and Voyager (right). Their time with Saturn was short because they were doing flybys (try taking a picture of your friend on the sidewalk as you drive by at 50 miles per hour…). [Images by NASA]

The most recent of the quartet of august explorers is a two tonne spacecraft called Cassini. It spent seven years crossing the void to Saturn, and has spent the last 13 years circling Saturn, probing the ringworld and its remarkable moons. Twenty years ago, it was cocooned up inside its rocket, and hurled into space. No human has seen it since.

This image is one of the last pictures taken of Cassini in 1997, before launch; the whole spacecraft, together with a few of the people who gave it life. Not soon after, the rocket fairing was lowered into place and closed, cocooning Cassini inside. That was the last any human ever saw of it. [Image by NASA]

For more than a decade, we have been treated to remarkable images, ranging from the strange divided faces of Iaepetus, to the mangled surface of small, tumbling Hyperion. We saw stunning views of the blue-white ice of Enceladus, and ephemeral views of Saturn and its rings, backlit by the distant Sun.

The images returned by Cassini have been stunning, and are far too numerous to do justice to here. A few favorites include: Hyperiod (top left), Enceladus (top center), Iapetus (top right), and Saturn backlit by the Sun (lower). [Images by NASA]

But never among these has there been an image of Cassini itself. Unlike its siblings, the Mars rovers, Cassini cannot take a selfie. But our artists have continued to insert Cassini into imagined views of the Saturnian system, seen as if we were sailing along side it, snapping pictures for the family photo album. Cassini cruising over Titan; Cassini plummeting through the ice plumes of Enceladus; Cassini looking back toward a distant blue star that is Earth.

Artist imaginings of Cassini during its decades long exploration of Saturn. [Images by NASA]

Now, after a two decade journey, we are nearing the end. Cassini’s tasks are nearly over. Unlike Pioneer 11 and Voyager 1 and 2, Cassini is bound to Saturn forever; it will not embark on a lonely voyage to the stars, and in fact, it can’t: there simply isn’t enough fuel in its rockets. Instead, the humans who lovingly crafted it and meticulously planned its journey have planned a magnificent send-off. We call it The Grand Finale. The end of the journey is stunning, worthy of an adventurer as bold and brave as Cassini. But we won’t be able to see it, so once again we turn to our artists to illuminate the images in our minds eye.

Some images from Cassini’s Grand Finale. (L) Saturn’s polar regions, up close as Cassini loops over the top of the planet for another ring pass. (C) One of the highest resolution images of the rings ever taken. (R) The small moon Daphnis, carving out a corridor in the rings. [Images by NASA’s Cassini Imaging Team]

In a series of slowly descending orbits, Cassini will voyage closer to Saturn than any spacecraft before. Looping high over the planet, it will plunge down through the rings for the first time, then loop back around and do it again. Over and over again, it will pass through the rings and skim the top of Saturn’s atmosphere. In all, the Grand Finale consists of just more than 22 orbits. On each orbit it dutifully records what it finds, and relays that information back to us here on Earth. Already we have received stupendous views of the rings, of the cloudtops from closer than we’ve ever seen, and the nearby moons framed by a sky simultaneously more majestic and more alien than any we could imagine in a Hollywood studio.

But at the very end, when there is no where else to go, Cassini will finally succumb to the inexorable gravitational pull of Saturn, and be drawn down into the atmosphere. Travelling more than 75,000 miles per hour, it will burn up in a colossal fireball. One of a thousand meteors that might hit Saturn on any day, but this one from a nearby world. We won’t see Cassini. As it falls, it will be linked to Earth only by the tenuous thread of its radio link, faithfully relaying the last of its observations as it sinks forever into the ocean of Saturn’s atmosphere.  At some point, we don’t know when, Cassini will be gone. With no one to see it, Cassini will disintegrate into nothing. Out of our sight, the last of our dreams and aspirations for Cassini will come to an ultimate end.

Will will mourn. But always we will return to the vast photo album we have assembled over its 20 year life. Like a long time friend departing for the other side of the veil of death, we can’t help but be simultaneously overwhelmed by sadness together with admiration for everything that this little robot has accomplished, against all odds. Cassini has forever transformed our understanding of Saturn. Saturn is a real place, as much a part of the story of our solar system and our home as anything we have ever seen.

Once again our artists capture what we cannot see, rendered in NASA’s End of Mission video, using the tools of entertainment to tell us the story of our long departed emissary in it last moments over Saturn. More than any other art or video I’ve seen, they’ve succeeded in evoking how truly huge and majestic Saturn is, and how tiny Cassini is by comparison. All that we know, all that we’ve discovered, we owe to a tiny robot immeasurably dwarfed by the planet it has so faithfully explored.

You owe it to yourself to go watch this video; reflect on all that Cassini is and was, and know that we are capable of doing tremendous things.

Ad astra per aspera. Fare thee well, Cassini.


The Saturn Moment

by Shane L. Larson

I just returned from the 33rd annual Winter Star Party, hosted by Miami’s venerable Southern Cross Astronomical Society. Every February, for a week during the new moon, 400 amateur astronomers and their families descend on Camp Wesumkee in the Florida Keys.  During the idyllic days, we sit in lawn chairs, enjoy the gentle sea breezes, watch sandpipers running along the tideline, or beachcomb on the key front looking for pretty shells or little fishies trapped in tidepools.

Sunset over Scout Key, Florida, the site of the Winter Star Party. [Image: S. Larson]

But the real reason we are there becomes apparent as the Sun sinks over the western sea, and the black velvet of night emerges, studded by brilliant diamonds of light. The vast majority of us live our lives under the glaring lights of modern cities, and all too often we forget that the Cosmos is there, hiding behind our artificial fluorescent glow, waiting for us to remember. At the first sunset of the Winter Star Party, it all comes roaring back and you remember what you’ve been missing.

The Milky Way rises over Scout Key around 3am in February. You can watch a timelapse movie of the whole night, including the rising of the Milky Way, on YouTube. [Image: S. Larson]

People often ask me, “are you religious?” My answer is that I am not in the sense of modern churches and institutions, but I do know that we are part of something larger — a Cosmos infinitely vast and wonderful and intricate beyond anything we can imagine or will ever know. The cathedral of night is my church.

In his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” Walt Whitman espoused the idea that you don’t need sages to know a deep connection to the sky, only the solitude of the night.

When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer 
by Walt Whitman 

When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns
     before me, 
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add,
     divide, and measure them, 
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured
     with much applause in the lecture-room, 
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, 
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, 
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, 
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. 


But in today’s fast paced world, driven by small screens, instant communication, and more information than has ever been gathered by a civilization before, it is hard to slow down enough to realize those moments of solitude. Living beneath the glare of our cities, there are generations of people who have never truly seen a starry sky and thus never built a deep personal connection to the night.

My telescope (named EQUINOX), on the observing field at Scout Key. [Image: S. Larson]

While the Winter Star Party is dominated by amateur astronomers who, like me, do this as often as we can, there are also a lot of people who are experiencing the dark night sky and the Milky Way for the first time. They walk among the telescopes at night, peering at a nebula here or a star cluster there, all the while being regaled with tales and facts of all that we have learned from 400 years of telescopic study of the sky.

This year, at around 4 in the morning, the Milky Way climbed up above the horizon, it’s center studded by a pale yellow “star.”  A young couple, at their very first star party, had stopped by my telescope for some quiet conversation and some views of the sky.

“Do you want to see something cool?” I swung my telescope over to the pale yellow “star” and let them peer through the eyepiece. The view elicited startled gasps, and loud exclamations of joy.

View of Saturn through the telescope, taken with an iPhone [Image by Andrew Symes; visit his blog here]

There is no way that is real!”  The pale yellow “star” was in fact not a star at all — it was the planet Saturn, a cream colored orb bejeweled by its famous ring, the ring itself narrowly divided by a thin black gap known as the “Cassini Division.”

Delivering a personal experience with the night sky is part of the promise of amateur astronomy. We show people the Moon, stars, clusters, perhaps an occasional galaxy. But nothing moves people like their first view of Saturn through a telescope. Most people who take the time to look walk away remembering that moment for the rest of their lives.

We call this “the Saturn Moment.”

More than any other far away object in the sky, Saturn looks like what people expect. They often respond to their view with incredulity, joking that it looks almost painted, or like a picture that has been taped over the end of the telescope.

The Moon often engenders similar responses, but people expect the Moon to look that way. They can see it with their eyes, and imagine craters and mountains, so they aren’t necessarily surprised by the telescopic view.

By contrast, most people have never seen Saturn, except through the eyes of space probes. The telescope somehow takes the NASA pictures we see on our computer screens, and makes it real and visceral.

At the Adler Planetarium in Chicago, you can see a “20 foot Refractor” similar to the kind used in Huygens time (left). We have it set up so you can look through it, and see the same kind of fuzzy image of Saturn he may have seen (right). [Images: S. Larson]

The first person to have a Saturn Moment was Galileo, who turned his telescope on the skies in 1609. His views of Saturn were not the greatest, as his sketches published a year later in Sidereus Nuncius show. It was clear Saturn wasn’t normal because he could make out blobs on either side. He wrote in a letter to his student Benedetto Castelli that Saturn had “ears.” It wasn’t until 1655 that Dutch astronomer Chrstiaan Huygens, using a much better telescope (though still fuzzy) was able to discern that Saturn was surrounded by a thin, flat ring.

A 57 mm diameter lens, all that remains of the telescope Huygens used to observe Saturn. Around the edge is carved a verse from the Roman poet Ovid: “Admovere Oculis Distantia Sidera Nostris” (They brought the distant stars closer to our eyes). It is an anagram, establishing the details of Huygens’ discovery of Saturn’s moon, Titan. When translated, it reads “A moon revolves around Saturn in 16 days and 4 hours.”[Image: Utrecht Univ. Museum, from APOD]

Today, ordinary people like you and me can own telescopes that would have made Galileo and Huygens swoon with envy. Technology is better, and available to everyone.

My Saturn Moment happened long ago, at a sidewalk astronomy event. An amateur astronomer invited me over to look through her “telescope” — it wasn’t an ordinary telescope, it was a spotting scope for birding that she had pointed at the sky. But what I saw blew my socks off. I was seeing Saturn, with my own eyes, and I could see the rings! Though I don’t remember it, I’m sure the rusty dot of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, was also lurking nearby.

The ultimate result of that encounter is that today my wife and I are both amateur astronomers ourselves, and we guide people through their own Saturn Moments every year. Each moment is unique, exhilarating, and moving in their own way. Among the most memorable was several years ago, my wife had guided a young boy to our telescope to have a peek at Saturn. The view elicited a loud gasp, and the exclamation, “It looks just like a Chevy symbol!” Yep, it kind of does!

If you’ve never seen Saturn before, go to your local planetarium or astronomy club. They would love to show you Saturn for the first time. And when you’re done, tell everyone what you’ve seen, and encourage them to have their own, first #SaturnMoment, a moment of perfect beauty between us and the Cosmos.

Cosmos 6: Travellers’ Tales

by Shane L. Larson

Sitting at the gate at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport, staring at the thousands of other people around me, I am struck by how remarkably connected the modern world is.  I’m not thinking about smartphones and instant personal communication; rather I’m staring out the window at a Boeing 777 and thinking that I can go travelling virtually anywhere on the Earth, in just a day or so, by walking down the jetway.  And we all do it in a blink of an eye.  Sometimes we go for work, to exotic places like Dallas or Albuquerque.  Sometimes we go to visit family, like grandma in Mobile, or Aunt Becky and Uncle Bob in Bemidji.  But sometimes, we jet off across the world, just to go exploring.  We go to see the grand Buddha of Leshan, or the primeval rain forests of the Amazon, or the volcanoes near Reykjavik, or Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.

(L) The Grand Buddha of Leshan. (R) Sagrada Familia. [Photos by S. Larson]

(L) The Grand Buddha of Leshan. (R) Sagrada Familia. [Photos by S. Larson]

While on our adventure, we take selfies, we send text messages that say “Guess where I am?”, and we wonder at the marvels of the world. When we return home, we may bring a few trinkets — a silk shirt, a wall hanging, a journal embossed with foreign words and images.  But the things we return to time and again, years after our voyage, either in idle strolls down memory lane or to show family and friends, are our pictures.  Pictures are the single most common and important thing brought back from adventure voyages, as they alone have the magic to transport us  back to those far away lands, with our friends alongside us.

Text messages and selfies, some of the most common travellers' tales of the modern age.

Text messages and selfies, some of the most common travellers’ tales of the modern age.

There was a time when our world was not so easily accessible, when the far corners of the Earth had not yet been discovered, and adventurers didn’t know what they would find on a long voyage of discovery. In the 1700’s, Captain James Cook made three epic voyages around the world, aboard ships whose names have become synonymous with exploration and discovery: HMS Endeavour (a name latter passed onto a United States space shuttle orbiter), and HMS Resolution. Cook’s papers and journals of those voyages were collected and studied for many years after his death, but one of the greatest treasures returned from the voyages were images of far away lands. In those days of exploration, every ship was crewed not just by sailors, but by professionals.  Some were scientists tasked with observing and recording discoveries along the voyage, and others were artists tasked with capturing images of the voyage to record and relay the adventure to those left behind. Without those artists eyes, we would never know what Cook saw on those first, epic voyages.

Images by artist William Hodges, who accompanied James Cook on his second voyage. (L) The HMS Resolution near Antarctica, and (R) HMS Resolution in Matavai Bay, Tahiti.

Images by artist William Hodges, who accompanied James Cook on his second voyage. (L) The HMS Resolution near Antarctica, and (R) HMS Resolution in Matavai Bay, Tahiti.

Today, the world is completely mapped, cultures (for the most part) have been found and documented, and there are precious few places humans have not yet tread.  Voyages of new discovery come more rarely, and people like you and me have adventures that begin with airplane rides and are documented through the lenses of smartphones.  While you and I have set our sights on worldly adventures like visiting Mammoth Cave in Kentucky, or picnicking in the shadow of Moai on Easter Island, our species’ thirst for adventure has grown beyond the Earth.  We have embarked on a new adventure to seek out new horizons and unknown landscapes far out into the Cosmos. The primary commodity of these new adventures are pictures — thousands and thousands of stunning pictures of cosmic vistas that move our spirits in ways we could have never imagined.

I often dream of being able to visit the Moai of Easter Island. [Illustration by S. Larson]

I often dream of being able to visit the Moai of Easter Island. [Illustration by S. Larson]

The sky has always compelled us to look up.  Even were we not fascinated with the strange and unearthly things we have found in the sky, the sky presents events that compel us to look up.  Consider the case of eclipses.  The Sun is the most brilliant source of light in the solar system, and every object it shines on casts a shadow, including the Earth. The Moon, on its rounds about the Earth, sometimes fleets through the shadow of the Earth.  As it passes into the shadow, it begins to disappear, an ever growing curve of shadow slowly eating the bright disk of the Moon. When it reaches the center of the shadow, the Moon takes on a deep reddish hue, cast in scarlet tones by the sunlight streaming around the Earth and through its atmosphere — an Earth sunset on our closest neighbor in the Cosmos.  This event is called a lunar eclipse.

(L) The geometry of a lunar eclipse. (R) iPhone image of the total lunar eclipse on 10 Dec 2011. [images by S. Larson]

(L) The geometry of a lunar eclipse. (R) iPhone image of the total lunar eclipse on 10 Dec 2011. [images by S. Larson]

The Moon also casts a shadow, and sometimes that shadow falls on the surface of the Earth, casting a fleeting moment of darkness wherever it falls.  Seen from the Earth, the Moon creeps across the Sun, an ever growing curve as the Moon blocks the brilliant solar disk.  At the center of the eclipse, the Moon covers the Sun and those standing in the center of the shadow are treated to a rare sight — the blazing corona of the Sun.  This event is called a solar eclipse.  Eclipses in our ancient past were unexpected and likely inspired fear and superstition.  Today, we can predict when they occur and where to stand to see them. People from all over the world step onto airplanes, and fly to stand in the shadow of the Moon.  They take their cameras with them, and capture images of the event to share with friends and family when they return from their travels.

(L) The geometry of a solar eclipse. (C) Image of total solar eclipse taken by Arthur Eddington in 1919. (R) Hydrogen alpha image of the annular solar eclipse on 20 May 2012 in Cedar City, Utah. [by S. Larson]

(L) The geometry of a solar eclipse. (C) Image of total solar eclipse taken by Arthur Eddington in 1919. (R) Hydrogen alpha image of the annular solar eclipse on 20 May 2012 in Cedar City, Utah. [by S. Larson]

Another, rare kind of eclipse is called a Transit of Venus, when Venus passes between us and the Sun, appearing as a small black dot traversing the solar disk. Beautiful and inspiring to see, observing a transit of Venus was one of the first ways that people figured out to measure the distance from the Earth to the Sun. Transits can be seen in pairs roughly every 121 or 105 years (a 243 year pattern), when the orbits of Earth and Venus are aligned just right. The most recent pair of transits was in 2004 and 2012. Two scientists, Charles Green and Daniel Solander, accompanied James Cook on his first voyage, tasked with observing a transit of Venus, which they did from Tahiti on 3 June 1769.

Transit of Venus seen from Wasilla, Alaska on 5 June 2012 [by S. Larson]

Transit of Venus seen from Wasilla, Alaska on 5 June 2012 [iPhone photo, through a solar telescope, by S. Larson]

While one could spend a lifetime standing on the surface of the Earth looking up into the Cosmos, some part of us knows that we could learn so much more if we just go up there.  And so we have.  For the most part, our emissaries beyond the Earth have been robots — machines of human design, supremely instrumented and exquisitely engineered to make interplanetary voyages that we cannot. Our robots have sailed the interplanetary sea and visited every major world in the solar system, providing tantalizing and brief glimpses of alien shores through pictures radioed back to their creators on faint radio links.  Travellers’ tales, recorded through the electronic eyes of semi-intelligent robots, are the principal commodity of the age of space exploration. Tales that paint a tapestry of wonders brilliant and evocative, tempting us with the promise of what we might discover if we were to dig deeper, push farther, and continue the exploration.

Of all the many worlds in the solar system of which we are aware, there are only five on which we have landed and returned images from the surface: the Moon, Venus, Mars, Saturn’s moon Titan, and the asteroid Eros. These are the only worlds beyond the Earth whose surfaces we have tread upon, and only on the Moon and Mars have we ventured away from the landing site (using rovers). At all of the sites, we have tantalizing pictures of alien shores that sing a siren song of adventure when we look out across them. 

(A) Surface of Eros by NEAR-Shoemaker. (B) Surface of Titan by Huygens. (C) Surface of Venus by Venera 14. (D) Apollo 15, station 9 on Hadley Rille. (E) Surface of Mars, near Bonneville Crater by the Spirit Rover.

(A) Surface of Eros by NEAR-Shoemaker. (B) Surface of Titan by Huygens. (C) Surface of Venus by Venera 14. (D) Apollo 15, station 9 on Hadley Rille. (E) Surface of Mars, near Bonneville Crater by the Spirit Rover.

But most of our probes are not landers — they are semi-intelligent cans of electronics, wires, metal and composites that we have hucked out into the Cosmic sea, leaving them destined to drift forever in the sky.  Most of the images they return are all taken from orbit or on a one chance “flyby.”  The stories they tell are a bit like describing a state by looking out the window of a plane as it passes overhead, but the tales are riveting mysteries of the past, present and future of the worlds in our solar system. 

On Mercury, we’ve found a vast impact basin, just discovered in 2008 by the MESSENGER spacecraft. The basin is more than 700 kilometers across; if it were on Earth it would stretch from San Francisco to Seattle.  A vast circular hollow excavated in the early days of the solar system, the central plains are a vast expanse of ancient lavas criss-crossed with ridges and troughs that have been frozen into the landscape since their formation — there is no weather on Mercury to weather and fade the scars of ancient geologic trauma.  We’ve named it Rembrandt after the famous Dutch painter — a fitting name for such a picturesque place.

(L) Rembrandt, on Mercury. (R) Saturn by Cassini.

(L) Rembrandt, on Mercury. (R) Saturn by Cassini.

At Saturn, Cassini has radioed back exquisite images of the subtle tawny clouds of Saturn, always framed by the brilliant arc of the great rings.  But on its way to Saturn, Cassini did a little sight-seeing, and as it sailed past Jupiter toward Saturn, recorded a mesmerizing movie of that planet’s banded clouds. The clouds swirl and rotate as they are pressed before winds blowing as fast as 500 kilometers per hour, nearly twice as fast as the strongest winds ever seen on Earth.  

Jupiter's cloud bands, as seen by Cassini.

Jupiter’s cloud bands, as seen by Cassini (click to animate).

Among all the space probes we have set adrift, five hold a special place of honor.  They are Pioneer 10, Pioneer 11, Voyager 1, Voyager 2, and New Horizons.  These are the only probes we’ve built that are destined for interstellar space after their reconnaissance of the solar system.  Thousands of years from now, their creators long forgotten and returned to dust, these spacecraft will sail on into the interstellar void of the galaxy.

Now fallen silent, their energy reserves exhausted, the Pioneers no longer send tales home to Earth. But each carries a story with it, in the form of a small plaque telling the tale of the probes’ origins, should any intelligent being find it in the distant future.  A bottle cast into the Cosmic Ocean, I often wonder about those who might one day stumble on Pioneer 10 and 11.  Will they be alien intelligences?  Or perhaps will they be some impossibly distant descendant of humans, stumbling on a forgotten remnant of their past? Will they understand the message, and understand what Pioneer was doing in a long forgotten epoch of time?

(L) The Pioneer plaque, amidships on Pioneer 10. (R) The two sides of the Voyager record.

(L) The Pioneer plaque, amidships on Pioneer 10. (R) The two sides of the Voyager record. You can explore the Voyager record online (at the JPL Voyager site, or at a complete online archive), or in the (now out of print) book Murmurs of Earth.

Both Voyager spacecraft also carry a message in the form of a Golden Record. The record contains instructions for use, a map pointing back toward Voyager’s origin, and its own set of travellers’ tales: a set of 55 greetings in different languages of Earth, 116 images of life on Earth, and 90 minutes of music from around the world ranging from masterpieces by Mozart, to Chuck Berry’s Johnny B. Goode, to a traditional Peruvian wedding song.  The record bears one final message, inscribed on its inner edge, a handwritten message: “To the makers of music — all worlds, all times” (etched by Timothy Ferris, the producer, when the record was completed).

The ADS All Sky Survey, a rotatable interactive map showing where we've taken pictures of the sky.

The ADS All Sky Survey, a rotatable interactive map showing where we’ve taken pictures of the sky.

The principal commodity of science, and astronomy in particular, is knowledge. The tangible evidence of that knowledge is pictures.  Images capture both scientific knowledge and cultural aesthetic; they can be appreciated by everyone for the wonder they evoke and the questions they provoke.  At a recent gathering of the American Astronomical Society, some of my colleagues showed a new kind of astronomical map.  It is a map of the entire sky, but instead of showing us the secrets veiled away in the deep Cosmos, the map shows us how often we have looked at or studied — taken a picture of — a particular place in the sky. To the trained eye, you can see the Andromeda Galaxy, the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, the plane of the Milky Way, the plane of the Solar System, and the area covered by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.  But what amazes me most about this picture is how LITTLE of the sky we have seen — most of the map is  black, meaning no picture has been taken there.  That is a staggering shame, since as the Hubble Deep Field as shown (and its successors, the Ultra Deep Field, and the Extreme Deep Field), even the most remote, dark and (we thought) empty places in the sky are filled with uncountable mysteries.  The sky is a BIG place, and we are far from having seen it all.

And so we continue to stare, we continue to take pictures, and we continue to spin travellers’ tales about what we’ve seen, what we know, and what we still would like to discover.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field (UDF), showing what is unseen but can be found if you stare at an empty part of the sky for long enough.

The Hubble Ultra Deep Field (UDF), showing what is unseen but can be found if you stare at an empty part of the sky for long enough.


This post is part of an ongoing series, celebrating the forthcoming science series, Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey by revisiting the themes of Carl Sagan’s classic series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  The introductory post of the series, with links to all other posts may be found here:  http://wp.me/p19G0g-dE

Improbable, Awesome Pictures

by Shane L. Larson

10138_504595436278932_866790903_nA friend of mine, who shall remain nameless, was grousing about last month’s enormously successful “Wave at Saturn” campaign.  “WTF? It’s not like Cassini will see any of us in the picture!  People can’t even see Saturn when they’re out waving because the Sun is up!  Why are you going out to wave? You know better!”  Perhaps in a less grumpy-old-man but more conversation-and-education fashion, Sky & Telescope even did a simple analysis to find out if any light from your waving hand actually would have made it onto Cassini’s imaging system (Will Cassini See You?).  I follow this little mathematical exercise perfectly well, and I had made a similar estimate myself.  But I still went outside and waved at Saturn!

waveSaturnI don’t think my friend (or other Grumpy Old Scientists, “GOSes”) understood the point at all, so we had to have a long conversation.  Let’s do the easy one first.  Why did I go out and wave?  Because when I’m a stooped old man who has to have a nurse feed him his Slurpee’s, I didn’t want to look back on my life and regret not going out to wave at Saturn with the rest of humanity. I went out and waved!

Now when I’m 107, I’ll say to my nurse “Did I ever tell you when I was young like you I went out and waved at Saturn?”  He’ll smile at me, pat my arm, and say, “Here Mr. Larson, have another sip of your blue Slurpee.”  I made sure I went and got my certificate from NASA too!  I hope they hang it over my bed in the old folks home. 🙂

My Wave at Saturn certificate.  I waved at Saturn!

My Wave at Saturn certificate. I waved at Saturn!

To address the question of what’s the point, I like to ask a slightly different question: why did people bother to go out and wave at all?  All over the country, people took their kids outside after dinner, or took 15 minutes out of their workday and went out and stood on the sidewalk to wave at a planet 898 million miles away. Why?

Because it is an AWESOME idea.  It sparks a little bit of wonder in the back of your brain to contemplate that the light from every rock, cloud, puddle, car windshield, tree, rooftop, discarded box of macaroni, and waving human hand would travel almost 80 minutes before it arrived at Saturn to be captured by the camera on a robot from another world.  The simple fact that this could even be true should inspire a little bit of pride in every one of us, and make us stand up a little taller.  Only a little more than a century ago, we didn’t even know how to make an airplane fly under its own power.  But today, barely three generations later, our species quite reliably demonstrates the ability to fly beyond the confines of our small world, to send ships sailing the vastness of interplanetary space and send back to us tales of its adventures.

Titan's surface.

Titan’s surface.

Cryovolcanic Enceladus.

Cryovolcanic Enceladus.

That is AWESOME.  Cassini is only the latest is a long series of emissaries that have been exploring the homeworlds of our solar system, and it has sent us enormous numbers of improbable pictures, not the least of which include pictures from the surface of Titan; images of a blue and white wonderland of the enigmatic moon Enceladus, studded with cryovolcanoes; and of course Saturn itself, bejeweled with its mesmerizing ring system.

Saturn from Cassini.

Saturn from Cassini.

Saturn hurricane.

Saturn hurricane.

For thousands of human generations, Saturn was little more than a point of light in the sky. Galileo’s telescope was so crappy he couldn’t even tell Saturn had a ring; “Saturn has ears,” he wrote.  But today, we can build a self-sufficient robot capable of flying high above Saturn, where it can take pictures of a hurricane large enough to cover half of North America, locked onto the north pole of Saturn inside a mysterious six sided cloud formation called “The Hexagon” (you can’t make this stuff up!).

That is AWESOME.  I think all of us know it is awesome too; that’s why a million people went outside and waved at Saturn.  They were waving at Cassini, our little robot friend who tirelessly circles a world that most of us will never see with our own eyes, uncovering its mysteries and teaching us not just about Saturn, but about ourselves.  Deep down, people understand this, and they want to feel connected to it.  That’s why they all tore themselves away from their Excel spreadsheets, paused in their marketing meetings, left three of the tires off and the oil unchanged in the AMC Pacer, and went outside to join their fellow humans in waving.

The crowd at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, waving at Saturn (photo by NASA).

The crowd at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, waving at Saturn (photo by NASA).

People were so engaged with the activity, they took pictures of themselves waving and posted them to twitter, facebook and instagram.  I get the feeling that they didn’t really care whether Cassini got some light from their furiously waving appendages, but their iPhones did, and they basked in the coolness factor as a result.  Yep, for whatever reason, this geeky, crazy idea to participate in something related to science had some serious street cred.  It was an adventure, and they all participated!

I think every one of us who engages in the profession of science should pay attention to that fact, especially all the GOSes (many of whom aren’t all that old, they’ve just become old in their thought patterns — they probably don’t read blogs, so you should spend some time talking them through this!).  People freely engaged in something related to science. People in vast numbers freely engaged in something related to science. They had fun, they probably learned a little bit (like Saturn is up in the sky, even during the daytime), and walked away with a positive and optimistic view of something that isn’t related to reality TV or Hollywood celebrities.

As scientists, we like to bemoan the state of science literacy in the world today, a malaise that is driven by the very vocal anti-science rhetoric that has become inextricably entwined with politics.  There are climate-change deniers and anti-vaxxers to be sure, but when I see a million people standing out on a sunny Earth afternoon waving at a camera improbably far away, I have a little hope.

And to top it all off, we’re still getting payback from the event!  NASA released Casssini’s snapshot of us all to great fanfare.  Here it is.

The Earth, seen from Saturn.

The Earth, seen from Saturn.

See that little dot, lost in the blackness below the majestic arc of Saturn’s ring?  That’s us; that’s home.  You’re in that picture, waving. Your mother is in that picture, waving. I’m in that picture, waving.  Every human being, waving or not, is in that picture.  At the moment this picture was snapped, we were all paying attention.  An improbable moment, captured for all time by a little robot with an improbable mission: seek out new things, learn all you can, and return that information to your creators.

That is AWESOME.

Take some time tonight, and before you fold up your laptop, take a moment to sift through some of the pictures from Cassini.  Take a look at the pictures you snapped during Wave at Saturn, and the ones that Cassini sent back, and remember how engaged the world was with this activity.  Improbable pictures, improbable engagement, but a stunning success.

Well played, NASA.  Well played.  Now let’s do it again.

The Size of the Cosmos

by Shane L. Larson

As many of you know, I ascribe much of my aspirations in life as a scientist to being exposed to Cosmos at a very early age.  Within the first five minutes of the first episode, Carl said a very big thought: “The size and scale of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human comprehension.”

As I have grown into my career in science, I have lost sight of this simple fact. I’ve learned to write big numbers. I’ve learned to convert between meters and kilometers and lightyears when needed. I’ve even learned to use “crazy relativist units” and measure distance, time, energy and mass all in meters (something that confounds my students, my parents, and many of my astronomer friends!). I’ve done this enough now that when I calculate numbers, I know if they sound right.  Two million lightyears to a galaxy in the Local Group? Sure that sounds fine.  750 Megaparsecs to a quasar? Sure, I’m down with that.  1.3 billion kilometers to Saturn?  Word.

Developing a sense for big (and small!) numbers and whether they “sound right” is an essential skill for scientists, and we spend inordinate amounts of time training ourselves and our students to be facile with them.  But that completely bypasses Carl’s point — these numbers are HUGE.  They encode how utterly small we are on the grand scale of the Cosmos!

One of my hobbies is walking Solar System Walks when I encounter them (here is a long list at Wikipedia; another list at Air & Space).  These scale models lay out the Solar System, marking the location of planets at the appropriate spatial scale to give you a sense of how large the Solar System is (forget the Universe itself).  My favorite is one in Anchorage, Alaska, known as the “Lightspeed Planet Walk”  — if you walk at normal speed, the time it takes you to reach each planet is the same time it would take light to make the journey you made.  That is awesome.  Start at Earth, and shine a laser pointer at Neptune the moment you start walking; you’ll reach Neptune at the same time your feeble green laser beam reaches the real planet Neptune!

The center of the Lightspeed Planet Walk in Anchorage, Alaska, with a scale model of the Sun.

The center of the Lightspeed Planet Walk in Anchorage, Alaska, with a scale model of the Sun.

Despite the large physical scale of these walking models, I still often feel like they don’t capture the immensity in a way that really shocks my brain. I’ve thought about this fact a lot, and suspect it is because when I’m walking the model, it feels quite ordinary.  As I’m meandering from Mars to Jupiter, I’m not really thinking about how far I’m walking. I’m distracted by my daughter prattling about why Pluto should still be a planet, and watching ducks eat algae, and avoiding speeding mountain bikers.

But a couple of weeks ago, one of my astronomy friends showed me something that blew my socks off.  It’s a very simple demonstration you can do right at home that captures how messed up my mental picture (and I’ll bet yours!) of the solar system is!  I think my mental pictures are messed up because we often show the family of the Sun all together, to better show the relative size of the planets, like the image below.

A typical representation of the Solar System, often used in books, online references, and mass media.

A typical representation of the Solar System, often used in books, online references, and mass media.

What this image fails to show, is the spacing between the worlds.  We’ve known the relative spacing of the planets for some time, the distances having been worked out using basic geometry together with clever observations (many of which can easily be done in your own backyard), and through application of the laws of physics (notably Kepler’s Laws of Motion, and Newton’s Universal Law of Gravitation).

Folding pattern to make a reasonably spaced representation of the planetary orbits in the Solar System on a long strip of paper.

Folding pattern to make a reasonably spaced representation of the planetary orbits in the Solar System on a long strip of paper.

Let me teach you the trick my friend showed me.  Get a long strip of paper (adding machine paper, or other strip paper works well), about 1 meter long.  On one end, write the word SUN and on the other end write PLUTO.  Now fold the strip in half, and unfold it again.  What object in the solar system lies halfway between the Sun and Pluto?  It is the planet Uranus; write this on the fold.  Now fold the end marked Pluto down to Uranus.  Label this as the location of the orbit of Neptune.  What does this show us?  There isn’t  much in the way of planets in the outer half of the solar system!

Now fold the end marked Sun down to Uranus.  On  this new fold write Saturn.  Fold the Sun down to  Saturn and label the new fold Jupiter.  Fold the  Sun to Jupiter and label the new fold  Asteroids.  At this point, about 93% of your strip is  between the asteroids and Pluto.  This is the part of the solar  system that is euphemistically called “The Outer Solar  System.”  Fully half of the known planets in the solar  system are still to be squeezed between the Asteroids and  the Sun!  Let’s do that next.

Fold the Sun to Asteroids, and label this fold  Mars.  The last part is two folds before labeling: fold the Sun to Mars, then fold the end over to Mars again.  The result is three folds.  Starting at the  Sun, label them Mercury, Venus and Earth.  The entire procedure creates a map with amazingly accurate spacing between the worlds (yes! I calculated the errors; I was curious!).

The results of all your folding endeavours!

The results of all your folding endeavours!

Now stare at your model for a moment.  The solar system is a lot of empty space!  The places that are easiest to get to are close to Earth, but are still very far away.  The distance to the Moon is about the width of a pencil line, and it took Apollo astronauts 4 days to cross that gulf.  Mars is six to eight months away by rocket.  Look how close it is to Earth!  It took the Cassini spacecraft almost seven years to get to Saturn.   When the New Horizons spacecraft flies by Pluto in 2015, it  will be have been outbound for almost nine-and-a-half years!  The  solar system is a big place. And the Cosmos is far vaster.

I think what amazes me the most about this model is that places I normally think of as very far away are much closer to Earth than my brain normally thinks of them.  Consider Jupiter; it is in the Outer Solar System.  But on the map, it is only 1/8th the distance between the Sun and Pluto!  Wow.

“The size and scale of the Cosmos are beyond ordinary human comprehension.”  Perhaps; certainly outside the realm of our everyday experiences. But our ingenuity gives us ways to push our brains to try to understand, and clever demonstrations like this one give you ways to ponder and think.  So get out your scissors, and start folding.

(L) The full length of the Solar System model. (R) My own version of this model, shown next to a typical Earthling.

(L) The full length of the Solar System model. (R) My own version of this model, shown next to a typical Earthling.