Saturn’s Backlit Beauty

Mosaic of a backlit Saturn, made from 60 Cassini images acquired on October 12, 2012.
Mosaic of a backlit Saturn, made from 60 Cassini images acquired on October 12, 2012.

As a sort of Christmas gift to the world, the Cassini mission team released this image today, a majestic mosaic showing the planet Saturn gleaming in backlit sunlight.

“Of all the many glorious images we on Cassini have received from Saturn, none are more strikingly unusual than those we have taken from within Saturn’s shadow,” said Cassini imaging team director Carolyn Porco. “They unveil a rare splendor seldom seen anywhere else in our solar system.”

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has delivered a glorious view of Saturn, taken while the spacecraft was in Saturn’s shadow. The cameras were turned toward Saturn and the sun so that the planet and rings are backlit. (The sun is behind the planet, which is shielding the cameras from direct sunlight.) In addition to the visual splendor, this special, very-high-phase viewing geometry lets scientists study ring and atmosphere phenomena not easily seen at a lower phase.

Since images like this can only be taken while the sun is behind the planet, this beautiful view is all the more precious for its rarity. The last time Cassini captured a view like this was in Sept. 2006, when it captured a mosaic processed to look like natural color, entitled “In Saturn’s Shadow-The Pale Blue Dot” (See PIA08329.) In that mosaic, planet Earth put in a special appearance, making “In Saturn’s Shadow” one of the most popular Cassini images to date. Earth does not appear in this mosaic as it is hidden behind the planet.

“I fervently hope it serves as a reminder that we humans, though troubled and warlike, are also the dreamers, thinkers, and explorers inhabiting one achingly beautiful planet, yearning for the sublime, and capable of the magnificent.We hope it reminds you to protect our planet with all your might and cherish the life it so naturally sustains.”
– Carolyn Porco

Also captured in this image are two of Saturn’s moons: Enceladus and Tethys. Both appear on the left side of the planet, below the rings. Enceladus is closer to the rings; Tethys is below and to the left.

The hazy glow around the lower portion of the rings is the illuminated E ring, which is made of fine icy particles sprayed into orbit by Enceladus.

Images taken using infrared, red and violet spectral filters were combined to create this enhanced-color view. The images were obtained with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Oct. 17, 2012 at a distance of approximately 500,000 miles (800,000 kilometers) from Saturn. Image scale at Saturn is about 30 miles per pixel (50 kilometers per pixel).

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

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