NASA’s Cassini spacecraft took this natural-color portrait on July 19, 2013, which is the first image to show Saturn, its moons and rings, plus Earth, Venus and Mars, all together. Cassini does not attempt many images of Earth because the sun is so close to our planet that an unobstructed view would damage the spacecraft's sensitive detectors. The Cassini team members looked for an opportunity when the sun would slip behind Saturn from Cassini's point of view. A good opportunity came on July 19, when Cassini was able to capture a picture of Earth and its moon, and this multi-image backlit panorama of the Saturn system.
Cassini's imaging team processed 141 wide-angle images to create the panorama. The image sweeps 404,880 miles (651,591 kilometers) across Saturn and its inner ring system, including all of Saturn's rings out to the E ring, which is Saturn's second outermost ring. For perspective, the distance between Earth and our moon would fit comfortably inside the span of the E ring.
"In this one magnificent view, Cassini has delivered to us a universe of marvels," said Carolyn Porco, Cassini's imaging team lead at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. "And it did so on a day people all over the world, in unison, smiled in celebration at the sheer joy of being alive on a pale blue dot."
The E ring shines like a halo around Saturn and the inner rings. Because it is so tenuous, it is best seen with light shining from behind it, when the tiny particles are outlined with light because of the phenomenon of diffraction. Scientists who focus on Saturn's rings look for patterns in optical bonanzas like these. They use computers to increase dramatically the contrast of the images and change the color balance, for example, to see evidence for material tracing out the full orbits of the tiny moons Anthe and Methone for the first time.
“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," said Matt Hedman, a Cassini participating scientist at the University of Idaho in Moscow. "The E ring in particular shows patterns that likely reflect disturbances from such diverse sources as sunlight and Enceladus’ gravity.”
The image above shows cryovolcanic Enceladus (the dark spot inside the bright flare, right near the center of the E ring) with streams of ice and water vapor pouring off the moon into the E ring. The bright image of the normally faint E-ring was made possible by aligning Cassini so that Saturn blocked the Sun. From that perspective, small ring particles reflect incoming sunlight more efficiently.
"With a long, intricate dance around the Saturn system, Cassini aims to study the Saturn system from as many angles as possible," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist based at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif. "Beyond showing us the beauty of the Ringed Planet, data like these also improve our understanding of the history of the faint rings around Saturn and the way disks around planets form -- clues to how our own solar system formed around the sun."
Launched in 1997, Cassini has explored the Saturn system for more than nine years. NASA plans to continue the mission through 2017, with the anticipation of many more images of Saturn, its rings and moons, as well as other scientific data.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.
The Daily Galaxy via NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI