Get a Better View of Saturn from Cassini, in 3D

Ever wondered what one of our robotic explorers can see right now? What can Cassini see as it orbits Saturn, continuing to explore the ringed gas giant? Now, in 3D, you can explore the probe yourself, seeing what Cassini sees with a neat 3D interactive viewer, imaging Saturn and her moons, accurately calculating where the probe was, is or will be. The best thing about this little online gadget is that you can speed through time, from the spaceship’s point of view, orbiting Saturn and working out when the next moon or ring flyby will be… A cool toy to waste some time playing with, especially when I really should be doing some work…

This gadget on the Cassini mission website really took me back to my childhood. For those of you who were addicted to the space exploration computer games Elite and Frontier: Elite 2 back in the early ’90s should be able to relate to this too. The Elite games were a groundbreaking series, using polygons to represent 3D objects, flying through space, trading, fighting and interacting with a basic, but engrossing, Universe. Based not on some mystical cosmos, Elite could be played in our solar system, allowing us for the first time to see an interactive 3D view of the Earth, Mars, Moon and the rest of the planets. I also remember zooming through Saturn’s blocky rings and wondered what that would really look like.

Of course, we now know what that does look like, in fact, Cassini is still out there, orbiting Saturn and analyzing Saturn’s moons: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Titan and Iapetus (inner to outer). The Cassini mission, launched in 1997, comprised of the NASA Cassini orbiter and ESA Huygens probe. After a long seven year journey, the pair arrived in Saturn orbit on July 1st, 2004 and on December 25th, 2004 the pair separated to send Huygens to Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Huygens then made an exciting decent through Titan’s atmosphere and relayed vital information about the mysterious planet to the Cassini orbiter.

After all this excitement, Cassini carried on orbiting around Saturn and continues to this day transmitting amazing images and detailed information about Saturn’s interaction with the interplanetary medium, moons, atmosphere and magnetic field. Now, any online user can see what the historic orbiter is doing this very minute. Using NASA’s Cassini at Saturn Interactive Explorer (CASSIE), we can fast-forward or rewind to see Cassini’s most recent encounter with Titan, or see the probe pass through Saturn’s rings at our leisure. Not only is it fun, it helps us visualize where the craft is when we want to know.

The Frontier Elite game box art front (credit: Gametek/Konami)
Now thinking back to all those hundreds of hours I spent playing computer games, and comparing the graphics with this online gadget, I realize things have come a long way as far as 3D visualization is concerned. But I still get the same childish sense of awe about exploring the vastness of space, only this time I know I am seeing a 3D representation of the real view from Cassini.

Interestingly, on the box art of the Frontier: Elite 2 game (pictured left), Saturn is featured very boldly…

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