Say Cheese: Cassini to Snap Another “Pale Blue Dot” Picture of Earth

Citizens of Earth, get ready for your Cassini close-up: once again the spacecraft is preparing to capture images of Saturn positioned between it and the Sun, allowing for incredible views of the ring system and its atmosphere — and also a tiny “pale blue dot” in the distance we call home.

Earth seen from Cassini (NASA/JPL/SSI)
Earth seen from Cassini (NASA/JPL/SSI)

The mosaic above was composed of images captured during such an eclipse event in September 2006, and quickly became an astronomical sensation. It’s not often we get an idea of what we look like from so far away, and seeing our entire world represented as a small speck of light nestled between Saturn’s rings is, to me anyway, both impressive and humbling.

Humbling because of how small we look, but impressive because as a species we have found a way to do it.

And next month, on Friday, July 19 between 21:27 and 21:42 UTC (5:27 – 5:42 p.m. EDT) Cassini will do it again.

“Ever since we caught sight of the Earth among the rings of Saturn in September 2006 in a mosaic that has become one of Cassini’s most beloved images, I have wanted to do it all over again, only better,” said Cassini imaging team leader, Carolyn Porco. “And this time, I wanted to turn the entire event into an opportunity for everyone around the globe, at the same time, to savor the uniqueness of our beautiful blue-ocean planet and the preciousness of the life on it.”

Porco was involved in co-initiating and executing the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image of Earth taken by NASA’s Voyager 1 from beyond the orbit of Neptune in 1990.

“It will be a day for all the world to celebrate,” she said.

The intent for the upcoming mosaic is to capture the whole scene, Earth and Saturn’s rings from one end to the other, in Cassini’s red, green and blue filters that can be composited to form a natural color view of what our eyes might see at Saturn. Earth and the Moon will also be imaged with a high resolution camera — something not yet done by Cassini.

We can all consider ourselves pretty lucky, too… this is the first time in history that we humans will know in advance that our picture is going to be taken from nearly a billion miles away.

“While Earth will be only about a pixel in size from Cassini’s vantage point 898 million miles [1.44 billion kilometers] away, the Cassini team is looking forward to giving the world a chance to see what their home looks like from Saturn,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “With this advance notice, we hope you’ll join us in waving at Saturn from Earth, so we can commemorate this special opportunity.”

So on July 19, remember to look up and wave… Cassini will be watching!

Read more on the CICLOPS news release here and on the NASA/JPL Cassini mission site here.

“That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives… There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

– Carl Sagan

Cassini Slips Through Enceladus’ Spray

[/caption]

Spray it again, Enceladus! This Saturday the Cassini spacecraft paid another visit to Enceladus, Saturn’s 318-mile-wide moon that’s become famous for its icy geysers.During its latest close pass Cassini got a chance to “taste” Enceladus’ spray using its ion and neutral mass spectrometer, giving researchers more information on what sort of watery environment may be hiding under its frozen, wrinkled surface.

The image above shows a diagonal view of Enceladus as seen from the night side. (The moon’s south pole is aimed at a 45-degree angle to the upper right.) Only by imaging the moon backlit by the Sun can the geysers of fine, icy particles be so well seen.

During the flyby Cassini passed within 46 miles (74 km) of Enceladus’ surface.

This image was captured during the closest approach, revealing the distressed terrain of Enceladus’ south pole. Although a bit blurry due to the motion of the spacecraft, boulders can be made out resting along the tops of high , frozen ridges. (Edited from the original raw image to enhance detail.)

Enceladus' southern fissures, the source of its spray. (NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major)

This flyby occurred less than three weeks after Cassini’s previous visit to Enceladus. Why pay so much attention to one little moon?

Basically, it’s the one place in our solar system that we know of where a world is spraying its “habitable zone” out into space for us to sample.

“More than 90 jets of all sizes near Enceladus’s south pole are spraying water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds all over the place,” said Carolyn Porco, planetary scientist and Cassini Imaging science team leader, during a NASA interview in March. “Cassini has flown several times now through this spray and has tasted it. And we have found that aside from water and organic material, there is salt in the icy particles. The salinity is the same as that of Earth’s oceans.

“In the end, it’s the most promising place I know of for an astrobiology search,” said Porco. (Read the full interview here.)

A crescent-lit Enceladus sprays its "habitable zone" out into space.

Not to be left out, Tethys was also paid a visit by Cassini. The 662-mile-wide moon boasts one of the most extensively cratered surfaces in the Solar System, tied with its sister moons Rhea and Dione. In this raw image captured by Cassini on April 14, we can see some of the moon’s ancient, larger craters, including Melanthius with its enormous central peak.

Saturn's moon Tethys, imaged by Cassini on April 14, 2012.

Cassini passed Tethys at a distance of about 6,000 miles (9000 km) after departing Enceladus. Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer looked for patterns in Tethys’ thermal signature while other instruments studied the moon’s geology.

Image credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. See more images from the Cassini mission on the CICLOPS site here.

 

“Snowing Microbes” On Saturn’s Moon?

[/caption]

Enceladus, Saturn’s 318-mile-wide moon that’s become famous for its ice-spraying southern jets, is on astronomers’ short list of places in our own solar system where extraterrestrial life could be hiding — and NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is in just the right place to try and sniff it out.

On March 27, Cassini came within 46 miles (74 km) of Enceladus’ south pole, the region where the moon’s many active water-ice jets originate from. This was Cassini’s closest pass yet over the southern pole, allowing the spacecraft to use its ion and neutral mass spectrometer — as well as its plasma spectrometer, recently returned to service — to taste the icy spray emanating from deep fissures called “tiger stripes” that scar Enceladus’ surface.

(Fly along with Cassini toward Enceladus’ jets here.)

“More than 90 jets of all sizes near Enceladus’s south pole are spraying water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds all over the place,” said Carolyn Porco, planetary scientist and Cassini Imaging science team leader. “Cassini has flown several times now through this spray and has tasted it. And we have found that aside from water and organic material, there is salt in the icy particles. The salinity is the same as that of Earth’s oceans.”

In addition to water, salt and organics, there is also a surprising amount of heat — heat generated in part by tidal friction, helping keep Enceladus’ underground water reserves liquid.

“If you add up all the heat, 16 gigawatts of thermal energy are coming out of those cracks,” Porco said.

This creates, in effect, a so-called “Goldilocks zone” of potential habitability orbiting around Saturn… a zone that Cassini has easy access to.

“It’s erupting out into space where we can sample it. It sounds crazy but it could be snowing microbes on the surface of this little world,” Porco said. “In the end, it’s the most promising place I know of for an astrobiology search. We don’t even need to go scratching around on the surface. We can fly through the plume and sample it. Or we can land on the surface, look up and stick our tongues out. And voilà…we have what we came for.”

Cassini's view down into a jetting "tiger stripe" in August 2010

Cassini’s latest results — and images! — from the flyby should be landing on Earth any time now. Stay tuned to Universe Today for more updates on Cassini and Enceladus.

Read more on NASA Science News here.

Image credits: NASA/JPL/SSI.

UPDATE: For images from Cassini’s flyby, showing closeups of Enceladus as well as Dione and Janus, check out the CICLOPS team page here.