Saturn in the Big Picture

I remember, as a kid, being mesmerized by these cheesy old sci-fi paintings of the frozen surface of a moon IX around Tau Ceti 4, or some such thing. Frosty rocks in the foreground, a gas giant looming large above, and maybe a space ship for good measure. I was aware of how speculative these paintings were, but they could still get you to ask the question “What would it be like to be there?”

The Boston Globe’s Big Picture has a new entry on Cassini’s latest adventures around Saturn, and the amazing thing is how much these honest-to-goodness photographs resemble those old sci-fi paintings. For instance:

I half expect to see a busty astronaut in a tight-fitting space suit floating nearby, a disintegrator pistol at her side. If one of those shows up the next set of pictures, man, I will be impressed.

Alan Taylor, the editor of The Big Picture, is a Saturn-o-phile from way back. Here’s a Cassini Flickr set from his pre-Globe days.

In other planetary exploration news, I regret to inform you that your little Mars lander Phoenix did’t make it through the winter. A noble spaceship among the frosty rocks and under pink skies, Phoenix, may you rest in peace.

The High-Water Mark of Winter

I have wonderful news: the days will not, in fact, keep getting shorter and shorter until inky blackness is total and the sun is forever blotted from the sky. Maybe you are cleverer than I am, but I have my doubts every year. In my corner of the northern hemisphere, yesterday was the day with earliest sunset. Although the day as measured from sunrise to sunset will keep shrinking for a few more weeks, the sunset has done its worst and must now spend six months in retreat. Get her running and keep the skeer up! There’s better days ahead, boys.

When I mentioned the significance of this day to my wife, she asked me just how much later the sun will set today. With the help of a handy spreadsheet from the NOAA, I can now tell you the answer. And the answer is… three seconds. Say what you will, but that’s three more seconds of sunlight where I come from.

Here’s a screenshot from an iPhone app that I recommend (as does Dan) called Star Walk. It shows the sun crossing the horizon on its way to bed.


And finally, while we are on our way to the winter solstice here, Saturn has been experiencing its equinox. Check out these Big Picture views of Saturn at equinox. That Cassini machine is a wonder.

Shower with your telescope

Fargo North Decoder, of Electric Company fame, once helped a character played by Rita Moreno with her dangerously loose interpretation of a No Fishing sign. Her version went like this: “Private Property? No! Fishing Allowed.” She was wrong; trouble ensued.

In a similar vein, here is a good one from Steve Crandall’s blog. It appears he was actually sent the following email ad.

There really is a meteor shower early this morning, but I’m guessing that by the time you read this it will be long gone. For the record, I should point out that you should not, in fact, shower with your telescope. If the optics are dirty, it’s far better to run it through a car wash on the back of a pickup truck. Just remember to use lots of bungee cords to hold it in place. Although I suppose there do exist people who, upon seeing the Perseid Meteor, are moved to do mysterious things with their equipment. How about this: “Watch the Perseid Meteor. Shower with a Celestron Telescope. Smoke a Marlboro Cigarette.”

It’s just as well there were no pictures with the ad.

In other space news, today was Cassini’s big Enceladus flyby in which the Saturnian probe dipped to within a few hundred miles of frosty Titan’s spicy little sister. No pictures as of this writing, but there should be some good ones before long. In the meantime, you can contemplate NASA’s latest headline.

Researcher Excited As
Moon Probed Open
Season for Satellite Science

Okay, that was my best effort. Let’s hear your “unfortunate break” headlines.

Two faces of a moon

“Japetus is unique in the Solar System—you know this already, of course, but like all the astronomers of the last three hundred years, you’ve probably given it little thought. So let me remind you that Cassini—who discovered Japetus in 1671—also observed that it was six times brighter on one side of its orbit than the other.

“This is an extraordinary ratio, and there has never been a satisfactory explanation for it. Japetus is so small – about eight hundred miles in diameter—that even in the lunar telescopes its disk is barely visible. But there seems to be a brilliant, curiously symmetrical spot on one face, and this may be connected with TMA-1. I sometimes think that Japetus has been flashing at us like a cosmic heliograph for three hundred years, and we’ve been too stupid to understand its message.”

Arthur C. Clarke gave these words to his fictitious astronomer Heywood Floyd near the climax of his book 2001: A Space Odyssey. Like a lot of people, I read those words years ago and thought to myself: what is the dang deal with Japetus? Clarke wasn’t making up the part about the two-faced nature of Iapetus (as it is more commonly called), an oddball Saturnian moon.

The two-toned satellite is still mysterious, but now we have some quality snapshots from the visiting Cassini spacecraft. And, hoo boy! they do not disappoint. I find this APOD picture astounding: The Strange Trailing Side of Saturn’s Iapetus. Great Clarke! Look in the sky! It’s a cosmic snowball rolled in dirt… it’s a sugar-frosted chocolate space truffle… it’s… it’s a much better investment than the International Space Station. You know what we need? I’ll tell you what we need: more space robots with cameras and fewer accident-prone gold-plated Tang-sucking astro-cosmo-taikonauts.

Flickr’ing Saturn

I continue to be impressed with the community energy going on over at Flickr. I was struck by this lovely set assembled by Kokogiak (Alan Taylor) of pictures from the Cassini space probe at Saturn. What’s especially interesting here is that all the pictures come from NASA’s official Cassini site. Anybody could make a set like it, but no one else has (including NASA). The Mars rover page does a much better job, comparatively, in letting you get at interesting pictures. Taylor has done us all a wonderful service… his collection has the Wow factor that the NASA hadn’t yet supplied. Here’s how he describes it.

I’ve been fanatic about space exploration since I was a kid, and have been giddy the past year or so with the constant feed of imagery from Mars and Saturn. I’ve been trolling the 35,000+ images from Saturn ever since they started coming online. All of the images in this photoset come from NASA’s JPL website. They are the best of the lot, in my judgment. As self-appointed curator, I chose 101 images that spoke to me, and that I thought would speak to others. Especially the ones that made me say “whoa” to myself the first time I saw them.

While you’re at it, take a minute to look at his compact Amazon Light interface that makes a clutter free version of the Amazon site using far less real estate. Thanks Alan!