On July 19, 2013, the sun slipped behind Saturn from the perspective of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, granting Cassini the opportunity to use its wide-angle camera with red, green and blue spectral filters to capture 323 backlit images of the lovely Ringed Planet.
141 of those images have since been processed and compiled by Cassini’s imaging team at the Space Science Institute in Colorado into a panoramic mosaic of the entire Saturn system. The mosaic stretches 404,880 miles (651,591 km) and has been recognized as the first “natural-color portrait” ever to show Saturn and its moons and rings, along with Earth, Venus, and Mars:
Shooting the images with backlighting from the sun served two purposes in creating the mosaic. First, it protected Cassini’s sensitive photography equipment from being damaged by the sun’s intensity. Second, it illuminated some of Saturn’s tiniest moons and thinnest rings that are usually all but invisible to the human eye.
Cassini’s imaging team greatly enhanced the brightness of visible stars, Earth, Venus, Mars, and Saturn’s moons and rings, up to a factor of 16 relative to Saturn, and the entire image was enhanced again to increase visibility.
“In this one magnificent view, Cassini has delivered to us a universe of marvels,” said Carolyn Porco, leader of Cassini’s imaging team. “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 Cassini spacecraft has been exploring the Saturn system for nearly a decade. Linda Spilker, a project scientist from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California, describes Cassini’s research as a “long, intricate dance”—and one that will continue through 2017.
“Cassini aims to study the Saturn system from as many angles as possible,” Spilker said. “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.”
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