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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

I’m With Saturn

By Phil Plait

I have a very strong suspicion Tuesday will jangle the nerves of a lot of you, my fair readers, no matter whether you are a U.S. citizen or citizen of the planet.

So, to recollect your fraying mind, how about we breathe deep of another planet altogether?

Behold. SATURN.

Ah, yes, isn’t that better? Gaze into its magnificence and know that respite and strength are still within reach.

That image was the colossal work of Ian Regan, an astronomer who loves to tackle image processing from space probes. He combined 21 total images—seven each using red, blue, and green filters—to create this stunning mosaic. The images were taken by the Cassini probe on Oct. 28, over the course of about an hour and a half.

Update, Nov. 8, 2016: Regan wrote a guest post at the Planetary Society that has more information on the image and how he created it.

There’s so much to see: the north pole hexagon, a huge jet stream–like feature fully 20,000 km across; the faded banding of belts and zones of the atmosphere; and of course the glorious rings, which always leave me slack-jawed in their beauty.

There are subtleties, too. For example, from this vantage point, with the Sun off to the right, Cassini sees Saturn as we never can from Earth. It appears as a crescent! With the north pole illuminated by the Sun, we can also deduce it’s northern hemisphere summer for Saturn, and indeed the solstice is on May 24, 2017. That means the shadow cast by the planet on the rings is shortening, and even now doesn’t fall all the way to the thin outer F ring.

Note too that you can see the night side of Saturn, just barely, illuminated by the rings themselves! Sunlight reflects off the bright rings and falls on the planet’s “dark” side, allowing us to see it. The same thing happens here at home, when you can see the Moon’s dark part illuminated by reflected Earthshine.

And you may be forgiven for not seeing this at all, but three moons are visible in the image (if you crank the contrast up): Epimetheus, just outside the rings to the upper right of Saturn, and Atlas and Prometheus, just to the right of the rings near the edge.

All in all, this spectacular image is so staggering I would rank it in the Top 10 of all Cassini Saturn photos, alongside the breathtaking mosaic by Gordan Urgankovic and the two backlit mosaics from 2006 and 2013.

In fact, of you want more—and oh my yes, you most certainly do—check out this gallery of images from Cassini’s 10th anniversary at Saturn. On today of all days, I think it’ll cure what ails ya.

And, finally, I must point out that it’s a reminder that there are greater things out there, more vast and profound, far above and outside our own horizon. But we can see them, we can ponder them, and we can understand them. That makes us great if we choose to be, and that is very much what I want you to remember today.

If you want to see other works by Regan follow him on Twitter, where he lists a lot of his amazing processing.

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