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Dancing With Saturn

Posted By Bill Dunford

24-03-2014 21:30 CDT

Topics: pretty pictures, Cassini, Saturn's moons, Saturn, animation, Saturn's rings

As I type this, the robotic spacecraft Cassini is traveling at 2.4 kilometers per second (about 5,300 MPH) relative to the planet Saturn. On April 9th, when Cassini makes its closest approach to the planet during this current orbit, the craft will reach nearly 9 kilometers per second (about 20,000 MPH). For all that amazing speed, the pictures we see from Cassini are usually still shots, arrestingly beautiful--but also arrested in time.

Fortunately, we can get a sense of Cassini's intricate ongoing dance with Saturn and its moons, thanks to sequences of still images strung together into simple animations. Sometimes these sequences are just a series of routine observations; sometimes they are planned with moving images in mind. This magic is possible thanks to the Cassini engineering and science teams, who coordinate to build a list of painstakingly precise instructions, which they radio across a billion kilometers of space to the Saturn system. Cassini does the rest, spinning and pirouetting to orient its cameras just so, even as it careens at high speed past rings and icy moons.

The results are often striking. Here are a few of my favorites. I've applied very little post-processing to these sequences, but what they lack in polish compared to Hollywood CGI, they make up in being real.

Surging Sunlight

NASA / JPL / SSI / Animation by Bill Dunford

Surging Sunlight
The bright glint of an opposition surge seems to follow Cassini as it observes Saturn's rings over the course of a couple of hours with the sun directly behind the spacecraft.

Purple Haze in Motion

NASA / JPL / SSI / Animation by Bill Dunford

Purple Haze in Motion
As Cassini neared Saturn's moon Titan for a close pass, layers of haze in the giant moon's atmosphere revealed themselves. (The color in these images is added.)

Ice Shepherd

NASA / JPL / SSI / Animation by Bill Dunford

Ice Shepherd
Cassini caught the shepherd moon Prometheus at work herding the icy particles of Saturn's F ring with its gentle gravitational field.
Buzzing Dione

NASA / JPL / SSI / Animation by Bill Dunford

Buzzing Dione
Cassini captured this series of images as it flew near the ice world Dione in 2005.

Epimetheus and Family

NASA / JPL / SSI / Animation by Bill Dunford

Epimetheus and Family
Epimetheus, as tracked by Cassini over the course of almost an hour as the moonlet orbited in the ring plane, along with other members of Saturn's family of worlds.

Spinning Saturn

NASA / JPL / SSI / Animation by Bill Dunford

Spinning Saturn
Cassini watched over the span of about 90 minutes as Saturn turned on its axis, its atmosphere churned, and icy moons circled the scene.
Enceladus Amid the Stars

NASA / JPL / SSI / Animation by Bill Dunford

Enceladus Amid the Stars
Saturn's moon Enceladus, with its intriguing ice geysers, seems to be rocketing through space in this series of images taken by Cassini.
Mimas and the Rings

NASA / JPL / SSI / Animation by Bill Dunford

Mimas and the Rings
Cassini tracks Saturn's moon Mimas as it orbits near the rings. The sequence shown here took about 11 minutes to capture.

And here's one more that was previously uploaded to the Saturn section of the Bruce Murray Space Image Library. I have to sneak it in, just because I think it happens to be one of the most amazing sights in the history of all exploration.

Saturn's north polar vortex (an animation)

NASA / JPL / SSI / Kevin McAbee

Saturn's north polar vortex (an animation)
Cassini took 14 images of Saturn's north polar vortex on November 27, 2012 over a period of many hours as the planet rotated beneath it. The 14 images have been processed to remove the geometric effects of Cassini's oblique viewpoint and of Saturn's rotation, holding the outer bright ring of white clouds fixed. With these motions removed, you can see individual vortices rotating and shearing, and the central clouds rotating faster than the outer ones.
 
See other posts from March 2014

 

Read more blog entries about: pretty pictures, Cassini, Saturn's moons, Saturn, animation, Saturn's rings

Comments:

Stephen Van Vuuren: 03/25/2014 10:32 CDT

Nice collection. I will humbly add my own that's a bit longer as it's a long sequence of raw images. http://youtu.be/YXWmVZxEtlY

Bill Dunford: 03/25/2014 11:26 CDT

Gorgeous.

Ruth: 03/25/2014 02:01 CDT

These images are beautiful and artfully put together-so inspiring! Thank you. The best part is the images are real!!

Stephen Van Vuuren: 03/25/2014 02:01 CDT

Thanks. And by the way thanks for including Kevin McAbee's. He's a friend of mine and a major volunteer on my film project that used photo-animation.

Bob Ware: 03/25/2014 08:16 CDT

You guys and fellow colleagues are why in part that Bruce Murray said to include cameras on spacecraft. There is so much to learn and more inspiration from an image than non-imaging sensing could ever accomplish! Thanks for sharing those sequences!

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