Looking Back

Ever since I was a little boy, Saturn has been my guy.  I must have been eight or nine when I peered through a slightly shaky telescope at the University of Tennessee and saw the bright white sphere with its distinctive rings.  The optical resolution through the relatively small scope (and hazy atmosphere) wasn’t sufficient to reveal the striking colors of the orb, but even that brief, monochromatic glimpse left an indelible impression.

The rather fuzzy view that I recall seems positively primitive compared to the images that came later.  It’s amazing to realize that Voyagers 1 and 2 flew by Saturn more than 35 years ago and sent back vivid images that people could peruse in newspapers and magazines around the world.  Back then, in 1980-81, few could imagine what was to come.

Saturn from Voyager 2. (Image credit: SSPL/Getty Images)

Saturn in this Century

Flash forward to the 21st century, and anyone with access to the Internet has the privilege of viewing crystal clear images of Saturn, its rings, and its moons simply by visiting sites (like this one) dedicated to astronomy and space exploration.  The pictures come from advanced Earth-based telescopes, from the Hubble Space Telescope, and from interplanetary explorers such as the Voyagers and the Cassini spacecraft.

If the Voyagers were like buses that passed by Saturn so that tourists could take a few snapshots of an inviting sight, Cassini is akin to a vessel that sailed into port for a good long stay.  Since dropping off its sister craft Huygens to explore the moon Titan, at the end of 2004, Cassini has been surveying the entire Saturnian system.  It has gathered enormous quantities of invaluable data and sent back a steady stream of fascinating images – and what stunningly beautiful pictures they are.

Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas (in descending order) hover above and below Saturn’s rings. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Giovanni Cassini (1625-1712) is credited with the discovery of Saturn’s moons Iapetus, Rhea, Tethys, and Dione.

There is stark majesty in the Cassini photographs of arcing rings and drifting moons set against a pitch-black background.  They bring to mind the carefully composed, still-life photos of Edward Weston, only they were taken by a camera on a spacecraft a billion or so miles away (depending on its distance from Earth at the moment that the shutter “clicked”).

Naturally, dramatic discoveries about Saturn and its moons tend to get the biggest play, but sometimes lesser news or images can be equally interesting.  Just last week, for instance, NASA/JPL featured a very cool Cassini image of Saturn’s tiny moon Pan navigating its solitary course through the Encke Gap in the planet’s outermost A Ring.

Saturn’s tiny moon Pan keeps the A Ring’s Encke Gap tidy. (Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Though extremely small (only about 17 miles across), Pan performs useful custodial tasks:  aiding in the creation and shaping of the narrow ringlets that appear in the gap, and sweeping the space clear of any refuse that might otherwise accumulate.  So, the photo of the little moon’s path is not only aesthetically pleasing, it reveals purpose.

The data that Cassini has transmitted during its long sojourn in Saturn’s system will keep analysts busy for years to come, but the images it has produced are fuel for my imagination . . . and my memory.  They carry me back through time to a small observatory in Knoxville, Tennessee, where I first took a peek at the distant, ringed planet.  Come to think of it, in Roman mythology Saturn was the god of time, wasn’t he?  Well, that’s just dandy.