News From Space: Cassini Snaps Shots of Distant Earth

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For those who follow my site, or just pay attention to a reliable news source, you may recall that NASA announced an opportunity to take part in a long-range photo op. REALLY long range. A few weeks ago, in an attempt to raise awareness about Jupiter and space exploration, NASA announced that the Cassini Space Probe would be rounding Saturn and snapping photos of a distant Earth.

The worldwide “Wave at Saturn” campaign encouraged people to look up at the skies as the probe took its shots. Junior astronomers were also encouraged to watch with their telescopes to see if they could spot the distant satellite performing its route around the massive, ringed planet. This marked the first time that NASA was able to give the people of Earth advanced warning about a space photo op, and the turnout was impressive.

Earth_July_19_2013_Saturn-580x326Granted, North America and part of the Atlantic Ocean were the only illuminated parts of Earth at the time, but NASA claims that more than 20,000 people came out to wave at Saturn and post pictures of themselves online. Given the enormous distance involved, Earth itself appeared only 1.5 pixels wide in the photos. So congratulations if you got in the picture, but don’t expect to be able to see you face.

Not to be left out, members of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena gathered outside of the facility to wave at Cassini on July 19th as it rounded the Saturnalian system and snapped shots of North America. Camping out on the front lawn, researchers and scientists set up a pavilion for the afternoon and enjoyed some outdoor fun until the moment arrived to wave at the heavens.

cassini-wave20130After being beamed back to Earth from 1.5 billion km away (over a billion miles), NASA science teams got right to work processing the many photos shot by Cassini so they could create individual color composites and a panoramic view of the ‘pale blue dot’ of Earth as well as the entire Saturnalian system. And as you can see from the image posted at the beginning of this article, the first color composite was pretty damn spectacular!

Cassini took a total of 323 images using different spectral filters. The snapshots it took of Earth happened between 2:27 and 2:42 p.m. PDT on Friday, July 19 from a distance of about 1.44 billion kilometers (898 million miles). The images show the Earth and the Moon as dots barely about a pixel wide but do reveal the ‘pale blue dot’ that is home to all of humanity and our whitish colored neighbor.

saturn_cassini2006Distant views of the Earth from robotic space probes, especially from the outer reaches of our Solar System, are few and far between, and are therefore events for space and astronomy enthusiasts and everyone else to savor. The last time Cassini took mosaic pictures of Saturn and Earth was back in 2006, and those were pretty spectacular too. But on this occasion, the benefits went beyond stunning photographs.

Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, explained:

One of the most exciting Cassini events in 2013 will be the unusual opportunity on July 19 to image the whole Saturn system as it is backlit by the sun. With Saturn covering the harsh light of the sun, we will be gathering unique ring science and also catching a glimpse of our very own home planet.

Coincidentally, the first humans (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin) set foot on the Moon 44 years ago nearly to the day of Cassini’s new images on July 20, 1969. In short, this occasion reminds us that not only do we live in a very vast universe, but that we are part of a very proud and ongoing tradition of exploration.

News from Space: Smile for the Space Probes!

cassini_spaceprobeFor those who love to stargaze, or people who just can’t resist having their picture taken, this weekend will present a number of cool opportunities. For many, the news that the Cassini space probe will be taking pictures of planet Earth this Friday is already known. But as it turns out, the MESSENGER space probe, currently in orbit around Mercury, has decided to get in on the action.

This is a rare opportunity indeed, and is associated with the Saturn Mosaic Project, something that Astronomers Without Borders is helping out with. The entire point is to give Earthlings a better view of the planet they call home, as well as to stimulate interest in Saturn, its rings, and many orbiting satellites. The SMP is also accepting images taken of Saturn, and has extended its deadline for submissions to July 29th.

wave_at_saturnThere are also other competitions associated with the event – one is to submit photos that best represents Earth (the image must be taken on July 19th, 2013) and another is to write an original song about this event. The digital versions of the winning entries will be beamed to space at a later date.

Also, at the exact time the Cassini spacecraft is snapping pics of Earth, the Slooh Space Camera will be snapping images of Saturn with a live broadcast team. Their feed starts at 2:30 PM PDT / 5:30 PM EDT / 21:30 UTC and will be providing live views of Saturn from the Canary Islands.

If you’re looking to get in on the fun, this is the time when you should be looking at the heavens: First up, Cassini’s photo op will be taking place between 21:27 and 21:47 UTC (2:27 and 2:42 PDT, 5:27 and 5:42 p.m. EDT) on Friday, July 19th. MESSENGER, meanwhile, will be taking images at 11:49, 12:38, and 13:41 UTC (4:49 a.m., 5:38 a.m. and 6:41 a.m. PDT or 7:49 a.m., 8:38 a.m. and 9:41 a.m. EDT) on July 19th and 20th.

Sorry for the late notice. Just look up at the sky and wave. As long as you keep doing it for the next thirty-six to forty-eight hours, I’m sure you can’t miss. Man, times zones are tricky!

Sources: universetoday.com, astronomerswithoutborders.org, saturn.jpl.nasa.gov