There are times when I see an astronomical image so powerful that I'm momentarily stunned, my brain kicked hard enough that all I can do is stare at it and soak it in. This picture of Saturn is the latest to affect me this way:
[Click to embiggen.] This astonishing image was taken on June 13, 2012 by the Cassini spacecraft when it was 2.6 million kilometers (1.6 million miles) from the ringed planet -- that's more than six times farther than the Moon is from the Earth. Even then Saturn's rings span too broad a space to see completely. But artistically, perhaps, it works even better; their vast size is intimated instead of spoken aloud, the thousands of thinner component rings only hinted at. You can see their shadow on the tops of Saturn's southern clouds thousands of kilometers below, the Sun shining down from the north -- to the left as seen in this oddly-angled shot. The clouds themselves are almost featureless, but you can still see some boundaries between oppositely-blowing wind belts, and even the long, snaking remnants of a titanic storm that raged in the north last year. It's incredible. Moreover, this image has not been processed in any way: it's raw, taken right off Cassini's detectors and sent home to Earth (I shrank it a bit to fit the blog, but otherwise didn't touch it). The sky behind the planet isn't entirely dark, there are a handful of hot pixels you can see on the planet, and there are other defects here and there that catch the eye. But even that takes nothing away from the power of this image to me, and in many senses actually adds to it. Cassini is out there. It's well over a billion kilometers away from Earth and the Sun's warmth, moving through space, enthralled by the deep and long-reaching gravity of this huge planet. Quietly, obediently, and with hardly any glitches or complaints, it takes picture after picture, reads and records the environment around it, saves the data, and then sends it via radio waves back to Earth, no more than a blue dot in its sprawling sky. This is what I see, this is how my mind reacts once my brain has a moment to compose itself. It's a fantastic tableau, a static shot of a magnificent planet such a long, long way away. And always, when I see these, I also think: we did this. We flung this complex machine into the distant solar system to study Saturn, and we did it because we want to find things out. It is among the best things we do.
Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Thanks to Michael Interbartolo for posting about this latest batch of raw images in his Google+ stream.