Cassini Spacecraft Sees Venus From Over a Billion Kilometers Away

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
March 5 2013 8:00 AM

Venus… from Saturn

A few years back, the folks who run the imaging from the Cassini spacecraft created a drop-dead stunning mosaic of the ringed world showing the Earth peeking out from the rings. This week they released another image, but this time it shows the planet Venus playing planetary hide-and-seek:

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

Venus as seen by Cassini spacecraft
The Cassini spacecraft spotted the spark of Venus while orbiting Saturn 1.4 billion km away. Click to encronosenate.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This picture is very cool, and I have to admit it really threw me for a moment. Cassini was behind Saturn when it took this; that is, the Sun is on the other side of the planet, so all Cassini saw of Saturn itself is a very thin illuminated arc.

Advertisement

Venus is the bright spot just off the edge of the planet to the upper right (the other dot of light closer to the bottom is a star). It may not look like much, but remember, Saturn is a long way from the Sun. When this shot was taken, on Jan. 4, 2013, the gulf of space separating the two planets was about 1.4 billion kilometers (850 million miles)! From Earth, Venus is the third brightest natural object in the sky. From Saturn? Not so much. So that’s pretty cool.

So all by its lonesome, that’s enough to make me marvel at this image. But it took me several seconds to understand what I was seeing in this image. Saturn and Venus were obvious enough, but what’s the deal with those fuzzy arcs? Those must be part of a ring, but their angle off the planet didn’t make sense to me. Shouldn’t they look more perpendicular to the arc?

Then suddenly my perspective changed, and I saw my mistake. I thought both arcs were part of the same ring; the broader one the part of the ring that was nearby, and the thinner one above it the same ring arcing back around to go behind the planet. But that’s wrong! Those are two different rings both on the near side of the planet. The broad one is Saturn’s E ring, a wide, diffuse collection of particles supplied, in part, by geysers erupting off of the tiny moon Enceladus.

The thinner one is the G ring, also somewhat diffuse but not nearly so much as the E ring. My eye and brain were trying to connect them into one ring, and that effect was magnified by the G ring looking thinner and therefore (according to my primitive brain) farther away. But the angle of the rings to the planet arc made couldn’t possibly be right, my brain continued. And that’s when it made a decision: see them a different way. When I realized they were two different rings—the G ring is closer in to Saturn than the E ring—it all made sense. I’ll note the blue color in the E ring is due to the ice particles in the ring scattering sunlight toward you. Blue light is more strongly affected that way than red, so it makes the ring look blue.

Venus from Saturn
Another view of Venus from Saturn, taken in November 2012. Click to cythereanate.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

I love Cassini pictures from Saturn. Not just because they’re so lovely, and show such a magnificent view of our Universe—though there is that. But it’s also because they so commonly twist my brain up, giving me just enough information to figure out what I’m seeing, but not making it so screamingly obvious. It sometimes takes a bit of thought to unravel what the pictures are saying, and what the eye is telling the brain.

It’s a bit of mental gymnastics that always makes me smile. Science is fun.

TODAY IN SLATE

The World

The Budget Disaster that Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

Can Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu Pull Off One More Louisiana Miracle?

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

Everything You Should Know About Today’s Eclipse

Fascinating Maps Based on Reddit, Craigslist, and OkCupid Data

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

How Movies Like Contagion and Outbreak Distort Our Response to Real Epidemics

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 23 2014 1:51 PM Is This the ISIS Backlash We've Been Waiting For?
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 23 2014 11:51 AM It Seems No One Is Rich or Happy: I Looked
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Oct. 23 2014 1:34 PM Leave Me Be Beneath a Tree: Trunyan Cemetery in Bali
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 23 2014 11:33 AM Watch Little Princesses Curse for the Feminist Cause
  Slate Plus
Working
Oct. 23 2014 11:28 AM Slate’s Working Podcast: Episode 2 Transcript Read what David Plotz asked Dr. Meri Kolbrener about her workday.
  Arts
Culturebox
Oct. 23 2014 1:46 PM The Real Secret of Serial Has Sarah Koenig made up her mind yet? 
  Technology
Technology
Oct. 23 2014 11:45 AM The United States of Reddit  How social media is redrawing our borders. 
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.