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Captain's Log

December 24, 2014

As another year in Saturn orbit draws to a close, and with Christmas a day away, I thought I would present, as my gift to all of you, some lovely visions ... not of sugar-plums, but of astounding things we have seen at Saturn, and the vision that such things have left in my mind, rendered by one of the most renowned astronomical artists of our time.

One vision that made an indelible impression on those of us who have been fascinated by Saturn's rings since the days of Voyager is the one, seen in images taken during the planet's equinox in mid-2009, of the tall, spiky features and the long shadows they cast at the outer edge of Saturn's most massive ring, the B ring. These incredible structures are nothing less than mountainous waves of icy rubble extending more than 2 miles high above the 30-feet-thick disk of debris that forms the plane of the rings. As this is the site of the strongest resonance with a Saturnian moon that exists in the rings, we believe it is the repeated compression of the ring material around large, embedded moonlets that jams the particles together and then upwards, like a wave crashing around a giant rock at the ocean's shore. [Links to these images and more, with further explanations, can be found here.

I have often thought: What a surreal sight this would be if you were flying low across the rings in a shuttle craft. To your eyes, the rings would seem like a gleaming white, scored, gravelly sheet below you, extending nearly to infinity. And as you flew, you would see in the distance a wall of rubble that, eventually, as it neared, you would come to realize towered 2 miles above your head. There isn't another sight like it in the solar system!

Michael Carroll, a beloved and skilled astronomical artist, took this idea, mentioned often in my public lectures, and turned it into a piece of art.




This holiday season, as you're kicking back and enjoying the peace and quiet and Christmas sparkle that this time of year has to offer, let your mind wander to that ringed planet clear across the solar system that we have come to know so well.

Imagine yourself, in that craft, joysticking among its many moons and across its rings, and revisiting in your mind all the glorious sights we have seen during our decade's time there, including this phenomenal sector of Saturn's rings. Ten years ago, it would not have been possible for you to have such a reverie. And now it's yours and mine ... to enjoy at will, whenever we wish.

Happy Holidays to all you kindred souls and space cadets and lovers of new wonders. Here's looking forward to another splendid year at Saturn up ahead.

Carolyn Porco
Cassini Imaging Team Leader
Director, CICLOPS
Boulder, CO



More Captain's Logs

Alliance Member Comments
jsc248 (Dec 25, 2014 at 4:30 AM):
Thanks Michael,
Despite some reservations of visual context to CASSINI data, you have produced an image of great detail and imaginative zest. The image gives a vision of being there despite whatothers may say. Truly fantastic work, well done.

I would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone (Carolyn and the whole team) a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
rgedaly (Dec 24, 2014 at 11:54 PM):
Thanks Michael. What's particularly interesting is that your work provides a sense of scale. That's something I've had a hard time getting my head around.
PiperPilot (Dec 24, 2014 at 5:59 PM):
I will say that I have never cared for artists conceptions of astronomical renderings. I don’t feel that they are even close to what the true image would be. With all the imaging we have coming back in our solar system I don’t even see the need for it. If the discussion is about some where that we haven’t been yet I’d much rather wait for a JPG than to have someone’s WAG.
cosmicart (Dec 24, 2014 at 4:08 PM):
Dear Stevekasian: Udanax is correct, but it's a very tricky problem. I had discussed the phenomenon with Carolyn Porco at length, and we even had a lunch with piles of napkin drawings. In the end, I had to make a sculpey version of what we see (see my updated caption, which should appear on CICLOPS soon). Michael Carroll
cosmicart (Dec 24, 2014 at 4:07 PM):
Dear Stevekasian: Udanax is correct, but it's a very tricky problem. I had discussed the phenomenon with Carolyn Porco at length, and we even had a lunch with piles of napkin drawings. In the end, I had to make a sculpey version of what we see (see my updated caption, which should appear on CICLOPS soon). Michael Carroll
Udanax (Dec 24, 2014 at 3:46 PM):
Stevekasian,

We can observe the same kind of mismatch on the Moon. It is a matter of lighting angle: when sunlight falls obliquely, shadows are elongated and this exaggerates every irregularity.
Lunar mountains are actually "shaped like smooth, rolling hills", but their shadows, observed with a telescope or an orbiting spacecraft, "show sharp, jegged, craggy peaks".
In fact, Michael Carroll could not have got it righter.
hank (Dec 24, 2014 at 3:09 PM):
Is there any chance of getting that photographed, maybe on the last daring dive down the gravity well? Because a movie of that would be -- heck, you should invite bids from the major motion picture production companies.
hank (Dec 24, 2014 at 3:08 PM):
Is there any chance of getting that photographed, maybe on the last daring dive down the gravity well? Because a movie of that would be -- heck, you should invite bids from the major motion picture production companies.
stevekasian (Dec 24, 2014 at 2:02 PM):
I can't help but notice that the "beloved and skilled" Michael Carroll didn't even think to shape and contour the 2 mile high towering wall of rubble so that it matched the shadows he created for them. The edges are shaped like smooth, rolling hills, while the shadows, consistent with the actual photographs, show sharp, jagged, craggy peaks. So once again, as with almost all "conceptual artists" in the astronomical field, this artist's conception falls short of doing the concept justice. Not at all impressed.

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