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