CICLOPS: Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for OPerationS

Cassini Imaging Leader Honored With American Astronomical Society Carl Sagan Award

Joe Mason (720)974-5859
Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.

For immediate release: May 28, 2010


Carolyn Porco, veteran planetary imaging scientist and leader of the imaging team on NASA's Cassini mission at Saturn, has been awarded the 2010 Carl Sagan Medal for Excellence in the Communication of Science to the Public by the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society.

The award, which is given "to recognize and honor outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public," will be presented to Porco by Ann Druyan, author and TV and film writer-producer, at the DPS annual meeting to be held in October in Pasadena, Calif. Druyan was wife and collaborator of the late Carl Sagan, the renowned planetary scientist, best-selling author, and the 20th century's most successful and beloved science communicator for whom the award is named.

"Among the many successful predictions Carl made," said Druyan, "was his view of Carolyn's future as both a scientist and a public educator. This is one award recipient whom the namesake would've selected himself. My own admiration and affection for Carolyn makes it all that much more meaningful."

Porco's service as an ambassador for planetary exploration and science has been an integral part of her entire career as an imaging scientist studying the outer solar system.

As a young member of the imaging team of the Voyager mission to the outer solar system in the 1980s, she became a popular mission spokesperson, making appearances on major TV networks in the United States and Britain explaining Voyager's results to the public. Since then, she has appeared often on television, on radio, in print and on the Web as an ardent promoter of Cassini and planetary exploration, and a passionate advocate for the scientific enterprise. She is a frequently requested public speaker, and her popular scientific writings, editorials and commentaries have appeared in the New York Times, London Sunday Times, the Guardian, People, Newsweek, Time, Arizona Daily Star, Scientific American, and American Scientist.

As the leader of the team that takes the high resolution images of Saturn and its rings and moons, Porco has made it her personal mission to process and release to the public Cassini images that are scientifically accurate, artfully presented and as true to life as possible. She has been a strong advocate for using planetary spacecraft to take images solely for their beauty and the cosmic perspective they impart, and to increase public appreciation for exploration. She independently promoted the idea, first proposed by Sagan, to take a "Portrait of the Planets" with the Voyager cameras and participated in the planning and execution of those images in 1991, including the famous "Pale Blue Dot" image of Earth. And some of Cassini's most glorious images and mosaics are among those championed by Porco, in part, for this purpose. Perhaps the most famous of all is Cassini's own "Pale Blue Dot" image, a breathtaking view of a dot-like Earth seen through the rings during a total solar eclipse, voted Cassini's most spectacular image thus far.

Porco's efforts to engage the public in an appreciation of the scientific enterprise have extended also to TV and the movies. In 1994, she was invited by Sagan to serve as the character consultant in developing the on-screen version of Ellie Arroway, the protagonist in the Warner Bros. movie "Contact," based on Sagan's novel of the same name. In 2003, she served as animation director and science consultant for the A&E television special on Voyager's 25th anniversary, "Cosmic Journey," produced by Druyan's Cosmos Studios and Norman Star Media. And most recently, she served as science consultant on the 2009 Paramount Pictures film "Star Trek."

Jonathan Lunine, newly elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, chairman of the DPS prize committee, and Porco's long-time colleague and fellow Cassini scientist said, "I cannot think of anyone in our generation more deserving of this award than Carolyn."

The Sagan medal is the latest in a string of awards and honors recognizing Porco's achievement in science communication. In 2008, she received the Isaac Asimov Science Award from the American Humanist Society, and Wired magazine selected her for its inaugural "Smart List: 15 People the Next President Should Listen To." In 2009, she received the Lennart Nilsson Award, the most prestigious prize in scientific photography, for her work in combining "the finest techniques of planetary exploration and scientific research with aesthetic finesse and educational talent." Also in 2009, she was awarded the Huntington Science Writing Fellowship for both her written and oral presentation of science to the public. The Huntington fellowship will support her writing a book on Cassini and her future work in film and video.

She is currently on the advisory board of Scientific American and the board advising the new Center for Communicating Science at the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University.

Porco's leadership of the Cassini imaging team has led to many diverse and significant scientific discoveries at Saturn. Her contributions to planetary science and exploration were recognized in 1998 with the naming of Asteroid 7231 Porco in her honor. In 1999, she was selected by the London Sunday Times as one of 18 scientific leaders of the 21st century.

About being awarded the prize, Porco said, "I could have been made the President of the United States, the Queen of England and the Pope, all at the same time, and it wouldn't have meant as much to me as winning this award. I'm very happy... and very, very proud!"

Porco will give a public lecture on the occasion of receiving the Sagan medal sometime during the week of the DPS meeting in Pasadena, California. Check the DPS website ( in the autumn for further details.

The Space Science Institute is a Boulder-based non-profit organization that aims to integrate research with education and public outreach (E/PO), promoting inquiry-based learning and science literacy.