CICLOPS: Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for OPerationS
The Rite of Spring

Of the countless equinoxes Saturn has seen since the birth of the solar system, this one, captured here in a mosaic of light and dark, is the first witnessed up close by an emissary from Earth ... none other than our faithful robotic explorer, Cassini.

Seen from our planet, the view of Saturn's rings during equinox is extremely foreshortened and limited. But in orbit around Saturn, Cassini had no such problems. From 20 degrees above the ringplane, Cassini's wide angle camera shot 75 exposures in succession for this mosaic showing Saturn, its rings, and a few of its moons a day and a half after exact Saturn equinox, when the sun's disk was exactly overhead at the planet's equator.

The novel illumination geometry that accompanies equinox lowers the sun's angle to the ringplane, significantly darkens the rings, and causes out-of-plane structures to look anomalously bright and to cast shadows across the rings. These scenes are possible only during the few months before and after Saturn's equinox which occurs only once in about 15 Earth years. Before and after equinox, Cassini's cameras have spotted not only the predictable shadows of some of Saturn's moons (see PIA11657), but also the shadows of newly revealed vertical structures in the rings themselves (see PIA11665).

Also at equinox, the shadows of the planet's expansive rings are compressed into a single, narrow band cast onto the planet as seen in this mosaic. (For an earlier view of the rings' wide shadows draped high on the northern hemisphere, see PIA09793.)

The images comprising the mosaic, taken over about eight hours, were extensively processed before being joined together. First, each was reprojected into the same viewing geometry and then digitally processed to make the image "joints" seamless and to remove lens flares, radially extended bright artifacts resulting from light being scattered within the camera optics.

At this time so close to equinox, illumination of the rings by sunlight reflected off the planet vastly dominates any meager sunlight falling on the rings. Hence, the half of the rings on the left illuminated by planetshine is, before processing, much brighter than the half of the rings on the right. On the right, it is only the vertically extended parts of the rings that catch any substantial sunlight.

With no enhancement, the rings would be essentially invisible in this mosaic. To improve their visibility, the dark (right) half of the rings has been brightened relative to the brighter (left) half by a factor of three, and then the whole ring system has been brightened by a factor of 20 relative to the planet. So the dark half of the rings is 60 times brighter, and the bright half 20 times brighter, than they would have appeared if the entire system, planet included, could have been captured in a single image.

The moon Janus (179 kilometers, 111 miles across) is on the lower left of this image. Epimetheus (113 kilometers, 70 miles across) appears near the middle bottom. Pandora (81 kilometers, 50 miles across) orbits outside the rings on the right of the image. The small moon Atlas (30 kilometers, 19 miles across) orbits inside the thin F ring on the right of the image. The brightnesses of all the moons, relative to the planet, have been enhanced between 30 and 60 times to make them more easily visible. Other bright specks are background stars. Spokes -- ghostly radial markings on the B ring -- are visible on the right of the image.

This view looks toward the northern side of the rings from about 20 degrees above the ringplane.

The images were taken on Aug. 12, 2009, beginning about 1.25 days after exact equinox, using the red, green and blue spectral filters of the wide angle camera and were combined to create this natural color view. The images were obtained at a distance of approximately 847,000 kilometers (526,000 miles) from Saturn and at a Sun-Saturn-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 74 degrees. Image scale is 50 kilometers (31 miles) per pixel.

The Cassini Equinox Mission is a joint United States and European endeavor. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team consists of scientists from the US, England, France, and Germany. The imaging operations center and team lead (Dr. C. Porco) are based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

For more information about the Cassini Equinox Mission visit, and

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Released: September 21, 2009 (PIA 11667)
Image/Caption Information
  The Rite of Spring
PIA 11667

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Alliance Member Comments
rulesfor (Oct 12, 2010 at 9:53 AM):
Why not accompany this release with a version that doesn't have the rings artificially brightened? I understand that they would be practically invisible, but it would provide a different perspective on a familiar planet, as well as a picture of what we would have seen had we been looking out Cassini's "windows" at that particular place in space and time.
Just a thought/wish.
Iapetus Monolith (Sep 23, 2009 at 4:08 AM):
The 'mosaic of light and dark' (PIA 11997) is majestic and humbling. This star child can only gaze in silent awe, profoundly thankful to have been born on this unique planet, in this unique era, with such talented experts working for his delight. Space is big ... very big. If only my screen were, too!
garyobrien (Sep 21, 2009 at 8:57 PM):
I'm speechless.

There is beauty everywhere in the universe. Thanks to Dr. Porco and the imaging team for bringing us the view from the bridge of Spaceship Cassini, and to Dennis Overbye of the New York Times for bringing this work to our attention.

I will revisit Sector 6 often!

Gary O'Brien
Charlotte, NC
Red_dragon (Sep 21, 2009 at 5:37 PM):
Simply put, there're no words to describe the beauty of this image. I believed that after enjoying images as this one: or this other: -to cite just two-, it would be difficult to create something that rivalled in beauty to them... and you've done it again. Thanks for this great image and I hope there will be a "Solstice Mission" to have more discoveries from Saturn and epic images as this one.
matthewota (Sep 21, 2009 at 2:55 PM):
I am glad the Cassini spacecraft is durable enough to allow for this extended mission and these wonderful images.
Ed Rolko (Sep 21, 2009 at 1:02 PM):
There ya have it, yet another home run from Cassini!