(Rockwall) June 25, 2013 – Adults today who grew up in the early 1960s and 70s experienced the Apollo program as well as the most iconic science communicator of all time, Dr. Carl Sagan. Many of you gentle readers in the infosphere who are in your early 50s were around to experience the wisdom of Carl Sagan, the pitch-man whose way of saying, “Billions and Billions of…” made him an instant celebrity.
The power of Dr. Sagan’s famous television series, Cosmos is evident today 35 years after its initial production run on public television. Cosmos has been viewed by over half-a-billion people around the world. Not only was Dr. Sagan a gifted cosmologist, but he was a tremendous communicator and quite possibly the greatest popularizer of science. Sagan’s wisdom resided in his ability to decompose the most complex subject matter about our Universe and make it accessible to the common child, man or woman. He also had an uncanny ability to sense what would really excite the public.
While working as part of the Voyager team in 1978 (Voyagers were the twin satellites launched in September 5, 1977. Sagan pushed hard to use one of the spacecraft to capture an image of planet Earth from a point in the Solar System beyond Earth as part of a “Family Portrait” of our Solar System. Sagan got his wish in 1990 when Voyager 1 imaged Earth when she was 3.7 billion miles away from our home planet. In this image, Earth appears as only a single pixel of light. Consider that the entire human experience has taken place on this single pixel of light. From my point of view, this is an incredibly humbling image. I can see how small my planet is in our neighborhood (the Solar System), as part of the Milky Way galaxy which is a common middle aged galaxy.
Unfortunately not all of the true lions of science are as visible as Dr. Sagan was at the pinnacle of his career. In fact today’s round-the-clock media machine creates seemingly iconic figures who self-promote themselves sometimes at the expense of the lions who are too busy doing science and pushing back the curtains of the Cosmos like Sagan did with the Pale Blue Dot image.
From his 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot, Sagan recognizes several people who “made it happen,” enabling the iconic first image of our home taken from beyond its edges. Dr. Carolyn Porco was the imaging scientist at the University of Arizona who calculated imaging time, filters, etc. Fast forward to present day in the 21st century, and we see that Dr. Porco is about to employ NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, now exploring Saturn, to take a picture of our home planet from a distance of hundreds of millions of miles on July 19. NASA is inviting the public to help acknowledge the historic interplanetary portrait. Unlike the 1977 portrait that was not part of the public discourse until completed, the 2013 Earth image is engaging the public to be part of the image. Today Dr. Porco leads the Cassini Imaging Team (CICLOPS). She encouraged that for this column, I display the project’s “Patch” image which is really a poster sort of image that conveys to the public what we are doing.
Because of her groundbreaking work on the first Pale Blue Dot image and her initiative on “The Day the Earth Smiled” image of Saturn, Dr. Carolyn Porco gets my vote as one of the Lions of Science. Across the past four decades, this incredibly dedicated and talented scientist has literally created a legacy of Earth images.
For those readers unaware of her present mission, Cassini is a school bus sized scientific probe that was launched in October 1997 and since July 1st 2004 has been orbiting Saturn. The imaging team’s website is http://www.ciclops.org.
According to a NASA press release, Earth will appear as a small, pale blue dot between the rings of Saturn in the image, which will be part of a mosaic, or multi-image portrait, of the Saturn system that Dr. Porco and the Cassini imaging team is composing.
“While Earth will be only about a pixel in size from Cassini’s vantage point 898 million [1.44 billion kilometers] away, the team is looking forward to giving the world a chance to see what their home looks like from Saturn,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We hope you’ll join us in waving at Saturn from Earth, so we can commemorate this special opportunity.”
Cassini will start obtaining the Earth part of the mosaic at 2:27 p.m. PDT (5:27 p.m. EDT or 21:27 UTC) and end about 15 minutes later, all while Saturn is eclipsing the sun from Cassini’s point of view. The spacecraft’s unique vantage point in Saturn’s shadow will provide a special scientific opportunity to look at the planet’s rings. At the time of the photo, North America and part of the Atlantic Ocean will be in sunlight.
One of my personal favorite images of Saturn is one I captured from our Rockwall driveway on 15 October 2005. The image below was taken with a 10-inch Meade LX200 using a simple Phillips webcam at f/31and includes 2004 stacked images of the dramatic Ring World. For a look at more of my planetary images, please go here: http://www.geocities.com/astrodad32/Planets.html
Unlike two previous Cassini eclipse mosaics of the Saturn system in 2006, which captured Earth, and another in 2012, the July 19 image will be the first to capture the Saturn system with Earth in natural color, as human eyes would see it. It also will be the first to capture Earth and its moon with Cassini’s highest-resolution camera. The probe’s position will allow it to turn its cameras in the direction of the sun, where Earth will be, without damaging the spacecraft’s sensitive detectors.
On July 19th I will be smiling brightly and waving heartily in support of the Lion of Science, Dr. Carolyn Porco.
Max retired from the U.S. Army in 2009 as a Lieutenant Colonel, Senior Space Operations Officer and Master Aviator. He amassed over 3,200 hours as a pilot of Special Electronic Mission Airplanes. Since 2004 he has been a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador, is a Master of Astronomical Outreach through the Astronomcial League and built his own astronomical observatory. His amazing images can be seen at AstroDad.com.