Saturn never fails to amaze

If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the March 15 Astronomy Picture of the Day.  Its actually a movie this time and not a picture.  Part of of an upcoming IMAX movie called Outside In, the video clip is a flyby of some of Saturn’s moons and a pass through the ring system.  The thing is, there is not a scrap of CGI or computer animation in the entire clip.  It is all real images and data take by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft that has been exploring the Saturn system since 2004.  (You can find out more about the mission and science at the link above and also at the JPL Cassini site.)

So if you haven’t watched the video yet, go ahead and jump over and watch it.  It’s only 2.5 mintues long.  I’ll wait.

Welcome back.

Watching this video reminded me of all the nights I’ve spent doing public outreach with small to moderate sized telescopes (in the 4 to 14 inch diameter range).  Scott Hanselman’s (@shanseman) tweet yesterday evening (“Unbelivable when ACTUAL VIDEO OF SATURN looks like CGI.”) was a perfect capture of all the many comments I’d hear from people who would look at Saturn for the first time through the the telescope.

“That’s not real.”

“Is that a picture?”

“What are we really looking at?”

“Is that really Saturn?”

All said in tones of either amazment or incredulity.  And we’d patiently answer that yes it was Saturn and no, that’s not an image, it’s the real thing.  And people would always go away with a sense of wonder and amazement.  Showing Saturn has always been one of my favorite targets on nights like that because it really is a wonderful sight.

Jupiter is neat, you can see the banding from the storm clouds and if the air is still and you’ve got a good telescope (say 8 inches or better), you can see the Red Spot if it is facing towards you.  Plus you have the Gallilean sattelites that are visible as well.

But there is just something special about Saturn and it’s rings that captures the public’s imagination.  With a good telescope you can see the rings sharply defined around the planet and even see the Cassini division (named after the astronomer who first discovered it), the large gap in the rings that is prominent on any image of the planet.  It’s always a crowd pleaser.

That’s one of the wonderful things about astronomy, the images and views can be quite breathtaking and it’s fun to share that with others.  And it’s funny, that despite being spoiled by all the beautiful full color images produced by NASA, the ESO, and other agencies, the simple images available through a moderate sized telescope (which are mostly black and white since there usually isn’t enough light to trigger the color sensors in your eyes), always elicit amazed responses from those viewing them.  It’s still pretty amazing what is visible to the Mark I eyeball with just a bit of glass to assist.

So if you want to sample the wonders of the universe first hand, check out your local planetarium, univeristy astronomy department, or astronomy club and find out when their next public viewing session will be.  There are bound to be many people willing to share the amazing sights and take you on a guided tour of the night sky.  And if you want to see Saturn, it’s rising late right now (~10-11pm) but will be up sooner and sooner in the coming months.

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