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A Glorious Saturn Steps Into The Spotlight In New York City

When the Cassini spacecraft passed behind Saturn's shadow in September 2006, it sent back this image of the planet and its rings, stunningly backlit by the sun. NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
by Lauren Gold
New York NY (SPX) May 06, 2008
In the four years since NASA's Cassini-Huygens spacecraft arrived at Saturn and began snapping pictures, Cassini's cameras have sent nearly 140,000 images back to researchers on Earth.

The data and images -- as well as data from infrared, radar and ultraviolet detectors on the orbiter and images from the Huygens probe on the surface of the planet's moon Titan -- have given researchers valuable new information about Saturn, its rings and moons, and the evolution of the solar system as a whole. But the images have also captivated nonscientists with their sheer beauty.

Now, 62 of those images are on display at Manhattan's American Museum of Natural History, along with associated graphics and a quarter-scale model of the spacecraft. The exhibit, "Saturn: Images From the Cassini-Huygens Mission," opened April 26 and will be in place until March 29, 2009.

It was one ethereal image -- of the planet and all its rings, in delicate detail and backlit by the sun -- that set the planning for the exhibit in motion in 2006.

"It glowed," said Elizabeth Bilson, retired administrative director for Cornell's Center for Radiophysics and Space Research, who saw the image in Cornell Alumni Magazine. "I thought, it is not only science but also sheer aesthetic pleasure."

Bilson floated the idea of a museum exhibit to colleague and friend Joe Burns, a member of the Cassini imaging team and Cornell professor of astronomy.

"Everybody knows how beautiful the rings are," said Burns, who is also the Irving Porter Church Professor of Engineering and a vice provost for research at Cornell. "But the variety we've seen and some of the phenomena we've seen have been really surprising. The satellites have been more beautiful than we expected. And the science has been much better than we expected."

With postdoctoral researchers Matt Tiscareno and Matt Hedman, Burns selected about 100 images collected by the spacecraft since 2004. Bilson, graphic designer Judy Burns (Joe Burns' wife) and other members of the Cassini imaging team added input.

"We tried to choose images that were beautiful and also contained interesting planetary findings. On this mission, that was easy to do -- the show has no murky photos that might appeal only to science geeks," said Burns.

When the Manhattan museum and other institutions showed interest, the team worked with Cornell's University Photography and Eastman Kodak Co. to refine and print the images. The exhibit is supported by NASA, Kodak and the Arthur Ross Foundation. Burns is guest co-curator, with museum associate curator Denton Ebel and curator Mordecai-Mark Mac Low.

"Everybody contributed -- it's been magnificent," said Burns.

Meanwhile, the exhibit, which will come to Cornell's Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art after its Manhattan debut, may be just the beginning of Cassini-inspired art.

Using images from the mission (as well as historical Saturn images from Olin Library's History of Science collection), composer Roberto Sierra, the Old Dominion Foundation Professor in the Humanities at Cornell, will spend the summer at work on an original composition in honor of the ringed planet.

The Cornell Symphony Orchestra will debut the piece -- and perform Gustav Holst's "The Planets" -- at the annual meeting of the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society in Ithaca in October. The orchestra is conducted by assistant professor of music Chris Kim.

And the Cassini-Huygens mission itself, which was originally scheduled to end this July, recently got the nod from NASA to continue for another two years.

Which is most welcome news, said Burns. "Because we have not seen all we want to see, by a long shot."

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif. manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL.

Saturn Images Now On View At American Museum Of Natural History
A selection of never-before-seen images of Saturn, its rings and moons are now on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

"Saturn: Images From the Cassini-Huygens Mission" features 50 dramatic photographs captured by NASA's Cassini orbiter and the European Space Agency's Huygens lander. Launched on Oct. 15, 1997, Cassini was the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn. The images, taken in visible and infrared light and radar, have been hand-picked by a team of Cassini scientists.

The exhibition, which features both up-close-and-personal images in small individual views and super-large mosaics, is divided into four sections: Saturn (the planet and its atmosphere), Ringed World (about Saturn's rings), Titan and Enceladus (Saturn's geologically active moons) and Many Moons (Saturn's other moons).

Among its most dramatic images are photographs of:

- Bizarre cyclones, high-speed winds and bolts of lightning, including "Dragon Storm," a photo of an Earth-sized thunderstorm in Saturn's southern hemisphere;

- Dramatic color variations of the ringed planet, including a pale orange-brown view of Saturn from Earth; Titan, the largest of Saturn's more than 60 moons, taken by the Huygens probe, which separated from Cassini and parachuted to the moon's surface in 2004. Images reveal an Earthlike landscape with rivers and lakes (made of liquid methane) flowing into basins and Titan's dense atmospheric cover, which is mainly made of nitrogen.

- Giant geysers of ice particles erupting from the smaller icy moon, Enceladus, whose surface temperature hovers at about -200 degrees Celsius.

- Iapetus, Saturn's third-largest moon, whose equatorial mountain range on its heavily cratered surface resembles the outer ridge of a walnut shell. The sun illuminating Saturn from one side, with the rings casting shadow on the planet, and the planet's shadow obscuring the rings on the other side.

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NASA Extends Cassini's Grand Tour Of Saturn
Pasadena CA (SPX) Apr 16, 2008
NASA is extending the international Cassini-Huygens mission by two years. The historic spacecraft's stunning discoveries and images have revolutionized our knowledge of Saturn and its moons. Cassini's mission originally had been scheduled to end in July 2008.

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