When I heard about this idea yesterday I couldn’t help it. A Huge, silly, Cheshire Cat smile spread across my face and I just thought “Oh yes… that’s brilliant…!”
What’s happening? Well, on July 19th the CASSINI spaceprobe in orbit around Saturn will take a photo of Earth – and we’re all being invited to be in the picture!
I know, I know, just by being on Earth at the time – something we don’t really have much choice about – it is taken we’ll effectively “be in” the photo, whatever we’re doing, wherever we are (though I personally think that only people on the side of Earth facing Saturn at the time the photo is taken will be able to claim they’re ‘on’ the photo… Discuss!), but this event is all about PARTICIPATION, actively and deliberately getting out under the sky, looking at the camera (i.e. towards Saturn, you don’t have to know exactly where CASSINI itself will be!) at the right time, and… well… waving…
Yes, I said waving. Although it’s not actually the CASSINI team’s idea, NASA wants us to “Wave at Saturn” while the photo is being taken, and hope that as many people as possible get outside while CASSINI’s camera is pointed towards Earth, whatever the time of day, look towards Saturn, and wave at it. Why? So that when NASA releases the picture millions, if not hundreds of millions, of people will be able to look at it and say “I’m on that!”
That’s pretty cool, don’t you think? Yeah, I’m going to join in with that.
Of course, this isn’t the first picture of the Earth taken from deep space. It’s not even the first photograph taken of Earth by CASSINI. Back in 2006, on Sept 15th, the probe took one of the most iconic images of the whole space age when it photographed Saturn eclipsing the Sun, and caught Earth glinting like a sequin in a gap in the rings…
I mean, come on, look at that… that’s something isn’t it? No wonder that’ since it was taken that image has been reproduced in countless magazines, books and newspapers, and on every astronomy and space enthusiast blogger’s website too. The image being taken on July 19th will be a bit like that, but better, because it will be in real colour and Earth will be much more easily visible too.
What? You can’t see Earth in that one above? Well, click on it to enlarge it and you’ll see a blue white “star” on the left side of the planet, in a gap in the rings just outside the brightest ring (no I’m not going to label it, that ruins the image I think, find it yourself!). That’s Earth. That’s home. That’s us.
Long before CASSINI took that image, Earth was snapped by other spacecraft out in deep space. In 1990, the Voyager 1 probe took its amazing “Family Portrait” of the planets of the solar system, from a distance of almost 4 bn miles, and Earth was on it, famously looking like a “pale blue dot” off to the side of the Sun, a glint of sapphire sparkling in a rose-hued sunbeam…
And in March 2004, sixty three days after landing in Gusev Crater, the Mars Exploration Rover “Spirit” took some photos of the martian sky before the Sun had risen, and there, above the rocky horizon, was Earth, looking like a teeny tiny sequin in the brightening dawnlight…
Actually, looking at the individual raw images, you can’t see Earth, it was so faint. Only by stacking the images together and processing them were they able to make Earth stand out clearly. I’m sure they could do better than that if they tried, you know, if they deliberately targeted Earth in the martian sky, but it’s not easy to do, it takes precious time and rover power, and isn’t scientifically valuable. But it would be a great thing to do, wouldn’t it? I’d love to see a picture taken by Opportunity of Earth shining above the hills which form the rim of Endeavour Crater. But if that can’t happen, then I hope that before too long the Curiosity rover will do something like that too. With its far more advanced cameras and much more ample power supply, surely it’s able to take a lovely colour portrait of Earth shining in the martian twilight? Come on, MSL team, you know you want to…!
But back to July 19th, when the CASSINI team want us all to at least think about Saturn as the image is taken, and NASA wants us to go out and, literally, “Wave at Saturn”, which some will think is cheesy and silly but I don’t. Many people now regularly wave at the International Space Station as it glides across their sky, so waving at Saturn will be no different! How can you be a part of that? Well, you don’t have to be able to *see* Saturn, or be on the side of our planet facing Saturn at that time, to be a part of it. Although I still think it will be much cooler to actually be on a part of the world visible to CASSINI when the picture is being taken, anyone on the planet (or orbiting it… hey, there’s a thought… there’ll be people onboard the ISS and maybe onboard the Chinese space station too…) can “take part” simply by celebrating the event on the day, either just thinking about Saturn and CASSINI, or doing something special to them on that day, so that when the photo is released it strikes a cord with them, it means something to them.
So even though she’ll be on the other side of the planet when the image is taken, a young mum in Australia will be able to walk with her kids along the beach and be a part of the event. A young boy in China, lying in bed, completely out of sight of Saturn and CASSINI’s cameras dreaming of becoming a space travelling taikonaut one day, will be able to be a part of the event. An icy-bearded scientist striding across the ice in Antarctica will be able to pause, clap their hands together for warmth, and smile, knowing that they’re in the picture, just because they decided to be, because they wanted to be. And that’s brilliant isn’t it?
The US will be in daylight at the time the photo is taken (handy that!) so everyone there will be in the picture by default, if they want to be or not, just because they’re in the right place at the right time. I’m sure there’ll be a huge number of people deliberately taking part in this interplanetary photoshoot tho, by staging events or just by casting a glance at the sky when the image is being taken.
But what about here in the UK? Can we be a part of this?
Well, yes, we can. The image is being taken by CASSINI between 10.27 and 10.42pm BST, and that works out pretty well, because it will be after sunset and Saturn will be visible in the sky still! Only just, mind; it’ll be low in the WSW, but it should be bright enough still to see with the naked eye, and easy to find too, a yellowish star shining just above the treetops, over to the right of a lovely big bright Moon…
Hmmm… soooooo… if we can see Saturn from here in the UK, that means CASSINI should be able to see *us*… Let’s just check on one of the graphics NASA is putting out to illustrate this story with…
The US is in daylight (handy that!) but yep, there we are, just about to disappear over the limb of the Earth, creeping into the photo like uninvited guests at a wedding…
Phew! Just made it!
So, anyone in the UK who goes outside on that night and looks towards Saturn will be able to say they’re “on” the picture! Their face won’t be visible, of course; their frantically- or shyly-waving hand(s) won’t be visible, not even their town or city will be visible, because Earth – the whole planet – will be so small on the image details that small won’t be visible. In fact, Earth will be just one pixel wide. One pixel. That’s a dot. A speck. A blue full stop on a black page. But that doesn’t matter, it’s not the point. The point is, it will be there, a beautiful chip of blue ice beneath the huge, bloated ball of Saturn and its majestic rings, and we can be in the picture if we want to be, if we just make a bit of effort and pit a bit of thought into it.
As for the eventual picture itself, what will it look like? Here’s another NASA graphic showing what the picture will look like…
Oh look at that… I can’t wait to see that for real, and I can’t wait to be “on” the photo!
So, I will definitely be joining in with this, and I hope lots of other people do too. What I think I’ll do here in Kendal is invite people up to the castle on that night, so we can all pose as a group for the photo. Then, when it’s published, we’ll all be able to say, along with millions of people all around the world, “I was there…!”
It has to be said that as a portrait of Earth the July 19th CASSINI image will be spectacularly unimpressive, especially compared to those famous and beautiful images taken by satellites, astronauts or some of the unmanned spacecraft heading off into deep space for encounters with distant planets. No land masses will be visible to CASSINI, no cities will shine like fireflies in the darkness, no rivers will glint like silver as they wind their way over countries to the sea, no mountains will cast long, jagged shadows across the land. There’ll be absolutely nothing to identify the blue dot on the image as Earth. It will just be a tiny blue dot surrounded by utter darkness, with the huge disc of Saturn and its beautful icy rings looming above it. But we’ll know what it is. We’ll know.
Many people will ask – and some are already asking – what’s the point in doing something like this? I mean, it must cost money, right? Why bother? It’s not useful in any scientific way, it’s not telling us anything about Saturn, or the Earth, or anywhere inbetween. What use is it? Anyone asking that is completely missing the point. This is something to do because it can be done, and the end result will be a picture of our planet seen from a long, long, long way away. That doesn’t have to be useful, or scientifically valuable, it’s just an amazing thing to do and to be able TO do. It would be unthinkable to have a camera at Saturn and NOT take a photo of Earth if the opportunity arose, surely?
Maybe it will look something like this…?
I suppose when the image is taken and released, and you look at it, how you feel will be up to you and the kind of person you are. If you’re a cheap-cider swilling chav who struts around without any interest in the world beyond your own vandalised street, it will mean absolutely nothing to you. It’s wasted on you. You won’t Get It. But that’s ok, it’s not for you anyway, just like the beautiful images taken by Hubble or the rovers on Mars aren’t for you. But if you’re someone with an interest in the world around you, who appreciates the beauty of a Moonrise or a sunset, who looks up at the stars on a clear night and feels a shiver of wonder and awe, then it is for you, and when you look at it, and see that little blue speck there beneath Saturn you’ll get goosebumps, because you’ll know that that speck is our home in the universe, that’s It for us, at least at the moment. You’ll appreciate, as Carl Sagan did and taught us, that all our history has happened on (or very close to!) it. You’ll appreciate that all our art and culture, music (except that played by a certain moustached ISS commander!) and literature has been created on it. You’ll feel amazement and wonder when you look at that blue speck and sense, in your gut, and feel, in your heart, that that is Home. Not just for you, our your own family, friends and loved ones, but for 6 billion people. You’ll Get It. You’ll know that that little blue speck is a generation ship straight out of a classic science fiction novel, an enormous spacecraft travelling through space, on a perilous journey into an unknown, terrifying, exciting, bewildering future. And that’s why it’s worth taking that picture, and why I hope you – yes, you reading this blog post – will want to be a part of it.
And finally, one last thing to think about. We are now probably only a handful of years away from obtaining the first image of a truly Earth-like extrasolar planet orbiting another star. When that historic, paradigm-shifting image is eventually taken, that faraway alien Earth will look just like our own Earth will on the July 19th CASSINI image – a tiny, delicate, so fragile-looking blue speck, shining in the darkness. And that’s another reason why it’s worth taking this image. It’s a dress rehearsal for one of the most important moments in our species’ history – the discovery of a world like our own, somewhere Out There, a discovery which will not only change our understanding of our place in the universe, but change us ourselves too.
So, come July 19th, whatever you’re supposed to be doing, wherever you are, whoever you are, just stop for a few moments, look to the sky, and in your mind’s eye see Saturn, with a tiny blue speck glowing serenely bneneath it. Be grateful for our beautiful planet, this lush oasis in the barren desert of space, and celebrate the fact that in this time of countless terrors and horrors, there are people still willing to lift their eyes to the stars and dare to imagine incredible things like this, to bring us all together even if it is just for a moment.
And if you’re in the Kendal area, and want to be part of this, then consider yourself invited to our special event up at Kendal Castle…
We – that’s the EDDINGTON ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY OF KENDAL – will have telescopes set up at the castle to show people Saturn and its rings, and then, when the photo is taken, we’ll stop what we’re doing, look towards Saturn, and give CASSINI a wave! Just a bit of fun, really, nothing to be taken too seriously, but if you come along then when the photo is released you’ll be able to say “I’m in that!”
If you think you’ll come along, or just want some more info, there’s a Facebook Event page set up for our “Wave at Saturn” night, which you can find here…
Hope to see you at Kendal Castle at 10pm on July 19th!
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