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Perfect plumes…

I’ve been “into space” for a long time – a LONG time. Over three and a half decades, in fact. So I’m pretty hard to surprise and amaze now. Not hard to impress, not hard to delight, but hard to actually amaze. It’s not often that an image comes back from ‘out there’ that makes me go wide-eyed and slack-jawed with astonishment. The last time that happened was probably when Oppy rolled up to the edge of Victoria Crater and gazed out across it to the other side, that literally choked me up.

Today it happened again.

The Cassini spaceprobe has taken tens of thousands of images of Saturns, its rings and system of moons by now, and many of them are stunningly dramatic, beautiful and striking. Today, Cassini sent back some pictures that might well go down in the history books as being among the most important of its entire mission – images of the plumes that are spewing out of the geysers at the little moon’s south pole.

We’ve seen images of these geysers before, of course. But today’s images were, well, literally breathtaking.

This is how we’ve seen the geysers before today…

… bright wafts and shafts of material jutting out into space from the south pole, almost like the prominences seen around the edge of the Sun during a total solar eclipse. But today Cassini flew so close to the plumes, and over them, that it was able to take images of the plumes from the side and from above too, allowing us to see them properly for the very first time.

This is what Cassini sent back – and armchair explorers all around the world saw on their monitors – earlier today…

Look closely – click on that picture to enlarge it – and you can see, at the top there, jets of material shooting out of the surface of Enceladus. Several of them. LOTS of them. That’s not an artist’s impression, it’s not a computer graphic, I haven’t gone nuts in Photoshop, that’s a real picture of the geysers of Enceladus shooting out into space. Let’s take a closer look – and yes, I have played about with and enhanced this crop from the original image…

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I never expected to see an image like that for another twenty or so years, until a post-Cassini probe headed out to Saturn and undertook a detailed photographic survey of the icy moon. Unbelievable! 🙂

But Cassini didn’t just take images of the plumes. It took some very detailed images of Enceladus’ surface too. So, put on your 3D glasses (not the migraine-inducing ones needed for the Channel 4 programs last week!)  and feast your eyes on this…

And finally… here’s a panorama I (crudely) stitched together, showing more plumes than you can shake a spaceprobe camera at…

Don’t know about anyone else, but this encounter with Enceladus has made me feel an almost childlike sense of wonder again. I thought I’d have to wait maybe another 20 years to actually see the plumes coming out of Enceladus, on images taken by a post-Cassini orbiter, yet there they are, and I’ve been able to mess about with them and not just gawp at them.

This is nuts, absolutely nuts. On exceptionally still and clear evenings here in Cumbria I’ve seen Enceladus through my humble 4.5″ scope. It looked just like a pinprick of light close to Saturn, a hole in the black velvet of space made by the point of a needle… now I see it, on these very pages, thanks to the Cassini team and all my friends and fellow explorers here, as a world, a real world, criss-crossed with meandering canyons of ice, covered with fields of snow and slashed by deep, axe-wound gorges out of which gush geysers…

One day people will walk up and down those canyons, running their gloved hands along their sides, maybe stopping to carve out intricate designs in the ice, leaving their mark as humans are always moved to do. One day spacesuited children will bound across those snowfields, boots crump-crumping as they land, laughing and giggling in the low gravity. One day explorers will stand on the edge of Baghdad Sulci and stare wide-mouthed at the beauty of the scene, leaning back to stare up at the geyser erupting out of the ground before them. Seen through the geyser’s veil, the Sun will be surrounded by glorious haloes of rainbow-hued light, and the stars above them will shimmer and dance…

And standing there, beside that geyser, they’ll wonder how it felt like to be us, here, in 2009, to be the first people to see the beauty of their homeworld, on grainy images taken by a tiny, Mayfly-fragile spaceprobe sent out across the gulf of space by a generation that Wanted To Know.


7 Responses

  1. […] Saturnmonds herausbrechen (oben), und auch von dieser selbst gibt es faszinierende Nahaufnahmen. (Cumbrian Sky, Planetary Society Blog, Universe Today […]

  2. Great post, Stu. You echoed my thoughts: never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d get a look at the plumes even remotely this good till there was a dedicated Enceladus mission.

    Wonder what else the Cassini wizards may be cooking up as far as surprises in the future…;))

  3. Evocative aren’t they? Worth the price-tag of Cassini – the plumes, the rings, the lakes… truly magnificent.

  4. Great post,look forward to the next.

  5. I am thinking about buying a telescope,but which one and how much do i need to spend to get really good results.

  6. Ive just bought my new telescope.

  7. Thank you so much for this – one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen or read!

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