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Gazing across the gulf of Time…

It’s always a wonderful feeling when you see a photograph and it’s so powerful, so moving, it calls out to something inside you so strongly and so loudly that it reaches into you, like a ghostly hand, takes a firm grip of your insides and squeezes them, hard. Images and moments like that are few and far between, so I savour them…

Which is why I was left almost breathless the other morning when two such images flashed up on my monitor here within the space of five minutes.

I’d got up for work early as usual, at 6am, and turned on my PC while drifting around the living room, putting the TV and kettle on, getting my bag ready, etc. Like most of you reading this I have a small number of websites I check religiously every morning, my “favourite Favourites” if you like. I check Spaceweather.com to see if anyone’s seen a stunning aurora overnight… Bad Astronomy to see what Phil has written about while I’ve been asleep… Universe Today to get the latest news… and, of course, old faithful “APOD”, Astronomy Picture Of the Day, which shines a spotlight on a diferent, stunning spacey image every day.

Usually the image on APOD is a pretty straightforward shot of a galaxy, or a planet, maybe a rocket launch. But this one was… different. It was this…

That beautiful image, by photographer Bret Webster, shows a panel of pictographs – ancient rock carvings – on one of the canyon walls in Horseshoe Canyon, in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. The APOD caption made the point that while the figures were very old – they had been etched into the wall of the canyon some 7000 years ago – the oldest things in the photograph, by far, were the stars in the sky, which were many billions of years old. Fair enough, and true enough, but I was quite hypnotised by the figures themselves, and imagined what went through the heads of the early – I refuse to say ‘primitive’ – people who etched them into the rock. What had they been doing before that? What events had inspired them to create such wonderful art? What were they hoping to achieve with it?

Then I went over to my home on t’internet, the unmannedspaceflight.com forum, and read all about the fantastic new raw images that Cassini had returned overnight (my time) after its latest encounter with Saturn’s fascinating, icy satellite Enceladus. “Hmmm,” I thought, sipping my tea and dunking a choccy biccie, “I’ll go take a look…”


My tea literally went cold while I gazed at that picture. Good grief… look at that… the south pole of Enceladus, in shadow, at the bottom of the frame, with Titan hanging in the sky above it, just clearing the horizon, and between them, the sword blade of Saturn’s rings… That’s a view straight out of a science fiction film, pulled from my very own frustrated space cadet imagination… but it’s real, a real photograph, taken god knows how many millions of miles away, beamed back to Earth and then, mere hours later, put online for the rest of the world to enjoy, for free, just for taking the time and trouble to click their mouse over the link on one of NASA’s countless websites…

Then I imagined the gulf in time between – and the bridge of time connecting – that pair of images, and for just a moment my head was literally spinning.

I mean, good god, just look what we’ve achieved in the space of a mere few thousand years. Just 7000 orbits of the Sun ago we were wearing animal skins and scratching and etching shapes and patterns into the crumbling stone walls of canyons. We had no idea of our place in the universe. We looked up and saw the stars and Hadn’t A Clue. We didn’t know what had happened before us, had no idea what would happen after us.

We grew up, of course. We grew up to master our environment, to tame and farm its creatures, and populate our planet. We grew up into a species that created beautiful paintings, sculptures and cathedrals – and tanks, cruise missiles and atomic bombs. We grew up into a race of poets and painters, explorers and adventurers, butchers and murderers. We discovered our place in the universe, and briefly left our Homeworld to explore the nearest part of it – only to turn our backs on it and run home again, scared by the expense, danger and vastness of the Great Black beyond our atmosphere.

… and we grew up to imagine a fabulous, fragile metal butterfly of a spaceprobe, which would be sent out to one of those lights in the sky, and we called it Cassini, after one of the scientists who had gazed at that sky light through a telescope. But we didn’t just imagine it, we designed it, built it, launched it on a roaring pillar of fire and then steered it halfway across the solar system towards, and then put it into orbit around that point of light, which we knew by then was a mysterious, magical behemoth of a planet, a bloated planet of  gas, a planet surrounded by a system of rings and a family of moons.

And one day Cassini swept around one of those moons, Enceladus, and took that stunning picture, a picture that will be featured in every decent astronomy book ever written from now.

I don’t know if any of the early people who etched those designs onto the walls of the canyon, 7000 years ago, ever looked up at their beautiful, totally light pollution free sky, and saw Saturn, but I like to imagine they did. I like to imagine that at the end of the very day on which they recorded their designs on that rock face, they strode out of the canyon, satisfied with their work, and looked up to see Saturn shining in the sky above them with its warm, golden light. Of course, they would have had no idea what it was, that it was a distant world, a world that dwarfed their own, a world with storms the size of planets and more moons than they had teeth, but maybe they found it an intriguing, perhaps even a comforting sight as they stared up at it. I don’t know.

But I do know that one day, unknown years from now, people will leave Earth and travel to Saturn, and after a journey of several years, peering out their window they’ll see this… Saturn’s rings, and Titan, through the plumes of the geysers erupting out of Enceladus…

That’s not a real photo, of course. It’s an image created by my fellow unmannedspaceflight.com member, AstroO, who combined and colourised several different Cassini images to create a make-believe portrait of the magical view astronauts will enjoy from a spaceship orbiting Enceladus. 

Take a few moments to look at that view properly, to really let the majesty of it sink in, and wonder what it would be like to see it with your own eyes…

Then consider this.

Eventually explorers from Earth will descend to and stand on Endeladus, their boots crumping down into the snow covering the south pole. They’ll stand there, on Enceladus’ alien, bizarre surface, and stand on the edge of one of the”Tiger Stripe”  sulci, or fissures, which contain the geysers. Standing there, close to the erupting geysers, they’ll see unbelievable things. What will go through their minds as they stand there, feeling Enceladus rumbling beneath their feet as fountains of water vapour explode into the black sky just a short distance away? How will they be moved to record their feelings, their experience?

Obviously, like any self-respecting tourist, they’ll take photographs, lots of photographs. But maybe they’ll feel the need to do something more personal. Maybe one of them will spot a suitably-flat piece of ice and record what they are seeing in a less hi-tech but oddly appropriate way… carving a cryoglyph* into the ice…

* thanks Nick! 🙂

4 Responses

  1. You know about the Australian Aborigine rock paintings from quite a while ago which show the rings of Saturn? At least, they show that they noticed the handles sticking out of the side of the planet somewhat like you’d see in binoculars. Aborigines tend to have better eyesight than the rest of us, it appears. And they had quite a good dark-sky site to observe from. I suspect that people in those places and times had a better gut feel for the universe beyond the ends of their noses than many city dwellers in the modern world.

  2. Hi Stuart,
    I hoped to add just some additional context if that is ok.

    After hiking nearly 4 miles on a cold March dusk to the Ghost Panel/Great Gallery, as the sun had set and darkness fell…in those magic moments when it first became visible and I first began to realize the Milky Way was just ideally located for the image I hoped to capture…I was literally shaking with excitement and I do mean shaking and heart pounding as I pressed the shutter on this scene…many times. The contrast in time and intersecting themes was what I hoped to achieve and omg what an unbelievable spectacle was quietly taking place! I was shaking because of the implications of the “Gulf of Time” for this image and having a chance to try to capture it. I couldn’t possibly thank you enough for resonating with the objective I had in my heart on this shot.

    I’ve spent my career as a Launch Vehicle Engineering Manager and when I see the Ghost Panel contrasted with the Milky Way I tend to see our past contrasted with our future…with our ultimate destiny in a setting of nature and ancient mystery.

    And now another gulf has been bridged…to think that the gulf existing between humans…between an idea in one individual and the heart of another viewer far away has been bridged is so deeply moving and meaningful to me that it frankly pales all other achievements.

    So Thank You Stuart for understanding and describing back so perfectly what the mere prospect of had me shaking one cold night in a beautiful place in a remote wild area.


    hope i didn’t give anybody diabetes

  3. Thanks SO much for that Bret! 🙂

  4. Great description and analysis. I almost understood as much from the descriptions and the discussion on the forums. The Cassini project is so under publicized, I wish the images were more shared on sites and blogs for the public.

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