Bringing Cassini’s Saturn Photos to Life

Each moving cinemagraph is built from a single image

Text By Jeffrey Kluger

The Cassini spacecraft was not sent out to Saturn to create art; it was sent there to do science. But when the science you’re conducting involves a planet like Saturn—with its elegant rings and flock of 62 moons—the art is inevitable.

If there is any limitation to the loveliness Cassini has sent home, it’s that the images are static—snapshots from the field as opposed to moving pictures. But TIME worked with cinemagraphic artist Armand Dijcks to address that.

To animate Cassini’s pictures, Dijcks works with image distortion software that allows him to analyze the motion frozen by the camera and then fill in what likely happened next. That takes more than an understanding of imagery; it also requires an understanding of physics so that the behavior of a cloud or a ring or an orbiting moon is true to the way things work in the physical world. In this image [above], light from the sun, which was eclipsed by Saturn, streams from behind the backlit planet. The tiny dot at lower right is Earth, 746 million (1.2 billion km) away. Dijcks zooms in by incorporating the iconic “blue marble” image of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972.

 

Saturnian Tempest

Saturn can be stormy, which is no surprise since storms happen in a planet’s atmosphere and Saturn is little but atmosphere. Animating a storm system in Saturn’s northern hemisphere was not easy because the planet’s rotation plays a big role. Saturn turns speedily on its axis—its day lasting less than 11 hours compared to our 24. On a solid planet like Earth, that day is exactly the same length everywhere. On a gas giant, the atmosphere can drag behind the spin at different rates depending on latitude. The result: A day at Saturn’s equator lasts 10 hours and 14 minutes; above and below the equator it’s 25 minutes longer, all of which is reflected here. In this image, the seemingly razor sharp rings are seen edge-on.

 

Geometry From Chaos

One of Saturn’s oddest features is the hexagonal storm at its north pole. The overall system is formed by a six-sided jet stream surrounding a central hurricane—one that’s about 50 times larger than even the worst hurricanes on earth. Cassini captured this picture from a distance of about 261,000 miles (419,000 km). To animate it, Dijcks once again had to take into consideration the changing rates at which the atmosphere rotates, not to mention the rotation of the hurricane itself.

 

Baby Shepherd

Saturn’s rings may look paper-thin when seen edge-on, but from overhead or underneath, they reveal themselves as the complex series of belts they are. Here, Saturn’s tiny moon Pan is seen orbiting in a space in the rings known as the Encke gap. The little satellite, which measures just 17 miles (28 km) across, zips around Saturn once every 13.8 hours. It’s small size means that its gravity is exceedingly weak—but it’s still strong enough to keep the 200-mi. (322-km) gap open.

 

The Speeding Snowball

The icy moon Enceladus looks like nothing at all next to the vast bulk of Saturn. It measures just 314 miles (504 km) across, compared to Saturn’s 72,367 miles (44,966 km). This image was captured from a distance of 930,000 mi (1.5 million km). For all its apparent inconsequence, however, Enceladus has long intrigued scientists. It’ surface is bright white and highly reflective. Its composition, including water ice, carbon dioxide, salts and organic compounds suggests that the moon might—just might—be hospitable to life.

 

Bursts of Life?

The case for life on Enceladus got stronger when Cassini spotted what were unmistakably geysers erupting from its south pole. The plumes burst from what astronomers have dubbed the “tiger stripes,” a series of roughly parallel cracks in the ice. Both the stripes and the eruptions suggest that Enceladus harbors a deep ocean of salty water, kept warm and surging thanks to gravitational flexing by Saturn. It is in relatively warm, salty oceans that life got its first foothold on Earth.

Cinematography: Armand Dijicks
Production: Josh Raab
Design: Victor Williams

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