“Pale Blue Dot 2.0” came in the form of this humbling image captured by Cassini as it orbited Saturn in 2013. Tomorrow, after 13 years of orbiting Saturn and making groundbreaking discoveries, Cassini will take a plunge into the planet’s atmosphere, where incredibly high temperatures will melt and break apart the probe. Cassini took seven years to travel nearly 2.2 billion miles to reach Saturn. But once it arrived, it started taking some breathtaking pictures of the planet, its rings, and many moons.
From the unique vantage point of about 25,000 feet above Earth, our Associate Administrator of Science at NASA, Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, witnessed the 2017 eclipse. He posted this video to his social media accounts saying, “At the speed of darkness…watch as #SolarEclipse2017 shadow moves across our beautiful planet at <1 mile/second; as seen from GIII aircraft”.
Zurbuchen, along with NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, Associate Administrator Lesa Roe traveled on a specially modified Gulfstream III aircraft flying north over the skies of Oregon.
In order to capture images of the event, the standard windows of the Gulfstream III were replaced with optical glass providing a clear view of the eclipse. This special glass limits glare and distortion of common acrylic aircraft windows. Heaters are aimed at the windows where the imagery equipment will be used to prevent icing that could obscure a clear view of the eclipse.
Learn more about the observations of the eclipse made from this aircraft HERE.
The end is now upon us. Within hours of the posting of this entry, Cassini will have burned up in the atmosphere of Saturn … a kiloton explosion, spread out against the sky in a pyrrhic display of light and fire, a dazzling flash to signal the dying essence of a lone emissary from another world. As if the myths of old had foretold the future, the great patriarch will consume his child. At that point, that golden machine, so dutiful and strong, will enter the realm of history, and the toils and triumphs of this long march will be done.
For those of us appointed long ago to undertake this journey, it has been a taxing 3 decades, requiring a level of dedication that I could not have predicted, and breathless times when we sprinted for the duration of a marathon. But in return, we were blessed to spend our lives working and playing in that promised land beyond the Sun.
My imaging team members and I were especially blessed to serve as the documentarians of this historic epoch and return a stirring visual record of our travels around Saturn and the glories that we found there. This is our gift to the citizens of planet Earth.
So, it is with both wistful, sentimental reflection and a boundless sense of pride in a commitment met and a job well done that I now turn to face this looming, abrupt finality.
It is doubtful we will soon see a mission as richly suited as Cassini return to this ringed world and shoulder a task as colossal as we have borne over the last 27 years.
To have served on this mission has been to live the rewarding life of an explorer of our time, a surveyor of distant worlds. We wrote our names across the sky. We could not have asked for more.
I sign off now, grateful in knowing that Cassini’s legacy, and ours, will include our mutual roles as authors of a tale that humanity will tell for a very long time to come.