The Greatest Show Off Earth

We can use a telescope to look inside but it's not the kind that whirs and the required adjustments are pretty fine. Short of that, for a "real world" view of the matter, I can recommend a book by physicist Gerald Schroeder called, "The Hidden Face of God." If you don't have a feel for the miraculous after reading that, you might indeed have to wait until the curtain falls.

Posted by LT at May 15, 2014 9:09 AM

Since you have an artist's impression of Cassini illustrating this piece:

It's often said that one can see something more clearly when seeing it from afar. This was illustrated very strongly by the classic photograph from Apollo 8 of an Earthrise - and even more so by two photos, one from Voyager and one from Cassini, of Earth from billions of miles. I can't say it any better than Sagan did:

"Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

Posted by Fletcher Christian at May 15, 2014 11:09 AM

I love giving friends and neighbors the experience you described through my telescope. When they tentatively ask "Can you actually see the rings?" I know I have a live one! Sometime I play them along a bit: " Well, some people can...".

The most common first words are "HOLY SHIT"!

Here's a tip: if you have the opportunity to install a permanent concrete pier to put your scope on, do it - it takes observing to a whole new level of ease and rock-solid steady views.

I put a pier right in the middle of a patio, and got extra brownie points for engineering it so when the scope and its mount are taken off, it makes a bodacious central "leg" for a big beautiful wooden outdoor dining table!

Posted by Ray Van Dune at May 15, 2014 5:03 PM

I agree that the Saturn experience is stunning, but the Jupiter experience is equally so if one involves the Galilean satillites of Jove. The popular astronomy magazines all have a chart that shows the positions of the major moons of the Big Guy, so it is easy to find a time when there will be a "transit" of a large moon across the face of the planet.

A transit is amazing through telescope of about 6" or greater aperture. The large moons show a distinct spherical shape and there is a strong 3D impression of the satellite floating in front of the planet. It's a real thrill to see it for the first time, because nobody expects it.

Then there is the shadow! If you observe near opposition the shadow of the moon will be somewhere on the surface of Jupiter near the satellite itself. This can also be predicted from magazine charts. If the geometry is right, the moon shadow will start across the planetary disc a little while after the moon itself.

This can set up the opportunity for you to transition from a mere "HOLY SHIT" event, to a "Jesus H. Christ!!" level experience, when you ask your friend to tell you what that little black dot on the planetary surface BEHIND the moon might be!

Posted by Ray Van Dune at May 15, 2014 8:14 PM

Thank you for writing this, it's wonderful! The first time I saw Saturn and Jupiter I felt like this. I really can't think of any other experience as subtle, yet mind-blowing.

I should dust off the old Celestron...

Posted by Mumblix Grumph at May 15, 2014 8:24 PM

Thank you, Gerard for these thoughtful lines. It reminded me of a long ago day, when I was about 10. My Uncle George brought a borrowed telescope home from work and on a delicious warm summer night we set it up out by our little barn in Rector, Pa., complete with two kitchen chairs and a pitcher of Kool-Aid. Wonder ensued. I'm not a huge Walt Whitman fan, but do you recall his small poem "When I Heard The Learn'd Astronomer?

When I heard the learn'd astronomer;
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me;
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide and measure them;
When I, sitting, heard the astronomer, where he lectured with much applause in the lecture room,
How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander'd off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look'd up in perfect silence at the stars.

Posted by Ralph Kinney Bennett at May 16, 2014 9:22 AM

Lovely, lovely exposition. I was on the launch team that ensured Cassini made its way to the most enigmatic and beautiful representative of our outer system gas giants. If you want an amazing few moments realizing your place in our solar system and universe, do not miss a total solar eclipse. We saw one in 1998 in Aruba, and the moments of pre-totality and totality were absolutely stunning! The shadow bands move at more than Mach 3. The light just before totality is a weird, strange, dim, colorless daylight. The birds head for rest. Then you see it - the planets behind the sun reveal themselves and you suddenly get a real-time three-dimensional glimpse of a two-dimensional map. Do not miss this experience! This glorious spectacle crosses America on August 21, 2017.

Posted by Rubysue at May 16, 2014 5:30 PM

Here's what up with Saturn, and why you wrote this. You look at Jupiter, it's like looking straight on at a pizza with some flies hanging around it. It fills the scope's eyepiece. And you think "cool, a failed star, nothing but gas, very colorful". Because of it's size and nearness, it's an effortless view. Likewise, Mars is a pepperoni slice, the moon a rock, Venus a white banana.

And then you swap out the eyepiece for the high magnification one, point the scope at Saturn, let the jiggles settle out, get the focus all right, and whoosh! you feel yourself in an instant travel a billion miles across the deeps to visit another world! shining in the far firmament. A 3-d world like no other. Saturn is your first celestial journey. To see Saturn for the first and every time with your own eyes, is to become part of and sense your place in the divine grandeur of the heavens. Really, words fail me at this point.

Posted by John A. Fleming at May 20, 2014 2:28 AM

I remember the first time I saw Saturn through a telescope. Sort of "so much like it's photos it looks unreal".
Speaking of photos, the Cassini probe shot with one of its side cameras:
The arrow points to earth; the second dot to the left is the moon.
As Jack Horkheimer used to say, "Keep Looking Up".

Posted by ed in texas at June 4, 2016 5:19 PM