Saturday 20 July 2013

Waving at Saturn from our Pale Blue Dot

Yesterday at 2227BST, the Cassini spacecraft in orbit around the planet Saturn took a photograph of Saturn and its rings that so happened to include planet Earth.

Lots of folk thought it would be nice to mark this event by turning our faces towards Saturn, and giving a wave so Cassini would be able to get us all in the picture! The inspiration would have been this, the famous "Pale Blue Dot" photograph taken by the Voyager 1 probe as it left the planetary solar system in 1990. The last picture taken by Voyager 1 before it permanently powered down its camera, it was a mosaic image that showed as many planets as were visible, including the Earth - a pale blue dot less than the size of a pixel right at the fringe of visibility.

Carl Sagan famously announced the picture at a press conference, reminding us that on the scale of the solar system, let alone that of the universe, that every event in the whole of our history had taken place on this scarcely visible pale blue dot.

Hence, when the news got out that Cassini was going to take a modern version of this photograph from Saturn, the "Wave at Saturn" campaign was born, trying to get the whole of planet Earth to smile and wave at Saturn to mark the event.

Myself, being a sucker for this sort of celestial show, decided to take part. I was having a cup of tea at my folks' house at the time, so I jumped on my bicycle which has a better view of the sky low in the south-west. I found Saturn starting to set in the low haze in the south-east, waited for the appropriate time and started to wave, and smile as well at the yellowish bright "star" around which Cassini was taking its picture.

I was well aware of how silly the sight of a grown man seemingly waving at an empty sky might have seemed to members of the general public, and indeed my neighbour didn't take long to appear on our shared driveway, curious as to my doings. It seemed best to just hit him with the truth, and then wait for him to call the men in white coats.

He did nothing of the sort. Instead he smiled, looked at where I was pointing, and give a little wave as well. "I'd heard about it on the radio" he explained. And off he went.

So that's how I "waved at Saturn". Always enjoyable to do something like that, but perhaps I didn't have as much fun as these American folk at NASA, from where the picture is taken.

JPL employees wave at Saturn

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