Back in July, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft happened to be in perfect alignment with Saturn and the Sun (the technical term for that is syzygy, by the way!). This allowed Cassini to take an amazing snapshot of a Saturnian eclipse. If you haven’t seen this picture yet, you really need to check it out (click on the image below to see a larger, more detailed version).
Cassini has taken other pictures of Saturn eclipsing the Sun, but this one is particularly special. Far off in the background, you can see a tiny, blue speck; namely, Earth. If you look closely, you might be able to see the even tinier speck beside it: our beloved Moon. Venus and Mars are also in the photo, meaning that in this one picture you can see half the planets in the Solar System all at once (or almost half, depending on your opinion about Pluto).
But wait, there’s more! If you click on the image and view the full-scale version, you should be able to find at least three of Saturn’s moons. Just below Saturn and slightly to the left, you should see a small, tan-colored moon which I’m guessing is Titan, and there’s another moon nearby that’s almost certainly Enceladus (the geysers give it away). A third moon is located in the upper right, but most of it is in shadow so I can’t guess what its name might be.
We know for a fact that there is life—lots and lots of life—crammed onto that one tiny, blue speck, but we Earthlings might not be alone. According to recent theories, there are four other places in the Solar System that might be able to support life: Mars, Europa (a moon of Jupiter), Titan, and Enceladus. So it’s possible that this picture doesn’t just show a bunch of cool planets and moons. It may also be our first group photo with the Martians, Titanians, and Enceladians. This picture might be the first to show all the life bearing worlds of the Solar System together (or almost all of them—sorry, Europa—we’ll try to squeeze you in next time).
As you can tell, I’ve spent an embarrassingly large amount of time studying this image and thinking about what it means. It’s stuff like this that keeps me from getting too bogged down with earthly concerns. Pictures like this remind me that I’m a citizen of a much bigger, much wider universe. So I want to send a big thank you to the Cassini spacecraft for sending back such an awesome photo!
P.S.: Click here for another cool picture of Earth and the Moon. This one’s close enough that we’re not reduced to a tiny, nearly invisible speck, but still far enough away to show how truly small our planet is. The picture was taken by the MESSINGER spacecraft while on route to Mercury.