Pale blue dot: Poring over IR data

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  • Published: Sep 1, 2013
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: Infrared Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Pale blue dot: Poring over IR data

Looking back in IR

In the wake of the NASA Cassini mission turning its cameras towards Earth instead of its usual target the planet Saturn, its rings and moons, astronomers are now analyzing an abundance of infrared and ultraviolet data from the images. NASA image

In the wake of the NASA Cassini mission turning its cameras towards Earth instead of its usual target the planet Saturn, its rings and moons, astronomers are now analyzing an abundance of infrared and ultraviolet data from the images.

On 19th July, NASA flipped its Cassini probe, which is currently investigating the gas giant Saturn, 1.4 billion kilometres, an average of nine time the distance from the Sun to the Earth. By pointing its instruments towards Earth it could take a snapshot of the Earth and record various data. The snapshot would be reminiscent of one taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 spacecraft at the request of physicist and science populariser Carl Sagan, who dubbed the image of Earth, a "Pale Blue Dot". The Voyager 1, which was launched in September 1977 had reached a distance of 6 billion kilometers at that time, it has now finally left the Solar System, heading for the stars.

An image of humanity

What that image represented was the whole of humanity in a single mote in space, it put our problems into perspective, although many wars have raged since regardless. This year's Pale Blue Dot image was taken at the same time a NAS publicity campaign had encouraged people around the world to take their own snapshot waving, perhaps rather whimsically, to Cassini as the spacecraft looked towards its home. NASA not only published a series of wonderful, new "pale blue dot" images of Saturn and Earth but has also created a montage of more than 1400 of the best photos uploaded internationally from those waving.

Robotic spacecraft

Cassini-Huygens is a NASA-ESA-ASI robotic spacecraft that arrived at the Saturn system in 2004 and is observing that planet, as well as "nearby" Jupiter, the heliosphere and even testing the theory of relativity. It was almost two decades in development and set off for Saturn in 1997, it was the fourth space probe that has visited Saturn and the first to enter orbit around the planet.

Cassini has a wide range of instruments on board including a synthetic aperture radar mapper, a charge-coupled device imaging system, a visible/infrared mapping spectrometer, a composite infrared spectrometer, a cosmic dust analyzer, a radio and plasma wave experiment, a plasma spectrometer, an ultraviolet imaging spectrograph, a magnetospheric imaging instrument, a magnetometer and an ion/neutral mass spectrometer. The CIRS is a remote sensing instrument that can be used to measure temperatures, thermal properties, and compositions. NASA has used the CIRS throughout the mission to obtain infrared emission data from the planetary and satellite atmospheres of the vast Saturn system and, of course, the rings. It can map the atmosphere of Saturn in three dimensions to obtain temperature and pressure profiles with altitude, gas composition, as well aerosol and cloud distribution.

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Infrared Saturn

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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