In the final days of summer in 1977, twin spacecrafts left Earth to explore the solar system. For more than a year, Voyager 1 and 2 quietly navigated space, winding their way through the asteroid belt beyond Mars and toward their first target, Jupiter. Then in early 1979, as though someone removed the cap from a fire hydrant, a stream of information burst back toward Earth. Voyager 1 started transmitting photos of Jupiter daily, the views unlike anything seen before. Every day, the gas planet would get bigger and the details crisper. “Jupiter and its largest moons are places now, not objects,” a New York Times journalist wrote in March 1979. Each new photo seemed more remarkable, more breathtaking, more pioneering than the last.
Carolyn Porco remembers watching Voyager images flashing on monitors that hung all over the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, even in the cafeteria, and feeling “almost overwhelmed with the newness of it all, the thrill.” The fire hydrant was still roaring in the early 1980s, when Porco joined the Voyager mission’s imaging team.
Porco was hired for her expertise on Saturn’s rings, the topic of her doctoral thesis at the California Institute of Technology. The year the Voyager spacecraft launched, astronomers on the ground discovered that Uranus had rings, too. Voyager 2 was on track for an encounter with the planet in 1986, and the team had needed specialists in planetary rings.