NASA's Cassini mission captures the planet's rings and the shadows they cast as the seasons change.


NASA's Cassini spacecraft took six images on May 6, 2012, to give us this natural-color portrait of Saturn. To give you some idea of the (ridiculous) scale of these objects, when Cassini took the pictures, it was about 483,000 miles away from Saturn's moon, Titan, which, at 3,200 miles across, is the planet's largest moon -- larger than the planet Mercury.

In the image, hints of seasonal change are apparent. When Cassini first arrived at the planet in 2004, the northern hemisphere was a clearer blue. That color is now fading in the north, but beginning to appear in the souther hemisphere as it moves into winter. The color, NASA says, comes from a reduced intensity of ultraviolet light and a dissipation of atmospheric haze, which means that sunlight is scattered by the molecules in the air, much as it is in Earth's atmosphere. Additionally, the presence of methane in Saturn's atmosphere intensifies the blue color.

Sunlight, streaming in from the north, falls on the planet's icy rings, casting massive shadows across the southern hemisphere.

Sometimes, to me at least, Saturn, its rings, and its moons just look so haunting, so perfect, that it's hard to remember that they actually exist, in all their massive glory, and sit in space not too far from our earth, at least when measuring by cosmic standards. They seem more like works of art than objects of rock and gas. That's even all the more true when they are presented to you like this:

We want to hear what you think. Submit a letter to the editor or write to