New Exhibit Brings Saturn Down to Earth
The Cassini spacecraft surveys Saturn’s outstretched ring system in the infrared from a vantage point high above the planet’s northern latitudes. Nearly the full expanse of the main rings is visible here—from the C ring to the outer edge of the A ring (in the upper left corner).
Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

NEW YORK — Stunning images of Saturn and its moons will bring the ringed planet down to Earth for visitors at the American Museum of Natural History here starting Saturday.

The new exhibition "Saturn: Images from the Cassini-Huygens Mission? offers just a sample of the more than 140,000 images beamed back to Earth across half a billion miles by NASA's Cassini spacecraft.

Launched by NASA in 1997, Cassini became the first spacecraft to orbit Saturn in 2004. The international Cassini-Huygens mission has spent the past seven years investigating Saturn's local neighborhood, boosting its moon count from 18 to more than 60 and capturing the clearest views yet of the planet?s famous rings and violent storms.

The new exhibit showcases about 50 of the most striking views of the planet and its moons.

"The images show the Saturn system as we had never seen it before," said Joe Burns, the exhibit's guest co-curator and a Cassini imaging scientist at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., in a statement. ?They perfectly blend exploration, science and beauty.?

More photos come courtesy of the European Space Agency's (ESA) Huygens lander, which separated from Cassini on Christmas Day in 2004 and parachuted onto the surface of Saturn?s cloud-covered moon Titan three weeks later.

Those pictures — the first-ever from a moon other than Earth's — show liquid methane on Titan's surface, making Saturn's largest moon the only solar system inhabitant besides Earth known to have surface-flowing liquid. Titan also boasts a substantial atmosphere that makes it unique among all the moons in the solar system.

The Cassini-Huygens mission similarly scoped out giant geysers of ice erupting from the smaller icy moon Enceladus, where surface temperatures hover around -328 degrees Fahrenheit (-200 degrees Celsius). Cassini endured a cold shower from one such geyser during a flyby, allowing the spacecraft to detect organic molecules on the moon's icy breath that may hint at possibilities for life.

Two sections of the museum exhibit cover Saturn and its rings, respectively, while a third focuses on the moons Titan and Enceladus. The fourth section includes the rest of Saturn's satellite cornucopia. Visitors can also see a one-quarter scale model of the nuclear-powered Cassini spacecraft.

NASA announced this month that Cassini will continue its tour of Saturn by extending the mission for at least two more years.

NASA, ESA, and the Italian Space Agency scraped together the $160 million needed to increase Cassini's lifespan, double the number of orbits around Saturn and conduct more moon flybys. The space agencies have spent $3.27 billion so far on the Cassini-Huygens program.

The mission's life extension gives scientists the opportunity to try and find Titan's hidden ocean and examine possibilities of liquid water under the surface of Enceladus — and may provide some more pretty pictures, too.

"Saturn: Images from the Cassini-Huygens Mission" will show starting April 26, 2008 in the IMAX Corridor on the first floor of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and run through March 29, 2009.