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UC Berkeley astronomers honor historic picture of Earth from Saturn

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This white speck in this picture is Earth, taken from a spacecraft currently 898 million miles away from its home.


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JULY 24, 2013

Earth looked like a speck in the universe — a tiny pixel in vast space — in a photo taken from the perspective of a lens hovering 898 million miles away.

The rare photo was taken in the afternoon on Friday, July 19, by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. In return, UC Berkeley winked back at Saturn by taking a picture of the ringed planet from Evans Hall on campus by operating the powerful Keck I telescope.

The NASA Cassini imaging science team, headed by researcher Carolyn Porco, pointed the Cassini spacecraft camera at Earth. The team waited until Saturn was in eclipse with the sun to block out the sunlight and obtain a resolved photo. The image will be of both Earth and our moon next to Saturn and its ring system.

“The idea of the image is to highlight how fragile and beautiful the Earth is within the vast, cold darkness of the universe,” said UC Berkeley professor Geoffrey Marcy, a renowned researcher in his field who also works with NASA.

In recognition of this event, Marcy and his research team remotely operated the Keck I telescope at the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea in Hawaii from Evans Hall on UC Berkeley campus. At approximately 10 p.m. on July 19, the team pointed the telescope’s camera at Saturn.

After about 35 minutes of calibration, the team successfully took a photo of Saturn as the Cassini spacecraft was taking a picture of Earth, according to UC Berkeley researcher Howard Isaacson, who is part of the team that operated Keck I from Evans Hall.

“The pictures were very striking,” Isaacson said.

The NASA team hoped to recreate a similar photo — famously known as the “Pale Blue Dot” — taken from Saturn of Earth in 1990 by the Voyager spacecraft. However, the photo taken from Cassini is the first planned photo from the same vantage point, as the Voyager image was an accidental masterpiece, according to Isaacson.

Rather than depicting Earth as a brightly shining planet centered in the middle of a dark background — the picture people most commonly see — Cassini portrayed the planet as a delicate dot in the distance, reflecting how small the earth is compared to the scope of the universe.

Marcy, an expert on planet discovery outside the solar system who devotes part of his research to search for alien spacecrafts, said the goal of both the UC Berkeley and NASA projects was to appreciate the marvel of human technological advancement in understanding the complexities of the universe.

“Venturing down from the trees in the East African savanna just a geological eye-blink ago, we humans are now venturing across our solar system, toward what opportunities we cannot tell and toward what future we do not know.”

Contact Mark Tan at [email protected]

JULY 24, 2013