Bringing Saturn down to Earth: Dr. Carolyn Porco

By Denise Coffey
Pomfret - posted Tue., Feb. 1, 2011
Dr. Carolyn Porco has been exploring the solar system for decades. Photo by Denise Coffey.
Dr. Carolyn Porco has been exploring the solar system for decades. Photo by Denise Coffey.

Dr. Carolyn Porco held the stage at the Pomfret School’s Hard Auditorium last Sunday night, as she spoke about the Cassini mission to Saturn and the amazing images of the planet’s rings and moons that have been collected. Porco is the Cassini Imaging Team Leader and the director of CICLOPS (Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for OPerationS) in Boulder, CO.  She is the team leader of 14 scientists who are studying Saturn with data and images sent back from the Cassini space craft.  
Cassini weighed about six metric tons.  It was so heavy that it took scientists years to figure out how to get it to Saturn. Essentially what they did was loop it around the solar system so it could get gravity assistance from other planets.  On Dec. 30, 2001, Cassini flew by Jupiter on its final push to Saturn. It wasn’t until the summer of 2004 that it went into orbit around Saturn.
For Porco, the images of Saturn’s rings were mind boggling. The rings were enormous. They were made of water and ice. And the particles inside the rings orbited at speeds of 20,000 to 40,000 miles an hour.
For more than six and a half years now, Cassini has been orbiting the planet, collecting images. They have been able to change the orbit of the craft so it could look at everything. The images sent back are the highest resolution images to date of the planet.  
Porco is a scientist who has been exploring the solar system for decades. She worked on the Voyager missions to Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.  She has co-authored more than 100 scientific papers on various subjects, ranging from Triton’s polar caps to heat flow in the interior of Jupiter.  She has spent her life studying the stars and planets.  
But she is a communicator, as well as a scientist, having  appeared on 60 Minutes, CNN and PBS and acting as consultant on the movies Contact and Star Trek. She has been profiled numerous times in newspapers and magazines.  She has received the Carl Sagan Medal to acknowledge her outstanding ability to communicate the intricacies of planetary science to lay people.
She described Saturn’s ring system as looking like corrugated cardboard, and the image was clear and understandable.  “We can read it like a book,” she said, indicating moonlets and shadows and drainage patterns and crater impacts.  A few blips on an image were “walls of rubble extending two and a half miles high.”
In January of 2005, a craft landed on one of Saturn’s moons. It was a very emotional day for Porco and the crew of scientists watching. “It was a grown-men-crying kind of day,” she said.  It was a remarkable achievement to have been able to design a craft to land on a planet so far away.  It felt like science fiction she said.  But it wasn’t.  
That probe took 2.5 hours to land on the surface of the moon. The probe took pictures and collected all kinds of information for scientists from all over the world as it descended. It was a landmark day for Porco.  “A union of nations was joined in a common cause, she said.  We were exploring what had once been untouchable.”
What is important is that this information coming back from Cassini is helping scientists understand how planets form, she said. There is evidence of organic material, or methane and propane, of water and heat.
Which brings us back to a question that’s haunted mankind for millennia: is there life in outer space? Are there extraterrestrial beings?  If the information coming back from Cassini is any indication, it isn’t a stretch for Porco to think that genesis happened twice.  And if it happened twice, it’s possible that it has happened a staggering number of times.  “We might safely infer that life is commonplace,” she said.
She flipped to the last image of her presentation, that of the total eclipse of the sun as seen from the far side of Saturn.  It is a spectacular image with the huge planet and its striped rings extending far and wide. She took her pointer and drew the audience’s attention to a white dot in the background. It was planet Earth.
“We get a powerful emotion when we see our planet as others might see us,” she said. “It’s a story of longing to know ourselves, to understand ourselves,” she said. “We are a species unyielding in our quest for knowledge. We have our faults, but we are also explorers and dreamers.  We may be small, but we are extraordinary citizens of the planet Earth.”


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