Planetary Perspectives Inspire Appreciation For The Little Things

Venus is the bright “star” seen among Saturn’s rings in the photo taken by Cassini late last year. The bright arc is Saturn’s atmosphere glowing in backlit sunlight. Light reflected from the rings faintly illuminates the planet. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech

Nothing beats stepping back to gain a little perspective. NASA recently released a pretty picture of Venus peering through Saturn’s rings. The photo was taken on Nov. 10, 2012 when the Cassini spacecraft orbited the shadowed side of the ringed planet, so we see the rings and atmospheric edge of Saturn backlit by the sun. Venus is a pinprick of light nearly a billion miles away shining through the veil of icy bits that compose the rings.

Venus as seen this morning March 6, 2013 by SOHO’s camera. An opaque disk covers the sun (white circle) allowing astronomers to study the streaky solar atmosphere called the corona.  Venus is currently about 159 million miles from Earth. Credit: NASA/ESA

We also have a more recent photo of Venus taken by the Solar and Heliospheric  Observatory (SOHO) from a different point of view. This picture was taken earlier this morning and shows Venus nearby southwest of the sun. SOHO is parked near the L1 Lagrange point, a spot in space 1 million miles forward of Earth in the direction of the sun. Here the planet’s gravity balances that of the more distant sun allowing the craft to hover in equilibrium with its eye ever focused on the sun. Due to gravitational tugs from the moon and planets, SOHO fires its thrusters every few months to remain in position.

As Venus revolves around the sun, we see it pass through phases just like the moon. Today Venus is near the sun in the sky and appears like a nearly full moon. On the 28th it will be in conjunction and farthest from Earth on the opposite side of the sun. Illustration: Bob King

Venus might look like it’s in the foreground in the SOHO image, but it’s really in the background. On March 28 the planet will pass through superior conjunction when it will appear closest to the sun but located on the farside of its orbit behind it. After that date Venus begins its slow trek back into the evening sky as it comes round to the left or east of the sun. Watch for it to re-appear at dusk in late May.

Venus and Earth are nearly invisible in this wide angle view that includes the sun taken by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990. Click to see the BIG version. Credit: NASA
A tight crop of the wide Voyager 1 photo clearly shows the pale blue dot of Earth. It’s caught in a streak of lens flare caused by the camera pointing directly at the sun. Everything we care about most deeply is contained in that minute fleck of light. Credit: NASA

Let’s pull back a bit more. What do Venus (and Earth) look like from 4 billion miles away, the way the Voyager 1 space probe saw them on Valentine’s Day 1990? Dots of course! Take a close look and you just might be able to see them in the photo. They’re much more obvious the full-resolution image, which can be had for a click.

Earth and the moon from 114 million miles away in the vicinity of Mercury photographed in 2010 by MESSENGER. Click to enlarge. Credit: NASA

Before we wrap up, let’s move in again a little closer and enjoy a picture of the dynamic duo of moon and Earth taken by the Mercury MESSENGER spacecraft from 114 million miles away. While not shot from the planet Mercury, the perspective is nearly identical. Doesn’t it make you feel a little exposed looking at these photos? I mean, there’s so much nothing out there compared to the bits of something. Time to hug my kids again.

9 Responses

  1. Wayne Hawk

    Aloha Astro Bob!
    At last, something written that lets me know you have the same feeling of “smallness” every now and again when examining the cosmos. I know I’ve mentioned it several times when leaving replies but have not read of you (or others) actually having experienced this.
    I’ll never forget the first time I realized just how miniscule the earth was in comparison to the universe. Having the ability to “know” that we actually exist and are able to ponder questions of why we do (is there REALLY a reason?) and what made us and other living things even want to “be” is mind-boggling enough. I’m sure I’m not alone when the thought of “had the earth never existed at all, would that have made ANY difference in the grand scheme of things”, crosses my mind. It is articles and pictures like this that make my entire being realize, when staring at the evening sky, the fragility and almost insignificance of our infinitesimally small spot in the universe. It’s those moments that have made me realize how fortunate I am to have the chance to experience what it is to be ALIVE and wonder why some others don’t ever feel the same?
    Thank you for this great eye-opening article, Bob. In its own way, it is one of the best you’ve ever written.
    Sincerely and Aloha Just For Now!

    1. astrobob

      Hi Wayne,
      Thank you! Although I may not write about it but once in a while I feel it often and try to appreciate the days, minutes and seconds. I’m glad we share the same feelings.

  2. Edward M. Boll

    I did not know that Venus could be seen from Saturn. I thought that it would appear too close to the Sun.

    1. astrobob

      In the photo, the sun is indeed very close to Venus, just within the glowing edge of the atmosphere. Still, you make a good point. From Saturn’s perspective when the photo was taken, I’d guess that Venus had to be near greatest elongation.

  3. Robert

    Hi bob- I often think of how the earth looks from far far away. I like it when one of the rovers on mars occasionally catches a glimpse of the earth and moon so cool. What I would love to see is a lunar eclipse from the moon which would probably be called a solar eclipse if you were on the moon. I can imagine the dark orange shadow moving toward me and standing on the orange surface of the moon looking back at the earth and I can’t even imagine what the earth would look like with the lit up atmosphere. NASA needs to send a rover to the moon to check out the old Apollo landing sites and how space might be degrading things that men have taken up there to make better spacecrafts for future mars missions and maybe catch a lunar eclipse in the process wishful thinking I guess

  4. H.Bob

    Astro Bob, the tight crop photo of our earth is magnificent. Spellbinding, really. Even without the photographic clarity that we will achieve from future probes, it is amazing to see an image of a dot that represents everything. William Blake describes it best 200 years ago in Auguries of Innocence: “To see a world in a grain of sand; And heaven in a wild flower; Hold infinity in the palm of your hand; And eternity in an hour.” Thank you for posting this picture for us to see.

  5. mia

    to Wayne, (earlier blog march 3)
    I totally understand the feeling that you discribe, about us humans, being soooooo small in this great and glorious universe. we only have to look up at the stars to get our feet back on the ground … some people should do this more often
    I envie you for that ‘breathtaking’ night sky !
    friendly greetings from Belgium

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