March 6, 2013 - Happy Birthday, Carolyn Porco!

How do you get to be an expert on Saturn's rings?

You don't become an astronaut. So far, astronauts have only traveled to Earth orbit and to the moon—far, far away from Saturn and its rings.

Instead, you join a team of scientists who send robotic spacecraft to the outer planets. You make sure that those spacecraft are equipped with all sorts of machines that can measure temperatures, radiation levels, and other interesting data, and of course cameras.

And you work really hard on analyzing the pictures and data you get back from the spacecraft.

Carolyn Porco has done all this, working with NASA, JPL, and several universities to study and interpret images and data from missions such as Cassini and the New Horizons spacecraft bound for Pluto. (New Horizons's planned arrival date in the neighborhood of Pluto is July 2015.) Porco has become an expert on, not just Saturn's rings, but also on the rings of Jupiter, Neptune, and Uranus, plus the intriguing Saturnian moon Enceladus

This painting shows what
the surface of Enceladus
might look like when
geysers of water erupt.
Oh...and also Triton's polar caps, spectroscopy of Uranus, heat flow in the interior of Jupiter, the interstellar medium...

Need I go on? Obviously, Porco knows a lot about all of planetary science!

Carolyn Porco has also taken the time to communicate about these discoveries to all the rest of us. She has won quite a few awards, including several for her role as science communicator—and she even has an asteroid (discovered by someone else) named after her.

Watch a Porco TED talk! Fabulous!

What Porco said to me...

I once heard Carolyn Porco speak, in person. She talked about the genuinely fascinating discoveries made by Cassini, but what I remember most is how she ended her talk. Porco showed us the same image she ended her "This is Saturn" talk with: a total eclipse of the sun by the planet Saturn. The rings showed up in glorious backlit splendor. And then Porco showed us the tiny blip on the photo that was our Earth. She said something like, “If you ever get discouraged about society, about people, about humans, remember this photo, and remember that we are the species that did this! We are the species that built the machines that took this picture of our planet!”

After the talk, I went up to Carolyn Porco. I expressed my gratitude for her work and her talk, and Porco autographed a beautiful color print copy of that glorious photo. I absolutely love it!

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