The Cassini Mission (or how I learned to stop worrying and love our very own ‘Lord of the Rings’)

The year is 1610; Gallileo Galilei trained his primitive telescope towards the sky, scouring the heavens for an object known from antiquity. Gallileo quickly espied the planet, but soon noticed something odd. He saw what appeared to be “handles”, or “ears” on each side of the planet. Concerning his discovery, Gallileo wrote the Duke of Tuscany: “[t]he planet Saturn is not alone, but is composed of three, which almost touch one another and never move nor change with respect to one another. They are arranged in a line parallel to the zodiac, and the middle one (Saturn itself) is about three times the size of the lateral ones [the edges of the rings].” In 1612 a mystified Gallileo could no longer find the “ears” of Saturn. Commenting on the missing “ears” Gallileo said, “[h]as Saturn swallowed his children?” This a reference to mythology. We now know this Houdini act of Saturns rings were caused only by the orientation of the plane of the rings in relation to earth. Gallileo had been looking at the rings straight on, and could no longer see them.

Other Astronomers witnessed the rings, and their true nature slowly evolved in human thought. In 1675 Giovanni Domenico Cassini was able to distinguish individual rings with distinct gaps between them. The largest of these gaps became known as the Cassini Division. As science progressed, the knowledge of the obviously rings became greater, yet our curiosity has not been sated. We have learned that the composition of the rings is almost entirely pure water ice. Another interesting fact is that Saturn has moons within the ring structure, and it appears that some are “shepherd” moons; moons whose gravitational influence helps to maintain the rings structure. Very interesting indeed.

But all of this is historical, and academic. My thoughts for this blog are how Saturn and his rings have integrated themselves so solidly in our modern folklore and society. Seriously, if you want to “speak space” you show some sort of ringed planet logo. Writing Sci-Fi? Definitely put a ringed planet on the cover. Back in the ‘50s, the Fender guitar company, wanting to capitalize on the surge in space interest, named one of their new guitars a space-age name; the Stratocaster. “Pow Alice. Straight to the moon!” We all remember that quote from the Honeymooners. But for a true “out there” message, gotta have that ringed planet!  (more cowbell wouldn’t hurt neither).

So, here’s your homework assignment. Start noticing all the ringed planet logos around you, then think about why in the world (or out of it) the company would think you’d be impressed by that.

As you were.

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