October 8, 2008

Johnson Exhibit Explores the Many Worlds of Saturn

Print More

I often feel clueless trying to identify the many stars, planets and orbital objects speckled across Ithaca’s anomalous, clear night sky. I admit to feeling a tug of glee when identifying Orion, the Big Dipper or the three stars of the Summer Triangle. No matter how knowledgeable or ignorant one is about the positions and names of the objects in the night sky, it’s never been possible to see more than small white pinpricks of light with the unaided eye.
When the Cassini spacecraft and the Huygens probe sent Earth images of Saturn and its moons across 1.4 billion kilometers of space, they transformed a pinprick into multiple worlds. From September 20 through January 4, the Johnson Museum is displaying Spectacular Saturn, giving anyone the opportunity to see what the gas giant and its moons really look like.
On October 4th, I decided to brave Libe Slope and see what the exhibit — advertized by a gargantuan Saturn poster plastered on the side of the Johnson Museum of Art — was really all about. Stepping into the lobby, I soon noticed a Cassini spacecraft replica, scaled to one-tenth its actual size. Placed in a glass case, the model was strategically protected from museum-goers like me. As I moved my face closer to the glass, I noticed the scaled human replica standing alongside the Cassini model; I was finally able to visualize the scale of the spacecraft, and was amazed by how big it really is. Impressed by Cassini’s size, I was all set to be impressed by Saturn.
A timeline at the exhibit’s entrance, titled “Saturn’s Discoveries,” listed significant events in the study of Saturn through history, beginning at 650 B.C. — when Assyrian tablets had shown Saturn’s position in the sky — and stretching all the way forward to 2004, the year Cassini settled in orbit around Saturn. Lying on a waist-level table nearby, and also protected by a glass barrier, were original publications of books by James Clerk Maxwell, Christiaan Huygen, Galileo Galilei and other notable scientists; many of the works were donated by Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.
Stepping into the adjacent room, I instantly knew that I had reached the heart of the exhibit. Lining the walls were dozens of large images of Saturn and its many moons; with their enticing colors and clarity, it can be difficult to decide which photograph to approach first. I ended up doing the orderly and predictable clockwise walk around the room, reading the friendly descriptions of photos and then gazing upon the images themselves. This exhibit, produced with assistance from NASA/JPL, Cornell University, the American Museum of Natural History and the Eastman Kodak Company, provides visual proof that other worlds really do exist: The orange and blue hues from Saturn’s smooth, gaseous surface demonstrate a place so unlike our own. One image, stretching almost the entire width of one wall, shows a scaled representation of Saturn’s rings, somewhat mathematical in its orderly precision. Images from seven of Saturn’s moons — Iapetus, Dione, Tethys, Hyperion, Phoebe, Enceladus and Titan — were each surprisingly unique. I was amazed by the sponge-like appearance of Hyperion, the vibrantly reflective surface of Tethys, the bi-colored landscape of Iapetus, the dense atmosphere of Titan and the icy geyser shooting out from Enceladus’ South Pole. Each moon has its own personality and was easily a world unto itself. I continually had to remind myself that these were real images and not the work from an imaginative artist.
So, would I recommend this free on-campus exhibit? If it’s not clear already, of course I would. Open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Spectacular Saturn displayed images from the Cassini-Huygens Mission in a friendly and interesting presentation. Looking at the surfaces of Saturn and its moons, I felt both closer and farther away from our universe. In just one day, one pinprick of light in the sky became physical worlds, all drastically unique from one another. I could not leave without wondering, “What else is out there?” Amongst those thousands of stars visible in the Ithaca sky, how many unique planets are there? How many different moons? In one day, my universe just got one hell of a lot bigger.
In addition to Spectacular Saturn, the Johnson Museum will host other, related exhibitions in the coming months, and a projector in front of the museum will splash a slideshow of images from Saturn on the museum’s façade, over the parking lot, starting at sunset through October 26.