In the last few days, social media went crazy about this stunning image of Saturn. It shows the final moments of the Cassini probe, just as it encounters the clouds of the gas giant. The beautifully framed shot showing layers of fluffy clouds and the planet's rings in the distance was posted as the last image taken by Cassini. But it wasn't.
The image, which was shared thousands of times, is simply an artist's concept of Cassini's final dive that was commissioned by NASA when the end mission, Cassini’s Grand Finale, was announced. It is a beautiful piece of artwork, don’t get me wrong. The image truly captures the magnificence of Saturn and makes Cassini’s unfortunately unavoidable last orbit even more dramatic. But it’s not the real thing.
“I have a massive appreciation for astronomical artwork, and how it can help people connect with science and the Universe. But I think that cause is undermined by passing it off as something it's not (e.g., photos from telescopes) or by failing to credit the artists,” astrophysicist Dr Katie Mack said in a couple of tweets.
“So please don't share fake astro pictures that are passed off as real ones just because they look cool, and please don't share uncredited art. The people who do the hard work will appreciate it.”
The final images from Cassini might not be as visually dramatic but they are nevertheless momentous. Cassini plunged into Saturn on September 15, 2017, after 13 years of conducting incredible science around the ringed planet and its many moons. The last image was taken less than a day before the probe's fateful dive, when it was 634,000 kilometers (394,000 miles) from Saturn, which is slightly less than twice the distance between the Earth and the Moon.
Saturn is extremely hazy so even by looking at the planet in visible light, you can’t spot storms, swirls, and stripes, unlike the Juno probe on Jupiter. But while we can't see them, we can still study them. Using its Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, Cassini snapped an image of what lies beneath the haze. Dark cold clouds blocking the heat coming from the inside of the planet.
If these two images are not enough for you, there is a catalog of hundreds of thousands of snapshots of the Saturnine system. The final full portrait of the ringed planet was taken just two days before the end of the mission and it’s one of the most beautiful pictures of the planet yet. Go through the archives, you won’t be disappointed.