Moon and Saturn
Sometime in the not-too-distant future, a crew of explorers may gaze upon one of the most spectacular sights in the solar system: the planet Saturn. As they settle into orbit, they'll see Saturn's rings filling their windows, the individual strands glistening like the threads of a spiderweb touched by morning dew. Storms as big as Earth will spin through Saturn's butter-colored atmosphere. And dozens of moons will flicker like fireflies as they dance through the planet's shadow.
Only a handful of people will make the trip. But several sets of eyes have already gazed upon the planet -- eyes not of humans but built by humans: the cameras and instruments of the robotic probes that have studied Saturn from close range. One of them, called Cassini, has been orbiting the planet for four years.
None of these probes has carried people. Instead, people carried them. Scientists envisioned ways to study Saturn remotely. Engineers designed the craft, and mathematicians worked out their intricate routes. Others devised ways to capture their weak radio signals, and still others analyze the data to unveil Saturn's secrets.
So when explorers finally visit Saturn, they'll be the first humans to get close to the planet -- but not the first to see it from up close.
And we can see Saturn from afar low in the dawn sky right now. Tomorrow, it's to the left of the crescent Moon beginning about an hour before sunrise. It looks like a golden star.
Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2008
For more skywatching tips, astronomy news, and much more, read StarDate magazine.