On July 19, 2013 the Cassini spacecraft turned to take an image of much of our solar system that included Saturn, its ring system, many of its moon, Mars, Venus, and the Earth while it was being eclipsed by the Sun.
In preparation of this historic photo shoot Cassini imaging team leader and planetary scientist Dr. Carolyn Porco dubbed it The Day the Earth Smiled. This day was proposed as a time for the world’s people to reflect on our place in the cosmos and look up and smile as this was the first time that we had advance notice of our picture being taken from the outer solar system. Under Porco’s direction the processing of the 323 images taken was completed at the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations with the final mosaic image being released four months later to great fanfare and celebration.
This wasn’t the first time Porco was part of a historic image of the Earth. In 1990 she co-originated the idea for a series of images dubbed “Portrait of the Planets” taken with the Voyager 1 spacecraft which includes the famous Pale Blue Dot image of Earth.
Currently she is the leader of the imaging science team on the Cassini mission that is in orbit around Saturn and is an imaging scientist on the New Horizons mission that wowed the world in 2015 with images of Pluto and its moons. Since 2015 she is also is a visiting distinguished scholar at UC Berkley.
More recently she has turned her attention to one of Saturn’s smaller moons, Enceladus. Images taken by Porco’s team of the moon include its south polar region, home to over 100 tall geysers of icy particles erupting from four distinct deep fractures. This evidence combined with other Cassini findings show the existence of a sub-surface sea beneath these geysers which makes the moon home to the most accessible extraterrestrial habitable zone in our solar system.
Porco has been celebrated numerous times including being awarded the Carl Sagan Medal and Asteroid 7231Porco being named in her honor.
Written by Angela Goad