On This Day in 1980, Voyager 1 Showed Us Saturn

NASA/JPL/USGS (Public Domain)
NASA/JPL/USGS (Public Domain) / NASA/JPL/USGS (Public Domain)

On November 12, 1980, Voyager 1 flew by Saturn. It was the second spacecraft to do so (Pioneer 11 had taken low-resolution pictures in 1979). But Voyager 1 had a high-resolution camera onboard, and it snapped photos of the planet, its rings, and its moons. It also found three previously-unknown moons: Atlas, Pandora, and Prometheus.

The image shown at the top of this post actually came a few days later, when Voyager 1 continued its flyby but turned its camera back. The original caption read:

Voyager 1 image of Saturn and its ring taken Nov. 16, 1980 four days after closest approach to Saturn, from a distance of 5,300,000 km (3,300,000 miles). This viewing geometry, which shows Saturn as a crescent, is never achieved from Earth. The Saturnian rings, like the cloud tops of Saturn itself, are visible because they reflect sunlight. The translucent nature of the rings is apparent where Saturn can be seen through parts of the rings. Other parts of the rings are so dense with orbiting ice particles that almost no sunlight shines through them and a shadow is cast onto the yellowish cloud tops of Saturn, which in turn, casts a shadow across the rings at right. The black strip within the rings is the Cassini Division, which contains much less orbiting ring material than elsewhere in the rings.

Among the first photos we got back were these views of Saturn's satellites. I have embedded some nice ones below.


Titan is Saturn's largest moon. Voyager 1 found Titan's thick atmosphere, which prevents visible-light cameras from seeing the surface. The image above shows a false-color view of the "haze" in Titan's atmosphere, which is mostly made up of nitrogen.


Looks a lot like our moon, eh?


Another familiar-looking moon. JPL notes:

At the top of the image is the 166 km diameter crater Aeneas, centered at 26 N, 46 W. North is at 12:30. This image was taken from a distance of 162,000 km and has a resolution of 1 km/pixel.


JPL notes:

Two brown ovals can be seen towards the right. The lower one is at about 40 degrees north latitude. The upper one, the polar oval, is at 60 degrees north. Both ovals are about 10,000 km across. North is at 1:30.


Voyager 2 also flew by Saturn, in August 1981. It took some amazing pictures. If you want to get deep into the Voyager data sets, JPL and the USGS have you covered. If you're just looking for images, check out the Voyager 1 section of this page.