April 2, 2012 | 1
Have you ever wondered what it would really be like for a person to journey to a truly distant and alien place; another planet, even another planetary system? What kind of things would we first see through our windows, or our cameras? What would our sensory experience be in such a distant realm? Would we sit back and admire glossy high-definition displays, or have to assimilate quick and grainy snapshots – the result of serendipitous astronomical cinéma-vérité as we swooped into a system? The Apollo astronauts arguably had only partial sightings and limited views of a true moonscape until the very moment they set foot on the lunar surface. Certainly those of us trapped back on Earth merely caught our first excited glimpses of live human lunar exploration through fuzzy video-feeds.
Modern lunar missions do much better, Japan’s orbiting Kaguya (SELENE) probe returned stunning HD video of the Moon’s surface. But this is a brightly lit, relatively nearby environment, and one that in spaceflight terms we’ve become pretty expert at. Further afield, in the bleakly dim reaches of the outer solar system, real-time video and pictures are increasingly challenging to obtain. Even closer to home, in places like the abyssal ocean depths, the small portals of thickened glass in a submersible can only offer a myopic and blinkered view of what’s going on, and presumably even James Cameron will have to watch his recorded high-fidelity footage to see the bigger picture.
While robotic exploration of our solar system returns a vast archive of imagery, most of what we see on the front pages of newspapers and magazines, or in our TV documentaries, is highly processed – stitched together, and decidedly glossy. These are the best renderings the data can provide, but as glorious and beautiful as many of them are, I think they have lost some of the immediacy, some of the grainy and shaky quality that can make them feel a little more real. So what does the raw footage actually look like? The Cassini mission to Saturn has accumulated a huge archive of imagery and data over the course of its 8 year stay in this distant system, where sunlight is 1/100th as bright as it is at the Earth. Raw pictures are made publicly available, but these uncorrected and uncalibrated shots seldom get aired in full. For the fun of it, and to test the notion that these images convey a different experience, here is a small collection with a particular subject – the 300 mile diameter ice-laden moon Enceladus. The very first image here is the only one that has been ‘cleaned up’, but I have then cropped it as a crafty film-maker might, to create a certain emphasis. All the other images are ‘as is’, raw files taken from the Cassini archives (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute).
For me, these unclean images with their poorly adjusted contrast have far greater immediacy than the centerfold spreads that we usually get to see – how about you?