Smile for the camera: Spacecraft to focus on Earth
The Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn snapped this photograph in 2006, showing the planet backlit by the sun. Earth is the faint dot on the left of Saturn, just below its second ring. Cassini will take a similar photograph Friday at 5:27 p.m. local time. Courtesy of NASA
TAMPA - You will have exactly 15 minutes Friday to smile and wave for a photograph that will be taken by a camera 900 million miles away.
Starting at 5:27 p.m. local time, NASA's Cassini spacecraft will zip through the shadow of Saturn to snap a photograph of the ringed planet backlit by the sun. Earth will be captured in the frame as a faint blue dot, but NASA is encouraging everybody to go outside, face where Saturn will be in the sky and pose for what the space agency is calling a "family portrait."
NASA hopes that willing Earthlings will participate in its "Wave at Saturn" initiative by taking a photograph of themselves or others waving toward the sixth planet in our solar system, then posting the images on social networks.
NASA has also nicknamed the event the "First Interplanetary Photobomb."
Here in Tampa, you can face the southeastern horizon from 5:27 to 5:42 p.m. today as Cassini takes a series of 33 images that will be stitched together and released to the public next week. No one will be visible in the picture, of course; in the image, Earth will be about one pixel wide.
Scott Edgington, the deputy project scientist for the Cassini mission, said the spacecraft's photograph will help enhance our understanding of Saturn's complex ring system.
"All the fine ring particles will be illuminated," he said. "You can't see this at any other angle. This is a unique geometry."
Cassini took a photograph from a similar angle before, in 2006. Back then, NASA scientists didn't involve the people of Earth. But now?
"This time, we're doing a much bigger, better job," Edgington said, "because we have a much better idea of how our equipment and the image works."
There has only been two other images of Earth taken from deep space, said Jia-Rui Cook, spokeswoman for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.
The first was in 1990, when the Voyager 1 spacecraft turned its camera back on our home planet as it zoomed out of the Solar System. Astronomer Carl Sagan famously named it the "Pale Blue Dot" photograph, because of how tiny Earth looked compared to the vastness of space.
The second was Cassini's first photograph of Earth seven years ago.
People can share their photos on Twitter using the hashtag #waveatsaturn. Photographs also can be uploaded on the event's Flickr page, www.flickr.com/groups/wave_at_saturn or the official page on Facebook.