NASA's Cassini spacecraft has been sending us eye-filling pictures of the giant planet Saturn for almost nine years, but every so often, the camera also sees the small fry of the solar system — such as Venus, which shines in the two latest offerings from the Cassini imaging team.
One of the photos, captured last November, shows Venus as seen through Saturn's gossamer rings, from a distance of 884 million miles (1.42 billion kilometers, or 9.51 AU). The other picture highlights Venus as a "morning star," hanging just beyond Saturn's edge and next to the giant planet's G ring. Venus was 849 million miles (1.37 billion kilometers, or 9.13 AU) away when that picture was taken in January, according to the imaging team.
From such a distance, Venus looks like nothing more than a bright speck. Which isn't surprising, considering that Earth takes on pretty much the same appearance from Saturn, even though it's slightly bigger. The mind-boggling perspectives involved in space vistas led the late astronomer Carl Sagan to call our home planet a "pale blue dot," and I guess that makes Venus a pale yellow dot.
Venus looks lovely from millions of miles away, but it's not a place you'd want to visit, Carolyn Porco, the leader of the imaging team at the Colorado-based Space Science Institute, said in an email:
"Along with Mercury, Earth, and Mars, Venus is one of the rocky 'terrestrial' planets in the solar system that orbit relatively close to the sun," she wrote. "It has an atmosphere of carbon dioxide that reaches nearly 900 degrees Fahrenheit (500 degrees Celsius), a surface pressure 100 times that of Earth's, and is covered in thick, white sulfuric acid clouds, making it very bright. Despite a thoroughly hellish environment that would melt lead, Venus is considered a twin of our planet because of their similar sizes, masses, rocky compositions and close orbits.
"Think about Venus the next time you find yourself reveling in the thriving flora, balmy breezes, and temperate climate of a lovely day on Earth, and remember: You could be somewhere else!"
More about Saturn and Venus:
- Space missions deliver treats from Saturn and beyond
- Solar particles moving at incredible speed near Saturn
- Venus can take on a 'cometlike' atmosphere
- Flash interactive: Guide to the new solar system
Slideshow: Month in Space
Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.