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Lord of the rings

TALK ABOUT a sky show. The historic pictures from Saturn sent by the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft put this weekend's fireworks spectaculars in perspective.

Man-made booms and shooting stars are great, but mission scientists at NASA, the European space agency, and the Italian space agency deserved far bigger "ooohhhs" and "ahhhhs" for showing Earth what it has never seen -- the wild striations and textures of Saturn's fascinating rings.

The spacecraft, which left Earth on Oct. 15, 1997, for its 2-billion-mile journey, is scheduled to spend the next four years orbiting the second-largest planet in our solar system, giving researchers what they hope will be insight into how that solar system formed.

Saturn, with its seven rings, hundreds of thousands of ringlets, and 31 known moons, is a bit like a mini solar system itself and is expected to reveal how stars and planets take shape.

In December the Huygens probe, now piggybacked on the Cassini craft, will plunge into the atmosphere of Titan -- Saturn's largest moon -- for a study of that body's surface. The frozen realm of Titan, with its hyrdrocarbon atmosphere, is believed to have chemical compounds similar to those once found on a young Earth and may help scientists unlock the mystery of how life began.

For now the focus is on those extraordinary black-and-white close-ups of Saturn's rings taken as the craft moved through them to lock into orbit around the planet.

In a telephone interview, Glenn Miller, press spokesman at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., explained that the rings are made of ice and would be the color of densely packed snowballs if seen with the naked eye.

He likened the planet's ring system to an old vinyl phonograph record, with particles inside each ring forming what look like grooves and the broader gaps between rings resembling the spaces separating a record's cuts.

"The images are mind-boggling, just mind-boggling," Carolyn Porco, the imaging team leader, said at a news conference last week. "I've been working on this mission for 14 years and I shouldn't be surprised, but it is remarkable how startling it is to see these images for the first time." Lost in the flashing montage of ring segments, she said: "We're seeing something here, and I literally don't have a clue."

Such is the thrill of exploration. Crossing the threshold into the seemingly unfathomable, the scientist will find clue after clue that leads to new theories and eventual understanding.

The nonscientist gets to watch via computer, television, and newspaper. And unlike a fireworks display, this show has no finale -- just the prospect of more and more dazzling discoveries. 

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