A route to discovery
Porco, who grew up in the Bronx, got her first glimpse of space through a telescope in a friend’s backyard at the age of 13. But it wasn’t stargazing alone that got her interested in astronomy. “Young kids were turning to Buddhism and yoga,” she recalls. “It’s that feeling of wanting to feel connected. My whole entry into astronomy started from a spiritual place.” She wondered about her place in the universe. “And that got me thinking: What is ‘here’?” Astronomy, she thought, was a way to discover what is “here”—and out there.
Through a stroke of good timing, Porco’s first job out of graduate school was working on the Voyager 2 spacecraft as it continued past Jupiter and Saturn to Uranus and Neptune during the 1980s. The mission, she says, was Homeric in scope, humanity extending its reach as far as it could.
And then, just as Voyager 2 was completing its planetary tour, NASA began work on a follow-up mission to Saturn. In 1990 Porco was named head of the imaging team for the new spacecraft, named after Giovanni Cassini, the Italian-French astronomer who discovered four of Saturn’s moons and a gap in Saturn’s rings, now known as the Cassini division. She has been there ever since.
If Voyager was an epic trek through uncharted territory, Cassini is a more permanent sojourn. The idea here was not to snap images while flying by, but to orbit Saturn for many years and come to know the place. The spacecraft has been so successful that its planned four-year mission, which began in 2004, has been extended twice, and it will now continue until at least 2017. In the accompanying gallery, Porco shares some of her favorite images from Cassini so far, the views that made her feel as if she is more than just a visitor to another world.
“We are the new Saturnians,” she says. “We’ve taken up residence and we watch things as they unfold.”
An insider look
Below, a collection of Porco's favorite snapshots of Saturn, its rings, and its strange and varied moons.