Fact check: Image of Saturn is an artist's rendering, not an up-close photo

·4 min read

The claim: Image is the closest ever taken of Saturn

The Cassini spacecraft captured hundreds of thousands of images of Saturn before concluding nearly two decades of space exploration by plunging into the ringed planet's atmosphere in September 2017.

But an image shared May 2 on Facebook that claims to be the “closest image to Saturn we have ever gotten” isn’t one of them. It is an artist's concept.

The image shows part of Cassini in the foreground, with layers of clouds blanketing the planet. Its rings rise from the horizon before disappearing off the top of the frame.

“That is so incredibly beautiful,” the user who shared the image wrote.

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The user did not respond to a request for comment.

Artist’s concept

While the image is passing as an up-close shot of a planet hundreds of millions of miles from Earth, a reverse image search links back to a “concept” image from NASA on April 6, 2017.

“The artist’s concept shows an over-the-shoulder view of Cassini making one of its Grand Finale dives over Saturn,” according to the caption on NASA’s website. The image circulated in similar fashion and was debunked as fake in 2018 as well.

In all, Cassini captured 453,048 images during its nearly 20 years in space, according to NASA, but none of them was the image shared on Facebook. NASA maintains a public online gallery of nearly 400,000 raw images the spacecraft captured between Feb. 20, 2004, and Sept. 15, 2017.

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NASA distributed the artist's rendering being passed off as a real image in 2017 as the spacecraft neared the end of its mission.

Cassini’s ‘grand finale’

Cassini launched on Oct. 15, 1997, as a joint venture among NASA, the European Space Agency and Italy’s space agency, carrying a probe called Huygens that would be used to study Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.

It took almost seven years for Cassini to arrive at Saturn, where it spent about 13 years in the planet’s orbit.

After completing multiple missions over almost 20 years in space, Cassini was running low on rocket fuel used to adjust course in its orbit of Saturn. To avoid Cassini potentially crashing into one of the planet’s two moon’s that have shown “potential to contain habitable – or at least prebiotic – environments,” the decision was made to send Cassini into Saturn, according to NASA.

In its “grand finale” mission, Cassini made weekly dives through a 1,200-mile wide gap between Saturn and its rings over the course of six months. Those passes allowed Cassini to collect new data on Saturn’s gravity and magnetic fields, the amount of material in its rings, and what NASA described as “ultra-close images of Saturn’s rings and clouds.”

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On Sept. 15, 2017, Cassini dove into Saturn’s atmosphere, sending data back to Earth until it “burned up and disintegrated like a meteor.”

Our rating: False

The claim that an image circulating online is the closest ever taken of Saturn is FALSE based on our research. The image is an artist's rendering NASA distributed in 2017 as the Cassini spacecraft concluded two decades in space, where it orbited Saturn 294 times and captured 453,048 images.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Image of Saturn is artist's rendering, not up-close photo