Carolyn Porco was 13 years old when she experienced her first ‘cosmic connection’. She was on a rooftop in the Bronx, of all the unlikely places, peering through a friend’s telescope when she caught her first glimpse of Saturn. It was a pivotal moment for Porco, now leader of the imaging team on the Cassini mission to the ringed world, as it was then where she discovered her life’s passion.

Some astronomers fall in love with their craft by building their own telescopes, and only after they view the stars do they begin to be enraptured by the vastness of space. For Porco, it was the other way around.

“I wasn’t a tinkerer, I was a thinker, a seeker,” Porco said. “I got into astronomy through an interest in religion. I read about eastern philosophy and religion and existentialism. All that introspective thinking got me thinking about the great beyond. That turned my sights from inwards to outwards, and I started becoming interested in the makeup of the universe and I started reading about astronomy, planets, and galaxies.”

By the time she was in high school she had developed a deep interest in astronomy. She saw the first images of Mars from the Mariner mission in the early ’60’s and knew that she wanted to explore planets. She went to the State University of New York in Stony Brook to do her undergraduate work in astronomy before going to California Institute of Technology, where she earned her doctorate.

While at Caltech, which runs NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Porco got her first real hands on experience exploring other planets.

“While I was there, Voyager flew by Saturn. I got involved with a person who was a member of the imaging team and started working on data from Saturn,” said Porco in an interview with Space.com. “With all that data coming in, the imaging team didn’t have enough hands or scientists to work on all of it.”

Because of the lack of hands, a gem that would help define her career fell into Porco’s lap. She was the first person to work on data from Saturn’s eccentric ringlets and the “spokes” in the B ring, two projects she would do her dissertation on. As she progressed with her work on ringlets and “spokes”, she discovered a connection between them and Saturn’s magnetic field.

“I’ll never forget when I realized there was this connection – it was tremendous to know something that no one else on the planet knew,” said Porco, joking that she felt a bit like Galileo. “It was a “eureka” moment — a time when you come to understand one of nature’s secrets.”

Because she understood this particular secret so well, she continued to contribute to the Voyager mission as the fly by images of Uranus, which has rings similar to Saturn’s, were being gathered in 1986. As a member of the imaging team, she played a large role in planning the imaging sequences of the Uranian rings. By the time Voyager was passing Neptune in 1989, Porco was leading a small band of scientists interested in Neptunian rings on Voyager’s imaging team.

Going back to Saturn

Just six months after the Voyager mission ended, Porco applied for the team leader position on the Cassini mission to Saturn. On a day she will never forget, November 13, 1990, she was informed that she had been appointed team leader, beating out many more senior applicants in doing so. The appointment was the beginning of 14 years of demanding work.
The Cassini mission has many goals, including measuring Saturn’s huge magnetosphere, performing close up analysis of the rings, and studying the composition and atmosphere of both Saturn and its largest moon, Titan. And, of course, to provide stunning images of one of our solar systems most alluring planets.

The heavy emphasis on imaging, both for artistic and scientific purposes, places a huge responsibility on Porco and her team. The first real images that Cassini sent back, of the Earths moon and the Masursky asteroid, proved that the imaging equipment was working and working well — a great relief to Porco and her team.

“The first real Cassini image that brought tears to my eyes was an image of Jupiter. I didn’t expect it to look so detailed.”

Spending 14 years working on the Cassini mission has been a demanding task. Much of the mission’s success is due to the sweat of the scientists working on the mission, who have been asked to sprint for the duration of a marathon.

With plans for Cassini to continue gathering data for nearly four more years, there is still a great deal of work left to do. Cassini is sending back scads of data and images each day for scientists to pore over. As Porco says, it’s not so much a mission as a way of life. But it’s a way of life that she seems to enjoy.

“It’s been an adventure just getting out to Saturn,” said Porco. “Saturn is such an alluring photographic target. It’s a joy, really, to be able to take our images and composite them in an artful way, which is one of my cardinal working goals. It’s about poetry and beauty and science all mixed together.”

Aside from making the returned data and images artful, Porco feels responsible to provide the public with an amazing experience similar to what she was going through. “Ever since launch I have wanted to give people a sense of adventure. That they were riding along with us on the spacecraft.”


DR. CAROLYN C. PORCO received her PhD degree in 1983 from the California Institute of Technology in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, having completed her doctoral dissertation on Voyager discoveries in the rings of Saturn. In the fall of 1983, she joined the faculty in the Department of Planetary Sciences within the University of Arizona; the same year she was made a member of the Voyager Imaging Team. In the latter capacity, she participated heavily in the Voyager encounters with Uranus in 1986 and Neptune in 1989, leading the Rings Working Group within the Voyager Imaging Team during the latter encounter.

In November 1990, she was selected as the leader of the Imaging Team for the Cassini mission to Saturn, an international mission that has successfully placed a spacecraft in orbit around Saturn, and deployed an atmospheric probe to Saturn’s largest satellite, Titan. She is also an imaging scientist on the Pluto/Kuiper Belt mission, New Horizons, which will launch to Pluto in 2006.

She is currently a Sr. Research Scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Planetary Sciences at the University of Arizona, and an Adjunct Professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She has taught both graduates and undergraduates and was one of 5 finalists for the University of Arizona Honors Center `Five Star Faculty Award’, a campus-wide student-nominated, student-judged award for outstanding undergraduate teaching.

She has been an active participant in guiding the American planetary exploration program through membership on several important NASA advisory committees, including the Solar System Exploration Subcommittee, the Mars Observer Recovery Study Team, and the Solar System Road Map Development Team. She served as the chaiperson for a small NASA advisory working group to study and develop future outer solar system missions and she recently served as the Vice Chair of the Steering Group for the Solar System Decadal Survey, sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences and NASA.


Dr. Porco, currently a regular CNN guest analyst and consultant on astronomy, has made many radio and television appearances explaining science to the layman, including appearances on the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, CBS’ 60 Minutes, and TV documentaries on planetary exploration such as “Cosmic Journey: The Voyager Interstellar Mission and Message” on A&E, and “The Planets” on The Discovery Channel. She was a strong and visible defendant of the usage of radioactive materials on the Cassini spacecraft.

Dr. Porco has also given many newspaper and magazine interviews, and has been profiled eight times in print, beginning in 1989 (Boston Globe, October, 1989), in the New York Times (August 1999), in the Tucson Citizen (2001 ), and most recently in Newsday (June 2004).

cap002.pngShe was a member of a committee chaired by Carl Sagan in 1994 entitled “Public Communication of NASA’s Science.” Her popular scientific writings have been published in the London Sunday Times, the Guardian, Astronomy Magazine and the Arizona Daily Star. She continues to be active in the presentation of science to the public as the leader of the Cassini Imaging team. She is the creator/editor of the team’s CICLOPS website (ciclops.org) where Cassini images are posted, and writes the site’s home page opening greeting to the public.

She is also the CEO of Diamond Sky Productions, a small company devoted to the scientific, as well as artful, use of planetary images and computer graphics for the presentation of science to the public.

Dr. Porco was responsible for the epitaph and proposal to honor the late renowned planetary geologist, Eugene Shoemaker, by sending his cremains to the Moon aboard the Lunar Prospector spacecraft in 1998.

In late 1999, she was selected by the Sunday London Times as one of 18 scientific leaders of the 21st century, and by Industrial Week as one of “50 Stars to Watch”.

Her contributions to the exploration of the outer solar system were recently recognized with the naming of Asteroid (7231) Porco: “Named in honor of Carolyn C. Porco, a pioneer in the study of planetary ring systems…and a leader in spacecraft exploration of the outer solar system.”

Science News: Target Health’s point person at NASA, Dr. Carolyn Porco, has told us that she will be joining the film team, as advisor to the latest Star Wars film, to be released in December 2008. Target Health Inc. first met Dr. Porco after she delivered that year’s most exciting talk, in which she described her latest involvement with the Saturn “Cassini-Huygens Mission” with beautiful emotion and media illustrations of her work. http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/multimedia/images/index.cfm

Lead Planetary Scientist to Advise on New Star Trek Movie


For Immediate Release

The woman who guides the team of scientists and engineers responsible for all those out-of-this-world images from Saturn that are popping up everywhere lately will soon be guiding the folks at Paramount Pictures in creating planetary scenes for its much anticipated new movie “Star Trek”.

Carolyn Porco, the leader of the Imaging Science team on NASA’S Cassini mission at Saturn, has accepted an invitation from Star Trek director/producer, J.J. Abrams, to join the Star Trek production crew as a consultant on planetary science and imagery.

Abrams, who co-created, produced, and directed the TV series “Lost”, created, produced and directed the TV series “Alias”, and directed the film “Mission: Impossible III”, was present at the 2007 TED conference in Monterey, California where Porco spoke of the recent findings from the Cassini mission.

“Carolyn and her team have produced images that are simply stunning”, said Abrams. “I’m thrilled that she will help guide our production in creating an authentic vision of space, one that immerses our audience in a visual experience as awe-inspiring as what Carolyn’s cameras have captured.”

Porco also directs the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado. CICLOPS is the center of uplink and downlink flight operations for the Cassini imaging experiment, and the place where Cassini images are processed for release to the public. (Cassini images of Saturn and its rings and moons can be found at the official imaging team website ciclops.org.)

Porco has made it her personal mission to produce, and release for public consumption, images that are scientifically accurate, artfully presented and as true to life as possible.

“Ever since we departed Earth 10 years ago”, said Porco, “I wanted the world to see and enjoy what the planetary bodies and phenomena imaged by our cameras would look like if one were there, going along for the ride.”

Now she will be taking that same attention to scientific accuracy and artful presentation to the silver screen.

“This is a fabulous opportunity to bring to a wider audience the discoveries we’ve made at Saturn, and the spectacular sights we have seen there”, she said. “And what better way to do that than to make use of those discoveries in the crafting of imagery for one of the most popular movie franchises of all time.”
Porco will be working directly with Roger Guyett, the film’s supervisor for visual effects. Guyett has been a creative leader at George Lucas’ visual effects firm, Industrial Light and Magic, since 1994, and has been visual effects director for such classics as “Star Wars: Episode III”, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”, “Mission: Impossible III”, “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”, and more.

“Everybody is very excited about Carolyn’s involvement in the film”, said Guyett. “Her incredible knowledge and expertise is obviously something we’re going to tap into. And the breathtaking imagery that she brings to the collaboration will inspire us all to create some awesome images for our movie!”

The original 1966-1969 television series “Star Trek” was created by Gene Roddenberry, and has encompassed 726 total episodes for television in six different series. The first 10 “Star Trek” films have grossed in excess of $1 billion at the worldwide box office.

“Star Trek” is scheduled for release in December 2008.

Porco, a frequent commentator on science, astronomy, and space exploration for television, radio, and print media, is not new to film production. She served as a consultant on the Warner Bros. movie “Contact” starring Jodie Foster, and as scientific advisor and an animation director for the A&E television special on the 25th anniversary of the Voyager mission, “Cosmic Journey”, produced by Cosmos Studios and Norman Star Media.

Alongside a distinguished teaching and research career, Porco played a prominent role in the Voyager mission to the outer planets in the 1980s, and is also an imaging scientist on NASA’s New Horizons mission, currently on its way to Pluto.

Her contributions to the exploration of the outer solar system were recognized in 1998 with the naming of Asteroid (7231) Porco. In late 1999, she was selected by the London Sunday Times as one of 18 scientific leaders of the 21st century.

Porco is also the recipient of the 2008 Isaac Asimov Science Award given by the American Humanist Association, the oldest and largest humanist organization in the United States.

For media inquiries, email Diamond Sky Productions Media Relations at diamondskymedia@gmail.com or call 303-719-1049. For more information on Cassini images, go to ciclops.org.


Diamond Sky Productions, LLC (diamondskyproductions.com) is a company devoted to the scientific, as well as artful, use of planetary imagery and computer graphics, across all visual media, for the presentation of science and its findings to the public.