Even Space Isn’t Safe from Fake News

There is a photo making the social media rounds that shows an image purported to be the final photo taken by the Cassini spacecraft as it plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere, as part of its end-of-life self-destruct choreography after a 13-year mission. This image depicts a breathtaking view of the Saturn cloudscape backdropped by the planet’s majestic rings running vertical to the horizon. It really is a jaw dropping image.

When I first saw the image on Twitter, I had in mind to share it. So I saved it for later. Something told me, though, to make sure it’s the real deal. A quick Google search validated my caution. It turns out that the image, which first surfaced on Facebook, is an artist’s concept (most likely a digital painting).

Only after the image had gone viral did the truth come out. The impulse to share on social media overrode any thought to verify. Even after seeing what the image actually was, some people were commenting that it was a better image than the actual one—meaning they preferred the made-up fantasy over reality.

For the record, the actual photo Cassini took shows a blurry image of Saturn taken in visible light using a wide-angle camera at a distance of 394,000 miles from the planet surface. Cassini was entering Saturn’s upper atmosphere from the night side of the planet. The light it managed to capture came from the light from the sun reflecting off the rings. Despite the awesome rendition of the artist’s concept, IMHO, the real image depicts a reality that is far more interesting and amazing—because it actually happened.