On May 29 2021, a Facebook image described as the “closest pic of Saturn” ever, captured from inside its rings by the Cassini spacecraft “two weeks ago” circulated, alongside a May 16 2017 post:
That Facebook post included only the purported photograph of Saturn and did not include links to any information that might corroborate the description. As of June 1 2021, it had been shared nearly 500,000 times.
A search of Google Trends indicated that in the seven-day period before June 1 2021, the following searches experienced “Breakout” levels of popularity:
- “Closest picture of Saturn”;
- “Saturn inside the rings”;
- “Cassini pics of Saturn”;
- “Pics of Saturn”;
- “Closest pic of Saturn,” and;
- “Cassini Saturn.”
On May 29 2021, a Reddit user shared the image to r/space, describing the image dating back to May 2017 (or earlier) as having been taken “by the Cassini Spacecraft,” and once again it was “two weeks ago”:
Likewise, a May 29 2021 tweet with the same wording (“Closest pic of Saturn, from inside its rings, by the Cassini Spacecraft two weeks ago…”) was virally popular on Twitter:
Closest pic of Saturn, from inside its rings, by the Cassini Spacecraft two weeks ago… pic.twitter.com/CFoJvdAmAM
— StockShaman ⚒ #PeakCopper (@StockShaman) May 29, 2021
Although the post was popular with the copied-over description in May 2021, it was clearly not true in the context of the Reddit post and tweet — the Facebook post claimed it showed Saturn’s rings “two weeks ago” in May 2017.
But was it true then? According to an April 2017 Vox.com item, no. In “The Cassini spacecraft’s dive in between Saturn’s rings, explained,” a caption read:
This artist’s concept shows an over-the-shoulder view of Cassini making one of its grand finale dives over Saturn. NASA / JPL
In this context, “JPL” stands for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Finally, this photograph could not have been taken by the Cassini spacecraft “two weeks ago” in 2021, because — just as the Vox caption said — it is no longer in service. The spacecraft was retired in September 2017:
After 20 years in space — 13 of those years exploring Saturn — Cassini exhausted its fuel supply. And so, to protect moons of Saturn that could have conditions suitable for life, Cassini was sent on a daring final mission that would seal its fate. After a series of nearly two dozen nail-biting dives between the planet and its icy rings, Cassini plunged into Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017, returning science data to the very end.
The “Closest pic of Saturn, from inside its rings, by the Cassini Spacecraft two weeks ago…” Facebook post was clearly inaccurately described when it recirculated in May 2021, as indicated by the date, and it was copied without that context to other platforms. Further, the image was not a photograph. It was originally captioned as an “artist’s concept” from NASA JPL in April 2017, and was not a “closest pic of Saturn” at the time it appeared.