Tag Archives: Cassini

Beautiful and mysterious Saturn

A bright spot in Saturn's rings

Cool image time! The image to the right (reduced in resolution to show here) was posted today on the Cassini gallery page. The release focused on the bright spot in the widest ring just above the center of the image.

An ethereal, glowing spot appears on Saturn’s B ring in this view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. There is nothing particular about that place in the rings that produces the glowing effect — instead, it is an example of an “opposition surge” making that area on the rings appear extra bright. An opposition surge occurs when the Sun is directly behind the observer looking toward the rings. The particular geometry of this observation makes the point in the rings appear much, much brighter than would otherwise be expected.

I however am more interested in the black outline at Saturn’s limb that visually separates the planet from the rings. Is that natural or introduced intentionally in data processing to make the image more pleasing? If it is natural than I wonder how Saturn’s top cloud layer could produce such an opaque and sharply defined region able to so successfully block the light coming from the rings. If introduced intentionally I question the wisdom, as I can’t see any reason to do it and therefore am worried that they might have done some other unnecessary manipulation that makes it difficult to draw any honest conclusions from the image.

Either way, from an aesthetic perspective the image still remains breath-taking. It also underlines once again the amazing engineering that made it possible. All things remain possible, if we maintain our ability to build this kind of engineering.

Dione’s global geology


Cool image time! The picture of Saturn’s moon Dione, taken by Cassini in April 2015 and reduced in size to show here, shows a range of global tectonic geological features. The impact craters we of course understand, but the white linear features are more puzzling. They are probably related to a heating and cooling process, but the full nature of that process is at present not fully understood. Tidal effects and the planet’s cooling over time both contributed, but to what extent is not yet known. Add on top of that the violent effect of impact and the process gets even more complicated. Moreover, do the linear features suggest present geological activity, or are they evidence of past events? Your guess is as good as mine.

Rivers of liquid carved deep gorges on Titan

Cassini radar data of Via Flumina

Cool image time! New data from Cassini has now both confirmed that there is liquid inside some of the river-like formations on Titan, and that this liquid has carved these formations into very deep gorges.

The Cassini observations reveal that the channels — in particular, a network of them named Vid Flumina — are narrow canyons, generally less than half a mile (a bit less than a kilometer) wide, with slopes steeper than 40 degrees. The canyons also are quite deep — those measured are 790 to 1,870 feet (240 to 570 meters) from top to bottom.

The branching channels appear dark in radar images, much like Titan’s methane-rich seas. This suggested to scientists that the channels might also be filled with liquid, but a direct detection had not been made until now. Previously it wasn’t clear if the dark material was liquid or merely saturated sediment — which at Titan’s frigid temperatures would be made of ice, not rock.

The diagram on the above right is from the paper itself, and shows some of the radar data obtained by Cassini. It also illustrates the deep and narrow nature of Via Flumina. This is almost the equivalent of what we call slot canyons on Earth, formed by periodic flash floods that cut their way down as the surface is slowly uplifted by other processes.

The new radar data showed that the surface at the base of the gorge was smooth and flat, just as you’d find if that base was filled with liquid.The altimeter data showed that gorge’s elevation matched that of Titan’s lakes at its insurgence, but as you traveled upstream the elevation rose, just as it does on any river on Earth. Moreover, this data was reasonably trustworthy as they had already used Cassini to successfully do exactly the same thing — identify a known river — when it flew past Earth on its way to Saturn.

Be prepared for one piece of misinformation when the press reports on this story, almost certainly caused by the American Geological Union’s press release about this paper. That press release incorrectly claims that the paper confirmed that these are methane rivers. It does no such thing. It only shows that the gorges have a liquid in them, and that the liquid almost certainly formed the gorges. Though methane is a very likely candidate for this liquid based on what we know of Titan, the actual make-up of the river remains uncertain.

I therefore predict our incompetent modern mainstream press will only read this press release and not the paper itself, and thus they will tout these incorrectly as methane rivers.

Below is a cropped Cassini radar image of Via Flumina, showing its river-like appearance. Scientists always suspected these were formed by flowing liquid. Now they have strong evidence from within the gorge to justify that suspicion.

Via Flumina on Titan

The rings of Saturn

The rings of Saturn

Cool image time! The picture on right, cropped by me to show here, was taken by Cassini on April 2, 2016. You can see the moons Dione (on left) and Epimetheus (on right) above the rings. The full image can be seen here.

I am sure there is a lot of important science contained within this image. I post it here however not because of any scientific reason but entirely because it is simply damn spectacular. More than a decade after Cassini arrived at Saturn, every new picture of the planet’s giant ring system still seems incredibly unbelievable.

The universe is an amazing place, isn’t it?

Saturn from Cassini

Saturn's rings

Cool image time! The image on the right, reduced in resolution to post here, shows how, because of the seasonal tilt of Saturn, the shadow of its rings is now cover much of the gas giant’s southern hemisphere.

When NASA’s Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn 12 years ago, the shadows of the rings lay far to the north on the planet. As the mission progressed and seasons turned on the slow-orbiting giant, equinox arrived and the shadows of the rings became a thin line at the equator. This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 16 degrees above the ring plane. The image was taken in red light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on March 19, 2016.

We will continue to get from Cassini increasingly beautiful images of Saturn and its rings as the spacecraft positions itself better for its final flight down into the planet’s atmosphere.

Titan over Saturn’s rings

Titan over Saturn's rings

Cool image time! The picture on the right, taken on January 26, 2016 by Cassini and reduced and cropped to show here, captures Titan above Saturn’s rings, which are themselves partly obscured by the shadow of Saturn (unseen on the right) that falls across them.

Make sure you go to look at the full image. This is the kind of vista that artists in the 1950s imagined we’d see once we began to explore the solar system.

Saturn’s moon Epimetheus


Cool image time! The picture on the right was taken by Cassini on December 6, 2015, and shows the asteroid-like misshapen moon, too small (only 70 miles across) for gravity to force it into a sphere. Behind it, filling the frame, is gigantic Saturn.

If you look close, you can see one crater that appears elongated, as if the impact was only a glancing blow.

The methane seas of Titan

Scientists have used the data that Cassini has gathered in more than a hundred fly-bys of Titan to assemble a rough outline of the geology and make-up of Titan’s liquid lakes.

There are three large seas, all close to the north pole, surrounded by dozens of smaller lakes in the northern hemisphere. Just one lake has been found in the southern hemisphere. The exact make-up of these liquid reservoirs remained elusive until recently. A new study using scans from Cassini’s radar during flybys of Titan between 2007 and 2015 confirms that one of the largest seas on the moon, Ligeia Mare, is mostly liquid methane.

“We expected to find that Ligeia Mare would be mostly ethane, which is produced in abundance in the atmosphere when sunlight breaks methane molecules apart,” explains Alice Le Gall from the Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales and Université Versailles Saint-Quentin, France, and lead author of the new study. “Instead, this sea is predominantly made of pure methane.”

The data is also giving them the first understanding of the weather and geology that forms the lakes, including why methane instead of ethane dominates.

Titan’s changing shorelines

Shoreline changes on Titan

Cool image time! Using radar images taken during the past decade by Cassini scientists have discovered changes taking place along the shorelines of Titan’s hydrocarbon seas.

Analysis by Cassini scientists indicates that the bright features, informally known as the “magic island,” are a phenomenon that changes over time. They conclude that the brightening is due to either waves, solids at or beneath the surface or bubbles, with waves thought to be the most likely explanation. They think tides, sea level and seafloor changes are unlikely to be responsible for the brightening.

The images in the column at left show the same region of Ligeia Mare as seen by Cassini’s radar during flybys in (from top to bottom) 2007, 2013, 2014 and 2015.

These shoreline changes are not the only ones spotted by Cassini. However, because these are radar images, not visual, there are many uncertainties about what causes the changes, which is why they list several possibilities. For example, with radar, a simple roughness on the surface (such as waves) could cause a brightening.

Mighty Saturn


Cool image time! Be sure to click on this link to see the full resolution Cassini version of the image on the right. Its resolution is 10 miles per pixel, and even so the giant planet cannot be fit in the frame.

One moon, Tethys, is visible, though to make it so required its brightness to be increased by 2. Also, if you look close at the bands at the north pole you can see their strange still-not-understood pentagon shape.

The jets of Enceladus

Enceladus's jets

Cool image time! The image above, taken in June by Cassini, shows the night side of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, framed by Saturn’s rings, and faintly showing the jets of water coming from its south pole. To show it here I have cropped it and reduced it somewhat, as well as brightened the jets to make them more visible.

The release notes how the image compares the frozen water of Saturn’s rings and the liquid activity of Enceladus’s jets. I note how the image is simply beautiful. Be sure to click on the link to see the full resolution image.

Enceladus rises over Dione

Enceladus rising behind Dione

Cool image time! The image on the right was taken by Cassini in September 2015, and shows two Saturn moons, bright Enceladus partly blocked by darker and nearer Dione.

Although Dione (near) and Enceladus (far) are composed of nearly the same materials, Enceladus has a considerably higher reflectivity than Dione. As a result, it appears brighter against the dark night sky.

The surface of Enceladus (313 miles or 504 kilometers across) endures a constant rain of ice grains from its south polar jets. As a result, its surface is more like fresh, bright, snow than Dione’s (698 miles or 1123 kilometers across) older, weathered surface. As clean, fresh surfaces are left exposed in space, they slowly gather dust and radiation damage and darken in a process known as “space weathering.”

The image doesn’t contain any earth-shattering discoveries. It is simply beautiful. And in these dark times, seeing beauty is sometimes the most important thing one can do.

An Enceladus close look

Enceladus at 77 miles

Cool image time! The image on the right is the first processed close-up image released from Cassini’s fly-by of Saturn’s moon Enceladus on Wednesday. The resolution is about 50 feet per pixel, taken from about 77 miles away. This surface, in the general area where Enceladus vents lie, reminds me of a thick field of snow that has begun to melt away.

Since the fly-by got within 30 miles, even higher resolution images should follow.

Enceladus flyby images begin arriving


Cool image time! The first images from Cassini’s close flyby of Saturn’s moon Enceladus on Wednesday have started to arrive.

None have yet been processed, though the press release above provided a distant view of the moon’s plumes as the spacecraft approached. The image on the right, showing the moon itself, is one of the flyby I pulled off from the raw image website. Expect some interesting views to appear there throughout the day, with a more detailed press release tomorrow.

Fractures on Enceladus’s north pole

Enceladus's North Pole

The Cassini science team has released the first image from Wednesday’s flyby of the Saturn moon Enceladus.

Scientists expected the north polar region of Enceladus to be heavily cratered, based on low-resolution images from the Voyager mission, but the new high-resolution Cassini images show a landscape of stark contrasts. “The northern regions are crisscrossed by a spidery network of gossamer-thin cracks that slice through the craters,” said Paul Helfenstein, a member of the Cassini imaging team at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. “These thin cracks are ubiquitous on Enceladus, and now we see that they extend across the northern terrains as well.”

To see more you can browse the raw images here.

The next flyby later this month will be especially interesting as they will dip to within 30 miles of the surface.

New global maps of Titan

Titan's North Pole

The Cassini science team has released new maps of Titan, including new maps of both poles, assembled from images taken during the 100 flybys that the spacecraft has made of the moon since it arrived in orbit around Saturn.

The scale is rough, just less than a mile at best, and there is no topographic information because the thick atmosphere allows for no strong sunlight or shadows. The images show differences in surface brightness, which does tell us where Titan’s dark methane lakes are.

This is likely the best we will get of Titan for decades, until another spacecraft is sent there.

Cassini’s last flybys of Enceladus

As Cassini approaches the end of its decade-long mission at Saturn it will begin its last series of flybys of the moon Enceladus starting October 14.

Images will arrive a day or two afterward. The last two flybys will take place in late October and then in December, with the second October flyby getting closest, only 30 miles from the surface.

Beginning next year they will shift the spacecraft’s orbit so that it can get a better look at Saturn’s poles during its last two years. In that orbit flybys of the moons cannot be done.

Giant global ocean inside Saturn’s moon Enceladus

Using data from seven years of flybys by Cassini of Enceladus scientists now think they have confirmed the existence of a global ocean of liquid water beneath the moon’s icy crust.

Cassini scientists analyzed more than seven years’ worth of images of Enceladus taken by the spacecraft, which has been orbiting Saturn since mid-2004. They carefully mapped the positions of features on Enceladus — mostly craters — across hundreds of images, in order to measure changes in the moon’s rotation with extreme precision. As a result, they found Enceladus has a tiny, but measurable wobble as it orbits Saturn. Because the icy moon is not perfectly spherical — and because it goes slightly faster and slower during different portions of its orbit around Saturn — the giant planet subtly rocks Enceladus back and forth as it rotates.

The team plugged their measurement of the wobble, called a libration, into different models for how Enceladus might be arranged on the inside, including ones in which the moon was frozen from surface to core. “If the surface and core were rigidly connected, the core would provide so much dead weight the wobble would be far smaller than we observe it to be,” said Matthew Tiscareno, a Cassini participating scientist at the SETI Institute, Mountain View, California, and a co-author of the paper. “This proves that there must be a global layer of liquid separating the surface from the core,” he said.

Previous data had suggested a lens-shaped ocean under the south pole. This new data suggests the ocean in global.

As always, the possibility of liquid water suggests the possibility of life. None has been found, but with water and energy it is certainly possible.

Cassini’s last close-up images of Dionne

Dionne on August 17, 2015

Cool image time! NASA has released images from Cassini’s Monday close fly-by of Saturn’s moon Dionne.

The press release itself did not include any of the close-ups for some reasons. You have to dig for them at the site. Go here, here, here, and here to see a few of more interesting, the first of which is a global view taken just before the fly-by. The second is the highest resolution image, with a resolution 10 feet per pixel. The third shows the nighttime surface lit entirely by reflected light from Saturn. The fourth, shown on the right, was taken from an altitude of 470 miles with a resolution of 150 feet to the pixel. It shows the moon’s rolling, pock-marked, and cratered surface, to the horizon.

Cassini’s last fly-by of Dionne on Monday


On Monday August 17 Cassini will make its last close fly-by of Saturn’s moon Dionne, dipping to within 295 miles of the surface.

During the flyby, Cassini’s cameras and spectrometers will get a high-resolution peek at Dione’s north pole at a resolution of only a few feet (or meters). In addition, Cassini’s Composite Infrared Spectrometer instrument will map areas on the icy moon that have unusual thermal anomalies — those regions are especially good at trapping heat. Meanwhile, the mission’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer continues its search for dust particles emitted from Dione.

The image of Dionne above is from a June 16, 2015 fly-by, The diagonal line at the top is Saturn’s rings.

After more than a decade, Cassini’s mission is in its final stages. When completed, we will have no way for decades to get close-up images of this gas giant, its spectacular rings, or its many very different moons.

Puzzling red arcs on the Saturn moon Tethys

Red arcs on Tethys

Baffling image time! Images taken in April 2015 by Cassini of the Saturn moon Tethys have produced the best images yet of the puzzling red arcs on the moon’s surface, first identified in 2004.

The origin of the features and their reddish color is a mystery to Cassini scientists. Possibilities being studied include ideas that the reddish material is exposed ice with chemical impurities, or the result of outgassing from inside Tethys. They could also be associated with features like fractures that are below the resolution of the available images.

Except for a few small craters on Saturn’s moon Dione, reddish-tinted features are rare on other moons of Saturn. Many reddish features do occur, however, on the geologically young surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. “The red arcs must be geologically young because they cut across older features like impact craters, but we don’t know their age in years.” said Paul Helfenstein, a Cassini imaging scientist at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, who helped plan the observations. “If the stain is only a thin, colored veneer on the icy soil, exposure to the space environment at Tethys’ surface might erase them on relatively short time scales.”

I could also file this under “the uncertainty of science”, as the scientists at this point haven’t the slightest idea what created these arcs.

Tiny grains from the interior ocean of Enceladus

Using Cassini scientists have detected tiny grains of rock orbiting Saturn that they think were formed on the floor of the interior ocean of Enceladus and then spewed out its vents into space.

They believe that these silicon-rich grains originate on the seafloor of Enceladus, where hydrothermal processes are at work. On the seafloor, hot water at a temperature of at least 90 degrees Celsius dissolves minerals from the moon’s rocky interior. The origin of this energy is not well understood, but likely includes a combination of tidal heating as Enceladus orbits Saturn, radioactive decay in the core and chemical reactions.

As the hot water travels upward, it comes into contact with cooler water, causing the minerals to condense out and form nano-grains of ‘silica’ floating in the water. To avoid growing too large, these silica grains must spend a few months to several years at most rising from the seafloor to the surface of the ocean, before being incorporated into larger ice grains in the vents that connect the ocean to the surface of Enceladus. After being ejected into space via the moon’s geysers, the ice grains erode, liberating the tiny rocky inclusions subsequently detected by Cassini.

Additional data suggest that the interior of Enceladus is very porous, which means that interior ocean might not be one large bubble but a complex liquid-filled cave.

The seas of Titan

Thar’s black gold up thar! Data from Cassini has confirmed the presence of ocean waves on Titan’s seas, while also providing suggesting that they are made mostly of liquid methane, not ethane as had been predicted.

The maximum depth of Kraken Mare appears to be 160 meters, and Ligeia Mare could be as much as 200 meters deep, reported Marco Mastrogiuseppe of Sapienza University of Rome. The fact that the radar signals could bounce off the sea bottom suggests that the seas were more transparent than expected and thus must contain mostly methane, not ethane. Hayes says his best estimate is about 90% methane. Essam Marouf, a planetary scientist at San José State University in California, reported on the first results from a separate radar experiment that sent radar reflections to Earth instead of back to the spacecraft. Those tests provide independent evidence that the seas are dominated by methane, Marouf says, and it implies that the lakes are kept filled by precipitating methane.

As the article also notes, this methane is “55 times Earth’s oil reserves.”

Global views of six Saturnian moons

Using images collected after ten years in orbit around Saturn, Cassini scientists have released global color maps of six of Saturn’s icy moons, Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea and Iapetus.

These enhanced colour views have yielded several important discoveries about the icy moons. The most obvious are differences in colour and brightness between the two hemispheres of Tethys, Dione and Rhea. The dark reddish colours on the moons’ trailing hemispheres are due to alteration by charged particles and radiation in Saturn’s magnetosphere. The blander leading hemispheres, the sides that always face forward as the moons orbit Saturn, are all coated with icy dust from Saturn’s E-ring, formed from tiny particles erupting from the south pole of Enceladus.

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