Tag Archives: Saturn

Saturn from above

Saturn from above.

Cool image time! The image on the right, reduced in resolution to show here, shows Saturn from above as Cassini began re-positioning itself into a higher inclination orbit for its last year of orbit dives near and inside the planet’s rings.

The view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 41 degrees above the ring plane. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on July 16, 2016 using a spectral filter which preferentially admits wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 752 nanometers. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Saturn. Image scale is 68 miles (110 kilometers) per pixel.

Changing seasons on Titan

Since entering Saturn orbit in 2004, Cassini has seen the seasons on Titan shift through half a Saturn year.

As Titan approaches its northern summer solstice, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has revealed dramatic seasonal changes in the atmospheric temperature and composition of Saturn’s largest moon. Winter is taking a grip on the southern hemisphere and a strong vortex, enriched in trace gases, has developed in the upper atmosphere over the south pole. These observations show a polar reversal in Titan’s atmosphere since Cassini arrived at Saturn in 2004, when similar features were seen in the northern hemisphere.

Sadly, there will not be any spacecraft at Saturn during the second half of this Saturn year. After Cassini ends its mission in 2017 it will likely be many decades before another spacecraft arrives, since at this moment none has even been proposed.

Saturn’s changing north pole

A comparison of images taken by Cassini in 2012 and then in 2016 of Saturn’s north polar region shows a significant change in color.

Scientists are investigating potential causes for the change in color of the region inside the north-polar hexagon on Saturn. The color change is thought to be an effect of Saturn’s seasons. In particular, the change from a bluish color to a more golden hue may be due to the increased production of photochemical hazes in the atmosphere as the north pole approaches summer solstice in May 2017.

Saturn’s wonderful rings

Saturn's rings, and the small moons that shape them

Cool image time! The image on the right, reduced to fit here, is a recent Cassini image, taken July 2, 2016, that shows the rings as well as the moon Pan nestled within the ring’s narrow gap

Pan (17 miles or 28 kilometers across, left of center) holds open the Encke gap and shapes the ever-changing ringlets within the gap (some of which can be seen here). In addition to raising waves in the A and B rings, other moons help shape the F ring, the outer edge of the A ring and open the Keeler gap. This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 8 degrees above the ring plane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on July 2, 2016.

The image also highlights the incredible and quite magical beauty of Saturn’s rings, which remain to me one of the solar system’s most amazing wonders.

Saturn in all its glory

Saturn

Cool image time. The Cassini science team have released a beautiful full-color image of Saturn, shown cropped on the right, as well as a movie, both produced from images taken in April.

This view shows Saturn’s northern hemisphere in 2016, as that part of the planet nears its northern hemisphere summer solstice in May 2017. Saturn’s year is nearly 30 Earth years long, and during its long time there, Cassini has observed winter and spring in the north, and summer and fall in the south. The spacecraft will complete its mission just after northern summer solstice, having observed long-term changes in the planet’s winds, temperatures, clouds and chemistry.

Cassini scanned across the planet and its rings on April 25, 2016, capturing three sets of red, green and blue images to cover this entire scene showing the planet and the main rings. The images were obtained using Cassini’s wide-angle camera at a distance of approximately 1.9 million miles (3 million kilometers) from Saturn and at an elevation of about 30 degrees above the ring plane. The view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from a sun-Saturn-spacecraft angle, or phase angle, of 55 degrees. Image scale on Saturn is about 111 miles (178 kilometers) per pixel.

The exposures used to make this mosaic were obtained just prior to the beginning of a 44-hour movie sequence.

The only real tragedy here is that the Cassini mission is ending soon. When it does, it will be decades, at a minimum, before we have another spacecraft in orbit around Saturn and capable of giving us this view.

Update: NASA today issued a press release detailing what will happen during Cassini’s final year at Saturn, including 22 plunges between Saturn and its rings!

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

Dione

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.

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.

New model for Enceladus’s subsurface ocean

A new model proposes that the subsurface liquid water ocean of Saturn’s moon Enceladus is possible only 3 miles below the surface near its south pole.

In order to reconcile the different constraints [created by the known data], the researchers propose a new model in which the top two hundred meters of the ice shell acts like an elastic shell. According to this study, Enceladus is made up successively of a rocky core with a radius of 185 km, and an internal ocean approximately 45 km deep, isolated from the surface by an ice shell with a mean thickness of around 20 km, except at the south pole where it is thought to be less than 5 km thick. In this model, the ocean beneath the ice makes up 40% of the total volume of the moon, while its salt content is estimated to be similar to that of Earth’s oceans.

Need I mention that this is only a computer model, and should therefore be considered with great skepticism?

Posted from warm and dry Tucson, Arizona, where I am home at last!

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

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

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.

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

Enceladus

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.

1 2 3 4