Category Archives: Cassini

Cassini’s New Saturn Science

The Grand Finale Dive by the Cassini yielded new Saturn science. An appropriate end to an epic mission. This is just a start, there will be much more to come.

Click the image above (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) for a larger illustration of some of the new findings.

Here’s the highlights (still waiting to read the papers):

  • Complex organic compounds embedded in water nanograins rain down from Saturn’s rings into its upper atmosphere. Scientists saw water and silicates, but they were surprised to see also methane, ammonia, carbon monoxide, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. The composition of the organics is different from that found on moon Enceladus — and also different from that on moon Titan, meaning there are at least three distinct reservoirs of organic molecules in the Saturn system.
  • For the first time, Cassini saw up close how rings interact with the planet and observed inner-ring particles and gases falling directly into the atmosphere. Some particles take on electric charges and spiral along magnetic-field lines, falling into Saturn at higher latitudes — a phenomenon known as “ring rain.” But scientists were surprised to see that others are dragged quickly into Saturn at the equator. And it’s all falling out of the rings faster than scientists thought — as much as 22,000 pounds (10,000 kilograms) of material per second.
  • Scientists were surprised to see what the material looks like in the gap between the rings and Saturn’s atmosphere. They knew that the particles throughout the rings ranged from large to small. But the sampling in the gap showed mostly tiny, nanometer-sized particles, like smoke, suggesting that some yet-unknown process is grinding up particles.
  • Saturn and its rings are even more interconnected than scientists thought. Cassini revealed a previously unknown electric-current system that connects the rings to the top of Saturn’s atmosphere.
  • Scientists discovered a new radiation belt around Saturn, close to the planet and composed of energetic particles. They found that while the belt actually intersects with the innermost ring, the ring is so tenuous that it doesn’t block the belt from forming.
  • Unlike every other planet with a magnetic field in our Solar System, Saturn’s magnetic field is almost completely aligned with its spin axis. The new data shows a magnetic-field tilt of less than 0.0095 degrees. (Earth’s magnetic field is tilted 11 degrees from its spin axis.) According to everything scientists know about how planetary magnetic fields are generated, Saturn should not have one. It’s a mystery that physicists will be working to solve.
  • Cassini flew above Saturn’s magnetic poles, directly sampling regions where radio emissions are generated. The findings more than doubled the number of direct measurements of radio sources from the planet, one of the few non-terrestrial locations where scientists have been able to study a radio-generation mechanism that is believed to operate throughout the universe.

Titan and Tethys

Another gem from the epic Cassini mission, gone but never to be forgotten. Thanks to the Cassini Imaging Team for their continued work.

NASA’s caption: Saturn’s moon Tethys disappears behind Titan as observed by Cassini on Nov. 26, 2009. Tethys is about 660 miles (1,070 kilometers) across. At about 3,200 miles (5,100 kilometers) wide, Titan is larger than the planet Mercury, and was much closer to Cassini than Tethys at the time of this image. Titan is planet-like in another way: it’s wrapped in a thick atmosphere, which can be clearly seen here where it overlaps icy Tethys in the distance beyond.

Cassini captured this natural-color image at a distance of approximately 620,000 miles (1 million kilometers) from Titan.

The Cassini spacecraft ended its mission on Sept. 15, 2017.

From The Travels of Cassini

Here’s sort of a throwback, one of Cassini’s great images newly processed.  The release title is “Translucent Arcs” and that is very descriptive. To me the image show the ring structure in terms of thickness density. Combined with the Sun-Saturn-Cassini angular configuration the rings seem to provide almost a “screen-door” effect to the scene.

This view is much different than what was published in 1622 by Fortunio Liceti in De Novis Astris et Cometis and much different than the sight from a backyard telescope.

Saturn is nothing short of breathtaking, if you’ve never seen it put it on your “bucket list” and look for suitable viewing opportunities — you might be surprised, local colleges and universities sometimes have public viewing and don’t overlook local astronomy clubs.

Here’s the caption from NASA:  Saturn’s rings are perhaps the most recognized feature of any world in our solar system. Cassini spent more than a decade examining them more closely than any spacecraft before it.

The rings are made mostly of particles of water ice that range in size from smaller than a grain of sand to as large as mountains. The ring system extends up to 175,000 miles (282,000 kilometers) from the planet, but for all their immense width, the rings are razor-thin, about 30 feet (10 meters) thick in most places.

From the right angle you can see straight through the rings, as in this natural-color view that looks from south to north. Cassini obtained the images that comprise this mosaic on April 25, 2007, at a distance of approximately 450,000 miles (725,000 kilometers) from Saturn.

The Cassini spacecraft ended its mission on Sept. 15, 2017.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Titan Seen in Infrared

Nice clean infrared views of the Saturn moon Titan. We never get to see these views of course, our view is normally of the none in the center.

Very nice work indeed.

NASA: These six infrared images of Saturn’s moon Titan represent some of the clearest, most seamless-looking global views of the icy moon’s surface produced so far. The views were created using 13 years of data acquired by the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument on board NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. The images are the result of a focused effort to smoothly combine data from the multitude of different observations VIMS made under a wide variety of lighting and viewing conditions over the course of Cassini’s mission.

Previous VIMS maps of Titan (for example, PIA02145) display great variation in imaging resolution and lighting conditions, resulting in obvious seams between different areas of the surface. With the seams now gone, this new collection of images is by far the best representation of how the globe of Titan might appear to the casual observer if it weren’t for the moon’s hazy atmosphere, and it likely will not be superseded for some time to come.

Observing the surface of Titan in the visible region of the spectrum is difficult, due to the globe enshrouding haze that envelops the moon. This is primarily because small particles called aerosols in Titan’s upper atmosphere strongly scatter visible light. But Titan’s surface can be more readily imaged in a few infrared “windows” — infrared wavelengths where scattering and absorption is much weaker. This is where the VIMS instrument excelled, parting the haze to obtain clear images of Titan’s surface. (For comparison, Figure 1 shows Titan as it appears in visible light, as does PIA11603.)

Making mosaics of VIMS images of Titan has always been a challenge because the data were obtained over many different flybys with different observing geometries and atmospheric conditions. One result is that very prominent seams appear in the mosaics that are quite difficult for imaging scientists to remove. But, through laborious and detailed analyses of the data, along with time consuming hand processing of the mosaics, the seams have been mostly removed. This is an update to the work previously discussed in PIA20022.

Any full color image is comprised of three color channels: red, green and blue. Each of the three color channels combined to create these views was produced using a ratio between the brightness of Titan’s surface at two different wavelengths (1.59/1.27 microns [red], 2.03/1.27 microns [green] and 1.27/1.08 microns [blue]). This technique (called a “band-ratio” technique) reduces the prominence of seams, as well as emphasizing subtle spectral variations in the materials on Titan’s surface. For example, the moon’s equatorial dune fields appear a consistent brown color here. There are also bluish and purplish areas that may have different compositions from the other bright areas, and may be enriched in water ice.

For a map of Titan with latitudes, longitudes and labeled surface features, see PIA20713.

It is quite clear from this unique set of images that Titan has a complex surface, sporting myriad geologic features and compositional units. The VIMS instrument has paved the way for future infrared instruments that could image Titan at much higher resolution, revealing features that were not detectable by any of Cassini’s instruments.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The VIMS team is based at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

Crossed Rings?

How do you get a ring pattern like this around Saturn? It does not seem to be possible but after reading the caption (below), I get it.

ESA –   At first glance, Saturn’s rings appear to be intersecting themselves in an impossible way. In actuality, this view from the international Cassini spacecraft shows the rings in front of the planet, upon which the shadow of the rings is cast. And because rings like the A ring and Cassini Division, which appear in the foreground, are not entirely opaque, the outline of Saturn and those ring shadows can be seen directly through the rings themselves.

Saturn’s rings have complex and detailed structures, many of which can be seen here. In some cases, the reasons for the gaps and ringlets are known: for example, 28 km wide moon Pan – seen here as a bright speck near the image centre – keeps open the Encke gap. But in other cases, the origins and natures of gaps and ringlets are less well understood.

This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 14º above the ring plane. The image was taken in visible light with Cassini’s narrow-angle camera on 11 February 2016, and highlighted in a release published 25 April 2016. The view was acquired at a distance of 1.9 million km from Pan and at a Sun–Pan–spacecraft angle of 85º. Image scale is 10 km/pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA and Italy’s ASI space agency. The mission concluded in September 2017.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Another Look at Enceladus

We have a newly released image of the Saturn moon Enceladus. Cassini took thousands of images so there will be more as time goes by.

Thanks to NASA, JPL-Caltech and the Space Science Institute for the iamge.

Here’s the original caption:
Saturn’s rings cast shadows on the planet’s cloud tops, providing a perfect backdrop for the brilliant sphere of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The tiny world’s bright white surface results in part from a snow of material originating from the towering plume of icy particles at Enceladus’ south pole.

This image looks toward the leading side of Enceladus (504 kilometers, or 313 miles across). North is up.

The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft’s narrow-angle camera on June 28, 2007. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 281,000 kilometers (175,000 miles) from Enceladus. Image scale is about 2 kilometers (1 mile) per pixel.

The Cassini spacecraft ended its mission on Sept. 15, 2017

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Saturn’s Moon Dione

A beautiful look at the Saturn moon Dione and a great look at a rayed crater.  Easy to see why the rays are so bright being made of what we would think of as “super hard water ice”.

I believe this crater is Creusa. The rays are as you would expect material ejected out after an impact, in this case water ice (we think).  These rayed craters on Dione may be less than about 50 M/yr’s -old (1).  Yes, sounds like a long time but really not so much when you think about things on a solar system-evolutionary time scale.  Cassini has shown us that at least parts of the Saturn system are quite active more so than many people first belived.

NASA – Cassini captured this striking view of Saturn’s moon Dione on July 23, 2012. Dione is about 698 miles (1,123 kilometers) across. Its density suggests that about a third of the moon is made up of a dense core (probably silicate rock) with the remainder of its material being water ice. At Dione’s average temperature of -304 degrees Fahrenheit (-186 degrees Celsius), ice is so hard it behaves like rock.

The image was taken with Cassini’s narrow-angle camera at a distance of approximately 260,000 miles (418,000 kilometers) from Dione, through a polarized filter and a spectral filter sensitive to green light.

The Cassini spacecraft ended its mission on Sept. 15, 2017.

Titan’s Haze

A newly released Cassini image looking through Titan’s atmosphere.

Original caption: In this view, individual layers of haze can be distinguished in the upper atmosphere of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Titan’s atmosphere features a rich and complex chemistry originating from methane and nitrogen and evolving into complex molecules, eventually forming the smog that surrounds the moon.

This natural color image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on March 31, 2005, at a distance of approximately 20,556 miles (33,083 kilometers) from Titan. The view looks toward the north polar region on the moon’s night side. Part of Titan’s sunlit crescent is visible at right.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Cassini’s Veil of Ice

Almost like abstract art, at least to me. The little moon Pan stands out nicely in this image too.

Original caption: Saturn’s rings, made of countless icy particles, form a translucent veil in this view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

Saturn’s tiny moon Pan, about 17 miles (28 kilometers) across, orbits within the Encke Gap in the A ring. Beyond, we can see the arc of Saturn itself, its cloud tops streaked with dark shadows cast by the rings.

This image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Feb. 12, 2016, at a distance of approximately 746,000 miles (1.2 million kilometers) from Pan.

The Cassini spacecraft ended its mission on Sept. 15, 2017.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute