Category Archives: Saturn

Saturn’s Still in the Business of Making Moons

A 750-mile (1,200-km) -long feature spotted on Saturn’s A ring by Cassini on April 15, 2013 could be a new moon in the making (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

This 750-mile (1,200-km) -long feature spotted on Saturn’s A ring on April 15, 2013 could be a new moon in the making (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

Congratulations! It’s a baby… moon? A bright clump spotted orbiting Saturn at the outermost edge of its A ring may be a brand new moon in the process of being born, according to research recently published in the journal Icarus.

“We have not seen anything like this before,” said Carl Murray of Queen Mary University in London, lead author of the paper. “We may be looking at the act of birth, where this object is just leaving the rings and heading off to be a moon in its own right.”

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Just Another Hazy Day on Titan

Color-composite of Titan made from raw images acquired by Cassini on April 7, 2014. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)

Color-composite of Titan made from raw images acquired by Cassini on April 7, 2014. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)

The weather forecast for Titan? Cloudy, hazy, and cold — just like every other day! The image here is a color-composite made from raw data captured by Cassini during a flyby on April 7, 2014, and it shows a look at the two main features of Titan’s atmosphere: a thick orange “smog” made of organic compounds created by the breakdown of nitrogen and methane by UV light, and a wispy blue upper-level haze composed of complex hydrocarbons.

Cassini was approximately 19,076 miles (30,700 km) from Titan when these particular images were captured.

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Cassini Uncovers Even More Evidence for Enceladus’ Hidden Ocean

A concept of the subsurface structure of Saturn's moon Enceladus (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

A concept of the subsurface structure of Saturn’s moon Enceladus (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

It’s been suspected for nearly a decade that Saturn’s 315-mile-wide moon Enceladus harbors a hidden ocean beneath its frozen crust, thanks to observations by the Cassini spacecraft of icy plumes spraying from its southern pole, and now scientists have even more evidence supporting its existence: Doppler measurements of the moon’s gravity taken during Cassini’s flybys show variations indicative of a subsurface southern sea as deep as the Pacific’s Mariana Trench!

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Have Waves Finally Been Found on Titan’s Lakes?

Sunrise above a liquid methane lake on Titan. © Ron Miller. All rights reserved.

Illustration of a sunrise above a liquid methane lake on Titan. © Ron Miller. All rights reserved.

We’ve known for quite some time now that lakes of liquid methane and ethane exist on the frigid surface of Saturn’s overcast moon Titan. While the sheer presence of large amounts of liquid on another world is fascinating, one thing that’s particularly intrigued scientists about these hydrocarbon lakes is their uncanny stillness — in many radar images they appear to be literally as smooth as glass, with no indication of movement or wave action of any sort. And although liquid methane isn’t water and probably behaves differently, with Titan’s substantial atmosphere it only makes sense that some sort of waves would get kicked up across lakes so vast, even from the most moderate seasonal breezes.

Now, a research team led by Jason Barnes of the University of Idaho has released findings showing what might be wave action — however small — captured by instruments aboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during several Titan flybys. And with the summer season approaching, this just might mean it’s “surf’s up” on Titan!

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How Does NASA Change a Spacecraft’s Orbit? Easy as Pi.

Cassini couldn't have orbited Saturn these past ten years without pi!

Cassini couldn’t have orbited Saturn these past ten years without pi!

It’s “Pi Day” (March 14… 3.14… get it?) and, based on how we write the date in the U.S. anyway, all those of a sufficiently geeky nature take a moment to honor the universal usefulness of pi, the glorious Greek letter used to represent the mathematical ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.

The basics of pi were known to the Babylonians over 4,000 years ago, and a method to determine pi to any degree of accuracy needed was developed by Archimedes in the third century BCE. Now, the value of pi has been calculated to many trillions of decimal places and its practical uses have extended far beyond the surface of our planet, helping engineers plot the orbits of planetary spacecraft and even measure the sizes of planets outside our solar system!

In fact NASA uses pi all the time in various extraterrestrial applications… read more:

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A Visual Demonstration of Gravity, Courtesy of Cassini

Prometheus passes inside Saturn's F ring on Feb. 5 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Animation by J. Major)

Prometheus passes inside Saturn’s F ring on Feb. 5 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Animation by J. Major)

Prometheus is at it again! On Feb. 5, Cassini acquired a series of images with its narrow-angle camera of Saturn’s reflective and ropy F ring, around the inside of which travels the shepherd moon Prometheus. As it orbits Saturn it regularly arcs outwards toward the inner edge of the F ring and tumbles back inwards again, a scalloping orbit by a potato-shaped moon that yanks at the fine icy particles of the ring with its gravitational tug. However faint they might be, these tidal forces are enough to pull the wispy ring particles into long strands, gaps, and clumps that follow Prometheus’ passage before eventually settling back down again.

The animation above shows a brief segment of this neverending process in play. Click here to read more, and see more images of Prometheus here.

The Brightest Lights: 12 Awesome Space Stories of 2013

1400-image mosaic of Earthlings waving at Saturn on July 19, 2013 (NASA/JPL)

1400-image mosaic of Earthlings waving at Saturn on July 19, 2013 (NASA/JPL)

What a year for space exploration! With 2013 coming to a close I thought I would look back on some of the biggest news in space that I’ve featured here on Lights in the Dark. Rather than a “top ten” list, as is common with these year-end reviews, I’m going to do more of a month-by-month (hence the 12) to help recollect some of the amazing stories and sights that 2013 has brought us. And with some of the big headliners we’ve seen this year it’s easy to lose sight of the smaller (but no less fascinating) discoveries — so I’ll be sure to include some of those too. After all, when it comes to learning about the Universe there’s no “little” news!

Ready? Let’s go!

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