Category Archives: Saturn’s Moons
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.
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!
Cassini couldn’t make it to the mall this year to do any Christmas shopping but that’s ok: we all got something better in our stockings than anything store-bought! To celebrate the holidays the Cassini team has shared some truly incredible images of Saturn and some of its many moons for the world to “ooh” and “ahh” over. So relax, sit back and marvel at some sights from a wintry wonderland 900 million miles away…
By now you probably know about the lakes of liquid hydrocarbons on Titan. Thanks to Cassini, we know that Saturn’s largest moon is the one other place in the solar system where liquid can be found in stable amounts on the surface, except that it’s not water like we have here on Earth, but rather liquid methane. (Thank you for not smoking!) Now, radar measurements by Cassini show that Titan’s lakes are nearly all found in one 600 x 1100-mile region around its north pole — a true “land o’lakes!”
The animation above, made up of colorized radar data acquired over the past 9 years that the spacecraft has been in orbit around Saturn, takes us on a flyover tour of Titan’s northern lakes region. Fasten your seat belts!
A combination of exceptionally clear weather, the steady approach of northern summer, and a poleward orbital path has given Cassini — and Cassini scientists — unprecedented views of countless lakes scattered across Titan’s north polar region. In the near-infrared mosaic above they can be seen as dark splotches and speckles scattered around the moon’s north pole. Previously observed mainly via radar, these are the best visual and infrared wavelength images ever obtained of Titan’s northern “land o’ lakes!”
(But don’t even think about going swimming in these lakes — they’re filled with liquid METHANE, nearly 300 degrees below zero!)
It’s been thought for some time that Saturn’s largest moon Titan has a complex internal structure consisting of multiple layers of ice and liquid water. At one point it was even suggested that there are water ice “cryovolcanoes” on Titan, where watery slush oozes to the surface and freezes solid in the moon’s 270-degree-below temperatures, in very much the same way that liquid rock does on Earth. Now, thanks to recent gravitational observations by Cassini (and who else?) some researchers think that Titan’s icy shell may be much thicker in places than once thought, making the existence of ice volcanoes and Earthlike plate tectonics much less likely.
What looks like a single open-quote (or backwards comma) is really Saturn’s two-toned moon Iapetus, seen here in RGB composite color made from raw images acquired by Cassini on Aug. 30 from a distance of about 1.5 million miles.
With a leading side stained a dark reddish hue and a trailing side bright white, the 914-mile-wide Iapetus (eye-AH-peh-tus) is — almost literally — the yin-yang of Saturn’s family of moons.
The color variation on Iapetus is due to the fine coating of dark material that falls onto its leading hemisphere, possibly sent its way by smaller, distant Phoebe. This dark coating of dust causes that half of Iapetus’ surface to warm up ever-so-slightly-more than the other, making the water ice evaporate and redepositing it on the other side. This in turn just reinforces the whole cycle…a positive feedback loop.
Image: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute. Composite by Jason Major.