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What’s Ahead for Cassini?


If you’ve been a faithful reader of Lights in the Dark over the past five years you know that I just love Cassini (and you probably do too!) In orbit around Saturn since 2004, Cassini has taken us on an intimate tour of the Saturnian system for a decade now, revealing the incredible beauty of the ringed planet and its family of moons like no spacecraft ever has before. Thanks to Cassini and the Huygens probe, we have seen the surface of Titan for the first time, witnessed the jets of Enceladus, discovered many previously-unknown moons (and moonlets) and basically learned more about Saturn over the past ten years than since Galileo first pointed his telescope at it.

Cassini's final maneuver will be to dive through a gap in Saturn's rings in 2017 (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Cassini’s will dive through a gap in Saturn’s rings in 2017 and sample the planet’s upper atmosphere (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Although nearing the end of its life span, Cassini still has a few good years left and scientists are taking full advantage of its remaining time around Saturn to learn as much as they can before the spacecraft makes its final dive into the planet’s atmosphere in 2017.* The video above shows what awaits Cassini in the years ahead — some of its best discoveries may be yet to come. Check it out!

Learn more about the Cassini mission and read about its latest discoveries here and here.

*The exact plan for the end of Cassini’s mission has not yet been finalized.

This is How Saturn’s Rings Would Look to a Butterfly

Ultraviolet image of Saturn's rings acquired by Cassini in 2004 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Boulder)

Ultraviolet image of Saturn’s rings acquired by Cassini in 2004 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Boulder)

You don’t typically see Saturn’s rings looking like this, but then you can’t see in ultraviolet like Cassini (or many insects) can! The image above was acquired by the UVIS (UltraViolet Imaging Spectrograph) instrument aboard the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft on June 30, 2004, just as it was entering orbit around Saturn.

The area shown here is about 10,000 km (6,200 miles) across. It’s a small section of ring segments… just a portion of Saturn’s magnificent expanse of rings. Part of the C ring, toward Saturn, is along the left, and the inner edge of the B ring begins just right of the center. The colors are related to the composition of the ring particles; blue and green colors are from bright water ice, reds are rings with darker, “dirtier” particles.

While the colors aren’t “real” per se — our eyes simply can’t see UV light — the association of colors we can see to specific UV wavelengths allows scientists to accurately observe relative differences in the ring segments.

“It is cool that we can pick our own colors in the pictures we produce,” said Dr. Larry W. Esposito, a professor of Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences at the University of Colorado and UVIS Principal Investigator. “No person has ever seen ultraviolet light, although some butterflies can. Our pictures may thus represent a ‘butterfly’s-eye view’ of the Saturn system.”

Click the image to access a higher-resolution image on ESA’s Flickr page, and read more about the Cassini mission here.

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.”

Read the rest of this article here.

Rings Discovered Around an Asteroid

Artist's impression of the view from the asteroid Chariklo. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

Artist’s impression of the view from the asteroid Chariklo. Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

We all know that Saturn is encircled by a system of rings, and perhaps you also know about the fainter rings around Uranus, Jupiter, and Neptune. But today, ESO astronomers have revealed a surprising discovery: there are also rings surrounding the asteroid 10199 Chariklo, a small, distant world orbiting the Sun far beyond Saturn.

This makes 250-km-wide Chariklo the fifth world ever found to have rings, after the four planets mentioned previously, and, based on the observations, it could also even have its own moon.

“As well as the rings, it’s likely that Chariklo has at least one small moon still waiting to be discovered,” said Felipe Braga-Ribas of the Observatório Nacional/MCTI in Rio de Janeiro who planned the observation campaign and is lead author on the new paper.

Read the rest of this entry

OMG Saturn.

Image of Saturn in eclipse from July 19, 2013. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

Image of Saturn in eclipse from July 19, 2013. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

Go get some extra socks handy because this new image of Saturn is going to knock ‘em clean off your feet.

Seen in eclipse against the light of the Sun, Saturn and its rings seem to glow with a magical light in this picture, painstakingly assembled from 141 separate wide-angle images taken by the Cassini spacecraft on July 19, 2013. The view is over 400,000 miles wide and Cassini was on the night side of Saturn, almost a billion miles away.

And you know what’s even cooler? You’re in this image. We all are, in fact.

Read more here.

You Could Never See Saturn Like This

RGB mosaic image of Saturn from Cassini images acquired on Oct. 10, 2013. By Gordan Ugarkovic.

RGB mosaic image of Saturn made from multiple Cassini images acquired on Oct. 10, 2013. By Gordan Ugarkovic.

…not without a spaceship, anyway. But Cassini can — and did — on October 10, 2013 (mostly because it IS a spaceship) and thanks to the image-editing skills of Gordan Ugarkovic you too can enjoy the incredible view!

Read the rest of this entry

Ring Shadows Surround Saturn’s South

Color-composite Cassini image of Saturn (NASA/JPL/SSI & J. Major)

Color-composite Cassini image of Saturn (NASA/JPL/SSI & J. Major)

Cassini gets a great look at Saturn’s southern half in this color-composite, assembled from raw images acquired on July 13, 2013.

Click for a larger view in my Flickr stream (the original raw images were only 1024 px, so it’s still a little grainy.) I adjusted the channel histograms quite a bit to achieve a more natural — albeit brighter — “Saturny” coloration.

In this rotated view, Saturn’s south pole is just off frame at lower right. The barely-there bands of the innermost D ring can be seen silhouetted against the planet at top center.

See this and more color images of Saturn here (and don’t forget to smile at Cassini this Friday, July 19!)

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