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Cassini Survived Its Historic First Pass Between Saturn and Rings; First Pics In!

An image of Saturn’s north polar vortex captured by Cassini on April 26, 2017. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

Cassini made it! On April 26, 2017, NASA’s Saturn-exploring spacecraft made its closest pass by the planet since its arrival in 2004, beginning the final phase of its mission with its first “Grand Finale” orbital pass that took it between the top of the planet’s atmosphere and the innermost edge of the ring system. It’s literally a journey that no other spacecraft has ever made—and now the pictures are coming in!

It’s also the closest Cassini has come to Saturn itself; at closest point Cassini was only about 1,900 miles (3,000 km) above the tops of Saturn’s swirling clouds. It’s amazing to think that the images we’re seeing were captured with Cassini’s wide angle camera—typically views like this have had to use its “zoom” narrow-angle camera!

Check out an animation below of some of Cassini’s views captured during the pass over Saturn’s north pole.

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Cute Science Video Alert: The Story of Stars

Like people, stars are found in all colors and sizes. They can range from small, sassy red dwarfs to giant blue beasts. In fact there are seven main types of stars, grouped by their apparent colors (and thus temperatures) and classified as O, B, A, F, G, K, or M in order of hottest to coolest. (Learn more about that here.) The video above, released by The Royal Observatory in Greenwich, England, gives a brief life history of three of the most common types of stars found in our galaxy: blue O stars, red M dwarfs, and yellow G stars—the latter of which being the class of our own Sun. It’s really fun, cute, and educational—check it out, and also find more videos on The Royal Observatory’s Vimeo page. 

Opportunity Looks Back on Its Downhill Departure from Cape Tribulation

An approximate true-color view from Opportunity acquired on April 21, 2017. (Click for full size.)

It’s all downhill from here! (Well not really, but it was for a little while when Opportunity was at the top of that hill!) The image above is a mosaic I assembled from six color-composites, each made from three separate images acquired in near-infrared, green, and near-ultraviolet color wavelengths on April 21, 2017 (mission sol 4707). It’s been adjusted to appear in approximate true color to what the scene might look like to a human standing on Mars. The view shows a ridge called “Rocheport” located on the western rim of Endeavour Crater (the interior of which would be toward the right in this image) which was the final segment of Opportunity’s last target region of exploration, Cape Tribulation. Opportunity’s wheel tracks can be seen at the bottom center, heading back up the ridge and zig-zagging toward the top (detail below).

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If You Were Wondering What Earth Looks Like From Saturn, Here You Go

Raw Cassini image showing Earth beyond the rings. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Jason Major

That’s here; that’s home; that’s us. The image above shows what Earth looked like to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on April 13, 2017 as it flew past Saturn’s night-shadowed A and F rings. At the time the raw images were captured Saturn and Cassini were about 889.6 million miles (1.43 billion kilometers) from Earth. From that distance our entire world—and everyone on it—is just another tiny light in the dark.

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Saturn’s Moon Atlas Is Even More Flying Saucery Than Pan

Animation made from images acquired by Cassini on April 12, 2017.

If you thought Pan resembled a UFO, Atlas is even more saucer-shaped! Slightly larger at about 19 miles across, Saturn’s moon Atlas was passed by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on April 12, 2017, coming within about 9,000 miles. The images above are a collection of eight from Cassini’s closest approach. Like its smaller sibling Pan, Atlas has a flattened shape, created by the presence of a large buildup of icy material around its equator.

Atlas orbits Saturn just outside the edge of the A ring, taking about 14 hours to complete a full orbit.

Learn more about Atlas here.

UPDATE: Here’s a color image of Atlas made from raw images acquired by Cassini on April 12 in infrared, green, and UV wavelengths. I’ve adjusted it to bring out some surface detail and (hopefully) closer match actual visible light.

Atlas IR--G-UV 4-12-17

Color image of Atlas from April 12, 2017. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/Space Science Institute/Jason Major.

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