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Category Archives: Saturn

Titan’s Cold Hydrocarbon Lakes Could Be Naturally Carbonated—Er, Nitrogenated

Artist’s rendering of an ice-covered lake surface on Titan (NASA/JPL-Caltech/USGS)

At the north pole of Saturn’s largest moon Titan lie the largest (and only known) bodies of surface liquid in the Solar System outside of Earth. But on Titan, where temperatures are regularly around negative 300ºF, the liquid isn’t water but rather methane and ethane: compounds which are found as gases here on Earth. Titan’s seas and lakes are exotic environments that scientists are only just starting to understand, and even with radar imaging by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft there’s a lot we just don’t know about them. But one thing some researchers have managed to figure out using simulated Titan environments in the lab is that these lakes may sometimes fizz with bubbles of nitrogen—potentially explaining some of the mysteries of Cassini’s observations.

“Thanks to this work on nitrogen’s solubility, we’re now confident that bubbles could indeed form in the seas, and in fact may be more abundant than we’d expected,” said Jason Hofgartner of JPL, who serves as a co-investigator on Cassini’s radar team and was a co-author of the study.

Read the news straight from NASA here: Experiments Show Titan Lakes May Fizz with Nitrogen

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Iapetus: Saturn’s Stained Moon

Color image of Iapetus captured by Cassini on March 11, 2017 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Jason Major)

Saturn’s “yin-yang” moon Iapetus (pronounced eye-AH-pe-tus) is seen in this image, a color composite made from raw images acquired by Cassini’s narrow-angle camera on March 11, 2017.

The color difference on Iapetus is due to a fine coating of dark material that falls onto its leading hemisphere, sent its way by the distant moon Phoebe traveling within the recently-discovered giant diffuse ring. This dark coating of dust causes that half of Iapetus’ surface to warm up ever-so-slightly-more than the other, making the underlying water ice evaporate and redeposit on the other side. This in turn reinforces the cycle…a positive feedback loop.

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Our Best Ever Look at Pan, Saturn’s Little “UFO”

Images of the shepherd moon Pan captured by Cassini on March 7, 2017. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Animation by Jason Major.)

Behold the almighty Pan! Thanks to Cassini’s ring-grazing orbits we’ve just received the highest-resolution images ever of Pan—which, at only about 17 miles (27 km) across admittedly isn’t very “almighty” but its flying saucer-like shape is really quite fascinating!

The raw images above were acquired by Cassini on March 7, 2017 and received on Earth on March 8. I assembled them into an animation to show some of the 3D shape of the little shepherd moon, which orbits Saturn inside the 200 mile wide Encke Gap in the A ring.

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Look Into The Dark Eye of Saturn’s Southern Storm

Saturn’s southern vortex, imaged by Cassini in July 2008.  South is facing up in this color image. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Jason Major)

I know I said in my previous post that the Solar System is not a vortex (and it’s not) but that doesn’t mean there are no vortexes in the Solar System—in fact, thanks to the churning atmospheres of the gas giants, it’s full of them! And that’s no better demonstrated than at the poles of Saturn, where giant hurricane-like storms spin away year after year, powered by atmospheric convection and the rapid rotation of the planet.

I’ve often posted about the vortex at the north pole of Saturn—and yes it’s quite impressive—but there’s also a similar feature at Saturn’s south pole as well, albeit a bit more subtle and much less turbulent. The image above is a color view, made from raw data acquired in red, green, blue, and polarized light by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on July 15, 2008. That was a just over a year before Saturn’s spring equinox and the planet’s south pole was moving into shadow, but still had enough illumination for Cassini to capture some images.

Check out a more direct view down into the vortex below:

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Cassini Pinpoints a Propeller in Saturn’s Rings

A “propeller” feature in Saturn’s rings imaged in high definition by Cassini. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured these images of a propeller in Saturn’s A ring on Feb. 21, 2017. These are the sharpest images ever taken of a propeller and reveal an unprecedented level of detail. This propeller is nicknamed “Santos-Dumont” after the Brazilian-French aviator who is hailed as the father of aviation in Brazil.

The February 2017 imaging was Cassini’s first targeted observation of a propeller. The two views show the same object from opposite sides of the rings. The top image looks toward the rings’ sunlit side, while the bottom image shows the unilluminated side, where sunlight filters through the backlit ring.

Propellers are the term given to small disturbances in Saturn’s rings caused by the gravitational influence of embedded moonlets. They are thematically nicknamed in honor of famous world aviators. The particularly large propeller Santos-Dumont is caused by an object a little over half a mile (1 km) across.

More than just being ring decorations, propellers are important to researchers because they mimic the behavior of objects in an orbiting debris field; they are sort of like miniature protoplanets inside a circumstellar disk. They were first spotted by Cassini in July 2004.

“Observing the motions of these disk-embedded objects provides a rare opportunity to gauge how the planets grew from, and interacted with, the disk of material surrounding the early sun,” said Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco in 2010. “It allows us a glimpse into how the solar system ended up looking the way it does.”

Read the rest of this story here: Cassini Targets a Propeller in Saturn’s A Ring

Cassini Mission Highlight: Mile-High Spikes Along Saturn’s B Ring

Icy particles along Saturn's B ring rise dramatically in mile-high spikes, seen by Cassini in August 2009. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

Icy particles along Saturn’s B ring rise dramatically in mile-high spikes, seen by Cassini in August 2009. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

A field of spike-like structures rise up over two miles from the outer edge of Saturn’s B ring in the amazing image above, captured by Cassini during Saturn’s spring equinox in August 2009. These pointy perturbations are caused by the gravitational nudges of tiny (~1/2 mile) embedded moonlets traveling around Saturn within the B ring, causing fine icy particles to “splash” upwards from the otherwise relatively flat ring when they pass by them. The moonlets themselves are held in their orbits by the gravity of Mimas.

The spikes were made visible mainly because of the angle of illumination at the time of equinox, which on Saturn occurs every 15 years and in this instance was on Aug. 11, 2009.

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