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Category Archives: Saturn

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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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.

Get Ready for Cassini’s Glorious Grand Finale

The end is near. On September 15, 2017, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will end its mission as well as its very existence with a plunge into the atmosphere of the very planet it has been orbiting since June 2004. It’s a maneuver intended to protect the pristine environments of Saturn’s icy moons, some of which harbor hidden reserves of liquid water, from potential impact contamination by an incapacitated spacecraft at some distant time in the future. But even though the reasons are noble, there’s no doubt that the final flight of Cassini and its inevitable loss will be a sad event for all those — myself very much included — who have followed along on its journey of discovery all these years. (Literally my first feature post here was a picture from Cassini.)

The video above, released today by NASA, is a poignant look both back at Cassini’s voyages and ahead at its Grand Finale, the last and most daring part of its mission at Saturn. These last few months will be bittersweet for Cassini fans, as every week will bring us closer to the end but also new and breathtaking views of Saturn…up to and including one last “family portrait” of the planet, its beautiful rings, and family of amazing moons.

Must be dusty in here, there’s something in my eye…

The end phase of the mission begins April 22. Follow along with the Grand Finale here.

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

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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