The distant ice giant Uranus may not have been visited by a spacecraft since Voyager 2’s “Grand Tour” flyby in 1986 but the data gathered then is still being used today to make new discoveries. Most recently, researchers think they have found evidence of two previously unknown moons around Uranus, potentially bringing the planet’s count up to 29.
Round and round they go… the animation above, made from 14 raw images taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft on August 23, 2016, shows the moons Prometheus and Atlas orbiting Saturn within the Roche Division gap between its A (top right) and F (center) rings. The gravitational tug of Prometheus (92 miles / 148 km long) is strong enough to pull on the fine, smoke-like icy particles of the F ring, creating streamer and “clump” features that follow it along.
The much smaller Atlas (23 miles / 37 km wide) follows a path around Saturn just past the outer edge of the A ring. It was once thought to be a “shepherd moon” of the A ring, but it’s now known that the pull of the more distant Janus and Epimetheus are responsible for that.
Atlas does have its very own ring, though—a very faint (i.e., not visible above) band of material that runs along its orbit named R/2004 S 1, discovered by the Cassini mission in July 2004.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Animation by Jason Major.
Recent findings from the New Horizons team reveal that Pluto’s third-largest satellite Nix is covered in the purest water ice yet observed in the dwarf planet system, even purer in spectra than what was seen on its slightly larger sibling Hydra. This analysis further supports the hypothesis that Pluto’s moons were created in an impact event that formed the Pluto-Charon system, over 4 billion years ago.
All the worlds may be ours except Europa but that only makes the ice-covered moon of Jupiter all the more intriguing. Beneath Europa’s thin crust of ice lies a tantalizing global ocean of liquid water somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 kilometers deep—which adds up to more liquid water than is on the entire surface of the Earth. Liquid water plus a heat source(s) to keep it liquid plus the organic compounds necessary for life and…well, you know where the thought process naturally goes from there.
And now it turns out Europa may have even more of a heat source than we thought. Yes, a big component of Europa’s water-liquefying warmth comes from tidal stresses enacted by the massive gravity of Jupiter as well as from the other large Galilean moons. But exactly how much heat is created within the moon’s icy crust as it flexes has so far only been loosely estimated. Now, researchers from Brown University in Providence, RI and Columbia University in New York City have modeled how friction creates heat within ice under stress, and the results were surprising.
Whether you want to call it a planet, dwarf planet, Kuiper Belt Object, or some or none of the above, there’s no denying that Pluto and its family of moons are true curiosities in the Solar System. Not only does little Pluto have one moon — Charon — that’s so massive in comparison that they both actually orbit each other around a central point outside the radius of either (if you feel like adding “binary” to whatever term you prefer to use, go right ahead) but it also has four other smaller moons in orbit that kinda sorta break the rules of how moons are “supposed to” behave.
It’s been a while since I last made one of these: it’s an animation comprising 27 images acquired by Cassini in various color channels on October 11, 2015. It shows Saturn’s second-largest moon Rhea passing in front of the smaller and more distant* Dione, both partially illuminated by sunlight. I cleaned up some image artifacts from each frame and adjusted the levels to make the blacks black and not banded, like is often found in images like these. I also added a bit of a glow to the moons, to enhance the sense of light (and bring out some of the detail in the darker areas.)
There’s nothing particularly scientific here, just an enjoyment of the endless and ongoing dance of the spheres!
Check out an older moon animation of Rhea here.
*Dione is more distant from the Cassini spacecraft in these views; it’s actually closer to Saturn in its orbit than Rhea.