On New Year’s Eve, Cassini Will Stare at the Death Star’s Superlaser

by Jean Tate on February 12, 2010

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OK, it’s actually the Herschel crater on Mimas, a smallish moon of Saturn (and it’s the eve of Chinese New Year, February 13th, 2010), but it’s a cool headline, don’t you think?

Cassini will be very busy that day, which begins with a rare sunrise – the Sun goes behind Saturn (from Cassini’s perspective) – followed by a rare blackout, as the Earth goes behind Saturn. Then there’s three “Forward shields up!” moments, as Cassini tries to dodge a Klingon missile flies through regions of “increased ring particle concentration”, a couple of distant flybys (Epimetheus, Janus; ~100,000 km each), a ring-plane crossing, another “Shields up!” moment, and a 9,500 km close approach to Death Star Mimas. And the day ends with a distant (112,000 km) flyby of Tethys. Whew!

“Mimas bears the mark of a violent, giant impact from the past – the 140-kilometer-wide Herschel Crater – and scientists hope the encounter will help them explain why the moon was not blown to smithereens when the impact happened. They will also be trying to count smaller dings inside the basin of Herschel Crater so they can better estimate its age,” JPL’s Jia-Rui C. Cook said, “The Mimas flyby involves a significant amount of skill because the spacecraft will be passing through a dusty region to get there. Mission managers have planned for the Cassini spacecraft to lead with its high-gain antenna to provide a barrier of protection.”

To date, the best images of Mimas – and its Herschel crater – were obtained on August 2nd, 2005, during Cassin’s distant flyby.

Mimas is an inner moon of Saturn that averages 396 kilometers in diameter. The diameter of Herschel Crater is about one-third that of the entire moon. The walls of the crater are about 5 kilometers high, and parts of the floor are approximately 10 kilometers deep.

Map of Mimas (Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute )


Mimas would have beaten another of Saturn’s moons, Rhea, for the record of “most battered moon”, but for the fact that it was warmer – and so softer – for longer than Rhea (because it’s closer to Saturn), so many of the earliest craters were more degraded.

Have you heard of the “Mimas paradox”? Mimas’ orbit is more eccentric than Enceladus’, and is in resonance with Dione and Enceladus – so it should be heated, tidally, more than Enceladus – but its surface has not, apparently, changed for a very long time (while geysers on Enceladus show that it is still quite active). Further, the two moons seem to have similar compositions.

On this flyby, Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer will be working to determine the thermal signature of the moon, and other instruments will be making measurements to learn more about the surface composition. Perhaps that will shed some light on the Mimas paradox.

Sources: Cassini Set to Do Retinal Scan of Saturnian Eyeball, Mimas (NASA/JPL)

JoeTO February 12, 2010 at 9:01 AM

We need more space crafts orbiting Saturn and Jupiter. Tons of wolds to explore… Just imagine a rover standing on top of the wall Herschel Crater.

Uncle Fred February 13, 2010 at 11:32 AM

Careful research indicates that Klingons actually arm their warbirds with disruptors and torpedoes and not – as this article would have you believe – missiles..

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