What Are Cassini’s Most Interesting Discoveries?

We recently interviewed Dr. Kevin Grazier, on of the scientist who has worked extensively on the Cassini mission. Here’s what he had to tell us about that mission’s discoveries.

“My name is Kevin Grazier. I am a planetary scientist, and for my research I do long-term integrations or simulations of early solar system evolution. I’m a former scientist on the Cassini mission and a consultant to several TV series such as Defiance, Falling Skies, the movie Gravity, and formerly, Battlestar Galactica.”

What are Cassini’s most amazing discoveries?
“Cassini has essentially rewritten the book on the Saturn system. I was on the spacecraft team for 15 years. I worked as a science planner and as the Investigation Scientist on the ISS instrument. (That’s Imaging Science Subsystem, not International Space Station.) And of the discoveries we found, I’m trying to think of what I’d call or classify as the most exciting.”

“One was predicted – the fact that it was believed that there could be ice volcanoes on Enceladus. And as a matter of fact, there are volcanoes on Enceladus, or active venting, however you want to look at that. Those vents create the “E” ring, so we have a ring created by material vented off Enceladus. That’s pretty exciting, because we see an active object venting material, and there aren’t a lot of active objects in the solar system.”

This mosaic of Titan was created from the first flyby of the moon by Cassini in 2004. Credit: NASA/JPL/SS
This mosaic of Titan was created from the first flyby of the moon by Cassini in 2004. Credit: NASA/JPL/SS

“The surface of Titan is really fantastic. We have open oceans or seas of hydrcarbons on Titan. We have the possibility of an open ocean underneath the crust, just like we believe is under the surface of Europa. We have one image which seems to capture what might be a volcanic eruption. That’s important, because in the outer solar system, planetary science considers ice a rock. What a rock is defined as depends on where you are in the solar system. So in the outer solar system, ice is a rock. All of the moons in the outer solar system except Io have icy crusts. Now, if you have a volcanic eruption on Titan, we have an eruption of magma, and if ice is a rock, that eruption is water. So we have evidence of magma chambers which could be cauldrons of life-giving water.”

“How cool is that? How counter-intuitive is that? How science-fiction-y is that? That one of the most interesting places to look for is a lava chamber or magma chamber that could be suitable for sustaining life. I think that’s really exciting.”

You can follow Dr. Kevin on Twitter