Cassini Flies Through Saturn’s Aurora

Saturn’s mysterious aurora has fascinated astronomers and space enthusiasts since it was first observed back in 1979. Now, the Cassini spacecraft has made the first observations from within the giant radio aurora of Saturn. The spacecraft flew through an active auroral region in 2008, and scientists say there are both similarities and contrasts between the radio auroral emissions generated at Saturn and those at Earth. Additionally, Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer instrument (VIMS) took data to create a new movie (above) showing Saturn’s shimmering aurora over a two-day period. All this new data are helping scientists understand what drives some of the solar system’s most impressive light shows.


“So far, this is a unique event,” said Dr. Laurent Lamy at the European Planetary Science Congress in Rome this week. “Whereas the source region of Earth’s radio aurora has been studied by many missions, this is our first opportunity to observe the equivalent region at Saturn from the inside. From this single encounter, we have been able to build up a detailed snapshot of auroral activity using three of Cassini’s instruments. This gives us a fascinating insight into the processes that are generating Saturn’s radio aurora.”

See an animation created from the radio instrument on Cassini at this link. On the left hand side are the radio sources as seen from Cassini. The right hand side shows the projection of the radio sources down onto the southern pole of the planet. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Iowa/CNES/Observatoire de Paris

Separately, Tom Stallard, lead scientist on a joint VIMS and Cassini magnetometer collaboration, presented the VIMS movie at the conference.

Source: European Planetary Science Congress

In the movie, the aurora phenomenon clearly varies significantly over the course of a Saturnian day, which lasts around 10 hours 47 minutes. On the noon and midnight sides (left and right sides of the images, respectively), the aurora can be seen to brighten significantly for periods of several hours, suggesting the brightening is connected with the angle of the sun. Other features can be seen to rotate with the planet, reappearing at the same time and the same place on the second day, suggesting that these are directly controlled by the orientation of Saturn’s magnetic field.

Image of Saturn’s aurora seen at ultraviolet wavelengths. The spiral shape seen here is similar to the distorted radio aurora visualised by the team and also indicates enhanced auroral activity. Credit: ESA/NASA/Hubble

“Saturn’s auroras are very complex and we are only just beginning to understand all the factors involved,” Stallard said. “This study will provide a broader view of the wide variety of different auroral features that can be seen, and will allow us to better understand what controls these changes in appearance.”
Auroras on Saturn occur in a process similar to Earth’s northern and southern lights. Particles from the solar wind are channeled by Saturn’s magnetic field toward the planet’s poles, where they interact with electrically charged gas (plasma) in the upper atmosphere and emit light. At Saturn, however, auroral features can also be caused by electromagnetic waves generated when the planet’s moons move through the plasma that fills Saturn’s magnetosphere.

This false-color composite image shows Saturn’s rings and southern hemisphere. The composite image was made from 65 individual observations by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer in the near-infrared portion of the light spectrum on Nov. 1, 2008. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Titan Weather Report for Spring: Still Cold, but Clearing Skies


The beauty of an extended space mission is that scientists can make long term observations and find out things we’ve never known before. The Cassini spacecraft’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument has been monitoring clouds on Titan continuously since the spacecraft went into orbit around Saturn in 2004, and a team led by Sébastien Rodriguez (AIM laboratory – Université Paris Diderot) has used more than 2,000 VIMS images to create the first long-term study of Titan’s weather. Are they ready to make a weather forecast? They say Titan’s northern hemisphere is set for mainly fine spring weather, with polar skies clearing since the equinox in August last year.

Together with Saturn in its 30-years orbit around the Sun, Titan has seasons that last for 7 terrestrial years. The team has observed significant atmospheric changes between July 2004 (early summer in the southern hemisphere) and April 2010, the very start of northern spring. The images showed that cloud activity has recently decreased near both of Titan’s poles. These regions had been heavily overcast during the late southern summer until 2008, a few months before the equinox.

“Over the past six years, we’ve found that clouds appear clustered in three distinct latitude regions of Titan: large clouds at the north pole, patchy cloud at the south pole and a narrow belt around 40 degrees south. However, we are now seeing evidence of a seasonal circulation turnover on Titan – the clouds at the south pole completely disappeared just before the equinox and the clouds in the north are thinning out. This agrees with predictions from models and we are expecting to see cloud activity reverse from one hemisphere to another in the coming decade as southern winter approaches,” said Dr Rodriguez.

Fractional cloud coverage in Titan’s atmosphere integrated between July 2004 and April 2010. Black areas are cloud free and yellow are fully covered. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/University of Nantes/ University of Paris Diderot

The team has used results from the Global Climate Models (GCMs) developed by Pascal Rannou (Institut Pierre Simon Laplace) to interpret the evolution of the observed cloud patterns over time. Northern polar clouds of ethane form in the Titan’s troposphere during the winter at altitudes of 30-50 km by a constant influx of ethane and aerosols from the stratosphere. In the other hemisphere, mid- and high-latitudes clouds are produced by the upwelling from the surface of air enriched in methane. Observations of the location and activity of Titan’s clouds over long periods are vital in developing a global understanding of Titan’s climate and meteorological cycle.

In Feburary 2010, the Cassini mission was extended to a few months past Saturn’s northern summer solstice in May 2017. This means that Rodriguez and his team will be able to observe the seasonal changes right the way through from mid-winter to mid-summer in the northern hemisphere.

“We have learned a lot about Titan’s climate since Cassini arrived in at Saturn but there is still a great deal to learn. With the new mission extension, we will have the opportunity to answer some of the key questions about the meteorology of this fascinating moon,” said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez presented the results at the European Planetary Science Congress 2010 in Rome.

Source: European Planetary Science Conference

Stunning Flyover Videos of Saturn’s Moons

Saturn’s moons as you’ve never seen them before! By day, Dr. Paul Schenk works at the Lunar and Planetary Institute mapping the topography and geology of the moons of Saturn and Jupiter, as well as the icy bodies of the outer solar system. But because “it’s just plain cool,” he has created some flyover videos of Saturn’s satellites, using data from the Cassini spacecraft. Very cool, indeed! Above is a close-up, 3-D look at the walnut-shaped moon Iapetus. Scientists don’t know why there is a ridge along the moon’s equator, but in 2007, Cassini acquired a strip of color and stereo images along the ridge, and Schenk has created a flyover which shows the contrast in color and topography. There are “sharp peaks 15 to 20 kilometers above the surrounding dark cratered plains,” Schenk writes. “These are among the highest peaks in the Solar System. Patches of bright pure water ice can be seen flanking these dark peaks, which have the brightness of soot.”

And there’s more! Below is one of my favorites from Schenk’s collection of flyover videos, 3-D views of Inktomi, a very young crater on the moon Rhea.

Continue reading “Stunning Flyover Videos of Saturn’s Moons”

Amazing New Close-up Images of Enceladus


Oh, wow! This is one of the best images yet from the Cassini spacecraft of the “tiger stripes” in the south polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Over the weekend, Cassini flew by Enceladus, and has sent back some incredible new images, such as the one above. The tiger stripes are actually giant fissures that spew jets of water vapor and organic particles hundreds of kilometers, or miles, out into space, and here, Cassini is staring right down into one of the fissures. See more great images of Enceladus below, plus images of the moons Dione and Tethys.

Close-up of the cracked, crevassed surface of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/Space Science Institute.

While the winter is darkening the moon’s southern hemisphere, Cassini has its own version of “night vision goggles” — the composite infrared spectrometer instrument – to track heat even when visible light is low. It will take time for scientists to assemble the data into temperature maps of the fissures.

Enceladus against Saturn's limb. Credit: NASA/Space Science Institute.
More plumes on Enceladus. Credit: NASA/Space Science Institute.
Close-up of Tethys. Credit: NASA/Space Science Institute

Dione from 115,370 kilometers away. Credit: NASA/Space Science Institute

See more amazing images from Cassini’s latest at the CICLOPS website.

Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Blog also has created some very cool movies from the flyby images.

Hat tip to Stu Atkinson

Mini Moons Are Buzzing Through Saturn’s Rings

Scientists for NASA’s Cassini mission noticed some weird-looking propeller-like shapes in the outer edge of Saturn’s A ring. What could be creating these unusual contours? A closer look revealed they were being formed by dozens of moving moonlets. Normally, these kilometer-sized moons would have been almost impossible to see, since they are embedded within the rings. “However, their presence is betrayed by the large tell-tale ‘propeller’ structures they generate in the ring material on either side of them,” said Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini imaging team, and co-author on a new paper on these propeller moons. In an email, Porco said similar features had been seen earlier in other locations in Saturn’s rings, but were “much smaller, harder to see, and so numerous that there was no hope of following any one of them. The new propellers, and the moonlets that create them, are some ten times larger and much easier to identify and follow from image to image and year to year.”


The team said the ability to watch as the embedded moons’ orbits evolve over time could give scientists valuable new clues about how planets form and grow around stars in young solar systems.

“What is outstanding about these new findings is the insight they ultimately will provide into the early stages of solar system formation,” said Porco, “when growing planets become large enough to open gaps in the ring material around them and ultimately truncate their own growth.”

The scientists have tracked eleven of these moons since 2006. Most are between one and several kilometers in diameter, too small to be imaged directly by Cassini’s cameras, but are only distinguishable by the unique double-armed propeller features.

The area in the middle of Saturn’s outermost dense A ring is now known as the “propeller belts,” and the new moonlets have been given appropriate names.

“You may find it amusing that these large propellers have unofficially been named after famous aviators,” Porco said. “Those flight enthusiasts among you will recognize Bleriot, Earhart, Santos-Dumont, and others.”

Cassini caught sight of Blériot (named after a French aviator) more than 100 times, allowing the researchers to map its path in detail. The propeller shape it created is several thousand kilometers long, or half the distance across the continental United States.

“You would expect any object that’s just orbiting Saturn on its own should stay in a constant path,” said lead author Matthew Tiscareno from Cornell University. “What we actually see is that the orbits are changing.”

The most likely explanation, he said, is that the moons are actually interacting with the disk: exchanging angular momentum with the ring particles around them either through gravity or by direct collisions.

Still, other explanations, like resonant interactions with more distant moons, have not been ruled out as causes.

Scientists will be keeping an eye on these wandering little moons in order to figure out if the disk itself is driving the changes, similar to the interactions that occur in young solar systems. If it is, Tiscareno said, this would be the first time such a measurement has been made directly.

Read the team’s paper.

More images at CICLOPS

Sources: NASA, Cornell, Porco email

Small Moon Makes Big Waves


Saturn’s moon Daphnis is only 8 kilometers wide, but it has a fairly substantial effect on the A ring, making waves on the ring’s edge. According to Carolyn Porco on Twitter, this is the closest look yet at this mini, moving moon. Daphnis resides in the Keeler Gap, which is about 42 km wide, but the moon’s eccentric orbit causes its distance from Saturn to vary by almost 9 km, and its inclination causes it to move up and down by about 17 km. That may not sound like much, but within a small gap, this variability causes the waves seen in the edges of the gap. We’ve only known about Daphnis’ existence since 2005, one of the many discoveries made by the Cassini spacecraft, and this is the first image where Daphnis is more than just a little dot. Click on the image to get a closer look.

This image is hot off the presses, as it was taken on July 5, 2010, and sent to Earth just yesterday (July 6). See below for a great new look at Saturn’s ring.

New raw image of Saturn's rings. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Click the image for a larger version, and prepare to be wowed!

Source: CICLOPS, with a hat tip to Stu Atkinson!

Latest Wall Art from Cassini


Oh, wow — what a gorgeous image! Just the latest from our resident artist in space, the Cassini spacecraft. Rhea, saturn’s second largest moon sits in front of the rings, joined by two smaller moons in the background. Rhea (1528 kilometers, 949 miles across) is in the center foreground. Janus (179 kilometers, 111 miles across) can be seen beyond the rings on the right of the image. Prometheus (86 kilometers, 53 miles across) is visible orbiting between the main rings and the thin F ring on the left of the image. Lit terrain seen on Rhea is on the area between that moon’s trailing hemisphere and anti-Saturn side. This view looks toward the northern, sunlit side of the rings from just above the ringplane.

If you like contrast images, there’s a great one below.

Saturn's rings contrast with the blackness of space. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

This image is a beautiful contrast between dark and light. Atlas can be seen just above the center of this Cassini spacecraft image as the moon orbits in the Roche Division between Saturn’s A ring and thin F ring.

Sources: CICLOPS, Cassini

Incredible Images of Enceladus From Cassini’s Latest Flyby


Wow. Cassini the artist has struck again, this time with amazing images from the close flyby of Enceladus that we wrote a preview about earlier this week. Cassini flew by Enceladus during the early hours of May 18 UTC, coming within about 435 kilometers (270 miles) of the moon’s surface. The raw images came in late last night, and in my inbox this morning was an email from Stuart Atkinson, (no relation, but great name) alerting me to the treasures. Stu himself has called this image “the new iconic image of the space age,” and Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Blog has called these images “some of the most amazing Cassini has captured yet.”

What you’re seeing here is hazy Titan, backlit by the Sun, with Saturn’s rings in the foreground– plus, at the way bottom is the limb of the night side of Enceladus’ south pole. Emily has created a flipped, annotated image (plus there’s more Enceladus jaw-droppers below:

nceladus, Titan, and the rings of Saturn (explained) Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI/annotated by Emily Lakdawa. Click for larger version.

The 'fountains' of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Three huge “fountains” of Enceladus geysers are visible in this raw image taken by Cassini on May 18, 2010. The camera was pointing toward Enceladus at approximately 14,972 kilometers away, and the image was taken using the CL1 and CL2 filters. Emily, with her photo editing prowess, has created a movie from four different images as Cassini cruised closer to the moon.

Astro0 on has put the two different images together to create a collage of what it would have looked like if the plumes were visible in the image with Titan. Gorgeous! Plus, here’s a color version Astro0 created.

Plus there’s this very interesting raw image from Cassini:

Raw image from Cassini on May 18. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Explanations anyone?

Cassini will be flying by Titan in the early hours of May 20 UTC, coming within 1,400 kilometers (750 miles) of the surface. Although Cassini will primarily be doing radio science during this pass to detect subtle variations in the gravitational tug on the spacecraft by Titan, hopefully we’ll see some new visible light images of Titan, as well.

For more images from Cassini, see the Cassini website, and the section for the raw images.

Cassini’s Cruise: Close Flybys of Two Moons in Less Than Two Days


It’s a space navigator’s dream! The Cassini spacecraft will perform close flybys of two of Saturn’s most enigmatic moons all within less than 48 hours, and with no maneuvers in between. Enceladus and Titan are aligned just right so that Cassini can catch glimpses of these two contrasting moons – one a geyser world and the other an analog to early Earth.

Cassini will make its closest approach to Enceladus late at night on May 17 Pacific time, which is in the early hours of May 18 UTC. The spacecraft will pass within about 435 kilometers (270 miles) of the moon’s surface.

The main scientific goal at Enceladus will be to watch the sun play peekaboo behind the water-rich plume emanating from the moon’s south polar region. Scientists using the ultraviolet imaging spectrograph will be able to use the flickering light to measure whether there is molecular nitrogen in the plume. Ammonia has already been detected in the plume and scientists know heat can decompose ammonia into nitrogen molecules. Determining the amount of molecular nitrogen in the plume will give scientists clues about thermal processing in the moon’s interior.

Then on to Titan: the closest approach will take place in the late evening May 19 Pacific time, which is in the early hours of May 20 UTC. The spacecraft will fly to within 1,400 kilometers (750 miles) of the surface.

Cassini will primarily be doing radio science during this pass to detect the subtle variations in the gravitational tug on the spacecraft by Titan, which is 25 percent larger in volume than the planet Mercury. Analyzing the data will help scientists learn whether Titan has a liquid ocean under its surface and get a better picture of its internal structure. The composite infrared spectrometer will also get its southernmost pass for thermal data to fill out its temperature map of the smoggy moon.

Cassini has made four previous double flybys and one more is planned in the years ahead.

For more information on the Enceladus flyby, dubbed “E10,” see this link.

For more information on the Titan flyby, dubbed “T68,” see this link.

Source: JPL

Incredible! Cassini as Houdini Cuts Titan in Half


There’s nothing up the sleeves of the Cassini imaging team in this image; it is real! Is the moon Titan being cut in half by Saturn’s rings? What is actually happening here is that the middle part of the rings are made dark as Saturn casts its shadow across them. Cassini was just in the right place at the right time, making it appear as though Titan is being sliced in half! The night side of the planet is to the left, out of the frame of the image. Illuminated Titan can be seen above, below and through gaps in the rings. Click the image for a larger version.

As an added benefit in this shot, Mimas (396 kilometers, 246 miles across) is near the bottom of the image, and Atlas (30 kilometers, 19 miles across) can barely be detected near the thin F ring just above the center right of the image. Lit terrain seen here is the area between the leading hemisphere and Saturn-facing side of Titan (5,150 kilometers, 3,200 miles across). This view looks toward the northern, sunlit side of the rings from just above the ringplane.

Below are a few more magical images from Cassini:

Here the moon Enceladus appears strung along a wispy ring of Saturn, likely the G ring. Look close and Enceladus’ plumes are visible, too.

Enceladus and a wispy ring. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Pandora and Epimetheus sit on Saturn's rings. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Two of Saturn’s small moons appear to be sitting on Satun’s thin F ring in this image.

From the CICLOPS website:

Pandora (81 kilometers, 50 miles across) is on the left, and Epimetheus (113 kilometers, 70 miles across) is on the right. This view looks toward the northern, sunlit side of the rings from just above the ringplane. Both moons are closer to Cassini than the rings are. Pandora is slightly closer to Cassini than Epimetheus here.

The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Nov. 23, 2009. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.3 million kilometers (808,000 miles) from Pandora and Epimetheus. Image scale is 8 kilometers (5 miles) per pixel.

For more great images from Cassini (which I contend is actually an artist and not a magician!) go to the CICLOPS website and NASA’s Cassini website.