Happy Holidays from Cassini!

Saturn makes a beautifully striped ornament in this natural-color image, showing its north polar hexagon and central vortex (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Cassini couldn’t make it to the mall this year to do any Christmas shopping but that’s ok: we’re all getting something even better in our stockings than anything store-bought! To celebrate the holiday season the Cassini team has shared some truly incredible images of Saturn and some of its many moons for the world to “ooh” and “ahh” over. So stoke the fire, pour yourself a glass of egg nog, sit back and marvel at some sights from a wintry wonderland 900 million miles away…

Thanks, Cassini… these are just what I’ve always wanted! (How’d you know?)

Saturn’s southern hemisphere is growing more and more blue as winter approaches there — a coloration similar to what was once seen in the north when Cassini first arrived in 2004:

Saturn's southern hemisphere images from a million miles away (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Saturn’s southern hemisphere images from a million miles away (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

(The small dark spot near the center right of the image above is the shadow of the shepherd moon Prometheus.)

Titan and Rhea, Saturn’s two largest moons, pose for Cassini:

Rhea (front) and Titan, images by Cassini in June 2011 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Rhea (front) and Titan, images by Cassini in June 2011 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

The two moons may look like they’re almost touching but in reality they were nearly half a million miles apart!

Titan’s northern “land of lakes” is visible in this image, captured by Cassini with a special spectral filter able to pierce through the moon’s thick haze:

Titan images by Cassini on Oct. 7, 2013 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Titan images by Cassini on Oct. 7, 2013 (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Read more: Titan’s North Pole is Loaded with Lakes

The frozen, snowball-like surface of the 313-mile-wide moon Enceladus:

Enceladus: a "snowball in space" (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
Enceladus: a highly-reflective and icy “snowball in space” (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

(Even though Enceladus is most famous for its icy geysers, first observed by Cassini in 2005, in these images they are not visible due to the lighting situations.)

Seen in a different illumination angle and in filters sensitive to UV, visible, and infrared light the many fractures and folds of Enceladus’ frozen surface become apparent:

View of the trailing face of Enceladus (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)
View of the trailing face of Enceladus (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Because of Cassini’s long-duration, multi-season stay in orbit around Saturn, researchers have been able to learn more about the ringed planet and its fascinating family of moons than ever before possible. Cassini is now going into its tenth year at Saturn and with much more research planned, we can only imagine what discoveries (and images!) are yet to come in the new year(s) ahead.

“Until Cassini arrived at Saturn, we didn’t know about the hydrocarbon lakes of Titan, the active drama of Enceladus’ jets, and the intricate patterns at Saturn’s poles,” said Linda Spilker, the Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Spectacular images like these highlight that Cassini has given us the gift of knowledge, which we have been so excited to share with everyone.”

Read more about the images above and see even more on the CICLOPS  Imaging Team website, and see the NASA press release here.

Thanks to Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader, for the heads-up on these gifs — er, gifts!

Enceladus, Afterburners Still Firing

This view of Saturn's moon Enceladus and its prominent plumes was taken by the Cassini spacecraft on April 2, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

We can never get enough of seeing those intriguing jets and plumes from Saturn’s moon Enceladus, especially this great view from the Cassini spacecraft where the plumes are back-it from the Sun while the moon’s surface is lit with reflected light from Saturn. And as you can see, those jets are still firing. There are close to 100 geyser jets of varying sizes near Enceladus’s south pole spraying water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds out into space. If you look closely, you’ll see the entire plume is as large as the moon itself.

Can we please send another spacecraft just to study this fascinating moon?

The image was taken in blue light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on April 2, 2013, when Cassini was about 517,000 miles (832,000 kilometers) from Enceladus.

See more details at the Cassini website.

Geysers on Enceladus are Powered in Part by Saturn’s Gravity

Dramatic plumes, both large and small, spray water ice out from many locations along the famed "tiger stripes" near the south pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI.

The geyser jets of Enceladus don’t shoot out in a continuous stream, but are more like an adjustable garden hose nozzle, says Cassini scientist Matt Hedman, author of a new paper about the inner workings of this fascinating tiger-striped moon. Observations from Cassini has found that the bright plume emanating from Enceladus’ south pole varies predictably. The fluctuating factor appears to be how far or close Enceladus is to its home planet, Saturn.

Scientists have hypothesized that the intensity of the jets likely varied over time, but until now had not been able to show they changed in a recognizable pattern. Hedman and colleagues were able to see the changes by examining infrared data of the plume as a whole, obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS), and looking at data gathered since 2004 when Cassini entered Saturn’s orbit. In 2005, the jets that form the plumes were discovered.

“The way the jets react so responsively to changing stresses on Enceladus suggests they have their origins in a large body of liquid water,” said Christophe Sotin, a co-author and Cassini team member. “Liquid water was key to the development of life on Earth, so these discoveries whet the appetite to know whether life exists everywhere water is present.”

This set of images from NASA's Cassini mission shows how the gravitational pull of Saturn affects the amount of spray coming from jets at the active moon Enceladus. Enceladus has the most spray when it is farthest away from Saturn in its orbit (inset image on the left) and the least spray when it is closest to Saturn (inset image on the right). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Cornell/SSI.
This set of images from NASA’s Cassini mission shows how the gravitational pull of Saturn affects the amount of spray coming from jets at the active moon Enceladus. Enceladus has the most spray when it is farthest away from Saturn in its orbit (inset image on the left) and the least spray when it is closest to Saturn (inset image on the right). Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Cornell/SSI.

The scientists say this new finding adds to evidence that a liquid water reservoir or ocean lurks under the icy surface of the moon. This is the first clear observation the bright plume emanating from Enceladus’ south pole varies predictably. The findings were published in a scientific paper in this week’s edition of Nature.

The VIMS instrument, which enables the analysis of a wide range of data including the hydrocarbon composition of the surface of another Saturnian moon, Titan, and the seismological signs of Saturn’s vibrations in its rings, collected more than 200 images of the Enceladus plume from 2005 to 2012.

These data show the plume was dimmest when the moon was at the closest point in its orbit to Saturn. The plume gradually brightened until Enceladus was at the most distant point, where it was three to four times brighter than the dimmest detection. This is comparable to moving from a dim hallway into a brightly lit office.

Adding the brightness data to previous models of how Saturn squeezes Enceladus, the scientists deduced the stronger gravitational squeeze near the planet reduces the opening of the tiger stripes and the amount of material spraying out. They think the relaxing of Saturn’s gravity farther away from planet allows the tiger stripes to be more open and for the spray to escape in larger quantities.

“Cassini’s time at Saturn has shown us how active and kaleidoscopic this planet, its rings and its moons are,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. “We’ve come a long way from the placid-looking Saturn that Galileo first spied through his telescope. We hope to learn more about the forces at work here as a microcosm for how our Solar System formed.”

Enceladus has likely been subject to other gravitational forces over time as well. Previous studies have shown that over hundreds of millions of years, an existing gravitational interaction between Enceladus and another moon, Dione, has caused the orbit of Enceladus to grow increasingly more elongated, or eccentric.

In turn, this produced much more tidal stress in the past and scientists think that contributed to the wide-scale fracturing and friction within Enceladus’ icy crust. The friction leads to melting of internal ice and produces an ocean and eruptions of water and organics on the surface.

Source: NASA

An Awesome Look at Enceladus, the Jet-Powered Moon

Plumes from Enceladus' geysers are illuminated by reflected light from Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech, Space Science Institute.

According to planetary scientist and Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco, about 98 geyser jets of all sizes near Enceladus’s south pole are spraying water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds out into space. The spray from those geysers are evident in this new image from Cassini, showing a big, beautiful plume, illuminated by light reflected off of Saturn. Look closely to see that the plume is as large as the moon itself.

Cassini first discovered the jets of water ice particles in 2005, and since then scientists have been trying to learn more about how they behave, what they are made of and – most importantly – where they are coming from. The working theory is that Enceladus has a liquid subsurface ocean, and pressure from the rock and ice layers above combined with heat from within force the water up through surface cracks near the moon’s south pole. When this water reaches the surface it instantly freezes, sending plumes of ice particles hundreds of miles into space.

Read more: Enceladus’ Jets Reach All the Way to its Sea

A patchwork network of frozen ridges and troughs cover the face of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/ESA, image processed by amateur astronomer Gordan Ugarkovi?.
A patchwork network of frozen ridges and troughs cover the face of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/ESA, image processed by amateur astronomer Gordan Ugarkovic.

Cassini has flown through the spray several times now, and instruments have detected that aside from water and organic material, there is salt in the icy particles. The salinity is the same as that of Earth’s oceans.

Enceladus is just 504 kilometers (313 miles) across, but it potentially could be one of the best spots in the solar system for finding life.

The top image was taken on January 18, 2013. This view looks toward the Saturn-facing side of Enceladus, and was taken when Cassini was approximately 483,000 miles (777,000 kilometers) from Enceladus. Image scale is 3 miles (5 kilometers) per pixel.

The second, face-on, color view of Enceladus was taken by the Cassini spacecraft on January 31 2011, from a distance of 81,000 km, and processed by amateur astronomer Gordan Ugarkovic.


The Return of Saturn: A Guide to the 2013 Opposition

A fine recent view of Saturn as captured by Daniel Robb. (Credit & Copyright: Daniel Robb/Universe Today flickr community. All rights reserved).

A star party favorite is about to return to evening skies.

The planet Saturn can now be spied low to the southeast for northern hemisphere observers (to the northeast for folks in the southern) rising about 1-2 hours after local sunset this early April. That gap will continue to close until Saturn is opposite to the Sun in the sky later this month and rises as the Sun sets.

Opposition occurs on April 28th at 8:00 UT/4:00AM EDT. Saturn will shine at magnitude +0.1 and appear 18.8” in diameter excluding the rings, which give it a total angular diameter of 43”.

Saturn has just passed into the faint constellation Libra for 2013, although its springtime retrograde loop will bring it back into Virgo briefly. Both the 2013 and 2014 opposition will occur in Libra. Saturn will also pass 26’ from +4.2 Kappa Virginis on July 3rd as it moves back into Virgo while in retrograde before resuming direct motion back into Libra.

Saturn currently lies about 15° to the lower left of the +1.04 magnitude star Spica, also known as Alpha Virginis. Remember the handy saying to “Spike to Spica” from the handle of the Big Dipper asterism to locate the region. Another handy finder tip; stars twinkle, planet generally don’t. That is, unless your skies are extremely turbulent!

With an orbital period 29.46 years, Saturn moves slowly eastward year to year, taking 2-3 years to cross through each constellation along the ecliptic.

Oppositions are roughly 378 days apart and thus move forward on our calendar by about two weeks a year. Successive oppositions also move about 13° eastward per year.

Saturn as imaged by the author on June 11th, 2012.
Saturn as imaged by the author on June 11th, 2012.

Oppositions of the ringed planet are also currently becoming successively favorable for southern observers over the coming years. Saturn crossed into the southern celestial hemisphere some years back, and will be at its southernmost in 2018.

Saturn won’t pass north of the celestial equator again until early 2026. Saturn is 15 million kilometres farther from us than opposition last year as its moving toward aphelion in 2018.

Saturn will reach eastern quadrature this summer on July 28th and stand its highest south at sunset northern hemisphere observers. South of the equator, it will pass directly overhead or transit to the north. Saturn will be with us for most of the remainder of 2013 in evening skies until reaching solar conjunction on November 6th.

Looking at Saturn with binoculars, you’ll immediately note that something is amiss.

You’re getting a view similar to that of Galileo, who sketched Saturn as a sort of “double handled cup.” In fact, it wasn’t until 1655 that Christian Huygens correctly hypothesized that the rings of Saturn are a flat disk that is not physically in contact with the planet.

Huygens also discovered the large moon Titan. Shining at magnitude +8.5 and taking 16 days to orbit Saturn, Titan is the second largest moon in our solar system after Ganymede. Titan would easily be a planet in its own right if it orbited the Sun. Titan is easily picked out observing Saturn at low power through a telescope.

Saturn's system of moons visible through a small telescope. orientation is for May 9th, 2013. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
Saturn’s system of moons visible through a small telescope. orientation is for May 9th, 2013. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

Observing Saturn at slightly higher magnification, five moons interior to Titan become apparent. From outside in, they are Rhea, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas. Exterior to Titan is the curious moon of Iapetus. Taking 79 days to complete one orbit of Saturn, Iapetus varies in brightness from magnitude +11.9 to +10.2, or a factor of over 5 times. Arthur C. Clarke placed the final monolith in the book adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey on Iapetus for this reason. Close-ups from the Cassini spacecraft reveal a two-faced world covered with a dark leading hemisphere and a bright trailing side, but alas, no alien artifacts.

But the centerpiece of observing Saturn through a telescope is its brilliant and complex system of rings. The A, B, and C rings are easily apparent through a backyard telescope, as is the large spacing known as the Cassini Gap.

The rings are also currently tilted in respect to our Earthly vantage point. The rings were edge-on in 2009 and vanish when this occurs every 15-16 years.

This year, we see the rings of Saturn at a respectable 19 ° opening and widening. The rings will appear at their widest at over 25° in 2017 and then become edge-on again in 2025.

The average tilt of Saturn's ring system as seen from Earth spanning 2008-2026. (Graph created by author).
The average tilt (in degrees) of Saturn’s ring system as seen from Earth spanning 2008-2026. (Graph created by author).

The ring system of Saturn adds 0.7 magnitudes of overall brightness to the planet at opposition this year.

Another interesting optical phenomenon to watch for in the days leading up to opposition is known as the “opposition surge” in brightness, or the Seeliger effect.  This is a retro-reflector effect familiar to many as high-beam headlights strike a highway sign. Think of the millions of particles making up Saturn’s rings as tiny little “retro-reflectors” focusing sunlight back directly along our line of sight. The opposition surge has been noted for other planets, but it’s most striking for Saturn when its rings are at their widest.

The disk of Saturn will cast a shadow straight back onto the rings around opposition and thus vanish from our view. The shadow across the back of the rings will then become more prominent over subsequent months, reaching its maximum angle at quadrature this northern hemisphere summer and then beginning to slowly slide back behind the planet again. A true challenge is to glimpse the disk of the through the Cassini gap in the rings… you’ll need clear steady skies and high magnification for this one!

It’s also interesting to note a very shallow partial lunar eclipse occurs with Saturn nearby just three days prior to opposition on April 25th. Saturn will appear 4° north of the Moon and it may be just possible to image both in the same frame.

The location of Saturn and the Full Moon during the April 25th partial eclipse. (Created by the author using Starry Night).
The location of Saturn and the Full Moon during the April 25th partial eclipse. (Created by the author using Starry Night).

Saturn takes about 30 years to make its way around the zodiac. I remember just beginning to observe Saturn will my new 60mm Jason refractor as a teenager in 1983 as it crossed the constellation Virgo.Hey, I’ve been into astronomy for over one “Saturnian year” now… where will the next 30 years find us?

Enceladus’ Jets Reach All the Way to its Sea

Saturn's moon Enceladus sprays its salty sea out into space (NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major)

Thanks to the Cassini mission we’ve known about the jets of icy brine spraying from the south pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus for about 8 years now, but this week it was revealed at the 44th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference outside Houston, Texas that Enceladus’ jets very likely reach all the way down to the sea — a salty subsurface sea of liquid water that’s thought to lie beneath nearly 10 kilometers of ice.

Enceladus’ jets were first observed by the Cassini spacecraft in 2005. The jets constantly spray fine particles of ice into space which enter orbit around Saturn, creating the hazy, diffuse E ring in which Enceladus resides.

Emanating from deep fissures nicknamed “tiger stripes” that gouge the 512-km (318-mile) -wide moon’s south pole the icy jets — and the stripes — have been repeatedly investigated by Cassini, which has discovered that not only do the ice particles contain salts and organic compounds but also that the stripes are surprisingly warm, measuring at 180 Kelvin (minus 135 degrees Fahrenheit) — over twice as warm as most other regions of the moon.

Read more: Enceladus’ Salty Surprise

Where the jets are getting their supply of liquid water has been a question scientists have puzzled over for years. Is friction caused by tidal stresses heating the insides of the stripes, which melts the ice and shoots it upwards? Or do the fissures actually extend all the way down through Enceladus’ crust to a subsurface ocean of liquid water, and through tidal pressure pull vapor and ice up to the surface?

"Baghdad Sulcus," one of many tiger stripe fissures on Enceladus (NASA/JPL/SSI)
“Baghdad Sulcus,” one of many tiger stripe fissures on Enceladus (NASA/JPL/SSI)

Researchers are now confident that the latter is the case.

In a presentation at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference titled “How the Jets, Heat and Tidal Stresses across the South Polar Terrain of Enceladus Are Related” (see the PDF here) Cassini scientists note that the amount of heating due to tidal stress seen along Enceladus’ tiger stripes isn’t nearly enough to cause the full spectrum of heating observed, and the “hot spots” that have been seen don’t correlate with the type of heating caused by shear friction.

Instead, the researchers believe that heat energy is being carried upwards along with the pressurized water vapor from the subsurface sea, warming the areas around individual vents as well as serving to keep their channels open.

With 98 individual jets observed so far on Enceladus’ south polar terrain and surface heating corresponding to each one, this scenario, for lack of a better term… seems legit.

What this means is that not only does a moon of Saturn have a considerable subsurface ocean of liquid water with a heat source and Earthlike salinity (and also a bit of fizz) but also that it’s spraying that ocean, that potentially habitable environment, out into local space where it can be studied relatively easily — making Enceladus a very intriguing target for future exploration.

“To touch the jets of Enceladus is to touch the most accessible salty, organic-rich, extraterrestrial body of water and, hence, habitable zone, in our solar system.”

– Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco et al.

Enceladus is actively spraying its habitable zone out into space (NASA/JPL/SSI)
Enceladus is actively spraying its habitable zone out into space (NASA/JPL/SSI)

Research notes via C. Porco, D. DiNino, F. Nimmo, CICLOPS, Space Science Institute at Boulder, CO, and Earth and Planetary Sciences at UC Santa Cruz, CA.

Top image: color-composite of Enceladus made from raw Cassini images acquired in 2010. The moon is lit by reflected light from Saturn while the jets are backlit by the Sun. 

In an Isolated, Ice-Covered Antarctic Lake Far Below Freezing, Life is Found

Lake Vida lies within one of Antarctica’s cold, arid McMurdo Dry Valleys (Photo: Desert Research Institute)

Even inside an almost completely frozen lake within Antarctica’s inland dry valleys, in dark, salt-laden and sub-freezing water full of nitrous oxide, life thrives… offering a clue at what might one day be found in similar environments elsewhere in the Solar System.

Researchers from NASA, the Desert Research Institute in Nevada, the University of Illinois at Chicago and nine other institutions have discovered colonies of bacteria living in one of the most isolated places on Earth: Antarctica’s Lake Vida, located in Victoria Valley — one of the southern continent’s incredibly arid McMurdo Dry Valleys.

These organisms seem to be thriving despite the harsh conditions. Covered by 20 meters (65 feet) of ice, the water in  Lake Vida is six times saltier than seawater and contains the highest levels of nitrous oxide ever found in a natural body of water. Sunlight doesn’t penetrate very far below the frozen surface, and due to the hypersaline conditions and pressure of the ice water temperatures can plunge to a frigid -13.5 ºC (8 ºF).

Yet even within such a seemingly inhospitable environment Lake Vida is host to a “surprisingly diverse and abundant assemblage of bacteria” existing within water channels branching through the ice, separated from the sun’s energy and isolated from exterior influences for an estimated 3,000 years.

Originally thought to be frozen solid, ground penetrating radar surveys in 1995 revealed a very salty liquid layer (a brine) underlying the lake’s year-round 20-meter-thick ice cover.

“This study provides a window into one of the most unique ecosystems on Earth,” said Dr. Alison Murray, one of the lead authors of the team’s paper, a molecular microbial ecologist and polar researcher and a member of 14 expeditions to the Southern Ocean and Antarctic continent. “Our knowledge of geochemical and microbial processes in lightless icy environments, especially at subzero temperatures, has been mostly unknown up until now. This work expands our understanding of the types of life that can survive in these isolated, cryoecosystems and how different strategies may be used to exist in such challenging environments.”

Sterile environments had to be set up within tents on Lake Vida’s surface so the researchers could be sure that the core samples they were drilling were pristine, and weren’t being contaminated with any introduced organisms.

According to a NASA press release, “geochemical analyses suggest chemical reactions between the brine and the underlying iron-rich sediments generate nitrous oxide and molecular hydrogen. The latter, in part, may provide the energy needed to support the brine’s diverse microbial life.”

“This system is probably the best analog we have for possible ecosystems in the subsurface waters of Saturn’s moon Enceladus and Jupiter’s moon Europa.”

– Chris McKay, co-author, NASA’s Ames Research Center

What’s particularly exciting is the similarity between conditions found in ice-covered Antarctic lakes and those that could be found on other worlds in our Solar System. If life could survive in Lake Vida, as harsh and isolated as it is, could it also be found beneath the icy surface of Europa, or within the (hypothesized) subsurface oceans of Enceladus? And what about the ice caps of Mars? Might there be similar channels of super-salty liquid water running through Mars’ ice, with microbes eking out an existence on iron sediments?

“It’s plausible that a life-supporting energy source exists solely from the chemical reaction between anoxic salt water and the rock,” explained Dr. Christian Fritsen, a systems microbial ecologist and Research Professor in DRI’s Division of Earth and Ecosystem Sciences and co-author of the study.

“If that’s the case,” Murray added, “this gives us an entirely new framework for thinking of how life can be supported in cryoecosystems on earth and in other icy worlds of the universe.”

Read more: Europa’s Hidden Great Lakes May Harbor Life

More research is planned to study the chemical interactions between the sediment and the brine as well as the genetic makeup of the microbial communities themselves.

The research was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS). Read more on the DRI press release here, and watch a video below showing highlights from the field research.

Funding for the research was supported jointly by NSF and NASA. Images courtesy the Desert Research Institute. Dry valley image credit: NASA/Landsat. Europa image: NASA/Ted Stryk.)

Spacecraft Capture Solar Eclipse’s Earthly Effect

Series of images from the Japanese MTSAT satellite showing a shadow on Earth during the total solar eclipse on November 13/14. 2012. Credit: JAXA

A Japanese meteorology satellite captured the moving shadow from the total solar eclipse this week, and this animated series of images shows the shadow moving east-southeast across northeastern Australia and into the waters of the South Pacific Ocean. The images were taken by the MTSAT-1R in the 0.7 micrometer visible channel, as the Moon moved between the Sun and the Earth, blocking the Sun’s light. (Click on the image above if it is not animating in your browser).

The solar eclipse shadow was also visible from an image taken by the Korean COMS-1 satellite, and one of the GOES satellites operated by NASA and NOAA, seen below.

Image taken from the Korean COMS-1 satellite during the total solar eclipse on November 13/14. 2012.

Starting just after dawn in Australia, the eclipse cast a 150-kilometer (95-mile) shadow in Australia’s Northern Territory, crossed the northeast tip of the country and moved out across the South Pacific. As this was a total solar eclipse, the Moon completely covered the Sun, with just the Sun’s corona peeking out around the rim; totality lasted about 2 minutes. A partial eclipse was visible from east Indonesia, the eastern half of Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and southern parts of Chile and Argentina.

Image from the GOES-15 satellite showing the eclipse’s shadow on Earth. Credit: NASA/NOAA

See our gallery of images from people on the ground in Australia during the eclipse.

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madinson/CIMSS

Enceladus On Display In Newest Images From Cassini

Enceladus' southern ice geysers are brilliant in backlit sunlight (NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major)


The latest images are in from Saturn’s very own personal paparazzi, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, fresh from its early morning flyby of the ice-spewing moon Enceladus. And, being its last closeup for the next three years, the little moon didn’t disappoint!

The image above is a composite I made from two raw images (this one and this one) assembled to show Enceladus in its crescent-lit entirety with jets in full force. The images were rotated to orient the moon’s southern pole — where the jets originate — toward the bottom.

Cassini was between 72,090 miles (116,000 km) and 90,000 miles (140,000 km) from Enceladus when these images were acquired.

This morning’s E-19 flyby completed a trio of recent close passes by Cassini of the 318-mile (511-km) -wide moon, bringing the spacecraft as low as 46 miles (74 km) above its frozen surface. The goal of the maneuver was to gather data about Enceladus’ internal mass — particularly in the region around its southern pole, where a reservoir of liquid water is thought to reside — and also to look for “hot spots” on its surface that would give more information about its overall energy distribution.

Cassini had previously discovered that Enceladus radiates a surprising amount of heat from its surface, mostly along the “tiger stripe” features — long, deep furrows (sulcae) that gouge its southern hemisphere, they are the source of the water-ice geysers.

Cassini also used the flyby opportunity to study Enceladus’ gravitational field.

By imaging the moon with backlit lighting from the Sun the highly-reflective ice particles in the jets become visible. More direct lighting reduces the jets’ visibility in images, which must be exposed for the natural light of the scene or risk “blowing out” due to Enceladus’ natural high reflectivity.

The images below are raw spacecraft downloads right from the Cassini’s imaging headquarters in Boulder, CO.

Enceladus' geysers in action on May 2, 2012. (NASA/JPL/SSI)
Enceladus sprays ice into the hazy E ring, which orbits Saturn (NASA/JPL/SSI)

Cassini also swung closely by Dione during this morning’s flyby but the images from that encounter aren’t available yet. Stay tuned to Universe Today for more postcards from Saturn!

As always, you can follow along with the ongoing Cassini mission on JPL’s dedicated site here, as well as on the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) site.

Cassini’s Last Flyby of Enceladus Until 2015

Below a darkened Enceladus, a plume of water ice is backlit in this view. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute


On May 2, the Cassini spacecraft will be swooping past the moon we all love to love — Enceladus — and coming within 74 kilometers (46 miles) of its fractured, jet-spewing surface. The images should be spectacular, and the science should be just as enticing. With Cassini’s radio science experiment, scientists hope to learn more about how mass is distributed under Enceladus’ south polar region, the very interesting place which features jets of water ice, water vapor and organic compounds spraying out of long fractures.

This is the last close flyby of Enceladus until 2015, so we have to take advantage of the views!

Cassini scientists will be looking specifically for a concentration of mass in that region could indicate subsurface liquid water or an intrusion of warmer-than-average ice that might explain the unusual plume activity. They’ll also be observing the plumes and looking for hot spots to try and understand the global energy balance of Enceladus.

They also hope to learn more about the moon’s internal structure by measuring variations in the gravitational pull of Enceladus against the steady radio link to NASA’s Deep Space Network on Earth.

Additionally, Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer instrument will be observing the side of Enceladus that always faces away from Saturn to monitor for hot spots. The imaging camera team also plans to take images of the plume to look for variability in the jets.

Cassini will also be flying by Dione at a distance of about 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles), enabling the imaging cameras to create several mosaic images of the icy moon, and the composite infrared spectrometer to monitor heat emission.

We’ll try to post images and info as they become available!