Back-in-Action Cassini Doesn’t Disappoint


Here are a few raw images from the Cassini spacecraft’s most recent flyby of Enceladus. The probe seems to be in good health following several weeks in safe mode, after a bit flipped in the command and data subsystem computer. This prevented the spacecraft from registering and following instructions. But she appears to be humming along just fine now, and snapped this great picture of Enceladus and Dione yesterday (have to quote @lukedones on Twitter: “Dione going in the corner pocket!”) Cassini focused on the Enceladus during a close flyby on November 30, so see more below, including a wonderful shot of a veritable curtain of geyser “spray.”

A good look at the spray from the fissures on Enceladus. NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Enceladus, backdropped by Saturn's rings. Credit: NASA/JPL/ Space Science Institute.
Closeup of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
An even closer closeup of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

See more raw images at the Cassini website, or the CICLOPS imaging website.

Enceladus Fissures Keep Getting Warmer and More Complex


As Cassini scientists await the data from today’s flyby of Enceladus, images and data from August of this year have provided more insight into the active fissures on the icy moon’s south polar region. These geyser-spewing fractures are warmer and more complicated than previously thought.

“The exquisite resolution obtained on one segment of the Damascus fracture — one of the most active regions within the south polar terrain — has revealed a surface temperature reaching a staggering 190 Kelvin, or 120 degrees below zero Fahrenheit,” said Cassini imaging team lead Carolyn Porco, in an email announcing the new images. “Far from the fractures, the temperature of the south polar terrain dips as low as 52 Kelvin, or 365 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.”

Porco said that what this means is that a phenomenal amount of heat is emerging from the fractures which are “undoubtedly the result of the tidal flexing of Enceladus brought about by its orbital resonance with Dione. However, details of this heating process are still unclear and are being studied at this very moment.”

This image shows a high-resolution heat intensity map of part of the south polar region of Saturn's moon Enceladus, made from data obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC/SWRI/SSI

The flyby on August 13, 2010 provided infrared spectroscopy along with high resolution images which have enabled scientists to construct the highest-resolution heat intensity maps yet of the hottest part of a region of long fissures spraying water vapor and icy particles from Enceladus. These fissures — known as “tiger stripes,” appear to be laid on in a complex web, and could be connected underground.

Additional high-resolution spectrometer maps of one end of the tiger stripes Alexandria Sulcus and Cairo Sulcus reveal never-before-seen warm fractures that branch off like split ends from the main tiger stripe trenches. They also show an intriguing warm spot isolated from other active surface fissures.

“The ends of the tiger stripes may be the places where the activity is just getting started, or is winding down, so the complex patterns of heat we see there may give us clues to the life cycle of tiger stripes,” said John Spencer, a Cassini team scientist based at Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo.

The temperature measured in this flyby appears slightly higher than previously measured temperatures at Damascus, which were around 170 Kelvin (minus 150 degrees Fahrenheit).

Spencer said he isn’t sure if this tiger stripe is just more active than it was the last time Cassini’s spectrometer scanned it, in 2008, or if the hottest part of the tiger stripe is so narrow that previous scans averaged its temperature out over a larger area. In any case, the new scan had such good resolution, showing details as small as 800 meters (2,600 feet), that scientists could see for the first time warm material flanking the central trench of Damascus, cooling off quickly away from the trench. The Damascus thermal scan also shows large variations in heat output within a few kilometers along the length of the fracture. This unprecedented resolution will help scientists understand how the tiger stripes deliver heat to the surface of Enceladus.

Cassini acquired the thermal map of Damascus simultaneously with a visible-light image where the tiger stripe is lit by sunlight reflecting off Saturn. The visible-light and thermal data were merged to help scientists understand the relationships between physical heat processes and surface geology.

“Our high-resolution images show that this section of Damascus Sulcus is among the most structurally complex and tectonically dynamic of the tiger stripes,” said imaging science team associate Paul Helfenstein of Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. Some details in the appearance of the landforms, such as a peculiar pattern of curving striations along the flanks of Damascus, had not previously been noticed in ordinary sunlit images.

ets of water ice particles spew from Saturn's moon Enceladus in this image obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Aug. 13, 2010. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

The Aug. 13 flyby of Enceladus is the last one dedicated to thermal mapping until 2015 and also gave Cassini its last look at any part of the active south polar region in sunlight.

The flyby today will aid in understanding the interior of the moon through gravity measurements.

To see more images from the August flyby, see Cassini website, and the CICLOPS imaging site.

Source: JPL, Porco email

Upcoming Flybys Could Provide Clues to Interior of Enceladus


What is going on inside Saturn’s moon Enceladus and what powers the icy geysers and jets? A pair of upcoming flybys by the Cassini spacecraft could help answer those questions. Radio instruments on board will measure the gravity field of Enceladus and focus particularly on the very intriguing south polar hot spot.

Of course, the success of these flybys hinges on the Cassini mission controllers being able to wake up the dormant spacecraft which has been in safe mode since November 2. Teams will attempt to get Cassini up and running again tomorrow, November 24, and they don’t anticipate any problems.

Cassini went into the protective standby mode and the likely cause of the problem was a faulty program code line, or a flipped bit in the spacecraft’s command and data system computer.

The upcoming flybys of Enceladus will put Cassini very close – about 48 kilometers (30 miles) above the surface. The first will take place on November 30. Pairing this flyby with one on April 28, should provide scientists enough information to determine the nature of the interior right under the hot spot. The next flyby on December 21, Cassini will make 50-kilometer pass over the north pole of Enceladus. The fields and particles instruments will be trying to “sniff” anything coming from the moon.

There will be two three-hour “wing” observations before and after closest-approach (from five to eight hours from closest approach on either side), and then three more hours centered directly around closest approach. The Cassini team is throwing almost the entire gamut of instruments into the flyby program, between radio science (RSS) observations, the imaging science system (ISS) and composite infrared spectrometer (CIRS) which will observe this moon on the inbound leg, and CIRS and the visible and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) which will take data on the outbound leg, with other optical remote sensing and fields, particles and waves instruments also taking data.

Source: Cassini

Cassini Instruments Offline Until Nov. 24

Cassini-Huygens Mission


NASA announced that the Cassini spacecraft in orbit around Saturn will have its suite of scientific cameras offline until at least Nov. 24. Cassini is currently in safe mode due to a malfunction in the spacecraft’s computer. This shut down all non-essential systems to prevent any further damage happening to the spacecraft. This means that all scientific efforts on the mission have been suspended until the problem can be resolved.

Although these seem like severe issues, mission managers are relatively sure that they will have no serious long-term effects on the overall mission. Cassini entered safe mode around 4 p.m. PDT (7 p.m. EDT) on Tuesday, Nov. 2. Managers want to review what took place onboard Cassini, correct what they can and ensure that this doesn’t happen again. Programmers have already ascertained that the likely cause of the problem was a faulty program code line that made its way back to Cassini.

Cassini captured this startling image of Saturn's moon Hyperion. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

Ordinarily when faulty code is sent from Earth to Saturn, Cassini would reject any coding that is deemed ‘bad.’ However, this did not happen in this case, causing the problem. Controllers are not totally convinced that a solar fare didn’t corrupt the code on its way out to the gas giant.

“The spacecraft responded exactly as it should have, and I fully expect that we will get Cassini back up and running with no problems,” said Bob Mitchell, Cassini’s program manager at JPL. “Over the more than six years we have been at Saturn, this is only the second safing event. So considering the complexity of demands we have made on Cassini, the spacecraft has performed exceptionally well for us.”

Cassini launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station back in 1997 atop a Titan rocket. In the thirteen years since that time it has entered ‘safe’ mode a total of six times.

Cassini discovered that Saturn's moon Enceladus is 'jet-powered' in the form of geysers erupting from the moon's surface into space. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL

The largest loss for Cassini’s planners is this will cost them a flyby of Titan, one of Saturn’s moons and the only moon in the solar system with an appreciable atmosphere. All is not lost however, as there are still some 53 possible flybys of the moon currently scheduled. The mission is currently planned to last until 2017.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative program managed between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) manages the Cassini program for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate located in Washington, D.C.

Warm ‘Perrier’ Ocean Could be Powering Enceladus’ Geysers


Bottled water companies take note: an exotic form of warm, bubbly mineral water could be what feeds the mysterious jets spraying from the south polar region of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. A new model of the sub-surface ocean explains how the small moon could be so cryo-volcanically active. The Cassini spacecraft has detected sodium and potassium salts, as well as carbonates in the water vapor plumes spewing from the moon, which indicates a liquid, bubbly subsurface ocean. “There is a plume chamber, where some of the bubbles can pop the cap of the thin ice crust, and through that process is how the plumes get sprayed out,” said Dennis Matson, a NASA planetary scientist from JPL, speaking at a press briefing at the American Astronomical Society’s Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Pasadena, California.

The schematic image (top) is laid on top of a picture of the Enceladus jets taken by Cassini’s imaging cameras in November 2009. It shows bubbles in subsurface seawater traveling through a passage in the ice crust to feed a geyser. The water flows back down to the subsurface ocean through cracks in the ice.

Matson explained the process:

“What we think is going on is that Enceladus has a subsurface ocean where water, heat and chemicals are stored before they erupt,” he said. There is an ice crust, many tens of kilometers thick. The ocean is gas rich, — and previous researchers dubbed such an ocean as a ‘Perrier’ ocean -– which basically “pops the cap” of the ice crust.

“What is happening is that water comes up and pressure is released,” said Matson. “Gases and water come out and the bubbles come near the surface and supply materials to the plumes. Water also transfers laterally, to a great extent, from the point of the plumes. This transfers heat to the surface, by analogy, like the radiator on your car. You have water coming out, which transfers heat to the thin ice layer, and then the heat is radiated to space. Cooled water goes down through cracks in the ice where it gets ready for another trip to the surface. “

This image compares heat flow at Earth and Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

Cassini also found an impressive amount of heat flow over a small area coming from Enceladus’ interior. About four years ago, Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer instrument detected a heat flow in the south polar region of at least 6 gigawatts, the equivalent of at least a dozen electric power plants. This is at least three times as much heat as an average region of Earth of similar area would produce, despite Enceladus’ small size.

“To put the heat flow in perspective,” said Matson, “the heat flow for the Earth has 87 of these units, but on the south pole of Enceladus, 250 units. At Yellowstone, there are 2500 units, but at one of the tiger stripe hots spots on Enceladus, we find heat flow as big as 13,000 units.”

The heat is, of course, relative to the surrounding environment. The subsurface bubbly water is probably just below freezing, which is 273 degrees Kelvin or 32 degrees Farenheit, whereas the surface is a frigid 80 degrees Kelvin or -316 degrees Farenheit. However, Matson said they have also seen surface temperatures as high as 180 K, when only 70 K was expected at the south pole.

Cassini imaging scientists used views like this one to help them identify the source locations for individual jets spurting ice particles, water vapor and trace organic compounds from the surface of Saturn's moon Enceladus. Credit: NASA

Finding the sodium in the icy grains in the plume is huge piece of evidence pointing to a subsurface ocean. Previously, Earth-based observations did not detect salts in the plume, and so scientists didn’t think a liquid ocean was possible. But infrared observations with an instrument on Cassini found the particles in the plumes include water ice, and substantial amounts of sodium and potassium salts and carbonates, as well as organics.

“The sodium was hiding in the little grains,” Matson said. “In the case of Enceladus, sodium isn’t in the vapor, it’s in the solid particles. This was something entirely new that had not been seen elsewhere.”

Also new is that the heat from Enceladus appears to be originating in the ocean, and also the realization there is a circulation system inside the moon, where there is process of pumping the water to the surface.

“This process we’ve outlined, where getting the water up to the surface, you have the heat, the water, and sodium and potassium all from one source that brings that up to the surface. So you have one process that delivers all those things, whereas before we had separate processes to try and explain each of them.”

Source: DPS press briefing

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

Enceladus is Blowing Bubbles


Observations from two instruments on the Cassini spacecraft shows the moon Enceladus leaves a complex pattern of ripples and bubbles in its wake as it orbit Saturn. The ringed planet’s magnetosphere is filled with electrically charged particles (plasma) originating from both the planet and its moons, and as Enceladus plows through the plasma “spiky” features form that represent bubbles of low energy particles, said Sheila Kanani who led a team of scientists from University College, London who discovered the phenomenon.

Cassini has made nine flybys of the icy, geyser-filled moon Enceladus (Saturn’s sixth-largest moon) since 2005. The closest of these have taken the spacecraft’s suite of instruments just 25 km from Enceladus’s surface, which scientists believe conceals a saline ocean. Heated vents at the south pole of the moon release a plume of material, consisting mainly of icy grains and water vapour, into space.

Measurements from the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer (CAPS) and the Magnetospheric IMaging Instrument (MIMI) show that both the moon and its plume are continuously soaking up the plasma, which rushes past at around 30 kilometers per second, leaving a cavity downstream. In addition, the most energetic particles which zoom up and down Saturn’s magnetic field lines are swept up, leaving a much larger void in the high energy plasma. Material from Enceladus, both dust and gas, is also being charged and forming new plasma.

The mysterious spiky features in the CAPS data shows a complex picture of readjustment downstream from Enceladus.

“Eventually the plasma closes the gap downstream from Enceladus but our observations show that this isn’t happening in a smooth, orderly fashion. We are seeing spiky features in the plasma that last between a few tens of seconds and a minute or two. We think that these might represent bubbles of low energy particles formed as the plasma fills the gap from different directions,” said Kanani. Since Cassini arrived at Saturn, it has been building up a picture of the vital and unexpected role that Enceladus plays in Saturn’s magnetosphere.

“Enceladus is the source of most of the plasma in Saturn’s magnetosphere, with ionised water and oxygen originating from the vents forming a big torus of plasma that surrounds Saturn. We may see these spiky features in the wake of Saturn’s other moons as they interact with the plasma but, to date, we have only studied Enceladus in sufficient detail,” said Kanani.

She presented her results at the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting in Glasgow, Scotland this week.

Source: RAS NAM

More Jaw-Droppers from Cassini

The Cassini mission keeps churning out the hits, and here’s a collection of some of the latest stunning images released by the CICLOPS (Cassini Imaging for Central Operations) team. Above, the small moon Janus is almost hidden between the planet’s rings and the larger moon Rhea. The northern part of Janus can be seen peeking above the rings in this image of a “mutual event” where Janus (179 kilometers, 111 miles across) moved past Rhea (1,528 kilometers, 949 miles across). Mutual event observations such as this one, in which one moon passes close to or in front of another, help scientists refine their understanding of the orbits of Saturn’s moons. Click here to see a movie of the event.

Saturn's potato-shaped moon Prometheus is rendered in three dimensions in this close-up from Cassini. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Grab your 3-D glasses for this one! This 3-D view is a close-up of Saturn’s potato-shaped moon Prometheus, showing the moon’s leading hemisphere. The image was created by combining two different black and white images that were taken from slightly different viewing angles. The images are combined so that the viewer’s left and right eye, respectively and separately, see a left and right image of the black and white stereo pair when viewed through red-blue glasses.

Saturn and Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

At first glance, you might think this scene simply shows a bright chunk of Saturn, along with a crescent of the moon Enceladus at top right. But a closer look at the center of the image reveals a dramatic surprise: plumes of water ice spew out from the famed fractures known as “tiger stripes” near the south pole of the moon. And one other surprise: Although it may appear that Enceladus (504 kilometers, 313 miles across) is in the background here, the moon actually is closer to the spacecraft than Saturn is. This view looks most directly toward the side of Enceladus that faces away from Saturn. North on Enceladus is up and rotated 1 degree to the left.

For more great images, check out the CICLOPS website, or NASA’s Cassini website.