Unprecedented Views of Saturn’s Rings as Cassini Dances Death Spiral

As the Cassini spacecraft moves ever closer to Saturn, new images provide some of the most-detailed views yet of the planet’s spectacular rings. From its “Ring-Grazing” orbit phase, Cassini’s cameras are resolving details in the rings as small as 0.3 miles (550 meters), which is on the scale of Earth’s tallest buildings.

On Twitter, Cassini Imaging Team Lead Carolyn Porco called the images “outrageous, eye-popping” and the “finest Cassini images of Saturn’s rings.”

Project Scientist Linda Spilker said the ridges and furrows in the rings remind her of the grooves in a phonograph record.

These images are giving scientists the chance to see more details about ring features they saw earlier in the mission, such as waves, wakes, and things they call ‘propellers’ and ‘straw.’

This Cassini image features a density wave in Saturn’s A ring (at left) that lies around 134,500 km from Saturn. Density waves are accumulations of particles at certain distances from the planet. This feature is filled with clumpy perturbations, which researchers informally refer to as “straw.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

As of this writing, Cassini just started the 10th orbit of the 20-orbit ring-grazing phase, which has the spacecraft diving past the outer edge of the main ring system. The ring-grazing orbits began last November, and will continue until late April, when Cassini begins its grand finale. During the 22 finale orbits, Cassini will repeatedly plunge through the gap between the rings and Saturn. The first of these plunges is scheduled for April 26.

The spacecraft is actually close enough to the ‘F’ ring that occasionally tenuous particle strike Cassini, said project scientist Linda Spilker, during a Facebook Live event today.

“These are very small and tenuous, only a few microns in size,” Spilker said, “like dust particles you’d see in the sunlight. We can actually ‘hear’ them hitting the spacecraft in our data, but these particles are so small, they won’t hurt Cassini.”

I talked with Spilker about ring particles for my book “Incredible Stories From Space:”

Spilker has envisioned holding a ring particle in her hand. What would it look like?

“We have evidence of the particles that have an icy core covered with fluffy regolith material that is very porous,” she said, “and that means the particle can heat up and cool down very quickly compared to a solid ice cube.”

The straw features are caused by clumping ring particles and the propellers are caused by small, embedded moonlets that creates propeller shaped wakes in the rings.

The wavemaker moon, Daphnis, is featured in this view, taken as NASA’s Cassini spacecraft made one of its ring-grazing passes over the outer edges of Saturn’s rings on Jan. 16, 2017. This is the closest view of the small moon obtained yet. Daphnis is 5 miles or 8 kilometers across. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

This stunning view of the moon Daphnis shows the moon interacting with the ring particles, creating waves in the rings around it.

A close-up of Saturn and its rings. Assembled using raw uncalibrated RGB filtered images taken by the Cassini spacecraft on January 18 2017. Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/image editing by Kevin M. Gill

“These close views represent the opening of an entirely new window onto Saturn’s rings, and over the next few months we look forward to even more exciting data as we train our cameras on other parts of the rings closer to the planet,” said Matthew Tiscareno, a Cassini scientist who studies Saturn’s rings at the SETI Institute, Mountain View, California. Tiscareno planned the new images for the camera team.

Further reading: JPL, CICLOPS

Enceladus, the Jet-Powered Water World

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of seeing pictures of Saturn’s moon Enceladus, with those captivating water jets and plumes at its South Pole. And this new images from the Cassini mission is just stunning – and intriguing. Carolyn Porco, the Cassini imaging team lead described the image on Twitter: “Be moved by crescent Enceladus with its ghostly geysers floating above Saturn’s glowing rings.”

There are over 100 geyser jets of varying sizes near Enceladus’s south pole spraying water vapor, icy particles, and organic compounds out into space. Enticingly, this distant and small moon (313 miles or 504 kilometers across) has a global subsurface ocean of liquid water, as tidal forces from Enceladus’ orbital relationship to Saturn and another moon, Dione heats the interior.

Liquid water and the observation of organic chemicals in the plumes of Enceladus make this moon of high astrobiological interest to scientists. In a 2014 paper by Porco and astrobiologist Chris McKay, the due wrote that Enceladus’ “steady plume derives from a subsurface liquid water reservoir that contains organic carbon, biologically available nitrogen, redox energy sources, and inorganic salts. … No other world has such well-studied indications of habitable conditions.”

While the rings of Saturn are also beautiful, they are they are frozen and geologically dead. “The small ring particles are too tiny to retain internal heat and have no way to get warm,” the Cassini imaging team explained on the CICLOPS website.

This image was taken in July of 2015, and was not part of two close flybys of Enceladus in October of this year. Project scientist Linda Spilker hinted there might be some new discoveries from those flybys (see images here and here), as she said, “Cassini’s stunning images are providing us a quick look at Enceladus from this ultra-close flyby, but some of the most exciting science is yet to come.”

This beautiful view of Enceladus and Saturn’s rings looks toward the unilluminated side of the rings from about 0.3 degrees below the ring plane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on July 29, 2015.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 630,000 miles (1.0 million kilometers) from Enceladus and at a Sun-Enceladus-spacecraft, or phase angle of 155 degrees. Image scale is 4 miles (6 kilometers) per pixel.

See a larger version of this image here from NASA.

Cassini’s View of Another Pale Blue Dot

When you hear the words “pale blue dot” you’re probably reminded of the famous quote by Carl Sagan inspired by an image of Earth as a soberingly tiny speck, as imaged by Voyager 1 on Feb. 14, 1990 from beyond the orbit of Pluto. But there’s another pale blue world in our Solar System: the ice giant Uranus, and its picture was captured much more recently by the Cassini spacecraft from orbit around Saturn on April 11, 2014.

Released today by the Cassini Imaging Team, the image above shows Uranus as a tiny blue orb shining far beyond the bright hazy bands of Saturn’s F ring.

“Do you relish the notion of being a Saturnian, and gazing out from the lofty heights of Saturn at the same planets we see here from the Earth?”
– Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader

Uranus’ coloration is a result of methane high in its frigid atmosphere. According to the description on the CICLOPS site, “methane on Uranus — and its sapphire-colored sibling, Neptune — absorbs red wavelengths of incoming sunlight, but allows blue wavelengths to escape back into space, resulting in the predominantly bluish color seen here.”

This was also the first time Uranus had been imaged by the Cassini spacecraft, which has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004. In fact its ten-year orbital anniversary will come on July 1.

This image adds one more planet to the list of worlds captured on Camera by Cassini, which made headlines last fall when a glorious mosaic was released that featured a backlit Saturn in eclipse surrounded by its luminous rings, the specks of several of its moons, and the distant dots of Venus, Mars, and the Earth and Moon. Made from 141 separate exposures, the mosaic was captured on July 19, 2013 — known by many space aficionados as “the day the Earth smiled” as it was the first time the world’s population was alerted beforehand that its picture would be taken from over 900 million miles away.

Saturn — with its terrestrial spacecraft in tow — was about 28.6 AU away from Uranus when the image was acquired. That’s about  4.28 billion kilometers (2.66 billion miles). From that distance the glow of the 51,118-kilometer (31,763-mile) -wide Uranus is reduced to a mere few pixels (which required digital brightening by about 4.5x, as well.)

Read more on the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) page here and in a news release from NASA’s JPL here.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Source: Carolyn Porco, CICLOPS Director

Video: Carolyn Porco Discusses Her Life at Saturn

Space historian Andrew Chaikin sat down with planetary scientist Carolyn Porco, and she discusses how her career has ended up focusing on the Saturn system. I love how Porco relates how even she has been “blown away” by some of the imagery sent back by the missions — just like the rest of us! — saying she’s had to call members of her team several times to verify she wasn’t looking at computer simulations vs. real images.

Enjoy this candid interview of one of the leading planetary scientists of our day.


Titan’s North Pole is Loaded With Lakes

A combination of exceptionally clear weather, the steady approach of northern summer, and a poleward orbital path has given Cassini — and Cassini scientists — unprecedented views of countless lakes scattered across Titan’s north polar region. In the near-infrared mosaic above they can be seen as dark splotches and speckles scattered around the moon’s north pole. Previously observed mainly via radar, these are the best visual and infrared wavelength images ever obtained of Titan’s northern “land o’ lakes!”

 

Titan is currently the only other world besides Earth known to have stable bodies of liquid on its surface, but unlike Earth, Titan’s lakes aren’t filled with water — instead they’re full of liquid methane and ethane, organic compounds which are gases on Earth but liquids in Titan’s incredibly chilly -290º F (-180º C) environment.

While one large lake and a few smaller ones have been previously identified at Titan’s south pole, curiously almost all of Titan’s lakes appear near the moon’s north pole.

Infrared observations of Titan's northern lakes (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)
Infrared observations of Titan’s northern lakes. The cross marks Titan’s geographic north pole. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

For an idea of scale, the large lake at the upper right above (and the largest lake on Titan) Kraken Mare is comparative in size to the Caspian Sea and Lake Superior combined. Kraken Mare is so large that sunlight was seen reflecting off its surface in 2009. Punga Mare, nearest Titan’s pole, is 240 miles (386 km) across.

Besides revealing the (uncannily) smooth surfaces of lakes — which appear dark in near-infrared wavelengths but would also be darker than the surrounding landscape in visible light —  these Cassini images also show an unusually bright terrain surrounding them. Since the majority of Titan’s lakes are found within this bright region it’s thought that there could be a geologic correlation; is this Titan’s version of karst terrain, like what’s found in the southeastern U.S. and New Mexico? Could these lakes be merely the visible surfaces of a vast underground hydrocarbon aquifer? Or are they shallow pools filling depressions in an ancient lava flow?

Annotated infrared mosaic of Titan's north pole (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)
Annotated infrared mosaic of Titan’s north pole (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

Or, are they the remains of once-larger lakes and seas which have since evaporated? The orange-hued regions in the false-color mosaic may be evaporite — the Titan equivalent of salt flats on Earth. The evaporated material is thought to be organic chemicals originally from Titan’s haze particles that were once dissolved in liquid methane.

“Is this an indication that with increased warmth, the seas and lakes are starting to evaporate, leaving behind a deposit of organic material,” wrote Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team Leader, in an email earlier today. “…in other words, the Titan equivalent of a salt-flat?”

The largest lake at Titan’s south pole, Ontario Lacus, has been previously compared to such an ephemeral lake in Namibia called the Etosha Pan. (Read more here.)

These observations are only possible because of the extended and long-term study of Saturn and its family of moons by the Cassini spacecraft, which began with its establishing orbit in 2004 and has since continued across multiple seasons over a third of the ringed planet’s year. The existence of methane lakes on Titan is undoubtedly fascinating, but how deep the lakes are, where they came from and how they behave in Titan’s environment have yet to be discovered. Luckily, the changing season is on our side.

“Titan’s northern lakes region is one of the most Earth-like and intriguing in the solar system,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “We know lakes here change with the seasons, and Cassini’s long mission at Saturn gives us the opportunity to watch the seasons change at Titan, too. Now that the sun is shining in the north and we have these wonderful views, we can begin to compare the different data sets and tease out what Titan’s lakes are doing near the north pole.”

The images shown above were obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) during a close flyby of Titan on Sept. 12, 2013.

Read more on the Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS) site here and on the NASA site here.

“But how thrilling it is to still be uncovering new territory on this fascinating moon… a place that, until Cassini’s arrival at Saturn nearly 10 years ago, was the largest single expanse of unseen terrain we had remaining in our solar system. Our adventures here have been the very essence of exploration. And it’s not over yet!”

– Carolyn Porco on Facebook

An illustration of a Titanic lake by Ron Miller. All rights reserved. Used with permission.
An illustration of a Titanic lake © Ron Miller. All rights reserved.

Also, check out a corresponding article and intriguing illustration of robotic Titan exploration by space artist extraordinaire Ron Miller on io9.com.

These are the Last Close-up Images of the Moon Rhea from Cassini

“Take a good, long, luxurious look at these sights from another world,” said Cassini Imaging Team Leader Carolyn Porco, “as they will be the last close-ups you’ll ever see of this particular moon.”

On Saturday, March 9, 2013 Cassini made the last close flyby of Rhea during its mission, coming within 620 miles (997km) of the surface of the moon. Cassini’s mission is slated to end in 2017 with a controlled fall into Saturn’s atmosphere. Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn since 2004 and is in its second mission extension.

“Our mission at Saturn has been ongoing for nearly 9 years and is slated to continue for another 4,” Porco said in an email message. “Targeted flybys of the moons Dione, in June and August of 2015, and Enceladus, in October and December of 2015, are all that remains on the docket for detailed exploration of Saturn’s medium-sized moons.”

See more below:

This raw, unprocessed image of Rhea was taken on March 9, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
This raw, unprocessed image of Rhea was taken on March 9, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Besides these great final shots, NASA said the primary purpose of this last close flyby of Rhea was to probe the internal structure of the moon by measuring the gravitational pull of Rhea against the spacecraft’s steady radio link to NASA’s Deep Space Network here on Earth. The results will help scientists understand whether the moon is homogeneous all the way through or whether it has differentiated into the layers of core, mantle and crust.

In addition, Cassini’s imaging cameras will take ultraviolet, infrared and visible-light data from Rhea’s surface. The cosmic dust analyzer will try to detect any dusty debris flying off the surface from tiny meteoroid bombardments to further scientists’ understanding of the rate at which “foreign” objects are raining into the Saturn system.

“We’re nearing the end of this historic expedition,” Porco said. “Let’s enjoy the finale while we can.”

This raw, unprocessed image of Rhea was taken on March 10, 2013 and received on Earth March 10, 2013. The camera was pointing toward Rhea at approximately 280,317 kilometers away, and the image was taken using the CL1 and CL2 filters. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
This raw, unprocessed image of Rhea was taken on March 10, 2013 and received on Earth March 10, 2013. The camera was pointing toward Rhea at approximately 280,317 kilometers away, and the image was taken using the CL1 and CL2 filters. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

See more of the raw images from the flyby at the CICLOPS website.

New Symphony of Science Video: Onward to the Edge

The latest auto-tuned musical celebration of science is out in the “Symphony of Science” series. This one features Neil deGrasse Tyson, Brian Cox, and Carolyn Porco and touches on the importance and inspirational qualities of space exploration (human and robotic), as well as a look at some of the amazing worlds in our solar system. This new video is the 12th installment in the series. See them all at SymphonyofScience.com

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.”

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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

Alien Life on Titan? Hang on Just a Minute…

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Two papers released last week detailing oddities found on Titan have blown the top off the ‘jumping to conclusions’ meter, and following media reports of NASA finding alien life on Saturn’s hazy moon, scientists are now trying to put a little reality back into the news. “Everyone: Calm down!” said Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco on Twitter over the weekend. “It is by NO means certain that microbes are eating hydrogen on Titan. Non-bio explanations are still possible.” Porco also put out a statement on Monday saying such reports were “the unfortunate result of a knee-jerk rush to sensationalize an exciting but rather complex, nuanced and emotionally-charged issue.”

Astrobiologist Chris McKay told Universe Today that life on Titan is “certainly the most exciting, but it’s not the simplest explanation for all the data we’re seeing.”

McKay suggests everyone needs to take the Occam’s Razor approach, where the simplest theory that fits the facts of a problem is the one that should be selected.

The two papers suggest that hydrogen and acetylene are being depleted at the surface of Titan. The first paper by Darrell Strobel shows hydrogen molecules flowing down through Titan’s atmosphere and disappearing at the surface. This is a disparity between the hydrogen densities that flow down to the surface at a rate of about 10,000 trillion trillion hydrogen molecules per second, but none showing up at the surface.

“It’s as if you have a hose and you’re squirting hydrogen onto the ground, but it’s disappearing,” Strobel said. “I didn’t expect this result, because molecular hydrogen is extremely chemically inert in the atmosphere, very light and buoyant. It should ‘float’ to the top of the atmosphere and escape.”

The other paper (link not yet available) led by Roger Clark, a Cassini team scientist, maps hydrocarbons on Titan’s surface and finds a surprising lack of acetylene. Models of Titan’s upper atmosphere suggest a high level of acetylene in Titan’s lakes, as high as 1 percent by volume. But this study, using the Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) aboard Cassini, found very little acetylene on Titan’s surface.

Of course, one explanation for both discoveries is that something on Titan is consuming the hydrogen and acetylene.

Even though both findings are important, McKay feels the crux of any possible life on Titan hinges on verifying Strobel’s discovery about the lack of hydrogen.

“To me, the whole thing hovers on this determination of whether there is this flux of hydrogen is real,” McKay said via phone. “The acetylene has been missing and the ethane has been missing, but that certainly doesn’t generate a lot of excitement, because how much is supposed to be there depends on how much is being made. There are a lot of uncertainties.”

McKay stressed both results are still preliminary and the hydrogen loss in particular is the result of a computer calculation, and not a direct measurement. “It is the result of a computer simulation designed to fit measurements of the hydrogen concentration in the lower and upper atmosphere in a self-consistent way,” he said in a statement he put out over the weekend. “It is not presently clear from Strobel’s results how dependent his conclusion of a hydrogen flux into the surface is on the way the computer simulation is constructed or on how accurately it simulates the Titan chemistry.”

However, the findings are interesting for astrobiology, and would require the actual existence of methane-based life, a theory McKay himself proposed five years ago, which he described today as an “odd idea.”

In 2005, McKay and Heather Smith (McKay and Smith, 2005) suggested that methane-based life (rather than water-based) called methanogens on Titan could consume hydrogen, acetylene, and ethane. The key conclusion of that paper was “The results of the recent Huygens probe could indicate the presence of such life by anomalous depletions of acetylene and ethane as well as hydrogen at the surface.”

Even though the two new papers seem to show evidence for all three of these on Titan, McKay said this is a still a long way from “evidence of life”. However, it is extremely interesting.

But what does McKay really think?

“Unfortunately, if I was betting, the most likely explanation is that Darrel’s (Strobel) results are wrong and that further analysis will show there is another explanation for the data he is trying to fit, besides the strong flux of hydrogen into the surface. I would be very happy if we did confirm all that data, but we do have to take it in steps.”

McKay provided four possibilities for the recently reported findings, listed in order of their likely reality:

1. The determination that there is a strong flux of hydrogen into the surface is mistaken. “It will be interesting to see if other researchers, in trying to duplicate Strobel’s results, reach the same conclusion,” McKay said.

2. There is a physical process that is transporting H2 from the upper atmosphere into the lower atmosphere. One possibility is adsorption onto the solid organic atmospheric haze particles which eventually fall to the ground. However this would be a flux of H2, and not a net loss of H2.

3. If the loss of hydrogen at the surface is correct, the non-biological explanation requires that there be some sort of surface catalyst, presently unknown, that can mediate the hydrogenation reaction at 95 K, the temperature of the Titan surface. “That would be quite interesting and a startling find although not as startling as the presence of life,” McKay said.

4. The depletion of hydrogen, acetylene, and ethane, is due to a new type of liquid-methane based life form as predicted (Benner et al. 2004, McKay and Smith 2005, and Schulze-Makuch and Grinspoon 2005 (Astrobiology, vol. 5, no. 4., p. 560-567.).

McKay said if further analysis shows that a strong flux of hydrogen into the surface really is happening, “then my first two explanations are no longer options and we are then left with two really quite remarkable alternatives, either there is some mysterious metalysis going on, which at 95 k is really hard to imagine, and would have enormous implications for things like chemical engineering. And the second alternative is that there is life, which is even more amazing.”

“So to make process on this,” McKay continued, “we have to confirm Darrel’s result that there is hydrogen being fluxed onto the surface of Titan, that is really way unexpected, and unfortunately, it constitutes extraordinary claims that need extraordinary evidence. Darrel’s paper is just a first step in that.”

What does McKay think about the rash of media reports claiming life on Titan?

“Well, I think it reflects our human fascination and desire to find life out there,” he said. “We want it to be true. When we’re given a set of facts, if they are consistent with biology we jump to that explanation first. The most biologically interesting explanation is the first one we look to. We ought to give that a name — something like ‘Carl Sagan’s Razor’ as opposed to ‘Occam’s Razor,’ which would say that ‘The most exciting explanation is assumed to be true until it is proven false.'”

You can read all of McKay’s written response on the CICLOPS website, which Porco said will be “the first installment in a new feature on the CICLOPS website, called ‘Making Sense of the News’, where from time to time, scientists, both involved in Cassini and not, will be invited to comment on new developments that bear on the exploration of the solar system and the study of planetary systems, including our own.”

Cassini “Skeet Shoot” of Enceladus a Success

Scientists for the Cassini mission called their flyby of Saturn’s small moon Enceladus on August 11 a “skeet shoot,” partially in honor of the current Olympic games underway, but mostly because the spacecraft would be trying to shoot rapidly at the moon with its array of cameras and scientific instruments. As the images begin to stream back, the scientists are definitely excited about what they’re seeing.

“What a dazzling success!” said Carolyn Porco, the Cassini Imaging Team Leader. “There doesn’t even appear to be any smear.” Scientists compared Cassini’s fast flyby of Enceladus to trying to capture a sharp, unsmeared picture of a roadside billboard about a mile away with a 2,000 mm telephoto lens held out the window of a car moving at 50 mph. The imaging team is still poring over the pictures to see if they were successful in “shooting” their target: the active vent regions on the tiger stripe-like features on the moon’s south pole that create the geysers on Enceladus. But the amazingly clear images show a fractured surface littered with boulders and what Porco said could possibly be ice blocks.

Cassini flew over the surface of Enceladus at tremendous speed; about 18 km/sec (about 40,000 mph), which makes taking clear images very difficult. The imaging team devised a technique of turning the spacecraft while taking pictures in rapid succession, shooting at seven, very high priority surface targets. The suite of images ranged in resolution from 8 to 28 meters/pixel, using exposure times that were long enough to see the surface in the twilight near the terminator yet short enough to avoid smear.

Overview of Cassini's flyby.  Credit: NASA/JPL
Overview of Cassini's flyby. Credit: NASA/JPL

The tiger stripes, officially called sulci, have been identified by the imaging cameras on earlier flybys of Enceladus as the sources of the jets, and also as the “hot spots” or warmer areas on the moon identified by the Cassini’s Composite Infrared Spectrograph.

Region "7" of the Cassini's skeet shoot of Enceladus.  Credit:  NASA/JPL

Porco said the team still has much work to do to decipher all the information in the images and data from the other instruments. “In this painstaking work, we proceed, step by step, to lay bare those things which hold the greatest promise of comprehension, the greatest significance for piecing together the story of the origins of the bodies in our solar system, our Earth, and indeed ourselves,” she wrote in her blog.

We’ll provide further updates on the flyby images as information becomes available.

Sources: Cassini’s website, NASA blogs, CICLOPS flyby preview