Cassini’s Farewell Look at Dione

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft paid a visit to Saturn’s moon Dione this week, one final time.

Cassini passed just 474 kilometers (295 miles) above the surface of the icy moon on Monday, August 17th at 2:33 PM EDT/18:33 UT. The flyby is the fifth and final pass of Cassini near Dione (pronounced dahy-OH-nee). The closest passage was 100 kilometers (60 miles) in December 2011.  This final flyby of Dione will give researchers a chance to probe the tiny world’s internal structure, as Cassini flies through the gravitational influence of the moon. Cassini has only gathered gravity science data on a handful of Saturn’s 62 known moons.

“Dione has been an enigma, giving hints of active geologic processes, including a transient atmosphere and evidence of ice volcanoes. But we’ve never found the smoking gun,” said Cassini science team member Bonnie Buratti in a recent press release. “The fifth flyby of Dione will be the last chance.”

A map of Dione. Click here for a full large .pdf map. Credit: USGS

Voyager 1 gave us our very first look at Dione in 1980, and Cassini has explored the moon in breathtaking detail since its first flyby in 2005. This final pass targeted Dione’s north pole at a resolution of only a few meters. Cassini’s Infrared Spectrometer was also on the lookout for any thermal anomalies, a good sign that Dione may still be geologically active. The spacecraft’s Cosmic Dust Analyzer also carried out a search for any dust particles coming from Dione. The results of these experiments are forthcoming. In a synchronous rotation, Dione famously displays a brighter leading hemisphere, which has been pelted with E Ring deposits.

Dione (center) with Enceladus(smaller and to the upper right)  in the distance. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The raw images from this week’s flyby are now available on the NASA Cassini website. You can see the sequence of the approach, complete with a ‘photobomb’ of Saturn’s moon Enceladus early on. Dione then makes a majestic pass in front of Saturn’s rings and across the ochre disk of the planet itself, before snapping into dramatic focus.  Here we see the enormous shattered Evander impact basin near the pole of Dione, along with Erulus crater with a prominent central peak right along the day/night terminator. Dione has obviously had a battered and troubled past, one that astro-geologists are still working out. Cassini then takes one last shot, giving humanity a fitting final look at Dione as a crescent receding off in the distance.

Dione in profile against Saturn. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

It’ll be a long time before we visit Dione again.

“This will be our last chance to see Dione up close for many years to come,” said Cassini mission deputy project scientist Scott Edgington. “Cassini has provided insights into this icy moon’s mysteries, along with a rich data set and a host of new questions for scientists to ponder.”

Cassini also took a distant look at Saturn’s tiny moon Hyrrokkin (named after the Norse giantess who launched Baldur’s funeral ship) earlier this month. Though not a photogenic pass, looking at the tinier moons of Saturn helps researchers better understand and characterize their orbits. Even after more than a decade at Saturn, there are tiny moons of Saturn that Cassini has yet to see up close.

The limb of Dione on close approach. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Next up for Cassini is a pass 1,036 kilometers (644 miles) from the surface of Titan on September 28th, 2015.

Launched in 1997, Cassini has given us over a decade’s worth of exploration of the Saturnian system, including the delivery of the European Space Agency’s Huygens lander to the surface of Titan. The massive moon may be the target of a proposed mission that could one day sail the hazy atmosphere of Titan, complete with a nuclear plutonium powered MMRTG and deployable robotic quadcopters.

Cassini is set to depart the equatorial plane of Saturn late this year, for a series of maneuvers that will feature some dramatic passes through the rings before a final fiery reentry into the atmosphere of Saturn in 2017.

A farewell look at Dione. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Astronomer Giovanni Cassini discovered Dione on March 21st, 1684 from the Paris observatory using one of his large aerial refracting telescopes. About 1,120 kilometers in diameter, Dione is 1.5% as massive as Earth’s Moon. Dione orbits Saturn once every 2.7 days, and is in a 1:2 resonance with Enceladus, meaning Dione completes one orbit for every two orbits of Enceladus.

In a backyard telescope, Dione is easily apparent along with the major moons of Saturn as a +10.4 magnitude ‘star.’ Saturn is currently a fine telescopic target in the evening low to the south on the Libra-Scorpius border, offering prime time observers a chance to check out the ringed planet and its moons. Fare thee well, Dione… for now.