You Can Now Use Google Maps to Explore the Solar System

Chances are, at one time or another, we’ve all used Google Maps to find the shortest route from point A to point B. But if you are like some people, you’ve used this mapping tool to have a look at geographical features or places you hope to visit someday. In an age where digital technology is allowing for telecommuting and even telepresence, it’s nice to take virtual tours of the places we may never get to see in person.

But now, Google Maps is using its technology to enable the virtual exploration of something far grander: the Solar System! Thanks to images provided by the Cassini orbiter of the planets and moons it studied during its 20 year mission, Google is now allowing users to explore places like Venus, Mercury, Mars, Europa, Ganymede, Titan, and other far-off destinations that are impossible for us to visit right now.

Similar to how Google Earth uses satellite imagery to create 3D representations of our planet, this new Google Maps tool relies on the more than 500,000 images taken by Cassini as it made its way across the Solar System. This probe recently concluded its 20 year mission, 13 of which were spent orbiting Saturn and studying its system of moons, by crashing into the atmosphere of Saturn.

Artist rendition of the Cassini spacecraft over Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Kevin M. Gill.

After launching from Earth on October 15th, 1997, Cassini conducted a flyby of Venus in order to pick up a gravity-assist. It then flew by Earth, obtaining a second gravity-assist, while making its way towards the Asteroid Belt. Before reaching the Saturn System, where it would begin studying the gas giant and its moons, Cassini also conducted a flyby of Jupiter – snapping pictures of its moons, rings, and Great Red Spot.

When it reached Saturn in July of 2004, Cassini went to work studying the planet and its larger moons – particularly Titan and Enceladus. During the next 13 years and 76 days, the probe would provide breathtaking images and sensor data on Saturn’s rings, atmosphere and polar storms and reveal things about Titan’s surface that were never before seen (such as its methane lakes, hydrological cycle, and surface features).

It’s flybys of Enceladus also revealed some startling things about this icy moon. Aside from detecting a tenuous atmosphere of ionized water vapor and Enceladus’ mysterious “Tiger Stripes“, the probe also detected jets of water and organic molecules erupting from the moon’s southern polar region. These jets, it was later determined, were indicative of a warm water ocean deep in the moon’s interior, and possibly even life!

Interestingly enough, the original Cassini mission was only planned to last for four years once it reached Saturn – from June 2004 to May 2008. But by the end of this run, the mission was extended with the Cassini Equinox Mission, which was intended to run until September of 2010. It was extended a second time with the Cassini Solstice Mission, which lasted until September 15th, 2017, when the probe was crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Artist’s impression of the Cassini orbiter entering Saturn’s atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL

Thanks to all the images taken by this long-lived mission, Google Maps is now able to offer exploratory tours of 16 celestial bodies in the Solar System – 12 of which are new to the site. These include Earth, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Pluto, Ceres, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Mimas, Enceladus, Dione, Rhea, Titan, Iapetus and (available as of July 2017) the International Space Station.

This latest development also builds on several extensions Google has released over the years. These include Google Moon, which was released on July 20th, 2005, to coincide with the 36th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. Then there was Google Sky (introduced in 2007), which used photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope to create a virtual map of the visible universe.

Then there was Google Mars, the result of a collaborative effort between Google and NASA scientists at the Mars Space Flight Facility released in 2011, one year before the Curiosity rover landed on the Red Planet. This tool relied on data collected by the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Odyssey missions to create high-resolution 3D terrain maps that included elevations.

In an age of high-speed internet and telecommunications, using the internet to virtually explore the many planets and bodies of the Solar System just makes sense. Especially when you consider that even the most ambitious plans to conduct tourism to Mars or the Moon (looking at you, Elon Musk and Richard Branson!) are not likely to bear fruit for many years, and cost an arm and a leg to boot!

In the future, similar technology could lead to all kinds of virtual exploration. This concept, which is often referred to as “telexploration”, would involve robotic missions traveling to other planets and even star systems. The information they gather would then be sent back to Earth to create virtual experiences, which would allow scientists and space-exploration enthusiasts to feel like they were seeing it firsthand.

In truth, this mapping tool is just the latest gift to be bestowed by the late Cassini mission. NASA scientists expect to be sifting through the volumes of data collected by the orbiter for years to come. Thanks to improvements made in software applications and the realms of virtual and augmented reality, this data (and that of present and future missions) is likely to be put to good use, enabling breathtaking and educational tours of our Universe!

Further Reading: Make Use Of

Even Though it’s an Alien World, Titan’s Canyons Would Look Very Familiar

Titan is tough moon to study, thanks to its incredibly thick and hazy atmosphere. But when astronomers have ben able to sneak a peak beneath its methane clouds, they have spotted some very intriguing features. And some of these, interestingly enough, are reminiscent of geographical features here on Earth. For instance, Titan is the only other body in the Solar System that is known to have a cycle where liquid is exchanged between the surface and the atmosphere.

For example, previous images provided by NASA’s Cassini mission showed indications of steep-sided canyons in the northern polar region that appeared to be filled with liquid hydrocarbons, similar to river valleys here on Earth. And thanks to new data obtained through radar altimetry, these canyons have been shown to be hundreds of meters deep, and have confirmed rivers of liquid methane flowing through them.

This evidence was presented in a new study titled “Liquid-filled canyons on Titan” – which was published in August of 2016 in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. Using data obtained by the Cassini radar altimeter in May 2013, they observed channels in the feature known as Vid Flumina, a drainage network connected to Titan’s second largest hydrocarbon sea in the north, Ligeia Mare.

Saturn's largest moon, Titan, has features that resemble Earth's geology, with deep, steep-sided canyons. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cassini
Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, has features that resemble Earth’s geology, with deep, steep-sided canyons. Credit: NASA/JPL/Cassini

Analysis of this information showed that the channels in this region are steep-sided and measure about 800 m (half a mile) wide and between 244 and 579 meters deep (800 – 1900 feet). The radar echoes also showed strong surface reflections that indicated that these channels are currently filled with liquid. The elevation of this liquid was also consistent with that of Ligeia Mare (within a maring of 0.7 m), which averages about 50 m (164 ft) deep.

This is consistent with the belief that these river channels in area drain into the Ligeia Mare, which is especially interesting since it parallels how deep-canyon river systems empty into lakes here on Earth. And it is yet another example of how the methane-based hydrological cycle on Titan drives the formation and evolution of the moon’s features, and in ways that are strikingly similar to the water cycle here on Earth.

Alex Hayes – an assistant professor of astronomy at Cornell, the Director of the Spacecraft Planetary Imaging Facility (SPIF) and one of the authors on the paper – has conducted seversal studies of Titan’s surface and atmosphere based on radar data provided by Cassini. As he was quoted as saying in a recent article by the Cornell Chronicler:

“Earth is warm and rocky, with rivers of water, while Titan is cold and icy, with rivers of methane. And yet it’s remarkable that we find such similar features on both worlds. The canyons found in Titan’s north are even more surprising, as we have no idea how they formed. Their narrow width and depth imply rapid erosion, as sea levels rise and fall in the nearby sea. This brings up a host of questions, such as where did all the eroded material go?”

The northern polar area of Titan and Vid Flumina drainage basin. (left) On top of the image, the Ligeia Mare; in the lower right the North Kraken Mare; the two seas are connected each other by a labyrinth of channels. On the left, near the North pole, the Punga Mare. Red arrows indicate the position of the two flumina significant for this work. At the end of its mission (15 September 2017) the Cassini RADAR in its imaging mode (SAR+ HiSAR) will have covered a total area of 67% of the surface of Titan [Hayes, 2016]. Map credits: R. L. Kirk. (right) Highlighted in yellow are the half-power altimetric footprints within the Vid Flumina drainage basin and the Xanthus Flumen course for which specular reflections occurred. At 1400?km of spacecraft altitude, the Cassini antenna 0.35° central beam produces footprints of about 8.5?km in diameter (diameter of yellow circles). Credit: NASA/JPL
Cassini image of the northern polar area of Titan and Vid Flumina drainage basin, showing Ligeia Mare (left) and the Vid Flumina drainage basin (right). Credit: R.L. Kirk/NASA/JPL
A good question indeed, since it raises some interesting possibilities. Essentially, the features observed by Cassini are just part of Titan’s northern polar region, which is covered by large standing bodies of liquid methane – the largest of these being Kraken Mare, Ligeia Mare and Punga Mare. In this respect, the region is similar to glacially eroded fjords on Earth.

However, conditions on Titan do not allow for the presence of glaciers, which rules out the likelihood that retreating sheets of ice could have carved these canyons. So this naturally begs the question, what geological forces created this region? The team concluded that there were only two likely possibilities – which included changes in the elevation of the rivers, or tectonic activity in the area.

Ultimately, they favored a model where the variation in surface elevation of liquid drove the formation of the canyons – though they acknowledge that both tectonic forces and sea level variations played a role. As Valerio Poggiali, an associate member of the Cassini RADAR Science Team at the Sapienza University of Rome and the lead author of the paper, told Universe Today via email:

“What the canyons on Titan really mean is that in the past sea level was lower and so erosion and canyon formation could take place. Subsequently sea level has risen and backfilled the canyons. This presumably takes place over multiple cycles, eroding when sea level is lower, depositing some when it is higher until we get the canyons we see today. So, what it means is that sea level has likely changed in the geological past and the canyons are recording that change for us.”

Titan's Ligeia Mare. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS
Titan’s second largest methane lake, Ligeia Mare. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS

In this respect, there are many more Earth examples to choose from, all of which are mentioned in the study:

“Examples include Lake Powell, a reservoir on the Colorado River that was created by the Glen Canyon Dam; the Georges River in New South Wales, Australia; and the Nile River gorge, which formed as the Mediterranean Sea dried up during the late Miocene. Rising liquid levels in the geologically recent past led to the flooding of these valleys, with morphologies similar to those observed at Vid Flumina.”

Understanding the processes that led to these formations is crucial to understanding the current state of Titan’s geomorphology. And this study is significant in that it is the first to conclude that the rivers in the Vid Flumina region were deep canyons. In the future, the research team hopes to examine other channels on Titan that were observed by Cassini to test their theories.

Once again, our exploration of the Solar System has shown us just how weird and wonderful it truly is. In addition to all its celestial bodies having their own particular quirks, they still have a lot in common with Earth. By the time the Cassini mission is complete (Sept. 15th, 2017), it will have surveyed 67% the surface of Titan with its RADAR imaging instrument. Who knows what other “Earth-like” features it will notice before then?

Further Reading: Geophysical Research Letters

If it Wasn’t Already Strange Enough, now Saturn’s Hexagon Storm is Changing Color

Ever since the Voyager 2 made its historic flyby of Saturn, astronomers have been aware of the persistent hexagonal storm around the gas giant’s north pole. This a six-sided jetstream has been a constant source of fascination, due to its sheer size and immense power. Measuring some 13,800 km (8,600 mi) across, this weather system is greater in size than planet Earth.

And thanks to the latest data to be provided by the Cassini space probe, which entered orbit around Saturn in 2009, it seems that this storm is even stranger than previously thought. Based on images snapped between 2012 and 2016, the storm appears to have undergone a change in color, from a bluish haze to a golden-brown hue.

The reasons for this change remain something of a mystery, but scientists theorize that it may be the result of seasonal changes due to the approaching summer solstice (which will take place in May of 2017). Specifically, they believe that the change is being driven by an increase in the production of photochemical hazes in the atmosphere, which is due to increased exposure to sunlight.

 Natural color images taken by NASA's Cassini wide-angle camera, showing the changing appearance of Saturn's north polar region between 2012 and 2016.. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Hampton University
Natural color images taken by NASA’s Cassini wide-angle camera, showing the changing appearance of Saturn’s north polar region between 2012 and 2016.. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Hampton University

This reasoning is based in part on past observations of seasonal change on Saturn. Like Earth, Saturn experiences seasons because its axis is tilted relative to its orbital plane (26.73°). But since its orbital period is almost 30 years, these seasons last for seven years.

Between November 1995 and August 2009, the hexagonal storm also underwent some serious changes, which coincided with Saturn going from its Autumnal to its Spring Equinox. During this period, the north polar atmosphere became clear of aerosols produced by photochemical reactions, which was also attributed to the fact that the northern polar region was receiving less in the way of sunlight.

However, since that time, the polar atmosphere has been exposed to continuous sunlight, and this has coincided with aerosols being produced inside the hexagon, making the polar atmosphere appear hazy. As Linda J. Spilker, the Cassini mission’s project scientist, told Universe Today via email:

“We have seen dramatic changes in the color inside Saturn’s north polar hexagon in the last 4 years.  That color change is probably the result of changing seasons at Saturn, as Saturn moves toward northern summer solstice in May 2017. As more sunlight shines on the hexagon, more haze particles are produced and this haze gives the hexagon a more golden color.”
This diagram shows the main events of Saturn's year, and where in the Saturnian year the Voyager 1 and Cassini missions occurred. Credit: Ralph Lorenz
Diagram showing he main events of Saturn’s year, and where in the Saturnian year the Voyager 1 and Cassini missions occurred. Credit: Ralph Lorenz

All of this has helped scientists to test theoretical models of Saturn’s atmosphere. In the past, it has been speculated that this six-sided storm acts as a barrier that prevents outside haze particles from entering. The previous differences in color – the planet’s atmosphere being golden while the polar storm was darker and bluish – certainly seemed to bear this out.

The fact that it is now changing color and starting to look more like the rest of the atmosphere could mean that the chemical composition of the polar region is now changing and becoming more like the rest of the planet. Other effects, which include changes in atmospheric circulation (which are in turn the result of seasonally shifting solar heating patterns) might also be influencing the winds in the polar regions.

Needless to say, the giant planets of the Solar System have always been a source of fascination for scientists and astronomers. And if these latest images are any indication, it is that we still have much to learn about the dynamics of their atmospheres.

“It is very exciting to see this transformation in Saturn’s hexagon color with changing seasons,” said Spilker. “With Saturn seasons over 7 years long, these new results show us that it is certainly worth the wait.”

 R. G. French (Wellesley College) et al., NASA, ESA, and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)
The seasons on Saturn, visualized with images taken by the Hubble Heritage Team. Credit: R. G. French (Wellesley College) et al./NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)

It also shows that Cassini, which has been in operation since 1997, is still able to provide new insights into Saturn and its system of moons. In recent weeks, this included information about seasonal variations on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. By April 22nd, 2017, the probe will commence its final 22 orbits of Saturn. Barring any mission extensions, it is scheduled enter into Saturn’s atmosphere (thus ending its mission) on Sept. 15th, 2017.

Further Reading: NASA/JPL/Caltech

Uranus’ “Sprightly” Moon Ariel

The outer Solar System has enough mysteries and potential discoveries to keep scientists busy for decades. Case in point, Uranus and it’s system of moons. Since the beginning of the Space Age, only one space probe has ever passed by this planet and its system of moons. And yet, that which has been gleaned from this one mission, and over a century and a half of Earth- (and space-) based observation, has been enough to pique the interest of many generations of scientists.

For instance, just about all detailed knowledge of Uranus’ 27 known moons – including the “sprightly” moon Ariel – has been derived from information obtained by the Voyager 2 probe. Nevertheless, this single flyby revealed that Ariel is composed of equal parts ice and rock, a cratered and geologically active surface, and a seasonal cycle that is both extreme and very unusual (at least by our standards!)

Discovery and Naming:

Ariel was discovered on October 24th, 1851, by English astronomer William Lassel, who also discovered the larger moon of Umbriel on the same day. While William Herschel, who discovered Uranus’ two largest moons of Oberon and Titania in 1787, claimed to have observed four other moons in Uranus’ orbit, those claims have since been concluded to be erroneous.

A montage of Uranus's moons. Image credit: NASA
A montage of Uranus’s major moons. Image credit: NASA

As with all of Uranus’ moons, Ariel was named after a character from Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. In this case, Ariel refers to a spirit of the air who initiates the great storm in The Tempest and a sylph who protects the female protagonist in The Rape of the Lock. The names of all four then-known satellites of Uranus were suggested by John Herschel in 1852 at the request of Lassell.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a mean radius of 578.9 ± 0.6 km and a mass of 1.353 ± 0.120 × 1021 kg, Ariel is equivalent in size to 0.0908 Earths and 0.000226 times as massive. Ariel’s orbit of Uranus is almost circular, with an average distance (semi-major axis) of 191,020 km – making it the second closest of Uranus’ five major moons (behind Miranda). It has a very small orbital eccentricity (0.0012) and is inclined very little relative to Uranus’ equator (0.260°).

With an average orbital velocity of 5.51 km/s, Ariel takes 2.52 days to complete a single orbit of Uranus. Like most moons in the outer Solar System, Ariel’s rotation is synchronous with its orbit. This means that the moon is tidally locked with Uranus, with one face constantly pointed towards the planet.

Ariel orbits and rotates within Uranus’ equatorial plane, which means it rotates perpendicular to the Sun. This means that its northern and southern hemispheres face either directly towards the Sun or away from it at the solstices, which results in an extreme seasonal cycle of permanent day or night for a period of 42 years.

Size comparison between Earth, the Moon, and Ariel. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS/Tom Reding
Size comparison between Earth, the Moon, and Ariel. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS/Tom Reding

Ariel’s orbit lies completely inside the Uranian magnetosphere, which means that its trailing hemisphere is regularly struck by magnetospheric plasma co-rotating with the planet. This bombardment is believed to be the cause of the darkening of the trailing hemispheres (see below), which has been observed for all Uranian moons (with the exception of Oberon).

Currently Ariel is not involved in any orbital resonance with other Uranian satellites. In the past, however, it may have been in a 5:3 resonance with Miranda, which could have been partially responsible for the heating of that moon, and 4:1 resonance with Titania, from which it later escaped.

Composition and Surface Features:

Ariel is the fourth largest of Uranus’ moons, but is believed to be the third most-massive. Its average density of 1.66 g/cm3 indicates that it is roughly composed of equal parts water ice and rock/carbonaceous material, including heavy organic compounds. Based on spectrographic analysis of the surface, the leading hemisphere of Ariel has been revealed to be richer in water ice than its trailing hemisphere.

The cause of this is currently unknown, but it may be related to bombardment by charged particles from Uranus’s magnetosphere, which is stronger on the trailing hemisphere. The interaction of energetic particles and water ice causes sublimation and the decomposition of methane trapped in the ice (as clathrate hydrate), darkening the methanogenic and other organic molecules and leaving behind a dark, carbon-rich residue (aka. tholins).

The highest-resolution Voyager 2 color image of Ariel. Canyons with floors covered by smooth plains are visible at lower right. The bright crater Laica is at lower left. Credit: NASA/JPL
The highest-resolution Voyager 2 color image of Ariel, showing canyons with floors covered by smooth plains (lower right) and the bright Laica crater (lower left). Credit: NASA/JPL

Based on its size, estimates of its ice/rock distribution, and the possibility of salt or ammonia in its interior, Ariel’s interior is thought to be differentiated between a rocky core and an icy mantle. If true, the radius of the core would account for 64% of the moon’s radius (372 km) and 52% of its mass. And while the presence of water ice and ammonia could mean Ariel harbors an interior ocean at it’s core-mantle boundary, the existence of such an ocean is considered unlikely.

Infrared spectroscopy has also identified concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO²) on Ariel’s surface, particularly on its trailing hemisphere. In fact, Ariel shows the highest concentrations of CO² on of any Uranian satellite, and was the first moon to have this compound discovered on its surface.

Though the precise reason for this is unknown, it is possible that it is produced from carbonates or organic material that have been exposed to Uranus’ magnetosphere or solar ultraviolet radiation – due to the asymmetry between the leading and trailing hemispheres. Another explanation is outgassing, where primordial CO² trapped in Ariel’s interior ice escaped thanks to past geological activity.

The observed surface of Ariel can be divided into three terrain types: cratered terrain, ridged terrain and plains. Other features include chasmata (canyons), fault scarps (cliffs), dorsa (ridges) and graben (troughs or trenches). Impact craters are the most common feature on Ariel, particularly in the south pole, which is the moon’s oldest and most geographically extensive region.

False-color map of Ariel. The prominent noncircular crater below and left of center is Yangoor. Part of it was erased during formation of ridged terrain via extensional tectonics. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS
False-color map of Ariel, showing the prominent Yangoor crater (left of center) and patches of ridged terrain (far left). Credit: USGS

Compared to the other moons of Uranus, Ariel appears to be fairly evenly-cratered. The surface density of the craters, which is significantly lower than those of Oberon and Umbriel, suggest that they do not date to the early history of the Solar System. This means that Ariel must have been completely resurfaced at some point in its history, most likely in the past when the planet had a more eccentric orbit and was therefore more geologically active.

The largest crater observed on Ariel, Yangoor, is only 78 km across, and shows signs of subsequent deformation. All large craters on Ariel have flat floors and central peaks, and few are surrounded by bright ejecta deposits. Many craters are polygonal, indicating that their appearance was influenced by the crust’s preexisting structure. In the cratered plains there are a few large (about 100 km in diameter) light patches that may be degraded impact craters.

The cratered terrain is intersected by a network of scarps, canyons and narrow ridges, most of which occur in Ariel’s mid-southern latitudes. Known as chasmata, these canyons were probably graben that formed due to extensional faulting triggered by global tension stresses – which in turn are believed to have been caused by water and/or liquid ammonia freezing in the interior.

These chasmata are typically 15–50 km wide and are mainly oriented in an east- or northeasterly direction. The widest graben have grooves running along the crests of their convex floors (known as valles). The longest canyon is Kachina Chasma, which is over 620 km long.

was taken Jan. 24, 1986, from a distance of 130,000 km (80,000 mi). The complexity of Ariel's surface indicates that a variety of geologic processes have occurred. Credit: NASA/JPL
Image of Ariel, taken on Jan. 24, 1986, from a distance of 130,000 km (80,000 mi) showing the complexity of Ariel’s surface. Credit: NASA/JPL

The ridged terrain on Ariel, which is the second most-common type, consists of bands of ridges and troughs hundreds of kilometers long. These ridges are found bordering cratered terrain and cutting it into polygons. Within each band (25-70 km wide) individual ridges and troughs have been observed that are up to 200 km long and 10-35 km apart. Here too, these features are believed to be a modified form of graben or the result of geological stresses.

The youngest type of terrain observed on Ariel are its plains, which consists of relatively low-lying smooth areas. Due to the varying levels of cratering found in these areas, the plains are believed to have formed over a long period of time. They  are found on the floors of canyons and in a few irregular depressions in the middle of the cratered terrain.

The most likely origin for the plains is through cryovolcanism, since their geometry resembles that of shield volcanoes on Earth, and their topographic margins suggests the eruption of viscous liquid – possibly liquid ammonia. The canyons must therefore have formed at a time when endogenic resurfacing was still taking place on Ariel.

Uranus and Ariel
Ariel’s transit of Uranus, which was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope on July 26th, 2008. Credit: NASA, ESA, L. Sromovsky (University of Wisconsin, Madison), H. Hammel (Space Science Institute), and K. Rages (SETI)

Ariel is the most reflective of Uranus’s moons, with a Bond albedo of about 23%. The surface of Ariel is generally neutral in color, but there appears to be an asymmetry where the trailing hemisphere is slightly redder. The cause of this, is believed to be interaction between Ariel’s trailing hemisphere and radiation from Uranus’ magnetosphere and Solar ultraviolet radiation, which converts organic compounds in the ice into tholins.

Like all of Uranus’ major moons, Ariel is thought to have formed in the Uranunian accretion disc; which existed around Uranus for some time after its formation, or resulted from a large impact suffered by Uranus early in its history.

Exploration:

Due to its proximity to Uranus’ glare, Ariel is difficult to view by amateur astronomers. However, since the 19th century, Ariel has been observed many times by ground-based on space-based instruments. For example, on July 26th, 2006, the Hubble Space Telescope captured a rare transit made by Ariel of Uranus, which cast a shadow that could be seen on the Uranian cloud tops. Another transit, in 2008, was recorded by the European Southern Observatory.

It was not until the 1980s that images were obtained by the first and only orbiter to ever pass through the Uranus’ system. This was the Voyager 2 space probe, which photographed the moon during its January 1986 flyby.  The probe’s closest approach was at a distance of 127,000 km (79,000 mi) – significantly less than the distances to all other Uranian moons except Miranda.

Voyager 2. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the Voyager 2 space probe. Credit: NASA

The images acquired covered only about 40% of the surface, but only 35% was captured with the quality required for geological mapping and crater counting. This was partly due to the fact that the flyby coincided with the southern summer solstice, where the southern hemisphere was pointed towards the Sun and the northern hemisphere was completely concealed by darkness.

No missions have taken place to study Uranus’ system of moons since and none are currently planned. However, the possibility of sending the Cassini spacecraft to Uranus was evaluated during its mission extension planning phase in April of 2008. It was determined that it would take about twenty years for Cassini to get to the Uranian system after departing Saturn. However, this proposal and the ultimate fate of the mission remain undecided at this time.

All in all, Uranus’ moon Ariel is in good company. Like it’s fellow Uranians, its axial tilt is almost the exact same as Uranus’, it is composed of almost equal parts ice and rock, it is geologically active, and its orbit leads to an extreme seasonal cycle. However, Ariel stands alone when its to its brightness and its youthful surface. Unfortunately, this bright and youthful appearance has not made it an easier to observe.

Alas, as with all Uranian moons, exploration of this moon is still in its infancy and there is much we do not know about it. One can only hope another deep-space mission, like a modified Cassini flyby, takes place in the coming years and finishes the job started by Voyager 2!

We have many interesting articles on Ariel and Uranus’ moons here at Universe Today. Here’s one about Ariel’s 2006 transit of Uranus, its 2008 transit, and one which answers the all-important question How Many Moons Does Uranus Have?

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Ariel, and The Planetary Society’s Voyager 2 Ariel image catalog.

Sources:

 

Saturn’s Moon Dione

Ringside With Dione

Thanks to the Cassini mission, a great deal has been learned about Saturn’s system of moons (aka. the Cronian system) in the past decade. Thanks to the presence of an orbiter in the system, astronomers and space exploration enthusiasts have been treated to a seemingly endless stream of images and data, which in turn has enabled us to learn many interesting things about these moons’ appearances, surface features, composition, and history of formation.

This is certainly true of Saturn’s bright moon of Dione. In addition to being the 15th largest moon in the Solar System, and more massive than all known moons smaller than itself combined, it has much in common with other Cronian satellites – like Tethys, Iapetus and Rhea. This includes being mainly composed of ice, having a synchronous rotation with Saturn, and an unusual coloration between its leading and trailing hemispheres.

Discovery and Naming:

Dione was first observed by Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini on in 1684 using a large aerial telescope he set up on the grounds of the Paris Observatory. Along with the moons of Iapetus, Rhea and Tethys – which he had discovered in 1671, 1672 and 1684, respectively – he named these moons Sidera Lodoicea (“Stars of Louis”, after his patron, King Louis XIV of France).

These names, however, did not catch on outside of France. By the end of the 17th century, astronomers instead fell into the habit of naming Saturn’s then-known moons as Titan and Saturn I through V, in order of their observed distance from the planet. Being the second most-distant (behind Tethys) Dione came to be known as Saturn II for over a century.

An engraving of the Paris Observatory during Cassini's time. Credit: Public Domain
An engraving of the Paris Observatory during Cassini’s time. Credit: Public Domain

The modern names were suggested in 1847 by John Herschel (the son of famed astronomer William Herschel), who suggested all the moons of Saturn be named after Titans – the sons and daughters of Cronos in the Greek mythology (the equivalent of the Roman Saturn).

In his 1847 publication, Results of Astronomical Observations made at the Cape of Good Hope, he suggested the name Dione, an ancient oracular Titaness who was the wife of Zeus and the mother of Aphrodite. Dione is featured in Homer’s The Iliad, and geological features – such as craters and cliffs – take their names from people and places in Virgil’s Aeneid.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a mean radius of 561.4 ± 0.4 km and a mass of about 1.0954 × 1021 kg, Dione is equivalent in size to 0.088 Earths and 0.000328 times as massive. It orbits Saturn at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 377,396 km, with a minor eccentricity of 0.0022 – ranging from 376,566 km at periapsis and 378,226 km at apoapsis.

Dione’s semi-major axis is about 2% less than that of the Moon. However, reflecting Saturn’s greater mass, Dione’s orbital period is one tenth that of the Moon (2.736915 days compared to 28). Dione is currently in a 1:2 mean-motion orbital resonance with Saturn’s moon Enceladus, completing one orbit of Saturn for every two orbits completed by Enceladus.

Size comparison between Earth, the Moon, and Saturn's moon Dione. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Size comparison between Earth, the Moon, and Saturn’s moon Dione. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

This resonance maintains Enceladus’s orbital eccentricity (0.0047) and provides tidal flexing that powers Enceladus’ extensive geological activity (which in turn powers its cryovolcanic jets). Dione has two co-orbital (aka. trojan) moons: Helene and Polydeuces. They are located within Dione’s Lagrangian points, 60 degrees ahead of and behind it, respectively.

Composition and Surface Features:

With a mean density of 1.478 ± 0.003 g/cm³, Dione is composed mainly of water, with a small remainder likely consisting of a silicate rock core. Though somewhat smaller and denser than Rhea, Dione is otherwise very similar in terms of its varied terrain, albedo features, and the different between its leading and trailing hemisphere.

Overall, scientists recognize five classes of geological features on Dione – Chasmata (chasms), dorsa (ridges), fossae (long, narrow depressions), craters, and catenae (crater chains). Craters are the most common feature, as with many Cronian moons, and can be distinguished in terms of heavily cratered terrain, moderately cratered plains, and lightly cratered plains.

The heavily cratered terrain has numerous craters greater than 100 km (62 mi) in diameter, whereas the plains areas tend to have craters less than 30 km (19 mi) in diameter (with some areas being more heavily cratered than others).

This global map of Dione, a moon of Saturn, shows dark red in the trailing hemisphere, which is due to radiation and charged particles from Saturn's intense magnetic environment. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Global map of Dione, showing dark red in the trailing hemisphere (left), which is due to radiation and charged particles from Saturn’s. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Much of the heavily cratered terrain is located on the trailing hemisphere, with the less cratered plains areas present on the leading hemisphere. This is the opposite of what many scientists expected, and suggests that during the period of Heavy Bombardment, Dione was tidally locked to Saturn in the opposite orientation.

Because Dione is relatively small, it is theorized that an impact large enough to cause a 35 km crater would have been sufficient to spin the satellite in the opposite direction. Because there are many craters larger than 35 km (22 mi), Dione could have been repeatedly spun during its early history. The pattern of cratering since then and the leading hemisphere’s bright albedo suggests that Dione has remained in its current orientation for several billion years.

Dione is also known for its differently colored leading and trailing hemispheres, which are similar to Tethys and Rhea. Whereas its leading hemisphere is bright, its trailing hemisphere is darker and redder in appearance. This is due to the leading hemisphere picking up material from Saturn’s E-Ring, which is fed by Enceladus’ cryovolcanic emissions.

Meanwhile, the trailing hemisphere interacts with radiation from Saturn’s magnetosphere, which causes organic elements contained within its surface ice to become dark and redder in appearance.

Dione's trailing hemisphere, showing the patches of "whispy terrain". Credit: NASA/JPL
Dione’s trailing hemisphere, pictured by the Cassini orbiter, which shows its patches of “wispy terrain”. Credit: NASA/JPL

Another prominent feature is Dione’s “wispy terrain“, which covers its trailing hemisphere and is composed entirely of high albedo material that is also thin enough as to not obscure the surface features beneath. The origin of these features are unknown, but an earlier hypothesis suggested that that Dione was geologically active shortly after its formation, a process which has since ceased.

During this time of geological activity, endogenic resurfacing could have pushed material from the interior to the surface, with streaks forming from eruptions along cracks that fell back to the surface as snow or ash. Later, after the internal activity and resurfacing ceased, cratering continued primarily on the leading hemisphere and wiped out the streak patterns there.

This hypothesis was proven wrong by the Cassini probe flyby of December 13th, 2004, which produced close-up images. These revealed that the ‘wisps’ were, in fact, not ice deposits at all, but rather bright ice cliffs created by tectonic fractures (chasmata). During this flyby, Cassini also captured oblique images of the cliffs which showed that some of them are several hundred meters high.

Atmosphere:

Dione also has a very thin atmosphere of oxygen ions (O+²), which was first detected by the Cassini space probe in 2010. This atmosphere is so thin that scientists prefer to call it an exosphere rather than a tenuous atmosphere. The density of molecular oxygen ions determined from the Cassini plasma spectrometer data ranges from 0.01 to 0.09 per cm3 .

Crescent Dione from Cassini, October 11, 2005. The crater near the limb at top is Alcander, with larger crater Prytanis adjacent to its left. At lower right, several of the Palatine Chasmata fractures are visible, one of which can be seen bisecting the smaller craters Euryalus (right) and Nisus. NASA / Jet Propulsion Laboratory / Space Science Institute
Dione viewed by Cassini on October 11th, 2005, showing the Alcander crater (top) and the larger Prytanis crater to its left. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Unfortunately, the prevalence of water molecules in the background (from Saturn’s E-Ring) obscured detection of water ice on the surface, so the source of oxygen remains unknown. However, photolysis is a possible cause (similar to what happens on Europa), where charged particles from Saturn’s radiation belt interact with water ice on the surface to create hydrogen and oxygen, the hydrogen being lost to space and the oxygen retained.

Exploration:

Dione was first imaged by the Voyager 1 and 2 space probes as they passed by Saturn on their way to the Outer Solar System in 1980 and 1981, respectively. Since that time, the only probe to conduct a flyby or close-up imaging of Dione has been the Cassini orbiter, which conducted five flybys of the moon between 2005 and 2015.

The first close flyby took place on October 11th, 2005, at a distance of 500 km (310 mi), followed by another on April 7th, 2010, (again at a distance of 500 km). A third flyby was performed on December 12th, 2011, and was the closest, at an distance of 99 km (62 mi). The fourth and fifth flybys took place on June 16th and August 17th, 2015, at a distance of 516 km (321 mi) and 474 km (295 mi), respectively.

In addition to obtaining images of Cassini’s cratered and differently-colored surface, the Cassini mission was also responsible for detecting the moon’s tenuous atmosphere (exosphere). Beyond that, Cassini also provided scientists with new evidence that Dione could be more geologically active than previously predicted.

Based on models constructed by NASA scientists, it is now believed that Dione’s core experiences tidal heating, which increases the closer it gets to Saturn. Because of this, scientists also believe that Dione may also have a liquid water ocean at its core-mantle boundary, thus joining moons like Enceladus, Europa and others in being potential environments where extra-terrestrial life could exist.

This, as well as Dione’s geological history and the nature of its surface (which could be what gives rise to its atmosphere) make Dione a suitable target for future research. Though no missions to study the moon are currently being planned, any mission to the Saturn system in the coming years would likely include a flyby or two!

We have many great articles on Dione and Saturn’s moons here at Universe Today. Here is one about Cassini’s first flyby, its closest flyby, it’s possible geological activity, its canyons, and its wispy terrain.

Universe Today also has an interview with Dr. Kevin Grazier, a member of the Cassini-Huygens mission.

Saturn’s Moon Rhea

The Cronian system (i.e. Saturn and its system of rings and moons) is breathtaking to behold and intriguing to study. Besides its vast and beautiful ring system, it also has the second-most satellites of any planet in the Solar System. In fact, Saturn has an estimated 150 moons and moonlets – and only 53 of them have been officially named – which makes it second only to Jupiter.

For the most part, these moons are small, icy bodies that are believed to house interior oceans. And in all cases, particularly Rhea, their interesting appearances and compositions make them a prime target for scientific research. In addition to being able to tell us much about the Cronian system and its formation, moons like Rhea can also tell us much about the history of our Solar System.

Discovery and Naming:

Rhea was discovered by Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini on December 23rd, 1672. Together with the moons of Iapetus, Tethys and Dione, which he discovered between 1671 and 1672, he named them all Sidera Lodoicea (“the stars of Louis”) in honor of his patron, King Louis XIV of France. However, these names were not widely recognized outside of France.

In 1847, John Herschel (the son of famed astronomer William Herschel, who discovered Uranus, Enceladus and Mimas) suggested the name Rhea – which first appeared in his treatise Results of Astronomical Observations made at the Cape of Good Hope. Like all the other Cronian satellites, Rhea was named after a Titan from Greek mythology, the “mother of the gods” and one the sisters of Cronos (Saturn, in Roman mythology).

The moons of Saturn, from left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and irregularly shaped Hyperion (bottom). Some small moons are also shown. All to scale. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
The moons of Saturn, from left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan (background), Iapetus (top), and Hyperion (bottom). Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a mean radius of 763.8±1.0 km and a mass of 2.3065 ×1021 kg, Rhea is equivalent in size to 0.1199 Earths (and 0.44 Moons), and about 0.00039 times as massive (or 0.03139 Moons). It orbits Saturn at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 527,108 km, which places it outside the orbits of  Dione and Tethys, and has a nearly circular orbit with a very minor eccentricity (0.001).

With an orbital velocity of about 30,541 km/h, Rhea takes approximately 4.518 days to complete a single orbit of its parent planet. Like many of Saturn’s moons, its rotational period is synchronous with its orbit, meaning that the same face is always pointed towards it.

Composition and Surface Features:

With a mean density of about 1.236 g/cm³, Rhea is estimated to be composed of 75% water ice (with a density of roughly 0.93 g/cm³) and 25% of silicate rock (with a density of around 3.25 g/cm³). This low density means that although Rhea is the ninth-largest moon in the Solar System, it is also the tenth-most massive.

In terms of its interior, Rhea was originally suspected of being differentiated between a rocky core and an icy mantle. However, more recent measurements would seem to indicate that Rhea is either only partly differentiated, or has a homogeneous interior – likely consisting of both silicate rock and ice together (similar to Jupiter’s moon Callisto).

Views of Saturn's moon Rhea. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Views of Saturn’s moon Rhea, with false-color image showing elevation data at the right. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Models of Rhea’s interior also suggest that it may have an internal liquid-water ocean, similar to Enceladus and Titan. This liquid-water ocean, should it exist, would likely be located at the core-mantle boundary, and would be sustained by the heating caused by from decay of radioactive elements in its core.

Rhea’s surface features resemble those of Dione, with dissimilar appearances existing between their leading and trailing hemispheres – which suggests that the two moons have similar compositions and histories. Images taken of the surface have led astronomers to divide it into two regions – the heavily cratered and bright terrain, where craters are larger than 40 km (25 miles) in diameter; and the polar and equatorial regions where craters are noticeably smaller.

Another difference between Rhea’s leading and trailing hemisphere is their coloration. The leading hemisphere is heavily cratered and uniformly bright while the trailing hemisphere has networks of bright swaths on a dark background and few visible craters. It had been thought that these bright areas (aka. wispy terrain) might be material ejected from ice volcanoes early in Rhea’s history when its interior was still liquid.

However, observations of Dione, which has an even darker trailing hemisphere and similar but more prominent bright streaks, has cast this into doubt. It is now believed that the wispy terrain are tectonically-formed ice cliffs (chasmata) which resulted from extensive fracturing of the moon’s surface. Rhea also has a very faint “line” of material at its equator which was thought to be deposited by material deorbiting from its rings (see below).

Hemispheric color differences on Saturn's moon Rhea are apparent in this false-color view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. This image shows the side of the moon that always faces the planet. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
Hemispheric color differences on Saturn’s moon Rhea are apparent in this false-color view of the anti-Cronian side, from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Rhea has two particularly large impact basins, both of which are situated on Rhea’s anti-Cronian side (aka. the side facing away from Saturn). These are known as Tirawa and Mamaldi basins, which measure roughly 360 and 500 km (223.69 and 310.68 mi) across. The more northerly and less degraded basin of Tirawa overlaps Mamaldi – which lies to its southwest – and is roughly comparable to the Odysseus crater on Tethys (which gives it its “Death-Star” appearance).

Atmosphere:

Rhea has a tenuous atmosphere (exosphere) which consists of oxygen and carbon dioxide, which exists in a 5:2 ratio. The surface density of the exosphere is from 105 to 106 molecules per cubic centimeter, depending on local temperature. Surface temperatures on Rhea average 99 K (-174 °C/-281.2 °F) in direct sunlight, and between 73 K (-200 °C/-328 °F) and 53 K (-220 °C/-364 °F) when sunlight is absent.

The oxygen in the atmosphere is created by the interaction of surface water ice and ions supplied from Saturn’s magnetosphere (aka. radiolysis). These ions cause the water ice to break down into oxygen gas (O²) and elemental hydrogen (H), the former of which is retained while the latter escapes into space. The source of the carbon dioxide is less clear, and could be either the result of organics in the surface ice being oxidized, or from outgassing from the moon’s interior.

Saturn's second-largest moon Rhea, in front of the rings and a blurred Epimetheus (or Janus) whizzing behind. Acquired March 29, 2012.
Saturn’s second-largest moon Rhea, pictured by the Cassini probe on March 29, 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL

Rhea may also have a tenuous ring system, which was inferred based on observed changes in the flow of electrons trapped by Saturn’s magnetic field. The existence of a ring system was temporarily bolstered by the discovered presence of a set of small ultraviolet-bright spots distributed along Rhea’s equator (which were interpreted as the impact points of deorbiting ring material).

However, more recent observations made by the Cassini probe have cast doubt on this. After taking images of the planet from multiple angles, no evidence of ring material was found, suggesting that there must be another cause for the observed electron flow and UV bright spots on Rhea’s equator. If such a ring system were to exist, it would be the first instance where a ring system was found orbiting a moon.

Exploration:

The first images of Rhea were obtained by the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft while they studied the Cronian system, in 1980 and 1981, respectively. No subsequent missions were made until the arrival of the Cassini orbiter in 2005. After it’s arrival in the Cronian system, the orbiter made five close targeted fly-bys and took many images of Saturn from long to moderate distances. 

The Cronian system is definitely a fascinating place, and we’ve really only begun to scratch its surface in recent years. In time, more orbiters and perhaps landers will be traveling to the system, seeking to learn more about Saturn’s moons and what exists beneath their icy surfaces. One can only hope that any such mission includes a closer look at Rhea, and the other “Death Star Moon”, Dione.

We have many great articles on Rhea and Saturn’s system of moons here at Universe Today. Here is one about its possible ring system, its tectonic activity, it’s impact basins, and images provided by Cassini’s flyby.

Astronomy Cast also has an interesting interview with Dr. Kevin Grazier, who worked on the Cassini mission.

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Rhea.

Water On The Moon Was Blown in by Solar Wind

When they first set foot on the Moon, the Apollo 11 astronauts painted a picture of the landscape as a bone-dry desert. So astronomers were naturally surprised when in 2009, three probes showed that a lot of water is locked up in minerals in the soil. There has been some debate as to where the water came from, but now two researchers with the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France, have determined that most of the water in the soil on the surface of the Moon was formed due to protons in the solar wind colliding with oxygen in lunar dust, rather than from comet or meteorite impacts.

The first hints that there was water on the Moon came when India’s Chandrayaan-1 found hints of water across the lunar surface when it measured a dip in reflected sunlight at a wavelength absorbed only by water and hydroxyl, a molecule that contains one atom of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen.

Continue reading “Water On The Moon Was Blown in by Solar Wind”

How Many Moons Does Saturn Have?

Saturn is well known for being a gas giant, and for its impressive ring system. But would it surprise you to know that this planet also has the second-most moons in the Solar System, second only to Jupiter? Yes, Saturn has at least 150 moons and moonlets in total, though only 62 have confirmed orbits and only 53 have been given official names.

Most of these moons are small, icy bodies that are little more than parts of its impressive ring system. In fact, 34 of the moons that have been named are less than 10 km in diameter while another 14 are 10 to 50 km in diameter. However, some of its inner and outer moons are among the largest and most dramatic in the Solar System, measuring between 250 and 5000 km in diameter and housing some of greatest mysteries in the Solar System.

Saturn’s moons have such a variety of environments between them that you’d be forgiven for wanting to spend an entire mission just looking at its satellites. From the orange and hazy Titan to the icy plumes emanating from Enceladus, studying Saturn’s system gives us plenty of things to think about. Not only that, the moon discoveries keep on coming. As of April 2014, there are 62 known satellites of Saturn (excluding its spectacular rings, of course). Fifty-three of those worlds are named.

The Cassini spacecraft observes three of Saturn's moons set against the darkened night side of the planet. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
The Cassini spacecraft observes three of Saturn’s moons set against the darkened night side of the planet. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Discovery and Naming:

Prior to the invention of telescopic photography,  eight of Saturn’s moons were observed using simple telescopes. The first to be discovered was Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, which was observed by Christiaan Huygens in 1655 using a telescope of his own design. Between 1671 and 1684, Giovanni Domenico Cassini discovered the moons of Tethys, Dione, Rhea and Iapetus – which he collectively named the “Sider Lodoicea” (Latin for “Louisian Stars”, after King Louis XIV of France).

n 1789, William Herschel discovered Mimas and Enceladus, while father-and-son astronomers W.C Bond and G.P. Bond discovered Hyperion in 1848 – which was independently discovered by William Lassell that same year. By the end of the 19th century, the invention of long-exposure photographic plates allowed for the discovery of more moons – the first of which Phoebe, observed in 1899 by W.H. Pickering.

In 1966, the tenth satellite of Saturn was discovered by French astronomer Audouin Dollfus, which was later named Janus. A few years later, it was realized that his observations could only be explained if another satellite had been present with an orbit similar to that of Janus. This eleventh moon was later named Epimetheus, which shares the same orbit with Janus and is the only known co-orbital in the Solar System.

Saturn and its moons. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
Collage of Saturn and its largest moons. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

By 1980, three additional moons were discovered and later confirmed by the Voyager probes. They were the trojan moons (see below) of Helene (which orbits Dione) as well as Telesto and Calypso (which orbit Tethys).

The study of the outer planets has since been revolutionized by the use of unmanned space probes. This began with the arrival of the Voyager spacecraft to the Cronian system in 1980-81, which resulted in the discovery of three additional moons – Atlas, Prometheus, and Pandora – bringing the total to 17. By 1990, archived images also revealed the existence of Pan.

This was followed by the Cassini-Huygens mission, which arrived at Saturn in the summer of 2004. Initially, Cassini discovered three small inner moons, including Methone and Pallene between Mimas and Enceladus, as well as the second Lagrangian moon of Dione – Polydeuces. In November of 2004, Cassini scientists announced that several more moons must be orbiting within Saturn’s rings. From this data, multiple moonlets and the moons of Daphnis and Anthe have been confirmed.

The study of Saturn’s moons has also been aided by the introduction of digital charge-coupled devices, which replaced photographic plates by the end of the 20th century. Because of this, ground-based telescopes have begun to discovered several new irregular moons around Saturn. In 2000, three medium-sized telescopes found thirteen new moons with eccentric orbits that were of considerable distance from the planet.

The moons of Saturn, from left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and irregularly shaped Hyperion (bottom). Some small moons are also shown. All to scale. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
The moons of Saturn, from left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and Hyperion (bottom). Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

In 2005, astronomers using the Mauna Kea Observatory announced the discovery of twelve more small outer moons. In 2006, astronomers using Japan’s Subaru Telescope at Mauna Kea reported the discovery of nine more irregular moons. In April of 2007, Tarqeq (S/2007 S 1) was announced, and in May of that same year, S/2007 S 2 and S/2007 S 3 were reported.

The modern names of Saturn’s moons were suggested by John Herschel (William Herschel’s son) in 1847. In keeping with the nomenclature of the other planets, he proposed they be named after mythological figures associated with the Roman god of agriculture and harvest – Saturn, the equivalent of the Greek Cronus. In particular, the seven known satellites were named after Titans, Titanesses and Giants – the brothers and sisters of Cronus.

In 1848, Lassell proposed that the eighth satellite of Saturn be named Hyperion after another Titan. When in the 20th century, the names of Titans were exhausted, the moons were named after different characters of the Greco-Roman mythology, or giants from other mythologies. All the irregular moons (except Phoebe) are named after Inuit and Gallic gods and Norse ice giants.

Saturn’s Inner Large Moons:

Saturn’s moons are grouped based on their size, orbits, and proximity to Saturn. The innermost moons and regular moons all have small orbital inclinations and eccentricities and prograde orbits. Meanwhile, the irregular moons in the outermost regions have orbital radii of millions of kilometers, orbital periods lasting several years, and move in retrograde orbits.

Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Saturn’s moon of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s Inner Large Moons, which orbit within the E Ring (see below), include the larger satellites Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, and Dione. These moons are all composed primarily of water ice, and are believed to be differentiated into a rocky core and an icy mantle and crust. With a diameter of 396 km and a mass of 0.4×1020 kg, Mimas is the smallest and least massive of these moons. It is ovoid in shape and orbits Saturn at a distance of 185,539 km with an orbital period of 0.9 days.

Some people jokingly call Mimas the “Death Star” moon because of the crater in its surface that resembles the machine from the Star Wars universe. The 140 km (88 mi) Herschel Crater is about a third the diameter of the moon itself, and could have created fractures (chasmata) on the moon’s opposing side. There are in fact craters throughout the moon’s small surface, making it among the most pockmarked in the Solar System.

Enceladus, meanwhile, has a diameter of 504 km, a mass of 1.1×1020 km and is spherical in shape. It orbits Saturn at a distance of 237,948 km and takes 1.4 days to complete a single orbit. Though it is one of the smaller spherical moons, it is the only Cronian moon that is endogenously active – and one of the smallest known bodies in the Solar System that is geologically active. This results in features like the famous “tiger stripes” – a series of continuous, ridged, slightly curved and roughly parallel faults within the moon’s southern polar latitudes.

Large geysers have also been observed in the southern polar region that periodically release plumes of water ice, gas and dust which replenish Saturn’s E ring. These jets are one of several indications that Enceladus has liquid water beneath it’s icy crust, where geothermal processes release enough heat to maintain a warm water ocean closer to its core.

Dione's trailing hemisphere, showing the patches of "whispy terrain". Credit: NASA/JPL
Dione’s trailing hemisphere, showing the patches of “whispy terrain”. Credit: NASA/JPL

The moon has at least five different kinds of terrain, a “young” geological surface of less than 100 million years. With a geometrical albedo of more than 140%, which is due to it being composed largely of water ice, Enceladus is one of the brightest known objects in the Solar System.

At 1066 km in diameter, Tethys is the second-largest of Saturn’s inner moons and the 16th-largest moon in the Solar System. The majority of its surface is made up of heavily cratered and hilly terrain and a smaller and smoother plains region. Its most prominent features are the large impact crater of Odysseus, which measures 400 km in diameter, and a vast canyon system named Ithaca Chasma – which is concentric with Odysseus and measures 100 km wide, 3 to 5 km deep and 2,000 km long.

With a diameter and mass of 1,123 km and 11×1020 kg, Dione is the largest inner moon of Saturn. The majority of Dione’s surface is heavily cratered old terrain, with craters that measure up to 250 km in diameter. However, the moon is also covered with an extensive network of troughs and lineaments which indicate that in the past it had global tectonic activity.

It’s covered in canyons, cracking and craters and is coated from dust in the E-ring that originally came from Enceladus. The location of this dust has led astronomers to theorize that the moon was spun about 180 degrees from its original disposition in the past, perhaps due to a large impact.

Saturn’s Large Outer Moons:

The Large Outer Moons, which orbit outside of the Saturn’s E Ring, are similar in composition to the Inner Moons – i.e. composed primarily of water ice and rock. Of these, Rhea is the second largest – measuring 1,527 km in diameter and 23×1020 kg in mass – and the ninth largest moon of the Solar System. With an orbital radius of 527,108 km, it is the fifth-most distant of the larger moons, and takes 4.5 days to complete an orbit.

Views of Saturn's moon Rhea. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Views of Saturn’s moon Rhea. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Like other Cronian satellites, Rhea has a rather heavily cratered surface, and a few large fractures on its trailing hemisphere. Rhea also has two very large impact basins on its anti-Saturnian hemisphere – the Tirawa crater (similar to Odysseus on Tethys) and an as-yet unnamed crater – that measure 400 and 500 km across, respectively.

Rhea has at least two major sections, the first being bright craters with craters larger than 40 km (25 miles), and a second section with smaller craters. The difference in these features are believed to be evidence of a major resurfacing event at some time in Rhea’s past.

At 5150 km in diameter, and 1,350×1020 kg in mass, Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and comprises more than 96% of the mass in orbit around the planet. Titan is also the only large moon to have its own atmosphere, which is cold, dense, and composed primarily of nitrogen with a small fraction of methane. Scientists have also noted the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the upper atmosphere, as well as methane ice crystals.

The surface of Titan, which is difficult to observe due to persistent atmospheric haze, shows only a few impact craters, evidence of cryovolcanoes, and longitudinal dune fields that were apparently shaped by tidal winds. Titan is also the only body in the Solar System beside Earth with bodies of liquid on its surface, in the form of methane–ethane lakes in Titan’s north and south polar regions.

ASA's Cassini spacecraft looks toward the night side of Saturn's largest moon and sees sunlight scattering through the periphery of Titan's atmosphere and forming a ring of color. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Image of Titan’s taken by the Cassini spacecraft, showing light passing through the periphery of the moon’s atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Titan is also distinguished for being the only Cronian moon that has ever had a probe land on it. This was the Huygens lander, which was carried to the hazy world by the Cassini spacecraft. Titan’s “Earth-like processes” and thick atmosphere are among the things that make this world stand out to scientists, which include its ethane and methane rains from the atmsophere and flows on the surface.

With an orbital distance of 1,221,870 km, it is the second-farthest large moon from Saturn, and completes a single orbit every 16 days. Like Europa and Ganymede, it is believed that Titan has a subsurface ocean made of water mixed with ammonia, which can erupt to the surface of the moon and lead to cryovolcanism.

Hyperion is Titan’s immediate neighbor. At an average diameter of about 270 km, it is smaller and lighter than Mimas. It is also irregularly shaped and quite odd in composition. Essentially, the moon is an ovoid, tan-colored body with an extremely porous surface (which resembles a sponge).  The surface of Hyperion is covered with numerous impact craters, most of which are 2 to 10 km in diameter. It also has a highly unpredictable rotation, with no well-defined poles or equator.

At 1,470 km in diameter and 18×1020 kg in mass, Iapetus is the third-largest of Saturn’s large moons. And at a distance of 3,560,820 km from Saturn, it is the most distant of the large moons, and takes 79 days to complete a single orbit. Due to its unusual color and composition – its leading hemisphere is dark and black whereas its trailing hemisphere is much brighter – it is often called the “yin and yang” of Saturn’s moons.

The two sides of Iapetus. Credit: NASA/JPL
The two sides of Iapetus, Saturn’s “yin-yang moon”. Credit: NASA/JPL

Saturn’s Irregular Moons:

Beyond these larger moons are Saturn’s Irregular Moons. These satellites are small, have large-radii, are inclined, have mostly retrograde orbits, and are believed to have been acquired by Saturn’s gravity. These moons are made up of three basic groups – the Inuit Group, the Gallic Group, and the Norse Group.

The Inuit Group consists of five irregular moons that are all named from Inuit mythology – Ijiraq, Kiviuq, Paaliaq, Siarnaq, and Tarqeq. All have prograde orbits that range from 11.1 to 17.9 million km, and from 7 to 40 km in diameter. They are all similar in appearance (reddish in hue) and have orbital inclinations of between 45 and 50°.

The Gallic group are a group of four prograde outer moons named for characters in Gallic mythology -Albiorix, Bebhionn, Erriapus, and Tarvos. Here too, the moons are similar in appearance and have orbits that range from 16 to 19 million km. Their inclinations are in the 35°-40° range, their eccentricities around 0.53, and they range in size from 6 to 32 km.

Last, there is the Norse group, which consists of 29 retrograde outer moons that take their names from Norse mythology. These satellites range in size from 6 to 18 km, their distances from 12 and 24 million km, their inclinations between 136° and 175°, and their eccentricities between 0.13 and 0.77. This group is also sometimes referred to as the Phoebe group, due to the presence of a single larger moon in the group – which measures 240 km in diameter. The second largest, Ymir, measures 18 km across.

Saturns rings and moons Credit: NASA
Saturn’s rings and moons Credit: NASA

Within the Inner and Outer Large Moons, there are also those belonging to Alkyonide group. These moons – Methone, Anthe, and Pallene – are named after the Alkyonides of Greek mythology, are located between the orbits of Mimas and Enceladus, and are among the smallest moons around Saturn.  Some of the larger moons even have moons of their own, which are known as Trojan moons. For instance, Tethys has two trojans – Telesto and Calypso, while Dione has Helene and Polydeuces.

Moon Formation:

It is thought that Saturn’s moon of Titan, its mid-sized moons and rings developed in a way that is closer to the Galilean moons of Jupiter. In short, this would mean that the regular moons formed from a circumplanetary disc, a ring of accreting gas and solid debris similar to a protoplanetary disc. Meanwhile, the outer, irregular moons are believed to have been objects that were captured by Saturn’s gravity and remained in distant orbits.

However, there are some variations on this theory. In one alternative scenario, two Titan-sized moons were formed from an accretion disc around Saturn; the second one eventually breaking up to produce the rings and inner mid-sized moons. In another, two large moons fused together to form Titan, and the collision scattered icy debris that formed to create the mid-sized moons.

However, the mechanics of how the moon’s formed remains a mystery for the time being. With additional missions mounted to study the atmospheres, compositions and surfaces of these moons, we may begin to understand where they truly came from.

Much like Jupiter, and all the other gas giants, Saturn’s system of satellites is extensive as it is impressive. In addition to the larger moons that are believed to have formed from a massive debris field that once orbited it, it also has countless smaller satellites that were captured by its gravitational field over the course of billions of years. One can only imagine how many more remain to be found orbiting the ringed giant.

We have many great articles on Saturn and its moon’s here at Universe Today. For example, here’s How Many Moons Does Saturn Have? and Is Saturn Making a New Moon?

Here’s an article about the discovery of Saturn’s 60th moon, and another article about how Saturn’s moons could be creating new rings.

Want more information about Saturn’s moons? Check out NASA’s Cassini information on the moons of Saturn, and more from NASA’s Solar System Exploration site.

We have recorded two episodes of Astronomy Cast just about Saturn. The first is Episode 59: Saturn, and the second is Episode 61: Saturn’s Moons.

Sources:

New Flyover Video Takes You on a Tour of Titan’s Lake Region

Saturn’s moon Titan has the only known liquid lakes beyond planet Earth, and new data from the Cassini spacecraft’s radar instrument provides an intriguing 3-D flyover of these hydrocarbon lakes and seas at the north pole region. Steve Wall, Cassini acting radar team lead, provided a guided tour as he presented the video at the American Geophysical Union conference in San Francisco, noting that the vertical heights are exaggerated tenfold and the data has been colorized, both for visual effect.

The video starts by zooming into the southern end of Kraken Mare, the largest of Titan’s seas, and as you fly a little farther, Wall said the things that look like little islands are just noise in the radar data. Next, comes Ligea Mare, with its rugged coastline, and you’ll see that the liquid flow into the surrounding terrain, which appear like river valleys.

The “smooth” area that stretches farther from Ligea Mare is actualy not so smooth, but is just an area when the science team doesn’t have topographical data yet.

The video then continues to other smaller lakes that are nestled into valleys and rugged terrain.

“Learning about surface features like lakes and seas helps us to understand how Titan’s liquids, solids and gases interact to make it so Earth-like,” said Wall. “While these two worlds aren’t exactly the same, it shows us more and more Earth-like processes as we get new views.”

The new data is not only visually stunning, but provides previously unknown details about these lakes and the region. For example, Kraken Mare is more extensive and complex than previously thought. They also show nearly all of the lakes on Titan fall into an area covering about 600 miles by 1,100 miles (900 kilometers by 1,800 kilometers). Only 3 percent of the liquid at Titan falls outside of this area.

“Scientists have been wondering why Titan’s lakes are where they are. These images show us that the bedrock and geology must be creating a particularly inviting environment for lakes in this box,” said Randolph Kirk, a Cassini radar team member at the U.S. Geological Survey in Flagstaff, Ariz. “We think it may be something like the formation of the prehistoric lake called Lake Lahontan near Lake Tahoe in Nevada and California, where deformation of the crust created fissures that could be filled up with liquid.”

Additionally, scientists now know that Ligeia Mare is about 560 feet (170 meters) deep. This is the first time scientists have been able to plumb the bottom of a lake or sea on Titan. This was possible partly because the liquid turned out to be very pure, allowing the radar signal to pass through it easily. The liquid surface may be as smooth as the paint on our cars, and it is very clear to radar eyes.

“Ligeia Mare turned out to be just the right depth for radar to detect a signal back from the sea floor, which is a signal we didn’t think we’d be able to get,” said Marco Mastrogiuseppe, a Cassini radar team associate at Sapienza University of Rome. “The measurement we made shows Ligeia to be deeper in at least one place than the average depth of Lake Michigan.”

The new results indicate the liquid is mostly methane, somewhat similar to a liquid form of natural gas on Earth.

Sources: AGU press conference, JPL press release

Earthlings Wave at Saturn as Cassini Images Us

Earth Waves at Saturn and Cassini on July 19, 2013
From more than 40 countries and 30 U.S. states, people around the world shared more than 1,400 images of themselves as part of the Wave at Saturn event organized by NASA’s Cassini mission on July 19, 2013. The Cassini team created this image collage as a tribute to the people of Earth
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/People of Earth
See link below to the absolutely gigantic full resolution version [/caption]

On July 19, millions of Earthlings worldwide participated in NASA’s ‘Wave at Saturn’ campaign as the NASA Cassini Saturn orbiter turned about and imaged all of us.

Earthlings from 40 countries and 30 U.S. states heeded NASA’s call to photograph themselves while smiling and waving at Saturn and Cassini across 1 billion miles of interplanetary space and shared over 1400 images.

The results of all those images has now been assembled into a fabulous collage in the shape of our planet and released today (Aug. 21) by NASA and the Cassini team as a tribute to the People of Earth.

“Did you wave at Saturn and send us your photo? Then here’s looking at you!” NASA announced on the Cassini Facebook page.

This event was the first time that the citizens of Earth knew in advance that a distant interplanetary spacecraft was photographing portraits of our home planet and our Moon. NASA invited everyone to participate.

Photos flooded into NASA via Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Instagram, Google+ and email.

Click here for the full resolution version. But be forewarned – it weighs in at over 26 MB and it’s far too big to post here.

The Day the Earth Smiled: Sneak Preview In this rare image taken on July 19, 2013, the wide-angle camera on NASA's Cassini spacecraft has captured Saturn's rings and our planet Earth and its moon in the same frame. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
The Day the Earth Smiled: Sneak Preview
In this rare image taken on July 19, 2013, the wide-angle camera on NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has captured Saturn’s rings and our planet Earth and its moon in the same frame. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

“Thanks to all of you, near and far, old and young, who joined the Cassini mission in marking the first time inhabitants of Earth had advance notice that our picture was being taken from interplanetary distances,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif, in a statement.

“While Earth is too small in the images Cassini obtained to distinguish any individual human beings, the mission has put together this collage so that we can celebrate all your waving hands, uplifted paws, smiling faces and artwork.”

The Cassini imaging science team is still assembling the hundreds of images of Saturn and Earth snapped by the spacecraft as we were waving, to create individual color composites and a panoramic view of the ‘pale blue dot’ and the entire Saturnian system.

To capture all of Saturn and its wide swath of rings, Cassini’s wide angle camera snapped a mosaic of 33 footprints on July 19, 2013.

“At each footprint, images were taken in different spectral filters for a total of 323 images,” says Carolyn Porco, Cassini Imaging Team leader, Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

Cassini took the pictures of Earth from a distance of about 898 million miles (1.44 billion kilometers) away from the home to every human being that has ever lived.

Here is our partial version of Cassini’s mosaic.

Partial context mosaic of the Earth and Saturn taken by NASA’s Cassini orbiter on July 19, 2013.   This mosaic was assembled from five wide angle camera raw images.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
Partial context mosaic of the Earth and Saturn taken by NASA’s Cassini orbiter on July 19, 2013. This mosaic was assembled from five Cassini wide angle camera raw images and offers a sneak peek of the complete panorama. Earth at lower right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

Cassini was launched from Florida in 1997.

It achieved orbit at Saturn in 2004 and has transmitted breathtaking images and science that revolutionized our understanding of the Saturnian system.

The mission is scheduled to continue until 2017 when it will commit a suicide death dive into the humongous gas giant.

Coincidentally, the first humans (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin) set foot on the Moon 44 years ago nearly to the day of Cassini’s Earth-Moon portrait on July 20, 1969 aboard Apollo 11.

And likewise on July 19, 2013, billionaire space enthusiast Jeff Bezos announced that his dive teams had recovered components of an Apollo 11 first stage F-1 rocket engine from the Saturn V moon rocket that propelled the first humans to the Moon.

Ken Kremer

JPL Waves at Saturn As NASA's Cassini spacecraft turned its imaging cameras to Earth, scientists, engineers and visitors at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., gathered to wave at our robotic photographer in the Saturn system on July 19, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
JPL Waves at Saturn As NASA’s Cassini spacecraft turned its imaging cameras to Earth, scientists, engineers and visitors at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., gathered to wave at our robotic photographer in the Saturn system on July 19, 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech