Titan Looks Cool in Infrared

The Cassini spacecraft ended its mission on September 15th, 2017, when it crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere, thus preventing any possible contamination of the system’s moons. Nevertheless, the wealth of data the probe collected during the thirteen years it spent orbiting Saturn (of the gas giant, its rings, and its many moons) continues to be analyzed by scientists – with amazing results!

Case in point, the Cassini team recently released a series of colorful images that show what Titan looks like in infrared. The images were constructing using 13 years of data that was accumulated by the spacecraft’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument. These images represent some of the clearest, most seamless-looking global views of the icy moon’s surface produced so far.

Infrared images provide a unique opportunity when studying Titan, which is difficult to observe in the visible spectrum because of its dense and hazy atmosphere. This is primarily the result of small particles called aerosols in Titan’s upper atmosphere, which strongly scatter visible light. However, where the scattering and absorption of light is much weaker, this allows for infrared “windows” that make it possible to catch glimpses of Titan’s surface.

Comparison between how Titan appears in visible light (center), and in infrared. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Stéphane Le Mouélic, University of Nantes, Virginia Pasek, University of Arizona

It is because of this that the VIMS was so valuable, allowing scientists to provide clear images of Titan’s surface. This latest collection of images are especially unique because of the smoothness and clarity they offer. In previous infrared images captured by the Cassini spacecraft of Titan (see below), there were great variations in imaging resolution and lighting conditions, which resulted in obvious seams between different areas of the surface.

This is due to the fact that the VIMS obtained data over many different flybys with different observing geometries and atmospheric conditions. As a result, very prominent seams appear in mosaic images that are quite difficult to remove. But, through laborious and detailed analyses of the data, along with time consuming hand processing of the mosaics, Cassini’s imaging team was able to mostly remove the seams.

The process used to reduce the prominence of seams is known as the “band-ratio” technique. This process involves combining three color channels (red, green and blue), using a ratio between the brightness of Titan’s surface at two different wavelengths. The technique also emphasizes subtle spectral variations in the materials on Titan’s surface, as evidenced by the bright patches of brown, blue and purple (which may be evidence of different compositions).

The three mosaics shown here were composed with data from Cassini’s Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) taken during the three flybys of Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

In addition to offering the clearest and most-seamless glimpse of Titan yet, these unique images also highlight the moon’s complex geography and composition. They also showcase the power of the VIMS instrument, which has paved the way for future infrared instruments that could capture images of Titan at much higher resolution and reveal features that Cassini was not able to see.

In the coming years, NASA hopes to send additional missions to Titan to explore its surface and methane lakes for signs of biosignatures. An infrared instrument, which can see through Titan’s dense atmosphere, provide high-resolution images of the surface and help determine its composition, will prove very useful in this regard!

Further Reading: NASA

Last Look At Mimas For A Long Time

Since the Cassini mission arrived in the Saturn system in 2004, it has provided some stunning images of the gas giant and its many moons. And in the course of capturing new views of Titan’s dense atmosphere, Iapetus’ curious “yin-yang” coloration, and the water plumes and “tiger stripes” of Enceladus, it snapped the most richly-detailed images of Mimas ever seen.

But like all good things, Cassini’s days of capturing close-up images of Mimas are coming to an end. As of January 30th, 2017, the probe made its final close approach to the moon, and took the last of it’s close-up pictures in the process. In the future, all observations (and pictures) of Mimas will take place at roughly twice this distance – and will therefore be less detailed.

To be fair, these close approaches were a pretty rare event during the Cassini mission. Over the course of the thirteen years that the probe has been in the Saturn system, only seven flybys have taken place, occurring at distances of less 50,000 km (31,000 mi). At its closest approach, Cassini passed within 41,230 km (25,620 mi) of Mimas.

Second mosaic view of Mimas, showing illumination on only the Sun-facing side. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

During this time, the probe managed to take a series of images that allowed for the creation of a beautiful mosaic. This mosaic was made from ten combined narrow-angle camera images, and is one of the highest resolution views ever captured of the icy moon. It also comes in two versions. In one, the left side of Mimas is illuminated by the Sun and the picture is enhanced to show the full moon (seen at top).

In the second version (shown above), natural illumination shows only the Sun-facing side of the moon. They also created an animation that allows viewers to switch between mosaics, showing the contrast. And as you can see, these mosaics provide a very detailed look at Mimas heavily-cratered surface, a well as the large surface fractures that are believed to have been caused by the same impact that created the Herschel Crater.

This famous crater, from which Mimas gets it’s “Death Star” appearance, was photographed during Cassini’s first flyby – which occurred on February 13th, 2010. Named in honor of William Herschel (the discoverer of Uranus, its moons Oberon, and Titania, and Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Mimas), this crater measures 130 km (81 mi) across, almost a third of Mimas’ diameter.

This mosaic, created from images taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during its closest flyby of Saturn’s moon Mimas, looks straight at the moon’s huge Herschel Crater Credit: NASA/JPL

Its is also quite deep, as craters go, with walls that are approximately 5 km (3.1 mi) high. Parts of its floor reach as deep as 10 km (6.2 mi), and it’s central peak rises 6 km (3.7 mi) above the crater floor. The impact that created this crater is believed to have nearly shattered Mimas, and also caused the fractures visible on the opposite side of the moon.

It’s a shame we won’t be getting any more close ups of the moon’s many interesting features. However, we can expect a plethora of intriguing images of Saturn’s rings, which it will be exploring in depth as part of the final phase of its mission. The mission is scheduled to end on September 15th, 2017, which will culminate with the crash of the probe in Saturn’s atmosphere.

Further Reading: NASA