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

What is the Closest Planet to Earth?

A common question when looking at the Solar System and Earth’s place in the grand scheme of it is “which planet is closest to Earth?” Aside from satisfying a person’s general curiosity, this question is also of great importance when it comes to space exploration. And as humanity contemplates mounting manned missions to neighboring planets, it also becomes one of immense practicality.

If, someday, we hope to explore, settle, and colonize other worlds, which would make for the shortest trip? Invariable, the answer is Venus. Often referred to as “Earth’s Twin“, Venus has many similarities to Earth. It is a terrestrial planet, it orbits within the Sun’s habitable zone, and it has an atmosphere that is believed to have once been like Earth’s. Combined with its proximity to us, its little wonder we consider it our twin.

Venus’ Orbit:

Venus orbits the Sun at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 108,208,000 km (0.723 AUs), ranging between 107,477,000 km (0.718 AU) at perihelion and 108,939,000 km (0.728 AU) at aphelion. This makes Venus’ orbit the least eccentric of all the planets in the Solar System. In fact, with an eccentricity of less than 0.01, its orbit is almost circular.

Earth and Venus' orbit compared. Credit: Sky and Telescope
Earth and Venus’ orbit compared. Credit: Sky and Telescope

When Venus lies between Earth and the Sun, it experiences what is known as an inferior conjunction. It is at this point that it makes its closest approach to Earth (and that of any planet) with an average distance of 41 million km (25,476,219 mi). On average, Venus achieves an inferior conjunction with Earth every 584 days.

And because of the decreasing eccentricity of Earth’s orbit, the minimum distances will become greater over the next tens of thousands of years. So not only is it Earth’s closest neighbor (when it makes its closest approach), but it will continue to get cozier with us as time goes on!

Venus vs. Mars:

As Earth’s other neighbor, Mars also has a “close” relationship with Earth. Orbiting our Sun at an average distance of 227,939,200 km (1.52 AU), Mars’ highly eccentric orbit (0.0934) takes it from a distance of 206,700,000 km (1.38 AU) at perihelion to 249,200,000 km (1.666 AU) at aphelion. This makes its orbit one of the more eccentric in our Solar System, second only to Mercury

For Earth and Mars to be at their closest, both planets needs to be on the same side of the Sun, Mars needs to be at its closest distance from the Sun (perihelion), and Earth needs to be at its farthest (aphelion). This is known as opposition, a time when Mars appears as one of the brightest objects in the sky (as a red star), rivaling that of Venus or Jupiter.

The eccentricity in Mars' orbit means that it is . Credit: NASA
The eccentricity in Mars’ orbit means that it is . Credit: NASA

But even at this point, the distance between Mars and Earth ranges considerably. The closest approach to take place occurred back in 2003, when Earth and Mars were only 56 million km (3,4796,787 mi) apart. And this was the closest they’d been in 50,000 years. The next closest approach will take place on July 27th, 20178, when Earth and Mars will be at a distance of 57.6 million km (35.8 mi) from each other.

It has also been estimated that the closest theoretical approach would take place at a distance of 54.6 million km (33.9 million mi). However, no such approach has been documented in all of recorded history. One would be forced to wonder then why so much of humanity’s exploration efforts (past, present and future) are aimed at Mars. But when one considers just how horrible Venus’ environment is in comparison, the answer becomes clear.

Exploration Efforts:

The study and exploration of Venus has been difficult over the years, owing to the combination of its dense atmosphere and harsh surface environment. Its surface has been imaged only in recent history, thanks to the development of radar imaging. However, many robotic spacecraft and even a few landers have made the journey and discovered much about Earth’s closest neighbor.

The first attempts were made by the Soviets in the 1960s through the Venera Program. Whereas the first mission (Venera-1) failed due to loss of contact, the second (Venera-3) became the first man-made object to enter the atmosphere and strike the surface of another planet (on March 1st, 1966). This was followed by the Venera-4 spacecraft, which launched on June 12th, 1967, and reached the planet roughly four months later (on October 18th).

The first color pictures taken of the surface of Venus by the Venera-13 space probe. Credit: NASA
The first color pictures taken of the surface of Venus by the Venera-13 space probe. Credit: NASA

NASA conducted similar missions under the Mariner program. The Mariner 2 mission, which launched on December 14th, 1962, became the first successful interplanetary mission and passed within 34,833 km (21,644 mi) of Venus’ surface. Between the late 60s and mid 70s, NASA conducted  several more flybys using Mariner probes – such as the Mariner 5 mission on Oct. 19th, 1967 and the Mariner 10 mission on Feb. 5th, 1974.

The Soviets launched six more Venera probes between the late 60s and 1975, and four additional missions between the late 70s and early  80s. Venera-5, Venera-6, and Venera-7 all entered Venus’ atmosphere and returned critical data to Earth. Venera 11 and Venera 12 detected Venusian electrical storms; and Venera 13 and Venera 14 landed on the planet and took the first color photographs of the surface. The program came to a close in October 1983, when Venera 15 and Venera 16 were placed in orbit to conduct mapping of the Venusian terrain with synthetic aperture radar.

By the late seventies, NASA commenced the Pioneer Venus Project, which consisted of two separate missions. The first was the Pioneer Venus Orbiter, which inserted into an elliptical orbit around Venus (Dec. 4th, 1978) to study its atmosphere and map the surface. The second, the Pioneer Venus Multiprobe, released four probes which entered the atmosphere on Dec. 9th, 1978, returning data on its composition, winds and heat fluxes.

Pioneer Venus
Artist’s impression of NASA’s Pioneer Venus Orbiter in orbit around Venus. Credit: NASA

In 1985, the Soviets participated in a collaborative venture with several European states to launch the Vega Program. This two-spacecraft initiative was intended to take advantage of the appearance of Halley’s Comet in the inner Solar System, and combine a mission to it with a flyby of Venus. While en route to Halley on June 11th and 15th, the two Vega spacecraft dropped Venera-style probes into Venus’ atmosphere to map its weather.

NASA’s Magellan spacecraft was launched on May 4th, 1989, with a mission to map the surface of Venus with radar. In the course of its four and a half year mission, Magellan provided the most high-resolution images to date of the planet, was able to map 98% of the surface and 95% of its gravity field. In 1994, at the end of its mission, Magellan was sent to its destruction into the atmosphere of Venus to quantify its density.

Venus was observed by the Galileo and Cassini spacecraft during flybys on their respective missions to the outer planets, but Magellan was the last dedicated mission to Venus for over a decade. It was not until October of 2006 and June of 2007 that the MESSENGER probe would conduct a flyby of Venus (and collect data) in order to slow its trajectory for an eventual orbital insertion of Mercury.

The Venus Express, a probe designed and built by the European Space Agency, successfully assumed polar orbit around Venus on April 11th, 2006. This probe conducted a detailed study of the Venusian atmosphere and clouds, and discovered an ozone layer and a swirling double-vortex at the south pole before concluding its mission in December of 2014. Since December 7th, 2015, Japan’s Akatsuki has been in a highly elliptical Venusian orbit.

Because of its hostile surface and atmospheric conditions, Venus has proven to be a tough nut to crack, despite its proximity to Earth. In spite of that, NASA, Roscosmos, and India’s ISRO all have plans for sending additional missions to Venus in the coming years to learn more about our twin planet. And as the century progresses, and if certain people get their way, we may even attempt to send human colonists there!

We have written many articles about Earth and its closest neighbor here at Universe Today. Here’s The Planet Venus, Venus: 50 Years Since Our First Trip, And We’re Going Back, Interesting Facts About Venus, Exploring Venus By Airship, Colonizing Venus With Floating Cities, and How Do We Terraform Venus?

If you’d like more info on Earth, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide on Earth. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

Astronomy Cast also has an interesting episode on the subject. Listen here, Episode 50: Venus.