New Equinox Stunners From Cassini

Every 14.8 Earth years, equinox occurs at Saturn. But this is the first time there has been a spacecraft in situ to watch what happens when the sun is directly overhead at the equator, illuminating the rings directly edge-on. New images compiled from the Cassini spacecraft show a rare and breathtaking display of nature: the setting of the sun on Saturn’s rings. The image above — a mosaic of 75 different images — shows the beauty of this ringed world, but the most surprising revelation from these new images are that newly discovered lumps and bumps in the rings are as high as the Rocky Mountains.

Saturn's rings reaching new heights.  Credit: NASA/Space Science Institute
Saturn's rings reaching new heights. Credit: NASA/Space Science Institute

The shadows in this image have lengths as long as 500 kilometers (310 miles), meaning the structures casting the shadows reach heights of almost 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) above the ringplane. These heights are much greater than those previously observed for the Daphnis edge waves, and are very likely caused by the distance between Daphnis and the inner edge of its gap getting unusually small at certain times

“We thought the plane of the rings was no taller than two stories of a modern-day building and instead we’ve come across walls more than 2 miles [3 kilometers] high,” said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. “Isn’t that the most outrageous thing you could imagine? It truly is like something out of science fiction.”

“The biggest surprise was to see so many places of vertical relief above and below the otherwise paper-thin rings,” said Linda Spilker, deputy project scientist at JPL. “To understand what we are seeing will take more time, but the images and data will help develop a more complete understanding of how old the rings might be and how they are evolving.”

Propeller feature in the rings.  Credit: NASA/Space Science Institute
Propeller feature in the rings. Credit: NASA/Space Science Institute

An unusually large propeller feature has been detected just beyond the Encke Gap in this Cassini image of Saturn’s outer A ring, taken a couple days after the planet’s August 2009 equinox. Propeller-like features, a few kilometers long, centered on and created by the action of small embedded moonlets only about 330 feet (100 meters) across, were discovered early in the mission. These findings constituted the first recognition that bodies smaller than the 8-kilometer-wide ring moon, Daphnis, in the outer A ring and bigger than the largest ring particles (about 30 feet, or 10 meters, across) were present in Saturn’s rings.
New insights into the nature of Saturn's rings are revealed in this panoramic mosaic of 15 images taken during the planet's August 2009 equinox.
New insights into the nature of Saturn's rings are revealed in this panoramic mosaic of 15 images taken during the planet's August 2009 equinox.

Waves in the inner B ring, first seen in Saturn orbit insertion images, are now more obvious and distinct. This mosaic combines 15 separate images. Also visible are bright spokes, consisting of tiny particles elevated above the ring plane and surrounded by the dark outer B ring, can also be seen near the middle of the mosaic.
ring impacts
These two Cassini images, taken four years before Saturn’s August 2009 equinox, have taken on a new significance as data gathered at equinox indicate the streaks in these images are likely evidence of impacts into the planet’s rings.

In one unexpected equinox discovery, imaging scientists have uncovered evidence for present-day impacts onto the rings. Bright, and hence elevated, clouds of tiny particles, sheared out by orbital motion into streaks, up to 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) long, have been sighted in the A and C rings. These clouds — very likely thrown up by impacts — rising above the dark ring plane are more directly catching the sun’s rays during equinox, and are hence well lit and easily visible by contrast.

By the brightness and dimensions of the streaks, scientists estimate the impactor sizes at roughly one meter, and the time since impact at one to two days. These equinox data now lend more confidence to the impact interpretation of earlier Cassini images, taken in 2005, showing similar streaks in the C ring. In the 2005 images, the impactors are likely much smaller than one meter, and yet have left a visible ejecta cloud. All together, these observations are heralded as the first visual confirmation of a long-held belief that bits of interplanetary debris continually rain down on Saturn’s rings and contribute to their erosion and evolution.

Summing up the past several months of Cassini’s exploration of Saturn during this unusual celestial event, imaging team leader Carolyn Porco in Boulder, Colo., said, “This has been a moving spectacle to behold, and one that has left us with far greater insight into the workings of Saturn’s rings than any of us could have imagined. We always knew it would be good. Instead, it’s been extraordinary.”

For more images and information see CICLOPS.

More Equinox Oddities in Saturn’s Rings

Today, August 11, 2009, is Saturn’s equinox. As we’ve been saying for a few months, the rings are going to disappear — at least from our vantage point on Earth. “Whenever equinox occurs on Saturn, sunlight will hit Saturn’s thin rings, the ring plane, edge-on,” said Linda Spilker, deputy project scientist for the Cassini spacecraft at Saturn. “The light reflecting off this extremely narrow band is so small that for all intents and purposes the rings simply vanish.” But even from the view at Saturn, weird things are happening in the rings, and the Cassini spacecraft has a front row seat watching it all take place. Above is one of the latest raw images sent back from Cassini, taken on August 7, 2009 showing how the sunlight is hitting the edge of the rings. It is a gorgeous shot. Below, see some of the strange sights Cassini has been seeing, including a buzzsaw, a blasted ring, and tell-tale moon shadows. For more about Saturn’s equinox, check out today’s 365 Days of Astronomy podcast with Emily Lakdawalla of the Planetary Society and she’ll tell you all about the weird and beautiful play of light and shadow going on at Saturn.

Saturn buzz saw. Credit: NASA/JPL
Saturn buzz saw. Credit: NASA/JPL

This image is really strange. Objects and waves in Saturn’s rings cast weird shadows back on the rings, and to me, this one looks like the jagged teeth of a saw. Interestingly, these shadows are faint, unlike the dark, black shadows we’ve seen in previous images. Check out our previous post about shadows on the rings.
Something blasts through Saturn's F Ring. Credit: NASA/JPL
Something blasts through Saturn's F Ring. Credit: NASA/JPL

In this image, it appears as though a small object on an inclined orbit has punched through Saturn’s narrow F ring, bursting out from underneath, and dragging behind it a wake of particles from the rings. Phil Plait discussed this image at length over at Bad Astronomy, so check out his take on this crazy picture.
Cassini B ring moonlet.  Credit: NASA/JPL
Cassini B ring moonlet. Credit: NASA/JPL

The angle of the sun hitting the rings makes objects show up that we normally don’t see. Take, for example, this newly discovered moonlet in Saturn’s B-ring. The small moon has a diameter of approximately 400 meters, and it only becomes obvious when sunlight hits the rings edge-on, creating a 40 km (25 mile) -long shadow. If the Sun was above or below the rings, no shadow would be cast, and therefore no moonlet would be visible.

Enjoy the sights, because Saturn’s equinox only happens once ever 15 Earth years.

For more on the mission and the equinox, check out the Cassini website.

One other Cassini note, the spacecraft performed a flyby of Titan on August 9, the 61st time it has targeted Titan as a flyby object, passing at a distance of 970 kilometers (603 miles) above the surface at a speed of 6.0 kilometers per second (about 13,400 mph). Unfortunately, all the data it gathered during this flyby were lost due to a temporary outage at the Goldstone Deep Space Network Facility during Cassini’s transmission back to Earth. As unique, high-priority data from Saturn’s equinox was planned to be taken soon after flyby, there was no redundant playback scheduled.


Sources: 365 Days of Astronomy, Bad Astronomy, Astroengine, Cassini website

Hat tip to Stu Atkinson on the buzzsaw image!

Plains of Titan to be Named for “Dune” Novels


Titan’s mysterious dark plains will be named after planets in the series of “Dune” science fiction novels by author Frank Herbert. The US Geological Survey Astrogeology Science Center announced the first plain or “planitia” given a name will be designated as Chusuk Planitia. Chusuk was a planet from the Dune series, known for its musical instruments. Chusuk Planitia on Titan is located at 5.0S, 23.5W, and in the picture here is the small, dark area next to the “C” of Chusuk.

Download a large map of Titan with the named features (pdf file).

The Cassini spacecraft has enabled us to finally see these dark plains on Titan. This moon is enveloped by an orange haze of naturally produced photochemical smog that frustratingly obscured its surface prior to Cassini’s arrival. Since 2004, the spacecraft’s observations have taken the study of this unique world into a whole new dimension.

Crescent Titan. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

One of Cassini’s latest images of Titan looks down on the north pole of Titan, showing night and day in the northern hemisphere of Saturn’s largest moon.

This view is centered on terrain at 49 degrees north latitude, 243 degrees west longitude. The north pole of Titan is rotated about 23 degrees to the left and it lies on the terminator above and to the left of the center of the image. Titan is 5,150 kilometers, or 3,200 miles across.

This natural color image was created by combining images taken with red, green and blue spectral filters. The images were obtained with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on June 6, 2009 at a distance of approximately 194,000 kilometers (121,000 miles) from Titan. Image scale is 11 kilometers (7 miles) per pixel.

Titan is one of the most Earth-like world we have found in our solar system. With its thick atmosphere and organic-rich chemistry, Titan resembles a frozen version of Earth, several billion years ago, before life began pumping oxygen into our atmosphere.

Cassini has revealed that Titan’s surface is shaped by rivers and lakes of liquid ethane and methane which forms clouds and occasionally rains from the sky as water does on Earth. Winds sculpt vast regions of dark, hydrocarbon-rich dunes and plains around Titan’s equator and low latitudes.

Source: USGS, Cassini website.

Hat tip to Emily Lakdawalla!

Vertical Structures Tower Above Saturn’s Rings

Cassini has imaged towering vertical structures in the planet’s otherwise flat rings that come from the gravitational effects of a small nearby moon. This is the first time these structures have been seen. They reach up over one kilometer high, and are visible now as the sun nears “high noon” directly overhead at the planet’s equator, as Saturn approaches its equinox.

The search for ring material extending above and below Saturn’s ring plane has been a major goal of the imaging team during Cassini’s “Equinox Mission,” the two-year period containing the exact equinox. This novel illumination geometry, which occurs every half-Saturn-year, or about 15 Earth years, lowers the sun’s angle to the ring plane and causes out-of-plane structures to cast long shadows across the rings, making them easy to detect.

Images taken in recent weeks have demonstrated how small moons in very narrow gaps can have considerable and complex effects on the edges of their gaps, and that such moons can be smaller than previously believed.

Looming vertical structures, seen here for the first time and created by Saturn's moon Daphnis, rise above the planet's otherwise flat, thin disk of rings to cast long shadows in this Cassini image.  Credit: CICLOPS
Looming vertical structures, seen here for the first time and created by Saturn's moon Daphnis, rise above the planet's otherwise flat, thin disk of rings to cast long shadows in this Cassini image. Credit: CICLOPS

The 8-kilometer-wide (5-mile) moon Daphnis orbits within the 42-kilometer-wide (26-mile) Keeler Gap in Saturn’s outer A ring, and its gravitational pull perturbs the orbits of the particles forming the gap’s edges. Earlier images have shown “waves” in the rings from Daphnis eccentric orbit.

But new images show the shadows of the vertical waves created by Daphnis cast onto the nearby ring. These characteristics match what was predicted by scientists.

Scientists have estimated, from the lengths of the shadows, wave heights that reach enormous distances above Saturn’s ring plane – as large as 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) — making these waves twice as high as previously known vertical ring structures, and as much as 150 times as high as the rings are thick. The main rings — named A, B and C — are only about 10 meters (30 feet) thick.

“We thought that this vertical structure was pretty neat when we first saw it in our simulations,” said John Weiss, lead author of a paper reporting on these images. “But it’s a million times cooler to have your theory supported by such gorgeous images. It makes you suspect you might be doing something right.”

Click here to watch a movie of the vertical structures and waves in motion.

Also presented in the paper is a refinement to a theory used since the Voyager missions of the 1980s to infer the mass of gap-embedded moons based on how much the moons affect the surrounding ring material. The authors conclude that an embedded moon in a very narrow gap can have a smaller mass than that inferred by earlier techniques. One of the prime future goals of the imaging team is to scour the remaining gaps and divisions within the rings to search for the moons expected to be there. “It is one of those questions that have been nagging us since getting into orbit: ‘Why haven’t we yet seen a moon in every gap?’” said Carolyn Porco, lead for the Cassini imaging team. “We now think they may actually be there, only a lot smaller than we expected.”


Cassini “Skeet Shoot” of Enceladus a Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cassini Finds Patterns and Rhythm in Saturn’s Rings


Cassini has been orbiting around Saturn for almost four years, and amazingly, the spacecraft keeps discovering new and unexpected features about this world and its system of rings and moons. Recently, in two of Saturn’s rings, Cassini found orderly lines of densely grouped, boulder-size icy particles that extend outward across the rings like ripples from a rock dropped in a calm pond. Surprisingly, the distances between these ring particles stay relatively equal even though their velocities may change. This type of pattern is completely new, as normally, the distances between particles change with their velocity.

The pattern was detected when Cassini sent out three signals toward Earth. The signals crossed Saturn’s rings, and the frequencies were scattered from the passing ring particles. Once the signals were captured by Earth-based antennas of NASA’s Deep Space Network, Cassini scientists saw a regular pattern in the received signal frequencies.

“This particular feature is the smallest and most detailed of anything seen in Saturn’s rings so far,” said Cassini radio science team member Essam Marouf. “In the chaotic environment of the rings, to find such regularity in the most cramped areas is nothing short of amazing.” The regular structure can only be found in locations where particles are densely packed together, such as the B ring and the innermost part of the A ring. The signals were sent to capture a complete view of the rings.

The unexpected pattern within Saturn’s rings may give scientists some new ideas of what to expect from other similar planets and solar systems.

Scientists call this pattern of particles “enormously extended natural diffraction grating.” A diffraction grating has parallel lines like a picket fence; when light hits this fence, it separates according to wavelength, from ultraviolet to infrared light.

“The signals showed that the particle groups were arranged in an unexpectedly regular formation that had rhythm within the rings of Saturn,'” said Marouf. “Each particle is in its own orbit, and sometimes they collide and move apart as their velocities change. As a result, you have particles bunched together into dense groups that extend across the ring in harmony with each other.”

Original News Source: Cassini Press Release

MESSENGER and other Significant Mission Events in 2008


Today, the MESSENGER spacecraft will perform a significant task in its mission by making its first flyby of Mercury (see more info below). Additionally, other spacecraft that are out doing their jobs in various locations of our solar system will have significant mission events occur in 2008. Let’s take a look at the big events coming up this year.

January 14: MESSENGER Flyby of Mercury

Messenger, the MEercury Surface Space ENvironment GEochemistry and Ranging spacecraft, will be the first spacecraft to visit Mercury in almost 33 years. It will explore and take close-up images of parts of the planet that we’ve never seen before. This is the first of three flybys of Mercury the spacecraft will take before settling into orbit in 2011. MESSENGER’s cameras and other instruments will collect more than 1,200 images and make other observations during this approach, encounter and departure. The closest approach of the flyby will occur at 19:04:42 UTC (2:04:42 EST), but mission managers said pictures from the event may not be released for up to a week.

March 12: Cassini flies through the plume of Enceladus’ geyser

The Cassini spacecraft will fly extremely close to Saturn’s moon Enceladus at an altitude of only 23 km (14 mi), and actually fly through the plume of an active geyser on the moon’s south pole. How such a cold moon could host an area warm enough to have erupting water vapor is a mystery. Scientists are pondering if Enceladus has active ice volcanism, and if so, is it due to ice sublimating, like a comet, or due to a different mechanism, like boiling water as in Old Faithful at Yellowstone. This flyby will help answer those questions.

Cassini will also have several relatively close flybys this year of the moon Titan. The flybys will occur on Feb. 22, March 25, and May 12.

May 25: Phoenix lands on Mars

Phoenix will land in the north polar region of Mars and will help characterize the climate and geology of the Red Planet, as well as possibly determine if live ever arose on Mars. Pursuing NASA’s “Follow the Water” strategy, the lander will dig through soil to reach water ice with its robotic arm and perform numerous scientific experiments. Phoenix launched on Aug. 4, 2007. University of Arizona’s Phoenix page

September 5: Rosetta flyby of Asteroid Steins

The Rosetta spacecraft is on its way to orbit comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko in 2014, but in the meantime it will pass by Asteroid 2867 Steins. During the flyby, Rosetta will study Steins to determine and characterize the asteroid’s surface composition and morphology. Asteroid Steins is roughly 10 km in diameter.

Enceladus: Cold Moon With a Hot Spot


Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus is a cold and icy place. But somehow, there’s enough heat being generated on Enceladus’ south pole to eject plumes of ice and vapor high above the moon. These plumes are extremely intriguing to the Cassini mission scientists and they want to know more about this hot spot on a very cold moon. In fact, Enceladus has become a major priority for study by the Cassini team and they are anticipating learning more about the moon in an upcoming fly-by.

The temperature at Enceladus’ south pole is about -220 degrees Celsius, but the hot spot is at least 100 degrees warmer. The leading model for the cause of the plumes on Enceladus is that the moon’s tides cause its crust to ratchet, or rub back and forth, in a set of faults near the south pole. The forces between Enceladus, the big planet Saturn and another moon, Dione cause what’s called dynamical resonance, and Enceladus is continually squeezed under this gravity field. This process creates a small hot spot, in relative terms, for an icy satellite.

Cassini has actually flown through the plumes, giving scientists a glimpse of the plume’s make-up.

“The plume particles are like smoke, ice smoke,”said William B. McKinnon, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. “If you were standing on Enceladus’ surface you wouldn’t even be able to see the plumes. The particles are just larger than the wavelength of light, about one-thousandths of a millimeter. Most icy bodies of this size are geologically inert, but this is a clear indication of geological activity. Cassini has found active venting of water vapor. This leads to scientifically intriguing speculations and questions.”

The scientists are pondering if Enceladus has active ice volcanism, and if so, is it due to ice sublimating, like a comet, or due to a different mechanism, like boiling water as in Old Faithful at Yellowstone. Even though there may be water on the moon, McKinnon doesn’t believe there is the possibility of life on Enceladus. This is because measurements made from Earth don’t indicate there is enough sodium present in the plumes to warrant the “life” question.

“The emerging view is that there’s not obvious evidence for a subterranean ocean in contact with rock, no boiling or venting,” said McKinnon.

The Cassini science team has made Enceladus a major priority and there will be seven additional close fly-bys of the moon by the spacecraft through mid-2010 (provided the mission is extended to that period.) The next fly-by will be on March 8, 2008 and Cassini will approach Enceladus at an incredibly close 25 km in altitude at the low latitudes and fly over the south pole at 580 km altitude. The spacecraft will actually fly through the plumes and should be able to take high-phase images of the plumes, map the temperatures of that region, search for any activity at other latitudes as well as image other interesting features on Enceladus, such as “tiger-stripe”-like fissures found near the south pole.

“We still can’t say how truly ‘hot’ the hot spots are,” said McKinnon. “We’ll probably learn this in March.”

Original News Source: Washington University Press Release