Grab the tissues. This video nearly had the Cassini team all choked up during today’s press briefing, and virtual sobs and sniffs were abundant on social media posts sharing the video.
“We get goosebumps and get emotional every time we see it,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL.
On April 22 the Cassini spacecraft will begin its ‘Grand Finale’ — the beginning of the end of this tremendous mission that has provided breathtaking images and so many new discoveries of Saturn, its rings and moons. The mission will end on September 15, 2017, when it makes a dramatic plunge into the gas giant.
Here’s the video that had everyone teary-eyed. Be prepared for some stunning visuals:
Today, Maize talked about how nineteen countries and three space agencies contributed to the success of the Cassini/Huygens mission, saying the mission has been truly an international triumph and a phenomenal achievement.
“Cassini’s legacy is assured. We are in the books!” Maize said. “But the best is yet to come. We are going to dive into the gap between the rings of Saturn and Saturn’s atmosphere, a place where no spacecraft has ever gone. We’ll be going 70,000 mph (112,634 km/hr) into a 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) gap, operating the spacecraft from a billion miles away.”
Cassini has been a relatively trouble free mission, and has made many discoveries about the Saturn system. So why crash the spacecraft?
Cassini is running out of fuel, basically running on fumes at this point.* And NASA needs to follow the protocol of planetary protection, and not allow a spacecraft with possible microbes from Earth to crash into a potentially habitable moon such as Enceladus or Titan.
“Cassini’s own discoveries were its demise,” Maize said. “Enceladus has a warm, salt water ocean. We can’t risk an inadvertent contact with this pristine body. The only choice was to destroy it (Cassini) in a designed fashion.”
Maize said that back in 2010, the team decided they would make the mission last as long as possible and use every last kilogram of propellant to explore the Saturn system as thoroughly as they could.
The final flyby of Titan on April 22 will ultimately alter Cassini’s trajectory and push it toward the spacecraft’s final demise. Maize described the gravity slingshot from Titan as a “last kiss goodbye that will push Cassini into Saturn. This is a roller coaster ride that we’re not coming out of.”
You can plot Cassini’s trajectory in JPL’s “Eyes on Cassini” special section of their Eyes on the Solar System website.
Cassini will make 22 passes through the gap, and in doing so, further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve.
Project Scientist Linda Spilker said Cassini will be able to make close up measurements of Saturn and its rings to finally help us understand the mass and internal structure of Saturn. And the images should be absolutely stunning.
There’s the risk of dust or debris hitting the spacecraft, potentially crippling Cassini. But the risk is worth it, because if the spacecraft survives through even just a few of the close passes, the scientific payback will be incredible. However, even if the spacecraft is crippled and can’t send back its final science observations, the end is inevitable, as the path toward destruction will be written by the final ‘kiss’ from Titan.
“This is something we couldn’t try at any other time,” Maize said. “But now is time.”
The Cassini team said the end of the mission will likely be a combination of excitement, pride and a sense of loss.
“I think that once the signal is lost, it would mean the heartbeat of Cassini is gone,” said Spilker. “I think there will be tremendous cheers and applause for the completion of an absolutely incredible mission. Hugs, tears — the Kleenex box will be passed around — but we will rejoice at being part of such a wonderful mission.”
See more images and information about the Grand Finale here.
*One of the Cassini team members said that as of today (April 4, 2017) Cassini has 36kg of hydrazine left for the thrusters, which are used everyday to orient the spacecraft, point the antenna towards Earth, point the instruments to their desired targer, etc. For the Titan flyby on April 22, about 10-15 kg. As for the bipropellant that runs the main engines, that’s a little more unknown and the one the team is worried most about running out of fuel. The team member said there is about 10 kg of that fuel left, “plus or minus 20 kilos [meaning there is true uncertainty about how much of this fuel remains]. We could run out today, or we could have 30 kilos left.”
As you probably know, NASA recently announced plans to send a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. If all goes well, the Europa Clipper will blast off for the world in the 2020s, and orbit the icy moon to discover all its secrets.
And that’s great and all, I like Europa just fine. But you know where I’d really like us to go next? Titan.
Titan, as you probably know, is the largest moon orbiting Saturn. In fact, it’s the second largest moon in the Solar System after Jupiter’s Ganymede. It measures 5,190 kilometers across, almost half the diameter of the Earth. This place is big.
It orbits Saturn every 15 hours and 22 days, and like many large moons in the Solar System, it’s tidally locked to its planet, always showing Saturn one side.
Before NASA’s Voyager spacecraft arrived in 1980, astronomers actually thought that Titan was the biggest moon in the Solar System. But Voyager showed that it actually has a thick atmosphere, that extends well into space, making the true size of the moon hard to judge.
This atmosphere is one of the most interesting features of Titan. In fact, it’s the only moon in the entire Solar System with a significant atmosphere. If you could stand on the surface, you would experience about 1.45 times the atmospheric pressure on Earth. In other words, you wouldn’t need a pressure suit to wander around the surface of Titan.
You would, however, need a coat. Titan is incredibly cold, with an average temperature of almost -180 Celsius. For you Fahrenheit people that’s -292 F. The coldest ground temperature ever measured on Earth is almost -90 C, so way way colder.
You would also need some way to breathe, since Titan’s atmosphere is almost entirely nitrogen, with trace amounts of methane and hydrogen. It’s thick and poisonous, but not murderous, like Venus.
Titan has only been explored a couple of times, and we’ve actually only landed on it once.
The first spacecraft to visit Titan was NASA’s Pioneer 11, which flew past Saturn and its moons in 1979. This flyby was followed by NASA’s Voyager 1 in 1980 and then Voyager 2 in 1981. Voyager 1 was given a special trajectory that would take it as close as possible to Titan to give us a close up view of the world.
Voyager was able to measure its atmosphere, and helped scientists calculate Titan’s size and mass. It also got a hint of darker regions which would later turn out to be oceans of liquid hydrocarbons.
The true age of Titan exploration began with NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which arrived at Saturn on July 4, 2004. Cassini made its first flyby of Titan on October 26, 2004, getting to within 1,200 kilometers or 750 miles of the planet. But this was just the beginning. By the end of its mission later this year, Cassini will have made 125 flybys of Titan, mapping the world in incredible detail.
Cassini saw that Titan actually has a very complicated hydrological system, but instead of liquid water, it has weather of hydrocarbons. The skies are dotted with methane clouds, which can rain and fill oceans of nearly pure methane.
And we know all about this because of Cassini’s Huygen’s lander, which detached from the spacecraft and landed on the surface of Titan on January 14, 2005. Here’s an amazing timelapse that shows the view from Huygens as it passed down through the atmosphere of Titan, and landed on its surface.
Huygens landed on a flat plain, surrounded by “rocks”, frozen globules of water ice. This was lucky, but the probe was also built to float if it happened to land on liquid instead.
It lasted for about 90 minutes on the surface of Titan, sending data back to Earth before it went dark, wrapping up the most distant landing humanity has ever accomplished in the Solar System.
Although we know quite a bit about Titan, there are still so many mysteries. The first big one is the cycle of liquid. Across Titan there are these vast oceans of liquid methane, which evaporate to create methane clouds. These rain, creating mists and even rivers.
Is it volcanic? There are regions of Titan that definitely look like there have been volcanoes recently. Maybe they’re cryovolcanoes, where the tidal interactions with Saturn cause water to well up from beneath crust and erupt onto the surface.
Is there life there? This is perhaps the most intriguing possibility of all. The methane rich system has the precursor chemicals that life on Earth probably used to get started billions of years ago. There’s probably heated regions beneath the surface and liquid water which could sustain life. But there could also be life as we don’t understand it, using methane and ammonia as a solvent instead of water.
To get a better answer to these questions, we’ve got to return to Titan. We’ve got to land, rove around, sail the oceans and swim beneath their waves.
Now you know all about this history of the exploration of Titan. It’s time to look at serious ideas for returning to Titan and exploring it again, especially its oceans.
Planetary scientists have been excited about the exploration of Titan for a while now, and a few preliminary proposals have been suggested, to study the moon from the air, the land, and the seas.
First up, there’s the Titan Saturn System Mission, a mission proposed in 2009, for a late 2020s arrival at Titan. This spacecraft would consist of a lander and a balloon that would float about in the atmosphere, and study the world from above. Over the course of its mission, the balloon would circumnavigate Titan once from an altitude of 10km, taking incredibly high resolution images. The lander would touch down in one of Titan’s oceans and float about on top of the liquid methane, sampling its chemicals.
As we stand right now, this mission is in the preliminary stages, and may never launch.
In 2012, Dr. Jason Barnes and his team from the University of Idaho proposed sending a robotic aircraft to Titan, which would fly around in the atmosphere photographing its surface. Titan is actually one of the best places in the entire Solar System to fly an airplane. It has a thicker atmosphere and lower gravity, and unlike the balloon concept, an airplane is free to go wherever it needs powered by a radioactive thermal generator.
Although the mission would only cost about $750 million or so, NASA hasn’t pushed it beyond the conceptual stage yet.
An even cooler plan would put a boat down in one of Titan’s oceans. In 2012, a team of Spanish engineers presented their idea for how a Titan boat would work, using propellers to put-put about across Titan’s seas. They called their mission the Titan Lake In-Situ Sampling Propelled Explorer, or TALISE.
Propellers are fine, but it turns out you could even have a sailboat on Titan. The methane seas have much less density and viscosity than water, which means that you’d only experience about 26% the friction of Earth. Cassini measured windspeeds of about 3.3 m/s across Titan, which half the average windspeed of Earth. But this would be plenty of wind to power a sail when you consider Titan’s thicker atmosphere.
And here’s my favorite idea. A submarine. This 6-meter vessel would float on Titan’s Kraken Mare sea, studying the chemistry of the oceans, measuring currents and tides, and mapping out the sea floor.
It would be capable of diving down beneath the waves for periods, studying interesting regions up close, and then returning to the surface to communicate its findings back to Earth. This mission is in the conceptual stage right now, but it was recently chosen by NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts Group for further study. If all goes well, the submarine would travel to Titan by 2038 when there’s a good planetary alignment.
Okay? Are you convinced? Let’s go back to Titan. Let’s explore it from the air, crawl around on the surface and dive beneath its waves. It’s one of the most interesting places in the entire Solar System, and we’ve only scratched the surface.
If I’ve done my job right, you’re as excited about a mission to Titan as I am. Let’s go back, let’s sail and submarine around that place. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
One of the biggest surprises from the Cassini mission to Saturn has been the discovery of active geysers at the south pole of the moon Enceladus. At only about 500 km (310 miles) in diameter, the bright and ice-covered moon should be too small and too far from the Sun to be active. Instead, this little moon is one of the most geothermally active places in the Solar System.
Now, a new study from Cassini data shows that the south polar region of Enceladus is even warmer than expected just a few feet below its icy surface. While previous studies have confirmed an ocean of liquid water inside Enceladus which fuels the geysers, this new study shows the ocean is likely closer to the surface than previously thought. Additionally – and most enticing – there has to be a source of heat inside the moon that is not completely understood.
“These observations provide a unique insight into what is going on beneath the surface,” said Alice Le Gall, who is part of the Cassini RADAR instrument team, from Laboratoire Atmosphères, Milieux, Observations Spatiales (LATMOS), and Université Versailles Saint-Quentin (UVSQ), France. “They show that the first few meters below the surface of the area that we investigated, although at a glacial 50-60 K, are much warmer than we had expected: likely up to 20 K warmer in some places. This cannot be explained only as a result of the Sun’s illumination and, to a lesser extent, Saturn’s heating so there must be an additional source of heat.”
Microwave data taken during a close flyby in 2011 shows there is excess heat at three fractures in the surface of Enceladus. While similar to the so-called “tiger-stripe” features on this moon that are actively venting ice and water molecules into space, these three fractures don’t appear to be active, at least not in 2011.
Scientists say the seemingly dormant fractures lying above the moon’s warm, underground sea point to the dynamic character of Enceladus’ geology, suggesting the moon might have experienced several episodes of activity, in different places on its surface.
The 2011 flyby provided the first – and unfortunately, the only — high-resolution observations of Enceladus’ south pole at microwave wavelengths.
It looked at a narrow, arc-shaped swathe of the southern polar region, about 25 km (15 miles) wide, and located just 30 km to 50 km (18-30 miles) north of the tiger-stripe fractures.
The heat that was detected appears to be lying under a much colder layer of frost.
Because of operational constraints of the 2011 flyby, it was not possible to obtain microwave observations of the active fractures themselves. But this allowed the scientists to observe that the thermally anomalous terrains of Enceladus extend well beyond the tiger stripes.
Their findings show it is likely that the entire south pole region is warm underneath, meaning Enceladus’ ocean could be just 2 km under the moon’s icy surface in that area. The finding agrees with a 2016 study, led by another Cassini team member, Ondrej Cadek, which estimated the thickness of the crust on Enceladus’ south pole to be less than the rest of the moon. That study estimated the depth of the ice shell to be less than 5 km (1.2 miles) at the south pole, while average depth on other areas of Enceladus is between 18–22 km (11-13 miles).
What generates the internal heat at Enceladus? The main source of heat remains a mystery, but scientists think gravitational forces between Enceladus, Saturn, and another moon, Dione pull and flex Enceladus’ interior. Known as tidal forces, the tugging causes the moon’s interior to rub, creating friction and heat. It also creates stress compressions and deformations on the crust, leading to the formation of faults and fractures. This in turn creates more heat in the sub-surface layers. In this scenario, the thinner icy crust in the south pole region is subject to a larger tidal deformation that means more heat being created to help keep the underground water warm.
Since the geysers weren’t known until Cassini’s arrival at Saturn, the spacecraft didn’t have a specific payload to study them, but scientists used the instruments at their disposal to make the best observations they could, flying the spacecraft to within 49 km (30 miles) of the surface. To fully study the tidal heating — or to determine if there is another source of heat — scientists will continue to study the data already taken by various Cassini instruments. But since the mission will be ending in September 2017, it may require another mission to this intriguing moon to fully figure out this mystery.
“This discovery opens new perspectives to investigate the emergence of habitable conditions on the icy moons of the gas giant planets,” says Nicolas Altobelli, ESA’s Project Scientist for Cassini–Huygens. “If Enceladus’ underground sea is really as close to the surface as this study indicates, then a future mission to this moon carrying an ice-penetrating radar sounding instrument might be able to detect it.”
“Finding temperatures near these three inactive fractures that are unexpectedly higher than those outside them adds to the intrigue of Enceladus,” said Cassini Project Scientist Linda Spilker at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “What is the warm underground ocean really like and could life have evolved there? These questions remain to be answered by future missions to this ocean world.”
Feel free to submit your mission proposals in the comment section below…
Besides Earth, Saturn may be the only other planet where you can order rings with a side of ravioli. Closeup photos taken by the Cassini probe of the the planet’s second-innermost moon, Pan, on March 7 reveal remarkable new details that have us grasping at food analogies in a feeble attempt to describe its unique appearance.
The two-part structure of the moon is immediately obvious: a core body with a thin, wavy ridge encircling its equator. How does such a bizarre object form in the first place? There’s good reason to believe that Pan was once part of a larger satellite that broke up near Saturn long ago. Much of the material flattened out to form Saturn’s rings while large shards like Pan and another ravioli lookalike, Atlas, orbited within or near the rings, sweeping up ring particles about their middles. Tellingly, the ridges are about as thick as the vertical distances each satellite travels in its orbit about the planet.
Today, Pan orbits within and clears the narrow Encke Gap in Saturn’s outer A-ring of debris. It also helps create and shape the narrow ringlets that appear in the gap It’s lookalike cousin Atlas orbits just outside the A-ring.
Moons embedded in rings can have profound effects on that material from clearing gaps to creating new temporary ringlets and raising vertical waves of material that rise above and below the ring plane. All these effects are produced by gravity, which gives even small objects like Pan dominion over surprisingly vast regions.
Ask me my favorite object in the Solar System, especially to see through a telescope, and my answer is always the same: Saturn.
Saturn is this crazy, ringed world, different than any other place we’ve ever seen. And in a small telescope, you can really see the ball of the planet, you can see its rings. It’s one thing to see a world like this from afar, a tiny jumping image in a telescope. To really appreciate and understand a place like Saturn, you’ve got to visit.
And thanks to NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, that’s just what we’ve been doing for the last 13 years. Take a good close look at this amazing ringed planet and its moons, and studying it from every angle.
Throughout this article, I’m going to regale you with the amazing discoveries made by Cassini at Saturn. What it taught us, and what new mysteries it uncovered.
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft was launched from Earth on October 15, 1997. Instead of taking the direct route, it made multiple flybys of Venus, a flyby of Earth and a flyby of Jupiter. Each one of these close encounters boosted Cassini’s velocity, allowing it to make the journey with less escape velocity from Earth.
It arrived at Saturn on July 1st, 2004 and began its science operations shortly after that. The primary mission lasted 4 years, and then NASA extended its mission two more times. The first ending in 2010, and the second due to end in 2017. But more on that later.
Before Cassini, we only had flybys of Saturn. NASA’s Pioneer 11, and Voyagers 1 and 2 both zipped past the planet and its moons, snapping pictures as they went.
But Cassini was here to stay. To orbit around and around the planet, taking photos, measuring magnetic fields, and studying chemicals.
For Saturn itself, Cassini was able to make regular observations of the planet as it passed through entire seasons. This allowed it to watch how the weather and atmospheric patterns changed over time. The spacecraft watched lightning storms dance through the cloudtops at night.
Two highlights. In 2010, Cassini watched a huge storm erupt in the planet’s northern hemisphere. This storm dug deep into Saturn’s lower atmosphere, dredging up ice from a layer 160 kilometers below and mixing it onto the surface. This was the first time that astronomers were able to directly study this water ice on Saturn, which is normally in a layer hidden from view.
The second highlight, of course, is the massive hexagonal storm churning away in Saturn’s northern pole. This storm was originally seen by Voyager, but Cassini brought its infrared and visible wavelength instruments to bear.
Why a hexagon? That’s still a little unclear, but it seems like when you rotate fluids of different speeds, you get multi-sided structures like this.
Cassini showed how the hexagonal storm has changed in color as Saturn moved through its seasons.
This is one of my favorite images sent back by Cassini. It’s the polar vortex at the heart of the hexagon. Just look at those swirling clouds.
Now, images of Saturn itself are great and all, but there was so much else for Cassini to discover in the region.
Cassini studied Saturn’s rings in great detail, confirming that they’re made up of ice particles, ranging in size as small a piece of dust to as large as a mountain. But the rings themselves are actually quite thin. Just 10 meters thick in some places. Not 10 kilometers, not 10 million kilometers, 10 meters, 30 feet.
The spacecraft helped scientists uncover the source of Saturn’s E-ring, which is made up of fresh icy particles blasting out of its moon Enceladus. More on that in a second too.
Here’s another one of my favorite images of the mission. You’re looking at strange structures in Saturn’s B-ring. Towering pillars of ring material that rise 3.5 kilometers above the surrounding area and cast long shadows. What is going on here?
They’re waves, generated in the rings and enhanced by nearby moons. They move and change over time in ways we’ve never been able to study anywhere else in the Solar System.
Cassini has showed us that Saturn’s rings are a much more dynamic place than we ever thought. Some moons are creating rings, other moons are absorbing or distorting them. The rings generate bizarre spoke patterns larger than Earth that come and go because of electrostatic charges.
Speaking of moons, I’m getting to the best part. What did Cassini find at Saturn’s moons?
Let’s start with Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. Before Cassini, we only had a few low resolution images of this fascinating world. We knew Titan had a dense atmosphere, filled with nitrogen, but little else.
Cassini was carrying a special payload to assist with its exploration of Titan: the Huygens lander. This tiny probe detached from Cassini just before its arrival at Saturn, and parachuted through the cloudtops on January 14, 2005, analyzing all the way. Huygens returned images of its descent through the atmosphere, and even images of the freezing surface of Titan.
But Cassini’s own observations of Titan took the story even further. Instead of a cold, dead world, Cassini showed that it has active weather, as well as lakes, oceans and rivers of hydrocarbons. It has shifting dunes of pulverized rock hard water ice.
If there’s one place that needs exploring even further, it’s Titan. We should return with sailboats, submarines and rovers to better explore this amazing place.
We learned, without a shadow of a doubt, that Mimas absolutely looks like the Death Star. No question. But instead of a megalaser, this moon has a crater a third of its own size.
Cassini helped scientists understand why Saturn’s moon Iapetus has one light side and one dark side. The moon is tidally locked to Saturn, its dark side always leading the moon in orbit. It’s collecting debris from another Saturnian moon, Phoebe, like bugs hitting the windshield of a car.
Perhaps the most exciting discovery that Cassini made during its mission is the strange behavior of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The spacecraft discovered that there are jets of water ice blasting out of the moon’s southern pole. An ocean of liquid water, heated up by tidal interactions with Saturn, is spewing out into space.
And as you know, wherever we find water on Earth, we find life. We thought that water in the icy outer Solar System would be hard to reach, but here it is, right at the surface, venting into space, and waiting for us to come back and investigate it further.
On September 15, 2017, the Cassini mission will end. How do we know it’s going to happen on this exact date? Because NASA is going to crash the spacecraft into Saturn, killing it dead.
That seems a little harsh, doesn’t it, especially for a spacecraft which has delivered so many amazing images to us over nearly two decades of space exploration? And as we’ve seen from NASA’s Opportunity rover, still going, 13 years longer than anticipated. Or the Voyagers, out in the depths of the void, helping us explore the boundary between the Solar System and interstellar space. These things are built to last.
The problem is that the Saturnian system contains some of the best environments for life in the Solar System. Saturn’s moon Enceladus, for example, has geysers of water blasting out into space.
Cassini spacecraft is covered in Earth-based bacteria and other microscopic organisms that hitched a ride to Saturn, and would be glad to take a nice hot Enceladian bath. All they need is liquid water and a few organic chemicals to get going, and Enceladus seems to have both.
NASA feels that it’s safer to end Cassini now, when they can still control it, than to wait until they lose communication or run out of propellant in the future. The chances that Cassini will actually crash into an icy moon and infect it with our Earth life are remote, but why take the risk?
For the last few months, Cassini has been taking a series of orbits to prepare itself for its final mission. Starting in April, it’ll actually cross inside the orbit of the rings, getting closer and closer to Saturn. And on September 15th, it’ll briefly become a meteor, flashing through the upper atmosphere of Saturn, gone forever.
Even in its final moments, Cassini is going to be sciencing as hard as it can. We’ll learn more about the density of consistency of the rings close to the planet. We’ll learn more about the planet’s upper atmosphere, storms and clouds with the closest possible photographs you can take.
And then it’ll all be over. The perfect finale to one of the most successful space missions in human history. A mission that revealed as many new mysteries about Saturn as it helped us answer. A mission that showed us not only a distant alien world, but our own planet in perspective in this vast Solar System. I can’t wait to go back.
How have the photos from Cassini impacted your love of astronomy? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Welcome back to our planetary weather series! Next up, we take a look at the ringed-beauty, Saturn!
Saturn is famous for many things. Aside from its ring system, which are the most visible and beautiful of any gas giant, it is also known for its extensive system of moons (the second largest in the Solar System behind Jupiter). And then there its banded appearance and gold color, which are the result of its peculiar composition and persistent weather patterns.
Much like Jupiter, Saturn’s weather systems are known for being particularly extreme, giving rise to features that can be seen from great distances. It’s high winds periodically create massive oval-shaped storms, jet streams, hurricanes, and hexagonal wave patterns that are visible in both the northern and southern polar regions.
The outer atmosphere of Saturn contains 96.3% molecular hydrogen and 3.25% helium by volume. The gas giant is also known to contain heavier elements, though the proportions of these relative to hydrogen and helium is not known. It is assumed that they would match the primordial abundance from the formation of the Solar System.
Trace amounts of ammonia, acetylene, ethane, propane, phosphine and methane have been also detected in Saturn’s atmosphere. The upper clouds are composed of ammonia crystals, while the lower level clouds appear to consist of either ammonium hydrosulfide (NH4SH) or water. Ultraviolet radiation from the Sun causes methane photolysis in the upper atmosphere, leading to a series of hydrocarbon chemical reactions with the resulting products being carried downward by eddies and diffusion.
Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits a banded pattern similar to Jupiter’s, but Saturn’s bands are much fainter and wider near the equator. As with Jupiter’s cloud layers, they are divided into the upper and lower layers, which vary in composition based on depth and pressure. In the upper cloud layers, with temperatures in range of 100–160 K and pressures between 0.5–2 bar, the clouds consist of ammonia ice.
The presence of hydrogen gas results in clouds of deep red. However, these are obscured by clouds of ammonia, which are closer to the outer edge of the atmosphere and cover the entire planet. The exposure of this ammonia to the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation causes it to appear white. Combined with its deeper red clouds, this results in the planet having a pale gold color.
Water ice clouds begin at a level where the pressure is about 2.5 bar and extend down to 9.5 bar, where temperatures range from 185–270 K. Intermixed in this layer is a band of ammonium hydrosulfide ice, lying in the pressure range 3–6 bar with temperatures of 290–235 K. Finally, the lower layers, where pressures are between 10–20 bar and temperatures are 270–330 K, contains a region of water droplets with ammonia in an aqueous solution.
Great White Spot:
On occasion, Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits long-lived ovals, similar to what is commonly observed on Jupiter. Whereas Jupiter has the Great Red Spot, Saturn periodically has what’s known as the Great White Spot (aka. Great White Oval). This unique but short-lived phenomenon occurs once every Saturnian year, roughly every 30 Earth years, around the time of the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice.
These spots can be several thousands of kilometers wide, and have been observed in 1876, 1903, 1933, 1960, and 1990. Since 2010, a large band of white clouds called the Northern Electrostatic Disturbance have been observed enveloping Saturn, which was spotted by the Cassini space probe. If the periodic nature of these storms is maintained, another one will occur in about 2020.
The winds on Saturn are the second fastest among the Solar System’s planets, after Neptune’s. This is due in part to Saturn’s high rotational velocity – which is 9.87 km/s (6.13 mi/s), which works out to 35,500 km/h (22,058.7 mi/h). At this rate, it only takes the planet 10 hours 33 minutes to rotate once on its axis. However, due to it being a gas giant, there is a difference between the rotation of its atmosphere and its core.
Data obtained by the Voyager 1 and 2 missions indicated peak easterly winds of 500 m/s (1800 km/h). Saturn’s northern and southern poles have also shown evidence of stormy weather. At the north pole, this takes the form of a hexagonal wave pattern, whereas the south shows evidence of a massive jet stream.
The persisting hexagonal wave pattern around the north pole was first noted in the Voyager images. The sides of the hexagon are each about 13,800 km (8,600 mi) long (which is longer than the diameter of the Earth) and the structure rotates with a period of 10h 39m 24s, which is assumed to be equal to the period of rotation of Saturn’s interior.
The south pole vortex, meanwhile, was first observed using the Hubble Space Telescope. These images indicated the presence of a jet stream, but not a hexagonal standing wave. These storms are estimated to be generating winds of 550 km/h, are comparable in size to Earth, and believed to have been going on for billions of years.
In 2006, the Cassini space probe observed a hurricane-like storm that had a clearly defined eye. Such storms had not been observed on any planet other than Earth – even on Jupiter. This storm appeared to be caused by heat that was generated in the depths of the warm interior of Saturn, which then escaped to the upper atmosphere and escaped the planet.
Saturn has also been noted for its “string of pearls” feature, which was captured by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer in 2006. This feature, which appeared in it’s northern latitudes (and has not been seen on any other gas giant) is a series of cloud clearings spaced at regular intervals that show how Saturn’s atmosphere is lit by its own internal, thermal glow.
So how is the weather on Saturn? Pretty violent and stormy! And not surprising given the planet’s mass, composition, powerful gravity, and rapid rotation. Makes you feel happy we live on Earth, where the Earth is (comparatively speaking) pretty calm and boring!
During its long mission to Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft has given us image after spectacular image of Saturn, its rings, and Saturn’s moons. The images of Saturn’s moon Enceladus are of particular interest when it comes to the search for life.
At first glance, Enceladus appears similar to other icy moons in our Solar System. But Cassini has shown us that Enceladus could be a cradle for extra-terrestrial life.
Our search for life in the Solar System is centred on the presence of liquid water. Maybe we don’t know for sure if liquid H2O is required for life. But the Solar System is huge, and the effort required to explore it is immense. So starting our search for life with the search for liquid water is wise. And in the search for liquid water, Enceladus is a tantalizing target.
Though Enceladus looks every bit like a frozen, lifeless world on its surface, it’s what lies beneath its frigid crust that is exciting. Enceladus appears to have a subsurface ocean, at least in it’s south polar region. And that ocean may be up to 10 km. deep.
Before we dive into that, (sorry), here are a few basic facts about Enceladus:
Enceladus is Saturn’s sixth largest moon
Enceladus is about 500 km in diameter (Earth’s Moon is 3,474 km in diameter)
Enceladus was discovered in 1789 by William Herschel
Enceladus is one of the most reflective objects in our Solar System, due to its icy surface
In 2005, Cassini first spied plumes of frozen water vapor erupting from the southern polar region. Called cryovolcanoes, subsequent study of them determined that they are the likely source of Saturn’s E Ring. The existence of these plumes led scientists to suspect that their source was a sub-surface ocean under Enceladus’ ice crust.
Finding plumes of water erupting from a moon is one thing, but it’s not just water. It’s salt water. Further study showed that the plumes also contained simple organic compounds. This advanced the idea that Enceladus could harbor life.
The geysers aren’t the only evidence for a sub-surface ocean on Enceladus. The southern polar region has a smooth surface, unlike the rest of the moon which is marked with craters. Something must have smoothed that surface, since it is next to impossible that the south polar region would be free from impact craters.
In 2005, Cassini detected a warm region in the south, much warmer than could be caused by solar radiation. The only conclusion is that Enceladus has a source of internal heating. That internal heat would create enough geologic activity to erase impact craters.
So now, two conditions for the existence of life have been met: liquid water, and heat.
The source of the heat on Enceladus was the next question facing scientists. That question is far from settled, and there could be several sources of heat operating together. Among all the possible sources for the heat, two are most intriguing when it comes to the search for life: tidal heating, and radioactive heating.
Tidal heating is a result of rotational and orbital forces. In Enceladus’ case, these forces cause friction which is dissipated as heat. This heat keeps the sub-surface ocean in liquid form, but doesn’t prevent the surface from freezing solid.
Radioactive heating is caused by the decay of radioactive isotopes. If Enceladus started out as a rocky body, and if it contained enough short-lived isotopes, then an enormous amount of heat would be produced for several million years. That action would create a rocky core surrounded by ice.
Then, if enough long-lived radioactive isotopes were present, they would continue producing heat for a much longer period of time. However, radioactive heating isn’t enough on its own. There would have to be tidal heating also.
More evidence for a large, sub-surface ocean came in 2014. Cassini and the Deep Space Network provided gravitometric measurements showing that the ocean is there. Those measurements showed that there is likely a regional, if not global, ocean some 10 km thick. Measurements also showed that the ocean is under an ice layer 30 to 40 km thick.
The discovery of a warm, salty ocean containing organic molecules is very intriguing, and has expanded our idea of what the habitable zone might be in our Solar System, and in others. Enceladus is much too distant from the Sun to rely on solar energy to sustain life. If moons can provide their own heat through tidal heating or radioactive heating, then the habitable zone in any solar system wouldn’t be determined by proximity to the star or stars at the centre.
Cassini’s mission is nearing its end, and it won’t fly by Enceladus again. It’s told us all it can about Enceladus. It’s up to future missions to expand our understanding of Enceladus.
Numerous missions have been talked about, including two that suggest flying through the plumes and sampling them. One proposal has a sample of the plumes being returned to Earth for study. Landing on Enceladus and somehow drilling through the ice remains a far-off idea better left to science fiction, at least for now.
Whether or not Enceladus can or does harbor life is a question that won’t be answered for a long time. In fact, not all scientists agree that there is a liquid ocean there at all. But whether it does or doesn’t harbor life, Cassini has allowed us to enjoy the tantalizing beauty of that distant object.
As the Cassini spacecraft moves ever closer to Saturn, new images provide some of the most-detailed views yet of the planet’s spectacular rings. From its “Ring-Grazing” orbit phase, Cassini’s cameras are resolving details in the rings as small as 0.3 miles (550 meters), which is on the scale of Earth’s tallest buildings.
On Twitter, Cassini Imaging Team Lead Carolyn Porco called the images “outrageous, eye-popping” and the “finest Cassini images of Saturn’s rings.”
Project Scientist Linda Spilker said the ridges and furrows in the rings remind her of the grooves in a phonograph record.
These images are giving scientists the chance to see more details about ring features they saw earlier in the mission, such as waves, wakes, and things they call ‘propellers’ and ‘straw.’
As of this writing, Cassini just started the 10th orbit of the 20-orbit ring-grazing phase, which has the spacecraft diving past the outer edge of the main ring system. The ring-grazing orbits began last November, and will continue until late April, when Cassini begins its grand finale. During the 22 finale orbits, Cassini will repeatedly plunge through the gap between the rings and Saturn. The first of these plunges is scheduled for April 26.
The spacecraft is actually close enough to the ‘F’ ring that occasionally tenuous particle strike Cassini, said project scientist Linda Spilker, during a Facebook Live event today.
“These are very small and tenuous, only a few microns in size,” Spilker said, “like dust particles you’d see in the sunlight. We can actually ‘hear’ them hitting the spacecraft in our data, but these particles are so small, they won’t hurt Cassini.”
Spilker has envisioned holding a ring particle in her hand. What would it look like?
“We have evidence of the particles that have an icy core covered with fluffy regolith material that is very porous,” she said, “and that means the particle can heat up and cool down very quickly compared to a solid ice cube.”
The straw features are caused by clumping ring particles and the propellers are caused by small, embedded moonlets that creates propeller shaped wakes in the rings.
This stunning view of the moon Daphnis shows the moon interacting with the ring particles, creating waves in the rings around it.
“These close views represent the opening of an entirely new window onto Saturn’s rings, and over the next few months we look forward to even more exciting data as we train our cameras on other parts of the rings closer to the planet,” said Matthew Tiscareno, a Cassini scientist who studies Saturn’s rings at the SETI Institute, Mountain View, California. Tiscareno planned the new images for the camera team.
Twelve years ago today, the Huygens probe landed on Titan, marking the farthest point from Earth any spacecraft has ever landed. While a twelfth anniversary may be an odd number to mark with a special article, as we said in our previous article (with footage from the landing), this is the last opportunity to celebrate the success of Huygens before its partner spacecraft Cassini ends its mission on September 15, 2017 with a fateful plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere.
But Huygens is also worth celebrating because, amazingly, the mission almost failed, but yet was a marvelous success. If not for the insistence of one ESA engineer to complete an in-flight test of Huygens’ radio system, none of the spacecraft’s incredible data from Saturn’s largest and mysterious moon would have ever been received, and likely, no one would have ever known why.
While all the flybys gave the spacecraft added boosts to help get it to Saturn, the Earth flyby also provided a chance for the teams to test out various systems and instruments and get immediate feedback.
“The European group wanted to test the Huygens receiver by transmitting the data from Earth,” said Earl Maize, Project Manager for the Cassini mission at JPL, who I interviewed for the book. “That’s a great in-flight test, because there’s the old adage of flight engineers, ‘test as you fly, fly as you test.’”
The way the Huygens mission would work at the Saturn system was that Cassini would release Huygens when the duo approached Titan. Huygens would drop through Titan’s thick and obscuring atmosphere like a skydiver on a parachute, transmitting data all the while. The Huygens probe didn’t have enough power or a large enough dish to transmit all its data directly to Earth, so Cassini would gather and store Huygens’ data on board and later transmit it to Earth.
ESA engineer Boris Smeds wanted to ensure this data handoff was going to work, otherwise a crucial part of the mission would be lost. So he proposed a test during the 1999 Earth flyby.
Maize said that for some reason, there was quite a bit of opposition to the test from some of the ESA officials, but Smeds and Claudio Sollazzo, Huygens’s ground operations manager at ESA’s European Space Operation Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany were insistent the test was necessary.
“They were not to be denied,” Maize said, “so they eventually got permission for the test. The Cassini team organized it, going to the Goldstone tracking station [in California] of the Deep Space Network (DSN) and did what’s called a ‘suitcase test,’ broke into the signal, and during the Earth flyby, Huygens, Cassini and Goldstone were all programmed to simulate the probe descending to Titan. It all worked great.”
Except for one thing: Cassini received almost no simulated data, and what it did receive was garbled. No one could figure out why.
Six months of painstaking investigation finally identified the problem. The variation in speed between the two spacecraft hadn’t been properly compensated for, causing a communication problem. It was as if the spacecraft were each communicating on a different frequency.
“The European team came to us and said we didn’t have a mission,” Maize said. “But we put together ‘Tiger Teams’ to try and figure it out.”
The short answer was that the idiosyncrasies in the communications system were hardwired in. With the spacecraft now millions of miles away, nothing could be fixed. But engineers came up with an ingenious solution using a basic principal known as the Doppler Effect.
The metaphor Maize likes to use is this: if you are sitting on the shore and a speed boat goes by close to the coast, it zooms past you quickly. But that same boat going the same speed out on the horizon looks like it is barely moving.
“Since we couldn’t change Huygens’ signal, the only thing we could change was the way Cassini flew,” Maize said. “If we could move Cassini farther away and make it appear as if Huygens was moving slower, it would receive lander’s radio waves at a lower frequency, solving the problem.”
Maize said it took two years of “fancy coding modifications and some pretty amazing trajectory computations.” Huygens’ landing was also delayed two months for the new trajectory that was needed overcome the radio system design flaw.
Additionally, with Cassini needing to be farther away from Huygens than originally planned, it would eventually fly out of range to capture all of Huygens’ data. Astronomers instigated a plan where radio telescopes around the world would listen for Huygens’ faint signals and capture anything Cassini missed.
Huygens was released from the Cassini spacecraft on Christmas Day 2004, and arrived at Titan on January 14, 2005. The probe began transmitting data to Cassini four minutes into its descent through Titan’s murky atmosphere, snapping photos and taking data all the while. Then it touched down, the first time a probe had landed on an extraterrestrial world in the outer Solar System.
Because of the communication problem, Huygens was not able to gather as much information as originally planned, as it could only transmit on one channel instead of two. But amazingly, Cassini captured absolutely all the data sent by Huygens until it flew out of range.
“It was beautiful,” Maize said, “I’ll never forget it. We got it all, and it was a wonderful example of international cooperation. The fact that 19 countries could get everything coordinated and launched in the first place was pretty amazing, but there’s nothing that compares to the worldwide effort we put into recovering the Huygens mission. From an engineering standpoint, that might trump everything else we’ve done on this mission.”
With its ground-breaking mission, Huygens provided the first real view of the surface of Titan. The data has been invaluable for understanding this unique and mysterious moon, showing geological and meteorological processes that are more similar to those on the surface of the Earth than anywhere else in the Solar System. ESA has details on the top discoveries by Huygens here.
Noted space journalist Jim Oberg has written several detailed and very interesting articles about the Huygens’ recovery, including one at IEEE Spectrum and another at The Space Review. These articles provide much more insight into the test, Smeds’ remarkable insistence for the test, the recovery work that was done and the subsequent success of the mission.
As Oberg says in IEEE Spectrum, “Smeds continued a glorious engineering tradition of rescuing deep-space missions from doom with sheer persistence, insight, and lots of improvisation.”
A modest Smeds was quoted by ESA: “This has happened before. Almost any mission has some design problem,” says Smeds, who says he’s worked on recovering from pre- and post-launch telecom issues that have arisen with several past missions. “To me, it’s just part of my normal work.”
For more stories about Huygens, Cassini and several other current robotic space missions, “Incredible Stories From Space” tells many behind-the-scenes stories from the amazing people who work on these missions.
On December 25, 2004, the piggybacking Huygens probe was released from the ‘mothership’ Cassini spacecraft and it arrived at Titan on January 14, 2005. The probe began transmitting data to Cassini four minutes into its descent through Titan’s murky atmosphere, snapping photos and taking data all the while. Then it touched down, the first time a probe had landed on an extraterrestrial world in the outer Solar System.
JPL has released a re-mix of the data and images gathered by Huygens 12 years ago in a beautiful new video. This is the last opportunity to celebrate the success of Huygens before Cassini ends its mission in September of 2017.
Watch as the incredible view of Titan’s surface comes into view, with mountains, a system of river channels and a possible lakebed.
After a two-and-a-half-hour descent, the metallic, saucer-shaped spacecraft came to rest with a thud on a dark floodplain covered in cobbles of water ice, in temperatures hundreds of degrees below freezing.
Huygens had to quickly collect and transmit all the images and data it could because shortly after landing, Cassini would drop below the local horizon, “cutting off its link to the home world and silencing its voice forever.”
How much of this video is actual images and data vs computer graphics?
Of course, the clips at the beginning and end of the video are obviously animations of the probe and orbiter. However, the slow descending 1st-person point-of-view video is made using actual images from Huygens. But Huygens did not take a continuous movie sequence, so a lot of work was done by the team that operated Huygens’ optical imager, the Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer (DISR), to enhance, colorize, and re-project the images into a variety of formats.
The view of the cobblestones and the parachute shadow near the end of the video is also created from real landing data, but was made in a different way from the rest of the descent video, because Huygens’ cameras did not actually image the parachute shadow. However, the upward looking infrared spectrometer took a measurement of the sky every couple of seconds, recording a darkening and then brightening to the unobstructed sky. The DISR team calculated from this the accurate speed and direction of the parachute, and of its shadow to create a very realistic video based on the data.
If you’re a data geek, there are some great videos of Huygens’ data by the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Laboratory team, such as this one:
The movie shows the operation of the DISR camera during the descent onto Titan. The almost 4-hour long operation
of DISR is shown in less than five minutes in 40 times actual sped up to landing and 100 times actual speed thereafter.
Sound was added to mark various events. The left speaker follows the motion of Huygens. The pitch of the tone indicates the rotational speed. Vibrato indicates vibration of the parachute. Little clicks indicate the clocking of the rotation counter. Noise corresponds to heating of the heat shield, to parachute deployments, to the heat shield release, to the jettison of the DISR cover, and to touch down.
The sound in the right speaker follows DISR data. The pitch of the continuous tone goes with the signal strength. The 13 different chime tones indicate activity of the 13 components of DISR. The counters at the top and bottom of the list get the high and low notes, respectively.
You can see more info and videos created from Huygens’ data here.