How Do We Colonize Saturn’s Moons?

Welcome back to our series on Colonizing the Solar System! Today, we take a look at the largest of Saturn’s Moons – Titan, Rhea, Iapetus, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas.

From the 17th century onward, astronomers made some profound discoveries around the planet Saturn, which they believed was the most distant planet of the Solar System at the time. Christiaan Huygens and Giovanni Domenico Cassini were the first, spotting the largest moons of Saturn – Titan, Tethys, Dione, Rhea and Iapetus. More discoveries followed; and today, what we recognized as the Saturn system includes 62 confirmed satellites.

What we know of this system has grown considerably in recent decades, thanks to missions like Voyager and Cassini. And with this knowledge has come multiple proposals that claim how Saturn’s moons should someday be colonized. In addition to boasting the only body other than Earth to have a dense, nitrogen-rich atmosphere, there are also abundant resources in this system that could be harnessed.

Much like the idea of colonizing the Moon, Mars, the moons of Jupiter, and other bodies in the Solar System, the idea of establishing colonies on Saturn’s moons has been explored extensively in science fiction. At the same time, scientific proposals have been made that emphasize how colonies would benefit humanity, allowing us to mount missions deeper into space and ushering in an age of abundance!

A montage of images from Cassini of various moons and the rings around Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
A montage of images from Cassini of various moons and the rings around Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Examples in Fiction:

The colonization of Saturn has been a recurring theme in science fiction over the decades. For example, in Arthur C. Clarke’s 1976 novel Imperial Earth, Titan is home to a human colony of 250,000 people. The colony plays a vital role in commerce, where hydrogen is taken from the atmosphere of Saturn and used as fuel for interplanetary travel.

In Piers Anthony’s Bio of a Space Tyrant series (1983-2001), Saturn’s moons have been colonized by various nations in a post-diaspora era. In this story, Titan has been colonized by the Japanese, whereas Saturn has been colonized by the Russians, Chinese, and other former Asian nations.

In the novel Titan (1997) by Stephen Baxter, the plot centers on a NASA mission to Titan which must struggle to survive after crash landing on the surface. In the first few chapters of Stanislaw Lem’s Fiasco (1986), a character ends up frozen on the surface of Titan, where they are stuck for several hundred years.

In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy (1996), nitrogen from Titan is used in the terraforming of Mars. In his novel 2312 (2012), humanity has colonized several of Saturn’s moons, which includes Titan and Iapetus. Several references are made to the “Enceladian biota” in the story as well, which are microscopic alien organisms that some humans ingest because of their assumed medicinal value.

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

As part of his Grand Tour Series, Ben Bova’s novels Saturn (2003) and Titan (2006) address the colonization of the Cronian system. In these stories, Titan is being explored by an artificially intelligent rover which mysteriously begins malfunctioning, while a mobile human Space Colony explores the Rings and other moons.

Proposed Methods:

In his book Entering Space: Creating a Spacefaring Civilization (1999), Robert Zubrin advocated colonizing the outer Solar System, a plan which included mining the atmospheres of the outer planets and establishing colonies on their moons. In addition to Uranus and Neptune, Saturn was designated as one of the largest sources of deuterium and helium-3, which could drive the pending fusion economy.

He further identified Saturn as being the most important and most valuable of the three, because of its relative proximity, low radiation, and excellent system of moons. Zubrin claimed that Titan is a prime candidate for colonization because it is the only moon in the Solar System to have a dense atmosphere and is rich in carbon-bearing compounds.

On March 9th, 2006, NASA’s Cassini space probe found possible evidence of liquid water on Enceladus, which was confirmed by NASA in 2014. According to data derived from the probe, this water emerges from jets around Enceladus’ southern pole, and is no more than tens of meters below the surface in certain locations. This would would make collecting water considerably easier than on a moon like Europa, where the ice sheet is several km thick.

Data obtained by Cassini also pointed towards the presence of volatile and organic molecules. And Enceladus also has a higher density than many of Saturn’s moons, which indicates that it has a larger average silicate core. All of these resources would prove very useful for the sake of constructing a colony and providing basic operations.

In October of 2012, Elon Musk unveiled his concept for an Mars Colonial Transporter (MCT), which was central to his long-term goal of colonizing Mars. At the time, Musk stated that the first unmanned flight of the Mars transport spacecraft would take place in 2022, followed by the first manned MCT mission departing in 2024.

In September 2016, during the 2016 International Astronautical Congress, Musk revealed further details of his plan, which included the design for an Interplanetary Transport System (ITS) and estimated costs. This system, which was originally intended to transport settlers to Mars, had evolved in its role to transport human beings to more distant locations in the Solar System – which could include the Jovian and Cronian moons.

Artist's rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

Potential Benefits:

Compared to other locations in the Solar System – like the Jovian system – Saturn’s largest moons are exposed to considerably less radiation. For instance, Jupiter’s moons of Io, Ganymede and Europa are all subject to intense radiation from Jupiter’s magnetic field – ranging from 3600 to 8 rems day. This amount of exposure would be fatal (or at least very hazardous) to human beings, requiring that significant countermeasures be in place.

In contrast, Saturn’s radiation belts are significantly weaker than Jupiter’s – with an equatorial field strength of 0.2 gauss (20 microtesla) compared to Jupiter’s 4.28 gauss (428 microtesla). This field extends from about 139,000 km from Saturn’s center out to a distance of about 362,000 km – compared to Jupiter’s, which extends to a distance of about 3 million km.

Of Saturn’s largest moons, Mimas and Enceladus fall within this belt, while Dione, Rhea, Titan, and Iapetus all have orbits that place them from just outside of Saturn’s radiation belts to well beyond it. Titan, for example, orbits Saturn at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 1,221,870 km, putting it safely beyond the reach of the gas giant’s energetic particles. And its thick atmosphere may be enough to shield residents from cosmic rays.

In addition, frozen volatiles and methane harvested from Saturn’s moons could be used for the sake of terraforming other locations in the Solar System. In the case of Mars, nitrogen, ammonia and methane have been suggested as a means of thickening the atmosphere and triggering a greenhouse effect to warm the planet. This would cause water ice and frozen CO² at the poles to sublimate – creating a self-sustaining process of ecological change.

Colonies on Saturn’s moons could also serve as bases for harvesting deuterium and helium-3 from Saturn’s atmosphere. The abundant sources of water ice on these moons could also be used to make rocket fuel, thus serving as stopover and refueling points. In this way, a colonizing the Saturn system could fuel Earth’s economy, and the facilitate exploration deeper into the outer Solar System.

Challenges:

Naturally, there are numerous challenges to colonizing Saturn’s moons. These include the distance involved, the necessary resources and infrastructure, and the natural hazards colonies on these moons would have to deal with. For starters, while Saturn may be abundant in resources and closer to Earth than either Uranus or Neptune, it is still very far.

On average, Saturn is approximately 1,429 billion km away from Earth; or ~8.5 AU, the equivalent of eight and a half times the average distance between the Earth and the Sun. To put that in perspective, it took the Voyager 1 probe roughly thirty-eight months to reach the Saturn system from Earth. For crewed spacecraft, carrying colonists and all the equipment needed to colonize the surface, it would take considerably longer to get there.

These ships, in order to avoid being overly large and expensive, would need to rely on cryogenics or hibernation-related technology in order to save room on storage and accommodations. While this sort of technology is being investigated for crewed missions to Mars, it is still very much in the research and development phase.

Artist's concept of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: NASA
Artist’s concept of a Bimodal Nuclear Thermal Rocket in Low Earth Orbit. Credit: NASA

Any vessels involved in the colonization efforts, or used to ship resources to and from the Cronian system, would also need to have advanced propulsion systems to ensure that they could make the trips in a realistic amount of time. Given the distances involved, this would likely require rockets that used nuclear-thermal propulsion, or something even more advanced (like anti-matter rockets).

And while the former is technically feasible, no such propulsion systems have been built just yet. Anything more advanced would require many more years of research and development, and a major commitment in resources. All of this, in turn, raises the crucial issue of infrastructure.

Basically, any fleet operating between Earth and Saturn would require a network of bases between here and there to keep them supplied and fueled. So really, any plans to colonize Saturn’s moons would have to wait upon the creation of permanent bases on the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and most likely the Jovian moons. This process would be punitively expensive by current standards and (again) would require a fleet of ships with advanced drive systems.

And while radiation is not a major threat in the Cronian system (unlike around Jupiter), the moons have been subject to a great deal of impacts over the course of their history. As a result, any settlements built on the surface would likely need additional protection in orbit, like a string of defensive satellites that could redirect comets and asteroids before they reached orbit.

 The huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn's northern hemisphere overtakes itself as it encircles the planet in this true-color view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
The huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn’s northern hemisphere overtakes itself as it encircles the planet in this true-color view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Given its abundant resources, and the opportunities it would present for exploring deeper into the Solar System (and maybe even beyond), Saturn and its system of moons is nothing short of a major prize. On top of that, the prospect of colonizing there is a lot more appealing than other locations that come with greater hazards (i.e. Jupiter’s moons).

However, such an effort would be daunting and would require a massive multi-generational commitment. And any such effort would most likely have to wait upon the construction of colonies and/or bases in locations closer to Earth first – such as on the Moon, Mars, the Asteroid Belt, and around Jupiter. But we can certainly hold out hope for the long run, can’t we?

We have written many interesting articles on colonization here at Universe Today. Here’s Why Colonize the Moon First?, How Do We Colonize Mercury?, How Do We Colonize Venus?, Colonizing Venus with Floating Cities, Will We Ever Colonize Mars?, How Do We Colonize Jupiter’s Moons?, and The Definitive Guide to Terraforming.

Astronomy Cast also has many interesting episodes on the subject. Check out Episode 59: Saturn, Episode 61: Saturn’s Moons, Episode 95: Humans to Mars, Part 2 – Colonists, Episode 115: The Moon, Part 3 – Return to the Moon, and Episode 381: Hollowing Asteroids in Science Fiction.

Sources:

How Do We Terraform Saturn’s Moons?

Continuing with our “Definitive Guide to Terraforming“, Universe Today is happy to present our guide to terraforming Saturn’s Moons. Beyond the inner Solar System and the Jovian Moons, Saturn has numerous satellites that could be transformed. But should they be?

Around the distant gas giant Saturn lies a system of rings and moons that is unrivaled in terms of beauty. Within this system, there is also enough resources that if humanity were to harness them – i.e. if the issues of transport and infrastructure could be addressed – we would be living in an age a post-scarcity. But on top of that, many of these moons might even be suited to terraforming, where they would be transformed to accommodate human settlers.

As with the case for terraforming Jupiter’s moons, or the terrestrial planets of Mars and Venus, doing so presents many advantages and challenges. At the same time, it presents many moral and ethical dilemmas. And between all of that, terraforming Saturn’s moons would require a massive commitment in time, energy and resources, not to mention reliance on some advanced technologies (some of which haven’t been invented yet).

Continue reading “How Do We Terraform Saturn’s Moons?”

Saturn’s Moon Dione

Ringside With Dione

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

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

Discovery and Naming:

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

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

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

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

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

Size, Mass and Orbit:

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

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

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

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

Composition and Surface Features:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atmosphere:

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

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

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

Exploration:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturn’s Moon Tethys

Thanks the Voyager missions and the more recent flybys conducted by the Cassini space probe, Saturn’s system of moons have become a major source of interest for scientists and astronomers. From water ice and interior oceans, to some interesting surface features caused by impact craters and geological forces, Saturn’s moons have proven to be a treasure trove of discoveries.

This is particularly true of Saturn’s moon Tethys, also known as a “Death Star Moon” (because of the massive crater that marks its surface). In addition to closely resembling the space station out of Star Wars lore, it boasts the largest valleys in the Solar System and is composed mainly of water ice. In addition, it has much in common with two of its Cronian peers, Mimas and Rhea, which also resemble a certain moon-size space station.

Discovery and Naming:
Originally discovered by Giovanni Cassini in 1684, Tethys is one of four moons discovered by the great Italian mathematician, astronomer, astrologer and engineer between the years of 1671 and 1684. These include Rhea and Iapetus, which he discovered in 1671-72; and Dione, which he discovered alongside Tethys.

Cassini observed all of these moons using a large aerial telescope he set up on the grounds of the Paris Observatory. At the time of their discovery, he named the four new moons “Sider Lodoicea” (“the stars of Louis”) in honor of his patron, king Louis XIV of France.

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

The modern names of all seven satellites of Saturn come from John Herschel (son of William Herschel, discoverer of Mimas and Enceladus). In his 1847 treatise Results of Astronomical Observations made at the Cape of Good Hope, he suggested that all should be named after the Titans – the brothers and sisters of Cronos – from Greek mythology.

Size, Mass and Orbit:
With a mean radius of 531.1 ± 0.6 km and a mass of 6.1745 ×1020 kg, Tethys is equivalent in size to 0.083 Earths and 0.000103 times as massive. Its size and mass also mean that it is the 16th-largest moon in the Solar System, and more massive than all known moons smaller than itself combined. At an average distance (semi-major axis) of 294,619 km, Tethys is the third furthest large moon from Saturn and the 13th most distant moon over all.

Tethys’ has virtually no orbital eccentricity, but it does have an orbital inclination of about 1°. This means that the moon is locked in an inclination resonance with Saturn’s moon Mimas, though this does not cause any noticeable orbital eccentricity or tidal heating. Tethys has two co-orbital moons, Telesto and Calypso, which orbit near Tethys’s Lagrange Points.

Diameter comparison of the Saturnian moon Tethys, Moon, and Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS/Tom Reding
Diameter comparison of the Saturnian moon Tethys, Moon, and Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL/USGS/Tom Reding

Tethys’ orbit lies deep inside the magnetosphere of Saturn, which means that the plasma co-rotating with the planet strikes the trailing hemisphere of the moon. Tethys is also subject to constant bombardment by the energetic particles (electrons and ions) present in the magnetosphere.

Composition and Surface Features:
Tethys has a mean density of 0.984 ± 0.003 grams per cubic centimeter. Since water is 1 g/cm3, this means that Tethys is comprised almost entirely of water ice. In essence, if the moon were brought closer to the Sun, the vast majority of the moon would sublimate and evaporate away.

It is not currently known whether Tethys is differentiated into a rocky core and ice mantle. However, given the fact that rock accounts for less 6% of its mass, a differentiated Tethys would have a core that did not exceed 145 km in radius. On the other hand, Tethys’ shape – which resembles that of a triaxial ellipsoid – is consistent with it having a homogeneous interior (i.e. a mix of ice and rock).

This ice is also very reflective, which makes Tethys the second-brightest of the moons of Saturn, after Enceladus. There are two different regions of terrain on Tethys. One portion is ancient, with densely packed craters, while the other parts are darker and have less cratering. The surface is also marked by numerous large faults or graben.

The Odysseus Crater, a Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
The Odysseus Crater, the 400 km surface feature that gives Tethys it’s “Death Star” appearance. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

The western hemisphere of Tethys is dominated by a huge, shallow crater called Odysseus. At 400 km across, it is the largest crater on the surface, and roughly 2/5th the size of Tethys itself. Due to its position, shape, and the fact that a section in the middle is raised, this crater is also responsible for lending the moon it’s “Death Star” appearance.

The largest graben, Ithaca Chasma, is about 100 km wide and more than 2000 km long, making it the second longest valley in the Solar System. Named after the island of Ithaca in Greece, this valley runs approximately three-quarters of the way around Tethys’ circumference. It is also approximately concentric with Odysseus crater, which has led some astronomers to theorize that the two features might be related.

Scientists also think that Tethys was once internally active and that cryovolcanism led to endogenous resurfacing and surface renewal. This is due to the fact that a small part of the surface is covered by smooth plains, which are devoid of the craters and graben that cover much of the planet. The most likely explanation is that subsurface volcanoes deposited fresh material on the surface and smoothed out its features.

Cassini closeup of the southern end of Ithaca Chasma. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
Cassini closeup of the southern end of Ithaca Chasma. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Like all other regular moons of Saturn, Tethys is believed to have formed from the Saturnian sub-nebula – a disk of gas and dust that surrounded Saturn soon after its formation. As this dust and gas coalesced, it formed Tethys and its two co-orbital moons: Telesto and Calypso. Hence why these two moons were  captured into Tethys’ Lagrangian points, with one orbiting ahead of Tethys and the other following behind.

Exploration:
Tethys has been approached by several space probes in the past, including Pioneer 11 (1979), Voyager 1 (1980) and Voyager 2 (1981). Although both Voyager spacecraft took images of the surface, only those taken by Voyager 2 were of high enough resolution to truly map the surface. While Voyager 1 managed to capture an image of Ithaca Chasma, it was the Voyager 2 mission that revealed much about the surface and imaged the Odysseus crater.

Tethys has also been photographed multiple times by the Cassini orbiter since 2004. By 2014, all of the images taken by Cassini allowed for a series of enhanced-color maps that detailed the surface of the entire planet (shown below). The color and brightness of Tethys’ surface have since become sources of interest to astronomers.

On the leading hemisphere of the moon, spacecraft have found a dark bluish band spanning 20° to the south and north from the equator. The band has an elliptical shape getting narrower as it approaches the trailing hemisphere, which is similar to the one found on Mimas.

This set of global, color mosaics of Saturn's moon Tethys was produced from images taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft during its first ten years exploring the Saturn system. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute / Lunar and Planetary Institute
Global, color mosaics of Saturn’s moon Tethys, as produced from images taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft between 2004-2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/ Lunar and Planetary Institute

The band is likely caused by the influence of energetic electrons from Saturn’s magnetosphere, which drift in the direction opposite to the rotation of the planet and impact areas on the leading hemisphere close to the equator. Temperature maps of Tethys obtained by Cassini have shown this bluish region to be cooler at midday than surrounding areas.

At present, Tethys’ water-rich composition remains unexplained. One of the most interesting explanations proposed is that the rings and inner moons accreted from the ice-rich crust of a much larger, Titan-sized moon before it was swallowed up by Saturn. This, and other mysteries, will likely be addressed by future space probe missions.

We have many great articles about Tethys here at Universe Today. Here’s one about the story about Tethys, with a photograph taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, and another about a feature on the surface of Tethys called Ithaca Chasma.

Want more info on Tethys? Check out this article from Solar Views, and this one from Nine Planets.

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

Saturn’s Moon Rhea

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

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

Discovery and Naming:

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

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

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

Size, Mass and Orbit:

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

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

Composition and Surface Features:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atmosphere:

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

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

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

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

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

Exploration:

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

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

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

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

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

Best Space Photos Of 2014 Bring You Across The Solar System

Feel like visiting a dwarf planet today? How about a comet or the planet Mars? Luckily for us, there are sentinels across the Solar System bringing us incredible images, allowing us to browse the photos and follow in the footsteps of these machines. And yes, there are even a few lucky humans taking pictures above Earth as well.

Below — not necessarily in any order — are some of the best space photos of 2014. You’ll catch glimpses of Pluto and Ceres (big destinations of 2015) and of course Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko (for a mission that began close-up operations in 2014 and will continue next year.) Enjoy!

The Philae that could! The lander photographed during its descent by Rosetta. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for Rosetta Team/
The Philae that could! The lander photographed during its descent by Rosetta. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for Rosetta Team/
The Aurora Borealis seen from the International Space Station on June 28, 2014, taken by astronaut Reid Wiseman. Credit: Reid Wiseman/NASA.
The Aurora Borealis seen from the International Space Station on June 28, 2014, taken by astronaut Reid Wiseman. Credit: Reid Wiseman/NASA.
NASA's Mars Curiosity Rover captures a selfie to mark a full Martian year -- 687 Earth days -- spent exploring the Red Planet.  Curiosity Self-Portrait was taken at the  'Windjana' Drilling Site in April and May 2014 using the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera at the end of the roboic arm.  Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover captures a selfie to mark a full Martian year — 687 Earth days — spent exploring the Red Planet. Curiosity Self-Portrait was taken at the ‘Windjana’ Drilling Site in April and May 2014 using the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) camera at the end of the roboic arm. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This global map of Dione, a moon of Saturn, shows dark red in the trailing hemisphere, which is due to radiation and charged particles from Saturn's intense magnetic environment. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
This global map of Dione, a moon of Saturn, shows dark red in the trailing hemisphere, which is due to radiation and charged particles from Saturn’s intense magnetic environment. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Comet Siding Spring shines in ultraviolet in this image obtained by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft. Credit: Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics/University of Colorado; NASA
Comet Siding Spring shines in ultraviolet in this image obtained by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) spacecraft. Credit: Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics/University of Colorado; NASA
This "movie" of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon b yNASA's New Horizons spacecraft taken in July 2014 clearly shows that the barycenter -center of mass of the two bodies - resides outside (between) both bodies. The 12 images that make up the movie were taken by the spacecraft’s best telescopic camera – the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) – at distances ranging from about 267 million to 262 million miles (429 million to 422 million kilometers). Charon is orbiting approximately 11,200 miles (about 18,000 kilometers) above Pluto's surface. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
This “movie” of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon b yNASA’s New Horizons spacecraft taken in July 2014 clearly shows that the barycenter -center of mass of the two bodies – resides outside (between) both bodies. The 12 images that make up the movie were taken by the spacecraft’s best telescopic camera – the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) – at distances ranging from about 267 million to 262 million miles (429 million to 422 million kilometers). Charon is orbiting approximately 11,200 miles (about 18,000 kilometers) above Pluto’s surface. (Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute)
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took this image of a "circular feature" estimated to be 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) in diameter. Picture released in December 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter took this image of a “circular feature” estimated to be 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) in diameter. Picture released in December 2014. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona
Jets of gas and dust are seen escaping comet 67P/C-G on September 26 in this four-image mosaic. Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM
Jets of gas and dust are seen escaping comet 67P/C-G on September 26 in this four-image mosaic. Click to enlarge. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM
Ceres as seen from the Earth-based Hubble Space Telescope in 2004 (left) and with the Dawn spacecraft in 2014 as it approached the dwarf planet. Hubble Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Parker (Southwest Research Institute), P. Thomas (Cornell University), L. McFadden (University of Maryland, College Park), and M. Mutchler and Z. Levay (STScI). Dawn Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Photo Combination: Elizabeth Howell
Ceres as seen from the Earth-based Hubble Space Telescope in 2004 (left) and with the Dawn spacecraft in 2014 as it approached the dwarf planet. Hubble Credit: NASA, ESA, J. Parker (Southwest Research Institute), P. Thomas (Cornell University), L. McFadden (University of Maryland, College Park), and M. Mutchler and Z. Levay (STScI). Dawn Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA. Photo Combination: Elizabeth Howell

Saturn Smackdown! Icy Moons Burned By Radiation And Ions

If you hang out in Saturn’s intense magnetic environment for a while, it’s going to leave a mark. That’s one conclusion from scientists who proudly released new maps yesterday (Dec. 9) of the planet’s icy moons, showing dark blotches on the surfaces of Dione, Rhea, and Tethys.

Cassini has been at Saturn for more than 10 years, and compared to the flyby Voyager mission has given us a greater understanding of what these moons contain. You can see the difference clearly in the maps below; look under the jump and swipe back and forth to see the difference.

So what do these maps yield? Radiation-burned hemispheres in Dione, Tethys, and Rhea. Icy deposits building up on Enceladus from eruptions, which you can see in yellow and magenta, as well as fractures in blue. Dust from Saturn’s E-ring covering several of the moons, except for Iapetus and Tethys.

"Tiger stripes" -- sources of ice spewing -- in this image of Saturn's Enceladus taken by the Cassini spacecraft in 2009. Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA
“Tiger stripes” — sources of ice spewing — in this image of Saturn’s Enceladus taken by the Cassini spacecraft in 2009. Credit: Cassini Imaging Team, SSI, JPL, ESA, NASA

Could these be used by future explorers seeking life in some of these moons? In the meantime, enjoy the difference between Voyager’s view in the 1980s, and Cassini’s view for the past decade, in the comparison maps below.

A caution about the maps: they are a little more enhanced than human vision, showing some features in infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths. “Differences in color across the moons’ surfaces that are subtle in natural-color views become much easier to study in these enhanced colors,” NASA stated.

Dione

Enceladus

Iapetus

Mimas

Rhea

Tethys

Geysers on Enceladus are Powered in Part by Saturn’s Gravity

The geyser jets of Enceladus don’t shoot out in a continuous stream, but are more like an adjustable garden hose nozzle, says Cassini scientist Matt Hedman, author of a new paper about the inner workings of this fascinating tiger-striped moon. Observations from Cassini has found that the bright plume emanating from Enceladus’ south pole varies predictably. The fluctuating factor appears to be how far or close Enceladus is to its home planet, Saturn.

Scientists have hypothesized that the intensity of the jets likely varied over time, but until now had not been able to show they changed in a recognizable pattern. Hedman and colleagues were able to see the changes by examining infrared data of the plume as a whole, obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS), and looking at data gathered since 2004 when Cassini entered Saturn’s orbit. In 2005, the jets that form the plumes were discovered.

“The way the jets react so responsively to changing stresses on Enceladus suggests they have their origins in a large body of liquid water,” said Christophe Sotin, a co-author and Cassini team member. “Liquid water was key to the development of life on Earth, so these discoveries whet the appetite to know whether life exists everywhere water is present.”

This set of images from NASA's Cassini mission shows how the gravitational pull of Saturn affects the amount of spray coming from jets at the active moon Enceladus. Enceladus has the most spray when it is farthest away from Saturn in its orbit (inset image on the left) and the least spray when it is closest to Saturn (inset image on the right). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Cornell/SSI.
This set of images from NASA’s Cassini mission shows how the gravitational pull of Saturn affects the amount of spray coming from jets at the active moon Enceladus. Enceladus has the most spray when it is farthest away from Saturn in its orbit (inset image on the left) and the least spray when it is closest to Saturn (inset image on the right). Credit:
NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/Cornell/SSI.

The scientists say this new finding adds to evidence that a liquid water reservoir or ocean lurks under the icy surface of the moon. This is the first clear observation the bright plume emanating from Enceladus’ south pole varies predictably. The findings were published in a scientific paper in this week’s edition of Nature.

The VIMS instrument, which enables the analysis of a wide range of data including the hydrocarbon composition of the surface of another Saturnian moon, Titan, and the seismological signs of Saturn’s vibrations in its rings, collected more than 200 images of the Enceladus plume from 2005 to 2012.

These data show the plume was dimmest when the moon was at the closest point in its orbit to Saturn. The plume gradually brightened until Enceladus was at the most distant point, where it was three to four times brighter than the dimmest detection. This is comparable to moving from a dim hallway into a brightly lit office.

Adding the brightness data to previous models of how Saturn squeezes Enceladus, the scientists deduced the stronger gravitational squeeze near the planet reduces the opening of the tiger stripes and the amount of material spraying out. They think the relaxing of Saturn’s gravity farther away from planet allows the tiger stripes to be more open and for the spray to escape in larger quantities.

“Cassini’s time at Saturn has shown us how active and kaleidoscopic this planet, its rings and its moons are,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL. “We’ve come a long way from the placid-looking Saturn that Galileo first spied through his telescope. We hope to learn more about the forces at work here as a microcosm for how our Solar System formed.”

Enceladus has likely been subject to other gravitational forces over time as well. Previous studies have shown that over hundreds of millions of years, an existing gravitational interaction between Enceladus and another moon, Dione, has caused the orbit of Enceladus to grow increasingly more elongated, or eccentric.

In turn, this produced much more tidal stress in the past and scientists think that contributed to the wide-scale fracturing and friction within Enceladus’ icy crust. The friction leads to melting of internal ice and produces an ocean and eruptions of water and organics on the surface.

Source: NASA

Saturn’s Moon Dione May Have Been Active Like Enceladus

From a JPL press release:

From a distance, most of the Saturnian moon Dione resembles a bland cueball. Thanks to close-up images of a 500-mile-long (800-kilometer-long) mountain on the moon from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, scientists have found more evidence for the idea that Dione was likely active in the past. It could still be active now.

“A picture is emerging that suggests Dione could be a fossil of the wondrous activity Cassini discovered spraying from Saturn’s geyser moon Enceladus or perhaps a weaker copycat Enceladus,” said Bonnie Buratti of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., who leads the Cassini science team that studies icy satellites. “There may turn out to be many more active worlds with water out there than we previously thought.”

Janiculum Dorsa, a mountain that appears as the long, raised scar in the middle of this Cassini image, is providing new evidence that the Saturnian moon Dione was recently active. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.
Janiculum Dorsa, a mountain that appears as the long, raised scar in the middle of this Cassini image, is providing new evidence that the Saturnian moon Dione was recently active. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Other bodies in the solar system thought to have a subsurface ocean – including Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan and Jupiter’s moon Europa – are among the most geologically active worlds in our solar system. They have been intriguing targets for geologists and scientists looking for the building blocks of life elsewhere in the solar system. The presence of a subsurface ocean at Dione would boost the astrobiological potential of this once-boring iceball.

Hints of Dione’s activity have recently come from Cassini, which has been exploring the Saturn system since 2004. The spacecraft’s magnetometer has detected a faint particle stream coming from the moon, and images showed evidence for a possible liquid or slushy layer under its rock-hard ice crust. Other Cassini images have also revealed ancient, inactive fractures at Dione similar to those seen at Enceladus that currently spray water ice and organic particles.

The mountain examined in the latest paper — published in March in the journal Icarus — is called Janiculum Dorsa and ranges in height from about 0.6 to 1.2 miles (1 to 2 kilometers). The moon’s crust appears to pucker under this mountain as much as about 0.3 mile (0.5 kilometer).

The topography of a mountain known as Janiculum Dorsa on the Saturnian moon Dione. Color denotes elevation, with red as the highest area and blue as the lowest. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.
The topography of a mountain known as Janiculum Dorsa on the Saturnian moon Dione. Color denotes elevation, with red as the highest area and blue as the lowest. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

“The bending of the crust under Janiculum Dorsa suggests the icy crust was warm, and the best way to get that heat is if Dione had a subsurface ocean when the ridge formed,” said Noah Hammond, the paper’s lead author, who is based at Brown University, Providence, R.I.

Dione gets heated up by being stretched and squeezed as it gets closer to and farther from Saturn in its orbit. With an icy crust that can slide around independently of the moon’s core, the gravitational pulls of Saturn get exaggerated and create 10 times more heat, Hammond explained. Other possible explanations, such as a local hotspot or a wild orbit, seemed unlikely.

Scientists are still trying to figure out why Enceladus became so active while Dione just seems to have sputtered along. Perhaps the tidal forces were stronger on Enceladus, or maybe the larger fraction of rock in the core of Enceladus provided more radioactive heating from heavy elements. In any case, liquid subsurface oceans seem to be common on these once-boring icy satellites, fueling the hope that other icy worlds soon to be explored – like the dwarf planets Ceres and Pluto – could have oceans underneath their crusts. NASA’s Dawn and New Horizons missions reach those dwarf planets in 2015.

A Color View of Darling Dione

Color-composite of Dione made from raw Cassini images acquired on Dec. 23, 2012. (NASA/JPL/SSI. Composite by J. Major.)

Although made mostly of ice and rock, Saturn’s moon Dione (pronounced dee-oh-nee) does have some color to it, as seen in this color-composite made from raw images acquired by Cassini on December 23.

700 miles (1120 km) wide, Dione is covered pole-to-pole in craters and crisscrossed by long, bright regions of “wispy line” terrain — the reflective faces of sheer ice cliffs and scarps that are too steep for darker material drifting in from Saturn’s E ring to remain upon.

The composite  was assembled from raw images captured in red, green and blue visible light wavelengths by Cassini from a distance of 154,869 miles (249,238 km).

The view above looks at a region on Dione’s mid-northern hemisphere. The bright-walled crater in the center surrounded by warmer-hued terrain is named Creusa, and the long rift system next to it is Tibur Chasmata, which runs north-to-south. Dione’s north pole is to the upper left.

Dione’s heavily cratered areas are most common on its trailing hemisphere. Logically, a moon’s leading hemisphere should be the more heavily cratered, so it has been hypothesized that a relatively recent impact spun Dione around 180 degrees. The moon’s small size mean that even a modest-scale impact could have done the job.

Relative sizes of Earth, Moon and Dione (J. Major)

Dione orbits Saturn at a distance of 209,651 miles (377,400 km), closer than our Moon is to us.

See more images and news from the Cassini mission here. And for more on Dione, see some of my previous posts on Lights in the Dark.