A Double-Dose of Cassini Goodness

The Cassini mission is just a non-stop faucet of fantastic images! Here are two that were released today, for your viewing pleasure. The first image, above, is an eclipse of Saturn’s moon Tethys, which lies in the background, by Dione. The three images were each taken one minute apart.

As you can see, from Cassini’s perspective Dione passes right in front of Tethys. Make no mistake in thinking that these two Saturnian companions are close together in this shot, however; Dione, the moon in the foreground, is 2.2 million kilometers (1.4 million miles) from the Cassini spacecraft, while Tethys is 2.6 million kilometers (1.6 million miles) away.

An interesting feature of the image is how Tethys appears brighter on the side of the moon opposite the Sun. This is because Saturn, which lies out of the image to the right, is reflecting light from the Sun back onto the moon. Dione is not being backlit by Saturn from the vantage point of Cassini, so its face that is opposite the Sun appears darker.

Visible on Tethys is the Odysseus Crater, which spans a whopping 400km (240 miles). Given that Tethys is only 1,062 kilometers, or 660 miles across, the crater appears very large in comparison to the moon. It also makes the moon very much resemble the Death Star from Star Wars, don’t you think? These images were taken using Cassini’s narrow-angle camera on Nov. 28, 2009.

This second image is a synthetic aperture radar image of the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan. In the lower right and upper center of the image, the two wrinkly features are actually small Titanian mountains. What exactly causes the grooves in these mountains has still to be determined.

On Earth, the shifting of tectonic plates can form such structures, as well as the processes of water flowing, freezing, and melting.

Since Titan has an atmosphere composed mostly of methane and ethane, and experiences rain much like here on Earth, it’s quite possible that these processes are the cause of such features.

Because the illumination of this image comes from the radar on Cassini, the peaks of these formations should be the brightest. As is visible, this isn’t the case. Notice how the left side of the upper mountain in the image, and right side of the lower-right mountain are brighter. The materials that make up the darker and lighter areas are the cause for this lighting effect.

The image represents a patch of Titan’s surface 250 km (155 miles) high and 285 km (180 miles) wide, and the resolution is about 350 meters (1,150 feet) per pixel, and it was taken on December 28th, 2009.

Source: Cassini Equinox Mission, here and here.

Annular Eclipse Photos, Videos From Earth and Space

Caption: Annular solar eclipse on January 15, 2009. Courtesy Daniel Fischer, “cosmos4u” on Twitter.

The first of two solar eclipses to occur in 2010 took place Friday, January 15. This was an annular eclipse, which means the Sun was not totally covered by the Moon, creating a “ring of fire.” The eclipse was visible from a 300-km-wide track that passed over central Africa, across the Indian Ocean, over the southern tip of India and the northern end of Sri Lanka, and then across parts of Bangladesh and Myanmar. At the center of the track, the eclipse endured for 11 minutes and eight seconds, setting a record that won’t be beaten until December 23, 3043. Weather cooperated in many regions, allowing good viewing conditions. Here are a few images and videos from Daniel Fischer, who was in Varkala, India, and another group who calls themselves Eclipse Hunt 2010 crew were in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. The image above is from Fischer, who said via Twitter that his travels to view the eclipse was a total success. “Deep blue sky, not a single cloud all day, photo plans worked.”

Annular eclipse, Jan 15, 2010 by Shehal Joseph and Romayne Anthony. Courtesy Elipse Hunt 2010 website

This image is from the Eclipse Hunt 2010 crew, in northern Sri Lanka. It was taken by Shehal Joseph and Romayne Anthony. They used a Celestron NexStar 5se telescope with a focal length of 1.25m, and an energy rejection filter.

Why the “ring of fire?” During an annular eclipse, the moon is a little further than average away from the earth and its angular size in the sky is therefore slightly smaller than the angular size of the sun. So it is like the Moon is silhouetted against the Sun, and it doesn’t cover the Sun entirely. A a ring, or annulus, of sunlight can be seen around the black disk of the moon.

The Moon casts a shadow on Earth, as seen by NASA's Aqua satellite from space. Credit: NASA

NASA’s Aqua satellite was looking down from space at 1:15 p.m. Calcutta time (7:45 UTC) on January 15, 2010, and saw the Moon’s shadow cast on Earth. The Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on Aqua images this shadowed area in India and the Bay of Bengal. The shadow spanned a north-south distance of about 300 kilometers (185 miles) on the surface, with the darkest part near the mid-point of the span.

The Sun's chromosphere was visible in a long exposure. Credit: T. Kampschulte

This is another image from the Fischer’s group of astrophotographers in India. By taking a long-exposure image, the sun’s chromosphere was able to be seen.

Normally with an annular eclipse, not a lot of science is able to be done, said Jay Pasachoff, who leads the IAU’s working group on eclipses. “Because it doesn’t get completely dark, we won’t be able to see the solar corona, the diamond ring, or the fantastically interesting and beautiful phenomena that one sees at a total solar eclipse, but still annular eclipses are interesting to see,” Pasachoff said on the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast. “You have to keep a solar filter on to look through for the whole time. The partial phases that last an hour and a half and the annular phase, which, for this eclipse, lasts, in many places, over ten minutes – very long for an eclipse.”

Interestingly, the images shown here by Fischer’s group used a very low-tech combination of a compact camera and their filters were two “rescue sheets,” the thin aluminum foil-like thermal blankets usually given out during emergency situations, such as the recent earthquake in Haiti.

The Eclipse Hunt 2010 crew took a few videos of the eclipse, using the projection method. See more of their videos here at their You Tube page. And see more images on their website, Eclipse 2010. Special thanks to Prasanna Deshapriya, one of the members of the Eclipse Hunt 2010 crew, who shared these images. Check out his website about the IYA in Sri Lanka.

A high resolution image from a telescope in India. Credit: T. Kampschulte

This high-resolution image obtained using a telescope was taken by Fischer’s group in India. “The Ring of Fire is closed, but just barely; it measures a few arc seconds only in places in this super-sharp telescopic image,” said Fischer, via Twitter.

For more eclipse images go to:

Spaceweather.com’s eclipse gallery

Flickr’s eclipse thread

More eclipse videos on You Tube

More links to the eclipse can be found here.

Plus, the Jan. 18 Astronomy Picture of the day is from the eclipse.

The next solar eclipse will be a total eclipse, on July 11th, 2010. “That won’t be seen by very many people at all,” said Pasachoff. “It is largely over the Pacific Ocean, where it will cross some normally uninhabited atolls not far from Tahiti, so there’ll be some ships there and some few expeditions out of Tahiti to see that. The major land in the way is a very unusual island, Easter Island. It’s in the middle of the Pacific, some 4,000 miles west of the coast of Chile.”

But, Pasachoff will be there.

Plane of the Ecliptic

Solar eclipse. Credit: NASA


Plane of the ecliptic, also known as the ecliptic plane, is a phrase you will often hear in astronomy. A basic definition is that the plane of the ecliptic is the plane of the Earth’s orbit, but that does not mean much to most people. Space is a three-dimensional vacuum, which you can think of as a kind of pool with the planets suspended in it. The Earth orbits the Sun on a particular angle and its orbit is elliptical in shape. The orbit is often shown as an ellipse made of dotted lines with the Sun at its center. If you made this ellipse a solid surface and extended it infinitively, then you would have the plane of the ecliptic. Actually our entire Solar System can be thought of as flat because all of the planets’ orbits are near or on this plane.

The ecliptic plane is used as the main reference when describing the position of other celestial objects in our Solar System. The angle between the plane of the ecliptic and the plane of an orbit is called the inclination. Until it was stripped of its status as a planet, Pluto was the planet with the most extreme inclination – 17°. Mercury is the only other planet with a significant inclination of 7°. There is also a 7° inclination between the plane of the Sun’s equator and the ecliptic plane. There are other celestial bodies that have a much greater inclination than any of the planets, such as Eris with a 44° inclination or Pallas with a 34° inclination.

The ecliptic plane got its name from the fact that a solar eclipse can only happen when the Moon crosses this plane to block out the Sun. Our Moon crosses the ecliptic about twice a month. A solar eclipse occurs when a new Moon crosses the ecliptic, and a lunar eclipse occurs when a full Moon crosses it.

Seasons on Earth are caused by our planet’s axial tilt of 23.5°, which causes variations in the amount of sunlight different parts of the Earth receive. This goes for all the other planets too. For example, Uranus rotates on its side with an axial tilt of 97.8°, which results in extreme variations in its seasons. The eclipse is also home to the constellations of the zodiac. There are twelve constellations in the zodiac, which are important symbols in astrology and can also be found in the Chinese calendar.  Here’s a list of all the zodiac symbols.

Universe Today has a number of articles including Virgo one of the zodiac signs and axial tilt.

You should also check out these articles on the ecliptic plane and ecliptic facts for more information.

Do not forget to tune into Astronomy Cast’s episode about the planet’s orbits.

NASA: The Path of the Sun, the Ecliptic