Whether Saturn's Rings are Young or Old, its Moons are as Ancient as the Planet Itself

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

Saturn is best known for two things: its iconic ring structures and its large system of natural satellites. Currently, 146 moons and moonlets have been discovered orbiting the ringed giant, 24 of which are regular satellites. These include the seven largest moons, Titan, Rhea, Iapetus, Dione, Tethys, Enceladus, and Mimas, which are icy bodies believed to have interior oceans. In addition, there are unresolved questions about the age of these satellites, with some suspecting that they formed more recently (like Saturn’s rings, which are a few hundred million years old).

To address these questions, an international team of astronomers created a series of high-resolution simulations coupled with improved estimates of Trans-Neptunian Object (TNO) populations. This allowed them to construct a chronology of impacts for Saturn’s most heavily cratered regular satellites – Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, and Rhea. This established age limits of 4.1 and 4.4 billion years for all five, with the two innermost moons appearing more youthful than the outer three. These results could have significant implications for our understanding of the formation and tidal evolution of moons in the outer Solar System.

Continue reading “Whether Saturn's Rings are Young or Old, its Moons are as Ancient as the Planet Itself”

How Do We Terraform Saturn’s Moons?

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

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
Saturn's moon Dione, with Saturn's rings visible in the background. Credit: NASA/JPL

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.


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.


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 “Yin-Yang” Moon Iapetus

The dark and light side of Iapetus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Thanks to the Cassini mission, a great many things have been learned about the Saturn system in recent years. In addition to information on Saturn’s atmosphere, rotation and its beautiful and extensive ring system, many revelations have been made about Saturn’s system of moons. For example, very little was known about the obscure moon of Iapetus – sometimes nicknamed Saturn’s “yin-yang” moon – before Cassini‘s arrival.

In addition to its mysterious, equatorial ridge, this moon also has a two-tone appearance that has historically made direct observation quite difficult. Due to its distance from Saturn, close-up observation with space probes has also been quite difficult too until very recently. However, what we have learned in the past few years about Iapetus has taught us that it is a world of stark contrasts, and not just in terms of its appearance.

Discovery and Naming:

Iapetus was discovered by Giovanni Domenico Cassini in April 1671. Along with Rhea, Tethys and Dione, Iapetus was one of four moons Cassini discovered between 1671 and 1672 – which together he named Sidera Lodoicea (“Stars of Louis“, after his patron, Louis XIV). After the discovery, astronomers fell into the habit of referring to them using Roman numerals, with Iapetus being Saturn V.

The name Iapetus was suggested by John Herschel, the son of William Herschel, in his 1847 treatise Results of Astronomical Observations made at the Cape of Good Hope. Like all of Saturn’s moons, the name Iapetus was taken from the Titans of Greek mythology – the sons and daughters of Cronus (the Greek equivalent of the Roman Saturn). Iapetus was the son of Uranus and Gaia and the father of Atlas, Prometheus, Epimetheus and Menoetius.

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

Geological features on Iapetus are named after characters and places from the French epic poem The Song of Roland. Examples of names used include the craters Charlemagne and Baligant, and the northern and southern bright regions, Roncevaux Terra and Sargassio Terra. The one exception is Cassini Regio the dark region of Iapetus, named after the region’s discoverer, Giovanni Cassini.

Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a mean radius of 734.5 ± 2.8 km and a mass of about 1.806 × 1021 kg, Iapetus is 0.1155 times the size of Earth and 0.00030 times as massive. It orbits its parent planet at an average distance (semi major axis) of 3,560,820 km. With a noticeable eccentricity of 0.0286125, its orbit ranges in distance from 3,458,936 km at periapsis and 3,662,704 km at apoapsis.

With an average orbital speed of 3.26 km/s, Iapetus takes 79.32 days to complete an single orbit of Saturn. Despite being Saturn’s third-largest moon, Iapetus orbits much farther from Saturn than its next closest major satellite (Titan). It has also the most inclined orbital plane of any of the regular satellites – 17.28° to the ecliptic, 15.47° to Saturn’s equator, and 8.13° to the Laplace plane. Only the irregular outer satellites like Phoebe have more inclined orbits.

Size comparison of Earth, the Moon, and Iapetus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Tom Reding
Size comparison of Earth, the Moon, and Iapetus. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/LPI/Tom Reding

Composition and Surface Features:

Like many of Saturn’s moons – particularly Tethys, Mimas and Rhea – Iapetus has a low density (1.088 ± 0.013 g/cm³) which indicates that it is composed primary of water ice and only about 20% rock. But unlike most of Saturn’s larger moons, its overall shape is neither spherical or ellipsoid, instead consisting of flattened poles and a bulging waistline.

Its large and unusually high equatorial ridge (see below) also contributes to its disproportionate shape. Because of this, Iapetus is the largest known moon to not have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium. Though rounded in appearance, its bulging appearance disqualifies it from being classified as spherical.

As is common with Cronian moons, Iapetus’ surface shows considerable signs of cratering. Recent images taken by the Cassini spacecraft have revealed multiple large impact basins, with at least five measuring over 350 km in diameter. The largest, Turgis, has a diameter of 580 km, with an extremely steep rim and a scarp about 15 km in height. It has also been concluded that Iapetus’ surface supports long-runout landslides (aka. sturzstroms), which could be due to ice sliding.

As already noted, another interesting feature on Iapetus is its famous equatorial ridge, which measures 1300 km in length, 20 km wide, 13 km high, and runs along the center of the Cassini Regio dark region. Though indications had been made as to the existence of a mountain chain in this region earlier, the ridge was observed directly for the first time when the Cassini spacecraft took its first images of Iapetus on December 31st, 2004.

But perhaps Iapetus’ best known feature is its two-tone coloration. This was first observed by Giovanni Cassini in the 17th century, who noted that he could only view Iapetus when it was on the west side of Saturn and never on the east. At the time, he correctly concluded that Iapetus was tidally-locked with Saturn, and that one side was darker than the other. This conclusion was later backed up by observations using ground-based telescopes.

The dark region is named Cassini Regio, and the bright region is divided into Roncevaux Terra – which lies north of the equator – and Saragossa Terra, which is south of it. Today, it is understood that dark regions are carbonaceous, and likely contain organic compounds similar to the substances found in primitive meteorites or on the surfaces of comets – i.e. frozen cyano-compounds like hydrogen cyanide polymers.

The pattern of coloration is analogous to a spherical yin-yang symbol, hence the nickname “Saturn’s yin-yang moon.” The difference in coloration between the two Iapetian hemispheres is quite extreme. While the leading hemisphere is dark, with an albedo of 0.03–0.05 (and has a slight reddish-brown coloring), most of the trailing hemisphere and poles are almost as bright as Europa (albedo 0.5–0.6).

Enhanced-color map (27.6 MB). The leading hemisphere is at the right. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Lunar and Planetary Institute
Enhanced-color map of Iapetus, using data collected by the Cassini probe.  The leading hemisphere is at the right. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/LPI

Thus, the apparent magnitude of the trailing hemisphere is around 10.2, whereas that of the leading hemisphere is around 11.9. Theories as to its cause generally agree that the original dark material must have come from outside Iapetus, but that subsequent darkening is caused by the sublimation of ice from the warmer areas of Iapetus’s surface, causing volatile compounds to sublimate out and retreat to colder regions.

Because of its slow rotation of 79 days, Iapetus experiences enough of a temperature difference to facilitate this. Near the equator, heat absorption by the dark material results in a daytime temperatures in Cassini Regio of 129 K (-144.15 °C/-227.5 °F)  compared to 113 K (-160.15 °C/-256.3 °F) in the bright regions. The difference in temperature means that ice sublimates from Cassini Regio, then deposits in the colder bright areas and especially at the even colder poles.

Over geologic time scales, this would further darken Cassini Regio and brighten the rest of Iapetus, creating a runaway thermal feedback process of ever greater contrast in albedo, ending with all exposed ice being lost from Cassini Regio. This model is the generally accepted one because it explains the distribution of light and dark areas, the absence of shades of grey, and the thinness of the dark material covering Cassini Regio.

Three different false-color views of Saturn's moon Iapetus show the boundary of the global "color dichotomy" on the hemisphere of this moon facing away from Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Three different false-color views of Saturn’s moon Iapetus, showing the boundary of the global “color dichotomy”. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

However, it is acknowledged that a separate process would be required to get this process thermal feedback started. It is therefore theorized that initially, dark material came from elsewhere, most likely some of Saturn’s small, retrograde moons. Material from these moons could have been blasted off either by micrometeoroids or a large impact.

This material would then have been darkened from exposure to sunlight, then swept up by the leading hemisphere of Iapetus. Once this process created a modest contrast in albedo (and hence, temperature) on Iapetus’ surface, the thermal feedback process would have come into play and exaggerated it further.

The greatest source of this material is believed to be Phoebe, the largest of Saturn’s outer moons. The discovery of a tenuous disk of material in the plane of (and just inside of) Phoebe’s orbit, which was announced on October 6th, 2009, supports this theory.


The first robotic spacecraft to explore Iapetus were the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, which passed through the Saturn system on their way to the outer Solar System in 1980 and 1981. Data from these missions provided scientists with the first indications of Iapetus’ mountains, which were thereafter informally referred to as the “Voyager Mountains”.

Saturn's moon Iapetus. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
Saturn’s moon Iapetus, captured by the Cassini space probe on New Year’s Eve 2004. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Only the Cassini orbiter has ever explored Saturn’s moon of Iapetus, which captured multiple images of the moon from moderate distances since 2004. For instance, on New Year’s Eve 2004, Cassini passed Iapetus at a distance of 122,647 kilometers (76,209 miles) and captured the four visible light images that were put together to form the view of its equatorial ridge jutting out to the side (shown above).

However, its great distance from Saturn makes close observation difficult. As a result, Cassini made only one targeted close flyby, which took place on September 10th, 2007 at a minimum range of 1227 km. It was during this flyby that data was obtained which indicated that thermal segregation is likely the primary force responsible for Iapetus’ dark hemisphere. No future missions are planned at this time.

Iapetus is a world of contrasts, and not just in terms of its color. In addition, it is a very small moon that still managed to be massive enough to achieve hydrostatic equilibrium. And despite being one of Saturn’s larger moons, it orbits at a distance usually reserved for smaller, irregular moons.

Coupled with the fact that scientists are still not sure why it has its unusual walnut-shape, Iapetus is likely to be a target for any research missions headed to study the Cronian moons in the coming years.

We have many great articles on Iapetus and Saturn’s moons here at Universe Today. Here is one about its famous ridge, its two-tone coloring, the ice avalanches it periodically experiences, and whether or not it consumed one of Saturn’s rings.

For more information, check out NASA’s View of the Solar System page on Iapetus, and the Cassini Solstice Mission’s page.

Saturn’s Moon Tethys

Saturn's moon Tethys, imaged by Cassini on April 14, 2012.

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.

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

Saturn's moon Rhea, as imaged by the Cassini-Huygens spaceprobe. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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).


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.


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.

What’s This Ridge on Iapetus?

What’s This Ridge on Iapetus?

The strangest feature on Iapetus is the equatorial ridge. What could possibly create a feature like this?

To paraphrase the British geneticist J.B.S Haldane, “in my suspicion, the Universe is not only stranger than we suppose, it’s stranger than we can suppose.” The context was life and evolution, but he might as well been talking about Saturn’s moons. Those teeny worlds are some of the strangest places we’ve ever seen.

Titan is a massive moon with an atmosphere thicker than Earth’s. If it wasn’t for the bone crippling cold and unbreathable atmosphere, you could wear a pair of wings and fly around in the Titanic skies.

There’s Enceladus, an icy moon that blasts water out into space through geysers at its southern pole. But the Saturnian moon that fascinates me the most has got to be Iapetus, also known as Saturn’s yin-yang moon.

Here’s a photo captured by Cassini. Check out the bizarre surface features, where half of the moon is icy white and the other is brownish red. Astronomers believe this strange coloration comes from the ice on the warmer side sublimating away, leaving this darker material beneath.

Sure that’s a bit odd, but the strangest feature on Iapetus is the equatorial ridge. This feature measures 1,300 km long and it makes the moon look like a space walnut. Because of the heavy cratering on the ridge, astronomers know that it’s ancient, nearly as old as the moon itself. At 13 kms high, it’s tall enough to keep out the most persnickety white walker or wildling mammoth & giant battalion.

What could possibly create a feature like this?

Astronomers are of a few camps. The first think it formed through convective activity early on in the moon’s history. Saturn pulls Iapetus with its tremendous gravity, and the moon undergoes massive tidal forces. This generates heat in the moon’s interior, and it might have caused it to blob out at the equator.

A ridge that follows the equator of Saturn's moon Iapetus gives it the appearance of a giant walnut. This image was taken by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
A ridge that follows the equator of Saturn’s moon Iapetus gives it the appearance of a giant walnut. This image was taken by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

A second idea is that Iapetus consumed one of Saturn’s rings, billions of years ago. The moon might have slowly wandered through the ring plane, and accreted all the ring material, like snow piling up in front of a plow.

A third is that Iapetus was smashed into by a massive asteroid billions of years ago. This impact caused the moon to fly apart, but then mutual gravity pulled it back together. The force of this recombination squeezed out material at the equator, which then solidified in place.

Alternately, it might be a walnut from a Galactus family Christmas stocking. So which is it?

It turns out that Saturn has two more moons in its system with similar equatorial ridges. Its moon Atlas is just 15 km across, but it’s dominated by an equatorial ridge. It looks like a UFO, and Pan has a similar feature.

Saturn's relatively thin main rings are about 250,000 km (156,000 miles) in diameter. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)
Saturn’s relatively thin main rings are about 250,000 km (156,000 miles) in diameter. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/J. Major)

Astronomers know that both of these created their ridges by pulling material out of the rings and piling it up on their surface. This is the mechanism that seems to match what’s going on with Iapetus.

One mystery, is how distantly Iapetus orbits Saturn. There’s no ring that far out, so where did it get the material to consume? Is it possible that Iapetus drifted outward, or had a ring system of its own?

You want puzzles? Iapetus is one of the strangest places in the Solar System, and it would be my candidate for a future orbiter or lander. Let’s explore it closer.

What’s your favorite bizarre object in the Solar System? Tell us in the comments below.

An Occult Occurrence: Saturn’s Moon Iapetus Blocks a Background Star

Animation of Iapetus briefly blocking a distant bright object. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Assembled by Jason Major.)

It’s a cosmic cover-up! No, don’t put your tinfoil* hats on, this isn’t a conspiracy — it’s just Saturn’s moon Iapetus drifting in front of the bright star Gamma Orionis (aka Bellatrix) captured on Cassini’s narrow-angle camera on August 10, 2013.

Such an event is called an occultation, a term used in astronomy whenever light from one object is blocked by another — specifically when something visually larger moves in front of something apparently smaller. (The word occult means to hide or conceal… nothing mystical implied!)

The animation above was assembled from 19 raw images publicly available on the JPL Cassini mission site, stacked in Photoshop and exported as a gif. They’ve been rotated 90º from the originals but otherwise they’re right from Cassini’s camera.

Iapetus, seen above as just a thin crescent, is best known for its two-toned appearance. One half of the 914-mile-wide moon is bright and icy, the other coated with a layer of dark reddish material, giving it a real “yin-yang” appearance. (Ok, I guess that’s a little mystical. But purely coincidental.)

The Tao of Iapetus (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)
The Tao of Iapetus (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

It’s thought that the dark material originates from a more distant moon, Phoebe, which is being pelted by micrometeorites and shedding its surface out into orbit around Saturn, which eventually gets scooped up by the backwards-orbiting Iapetus.

The difference in albedo affects how Iapetus absorbs solar radiation too, causing the water ice beneath the darker material to evaporate over the course of its 79-Earth-day rotation and migrate around its surface, creating a sort of positive feedback loop.

While neat to look at, occultations are important to science because they provide a way to briefly peer into a world’s atmosphere (or in a small moon’s case, exosphere). Watching how light behaves as it passes behind the limb of a planet or moon lets researchers learn details of the air around it — however tenuous — pretty much for free… no probes or flybys needed!

The occulted star above is Bellatrix, the 1.6-magnitude star that marks Orion’s left shoulder.

Iapetus orbits Saturn at the considerable distance of 2,212,889 miles (3,561,300 km). Learn more about Iapetus here, and as always you can find more fantastic Cassini images from Carolyn Porco’s team at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado at the CICLOPS site here.


*Do they still make foil out of tin any more? 

Massive Ice Avalanches on Iapetus

Long-runout landslides on Iapetus: A) Malun crater blocky landslide; B) Multiple lobate landslide in Engelier Basin; C) Lobate landslide in Gerin Basin. Credit: McKinnon et. al, LPSC, 2012.

We’ve seen avalanches on Mars, but now scientists have found avalanches taking place on an unlikely place in our solar system: Saturn’s walnut-shaped, two-toned moon Iapetus. And these aren’t just run-of-the-mill avalanches: they are huge inundations of debris. These events are specifically known as long-runout landslides — debris flows that have traveled unusually long distances. Just how these avalanches are occurring is somewhat of a mystery, according to Bill McKinnon from Washington University in St. Louis.

“This is really about the mystery of long-runout landslides, and no one really knows for sure what causes them,” said McKinnon, speaking at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference this week.

These avalanches or landslides certainly have their Earthly counterparts and, as noted, similar events are found on Mars, where they are especially associated with the steep canyon walls of the Valles Marineris system. However, the large mass movements on Iapetus in the form of long-runout landslides are less common.

McKinnon said the amount of material that has been moved in all the avalanches on Iapetus that he and his team have found exceeds all the material moved in known Martian landslides (in published data), even though Mars is much bigger than Iapaetus.

“The mechanics of long-runout landslides are poorly understood, and mechanisms proposed for friction reduction are so numerous I can’t fit them all on one Powerpoint slide,” McKinnon said during his talk. Possible explanations include water (such as released groundwater), wet or saturated soil, ice, trapped or compressed air, acoustic fluidization, and more.

On Iapetus there is obviously no water or atmosphere to create conducive conditions for avalanches. But McKinnon and his team have identified over two dozen avalanche events as seen in images from the Cassini spacecraft.

Many of the landslides are seen from crater and basin walls and steep scarps. McKinnon and his team have found two types of avalanches: ‘blocky’ with rough-looking debris and smoother lobate landslides. They also see evidence that over time, multiple avalanches have likely occurred in the same location, so Iapetus must have a long history of mass wasting and landslides.

So, what allows for the huge avalanches on Iapetus? McKinnon said ice provides the best answer to that question. The low density of Iapetus indicates that it is mostly composed of ice, with only about 20% of rocky materials.

“There seems to be a necessity for a fluidization or liquid mechanism,” McKinnon said. “If ice is warmed just enough it will become slippery,” reducing the friction and cohesiveness of the crater or basin wall.

What they are seeing, especially in the lobate landslides, is consistent with ‘rheological’ flow similar to molten lava or fluid mudslides.

So, ice rubble within the rocky faces of crater and basin walls are heated just enough – either by flash heating or friction — that the surfaces become slippery. “The energetics are favorable for this mechanism on Iapetus,” McKinnon said.

Iapetus has a very slow rotation, longer than 79 days, and such a slow rotation means that the daily temperature cycle is very long — so long that the dark material can absorb heat from the Sun and warm up. Of course the dark part of Iapetus absorbs more heat than the bright icy material; therefore, McKinnon said, this is all fairly enigmatic.

Plus, saying that it “warms up” on Iapetus is a bit of an overstatement. Temperatures on the dark region’s surface are estimated to reach 130 K (-143 °C; -226 °F) at the equator and temperatures in the brighter area only reach about 100 K (-173 °C; -280 °F).

Whatever the mechanisms, the long-runout landslides on Iapetus are fairly unique when it comes to icy planetary bodies. McKinnon referenced that just two mass movements of modest scale have been detected on Callisto, and there is limited evidence of similar events on Phoebe.

These ice avalanches certainly deserve more investigation on a moon which McKinnon described as having “singularly spectacular topography,” and additional research and a more detailed paper are forthcoming.

Read the LPSC abstract: Massive Ice Avalanches on Iapetus, and the Mechanism of Friction Reduction in Long-Runout Landslides

What’s up with Iapetus?

The dark and light side of Iapetus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute



Although Saturn’s moon Iapetus was first discovered in 1671 by Giovanni Cassini, its behavior was extremely odd. Cassini was able to regularly find the moon when it was to the west of Saturn, but when he waited for it to swing around to Saturn’s east side, it seemed to vanish. It wasn’t until 1705 that Cassini finally observed Iapetus on the eastern side, but it took a better telescope because the side Iapetus presented when to the east was a full two magnitudes darker. Cassini surmised that this was due to a light hemisphere, presented when Iapetus was to the west, and a dark one, visible when it was to the east due to tidal locking.

With the advances in telescopes, the reason for this dark divide has been the subject of much research. The first explanations came in the 1970’s and a recent paper summarizes the work done so far on this fascinating satellite as well as expanding it to the larger context of some of Saturn’s other moons.

The foundation for the current model of Iapetus’ uneven display was first proposed by Steven Soter, one of the co-writers for Carl Sagans Cosmos series. During a colloquium of the International Astronomical Union, Soter proposed that micrometeorite bombardment of another of Saturn’s moons, Pheobe, drifted inwards and were picked up by Iapetus. Since Iapetus keeps one side facing Saturn at all times, this would similarly give it a leading edge that would preferentially pick up the dust particles. One of the great successes of this theory is that the center of the dark region, known as the Cassini Regio, is directly situated along the path of motion. Additionally, in 2009, astronomers discovered a new ring around Saturn, following Phoebe’s retrograde orbit, although slightly interior to the moon, adding to the suspicion that the dust particles should drift inwards, due to the Poynting-Robertson effect.

In 2010, a team of astronomers reviewing the images from the Cassini mission, noted that the coloration had properties that didn’t quite fit with Soter’s theory. If deposition from dust was the end of the story, it was expected that the transition between the dark region and the light would be very gradual as the angle at which they would strike the surface would become elongated, spreading out the incoming dust. However, the Cassini mission revealed the transitions were unexpectedly abrupt. Additionally, Iapetus’ poles were bright as well and if dust accumulation was as simple as Soter had suggested, they should be somewhat coated as well. Furthermore, spectral imaging of the Cassini Regio revealed that its spectrum was notably different than that of Phoebe. Another potential problem was that the dark surface extended past the leading side by more than ten degrees.

Revised explanations were readily forthcoming. The Cassini team suggested that the abrupt transition was due to a runaway heating effect. As the dark dust accumulated, it would absorb more light, converting it to heat and helped to sublimate more of the bright ice. In turn, this would reduce the overall brightness, again increasing the heating, and so on. Since this effect amplified the coloration, it could explain the more abrupt transition in much the same way as adjusting the contrast on an image will sharpen gradual transitions between colors. This explanation also predicted that the sublimated ice could travel around the far side of the moon, freezing out and enhancing the brightness on the other sides as well as the poles.

To explain the spectral differences, astronomers proposed that Phoebe may not be the only contributor. Within Saturn’s satellite system, there are over three dozen irregular satellites with dark surfaces which could also potentially contribute, altering the chemical makeup. But while this sounded like a tantalizingly straight-forward solution, confirmation would require further investigation. The new study, led by Daniel Tamayo at Cornell University, analyzed the efficiency with which various other moons could produce dust as well as the likelihood with which Iapetus could scoop it up. Interestingly, their results showed that Ymir, a mere 18 km in diameter, “should be roughly as important a contributor of dust to Iapetus as Phoebe”. Although none of the other moons, independently looked to be as strong of sources for dust, the sum of dust coming the remaining irregular, dark moons was found to be at least as important as either Ymir or Phoebe. As such, this explanation for the spectral deviation is well grounded.

The last difficulty, that of spreading dust past the leading face of the moon, is also explained in the new paper. The team proposes that eccentricities in the orbit of the dust allow it to strike the moon at odd angles, off from the leading hemisphere. Such eccentricities could be readily produced by solar radiation, even if the orbit of the originating body was not eccentric. The team carefully analyzed such effects and produced models capable of matching the dust distribution past the leading edge.

The combination of these revisions seem to secure Soter’s basic premise. A further test would be to see if other large satellites like Iapetus also showed signs of dust deposition, even if not so starkly divided since most other moons lack the synchronous orbit. Indeed, the moon Hyperion was found to have darker regions pooling in its craters when Cassini few by in 2007. These dark regions also revealed similar spectra to that of Cassini Regio. Saturn’s largest moon, Titan is also tidally locked and would be expected to sweep up particles on its leading edge, but due to its thick atmosphere, the dust would likely be spread moon-wide. Although difficult to confirm, some studies have suggested that such dust may help contribute to the haze Titan’s atmosphere exhibits.