Watch Two Dark Moons Sneak Into Cassini’s Shots

On March 11, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft was acquiring some images of Saturn’s back-lit limb when two of its moons decided to make an entrance. Like stage hands in a darkened theatre the moons quickly passed  across the scene, moving between Saturn and the spacecraft and, because of exposure time and spacecraft motion, getting a bit blurred in the process.

In the image above the silhouette of one moon can be seen at bottom right — Mimas, perhaps — while another’s crescent can be made out at upper left… possibly Enceladus. Very cool!

Watch an animation of the moons below:

Two of Saturn's moons drift into the scene on March 11, 2014 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Animation by Jason Major.)
Two of Saturn’s moons drift into the scene on March 11, 2014 (NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI. Animation by Jason Major.)

While I admit I’m not 100% sure which moons these are, based on their apparent shapes, positions, and relative sizes I’d make my guess that these are 318-mile (511-km) -wide Enceladus and the 246-mile (395-km) -wide Mimas.

Possible location of icy spray, if this is Enceladus
Possible location of icy spray, if Enceladus is in fact this moon’s real name

Cassini was 843,762 miles (1,357,903 km) from Saturn when the images were acquired. And, if the larger moon at left is Enceladus, I’m thinking south in these images is up based on the barely-perceptible presence of a lighter area along its top edge that could be icy spray from its southern geysers. (See enlarged detail at right.)

Saturn, of course, is on the right. A small segment of the bright arc of its backlit limb is what’s running diagonally down across the image.

These images have not yet been calibrated or cataloged by NASA or the Cassini team.

See the latest raw images from Cassini on JPL’s mission page here.

*I say “dark moons” but actually Enceladus and Mimas are pretty bright, both being composed of a lot of ice. Enceladus is actually the most reflective world in the Solar System!

Five Saturn Moons Stun In Cassini Spacecraft Archival Image

This picture is from a couple of years ago, but still worth the extra look. The Cassini spacecraft — busily circling Saturn and gathering data on the ringed planet and its moons — managed to grab five of Saturn’s 62 known moons in one shot. The European Space Agency highlighted the picture on its home page this week.

From left to right, you can see Janus, Pandora, Enceladus, Mimas and Rhea. Don’t be fooled by the rings near Rhea; those are actually Saturn’s rings. Rhea is just blocking the view of the planet from Saturn’s perspective during this picture portrait, which was taken on July 29, 2011.

The cornucopia of moons around Saturn is part of what makes that particular planet so interesting. Titan, the largest, is perhaps the most well-known because of its strange orange haze that intrigued astronomers when the twin Voyager spacecraft zoomed through the system in the 1980s. Cassini arrived in 2004 and revealed many more moons to science for the first time.

Color-composite of Titan made from raw Cassini images acquired on April 13, 2013 (added 4/17) NASA/JPL/SSI. Composite by J. Major.
Color-composite of Titan made from raw Cassini images acquired on April 13, 2013 (added 4/17) NASA/JPL/SSI. Composite by J. Major.

“The dozens of icy moons orbiting Saturn vary drastically in shape, size, surface age and origin. Some of these worlds have hard, rough surfaces, while others are porous bodies coated in a fine blanket of icy particles. All have greater or smaller numbers of craters, and many have ridges and valleys,” NASA wrote on a web page about Saturn’s moons.

“Some, like Dione and Tethys, show evidence of tectonic activity, where forces from within ripped apart their surfaces. Many, like Rhea and Tethys, appear to have formed billions of years ago, while others, like Janus and Epimetheus, could have originally been part of larger bodies that broke up. The study and comparison of these moons tells us a great deal about the history of the Saturn System and of the solar system at large.”

And new discoveries are coming out all the time. Earlier this year, for example, astronomers said that the moon Dione could have had active geysers coming from its surface, such as what is likely happening on Enceladus.

Swirling Vortex and Mini Moons: Spectacular Views of the Little Things Around Saturn

High-altitude clouds in Titan’s seasonal south polar swirl glow dimly in this image from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

With wild storms and a vast ring system, nothing seems small around Saturn. But as NASA’s Cassini spacecraft loops high over Saturn’s poles, scientists are taking time to explore the little things including a swirling vortex, the miniature moon Mimas, and another tiny ovoid moon named Methone.

Titan’s swirling vortex, lower right, glows brightly against the south polar clouds in this new image from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Scientists are monitoring the development of the swirling mass of gas to try and understand the weather related to the coming winter to the moon’s south pole. For a color closeup of the vortex, see Titan’s Colorful South Polar Vortex. If you’re more into a moving visualization, check out the vortex in motion.


Cassini acquired the view of the vortex on Titan on August 31, 2012 using a special filter sensitive to light in the near-infrared. Cassini took this image from a distance of about 1.2 million kilometers (750,000 miles) above the south pole of Titan. That’s nearly three times the distance between Earth and the Moon. The smallest detail on this image is about 4 miles across.

“Note the motions and beautifully detailed cloud patterns,” wrote Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team lead on the CICLOPS website, “very likely the result of open-cell convection — already visible in this fascinating phenomenon that we on Cassini have been fortunate to capture, for the first time, in the process of being born.”

Methone looks like a tiny gray egg in this image from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft.

Last week, the Cassini imaging team released two stunning images of Saturn. Tiny, egg-shaped Methone (pronounced meh-tho-nee) is barely 3 kilometers (2 miles) across. Cassini discovered this moon in 2004 hanging out between Mimas and Enceladus at just 194,000 km (120,000 miles) above Saturn. From Methone’s smooth surface, Saturn must be a true wonder. Small moons like Methone are generally non-round. Scientists believe they just don’t have the mass to pull themselves together into a round shape. The leading side of Methone is lit in this image and at a distance of just 4,000 km (2,500 miles) the smallest feature that can be seen is about 27 meters (88 feet).

Saturn’s moon Mimas is dwarfed by Saturn and its rings in this spectacular image from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft

Don’t blink or you might miss a tiny dot just to the upper left of Saturn. Mimas is dwarfed not only by Saturn’s rings, but also by the gigantic storms visible in the northern and southern hemisphere’s Mimas is just 396 km (246 miles) across and is the solar system’s 20th largest satellite. The moon could easily fit within the borders of Spain and most western states in the U.S. Cassini took this spectacular image from a distance of 2.4 million kilometers (1.5 million miles) from Saturn.

Source: NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations (CICLOPS)

Cassini’s Majestic Saturn Moon Quintet

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Check out this gorgeous new portrait of a Saturnian moon quintet taken by Earths’ emissary – NASA’s Cassini Orbiter. The moons are majestically poised along a backdrop of Saturn’s rings, fit for an artist’s canvas.

Janus, Pandora, Enceladus, Mimas and Rhea are nearly lined up (from left to right) in this view acquired by Cassini at a distance of approximately 684,000 miles (1.1 million kilometers) from Rhea and 1.1 million miles (1.8 million kilometers) from Enceladus.

The newly released image was taken by Cassini’s narrow angle camera on July 29, 2011. Image scale is about 4 miles (7 kilometers) per pixel on Rhea and 7 miles (11 kilometers) per pixel on Enceladus.

Cassini will stage a close flyby of Enceledus – Satarn’s geyser spewing moon – in about two weeks, swooping within 99 km

Moon Facts from JPL:
Janus (179 kilometers, or 111 miles across) is on the far left. Pandora (81 kilometers, or 50 miles across) orbits between the A ring and the thin F ring near the middle of the image. Brightly reflective Enceladus (504 kilometers, or 313 miles across) appears above the center of the image. Saturn’s second largest moon, Rhea (1,528 kilometers, or 949 miles across), is bisected by the right edge of the image. The smaller moon Mimas (396 kilometers, or 246 miles across) can be seen beyond Rhea also on the right side of the image.

This view looks toward the northern, sunlit side of the rings from just above the ring plane. Rhea is closest to Cassini here. The rings are beyond Rhea and Mimas. Enceladus is beyond the rings.

The simple graphic below shows dozens of Saturn’s moons – not to scale. So far 62 have been discovered and 53 have been officially named.

Saturn’s moons. Click on link below to learn more about each moon. Credit: NASA/JPL

Learn more about Saturn’s moons at this link

List of Saturn’s officially named moons:
Aegaeon, Aegir, Albiorix, Anthe, Atlas, Bebhionn, Bergelmir, Bestla, Calypso, Daphnis, Dione, Enceladus, Epimetheus, Erriapus, Farbauti, Fenrir, Fornjot, Greip, Hati, Helene, Hyperion, Hyrrokkin, Iapetus, Ijiraq, Janus, Jarnsaxa, Kari, Kiviuq, Loge, Methone, Mimas, Mundilfari, Narvi, Paaliaq, Pallene, Pan, Pandora, Phoebe, Polydeuces, Prometheus, Rhea, Siarnaq, Skadi, Skoll, Surtur, Suttung, Tarqeq, Tarvos, Telesto, Tethys, Thrym, Titan and Ymir.

Cassini Provides Stunning New Looks at Several Moons

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The Cassini spacecraft recently had a mini ‘grand tour’ of several of Saturn’s moons and just sent back some great images of Helene, Mimas, Enceladus and Dione. Above is an amazing view of the Trojan moon Helene, which is only 32 kilometers (20 miles across) and shares an orbit with Dione. Cassini came withing 28,000 km (17,398 miles) of Helene. Thanks to Stu Atkinson for an enhanced version of this raw Cassini image. See one of the original raw images of Helene here.

This image of Saturn's moon Enceladus was obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Jan. 31, 2011. It shows the famous jets erupting from the south polar terrain of Enceladus. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Cassini captured several images of the plumes spewing from Enceladus, and other closeup views of the moon’s terrain.

Closeup of Enceladus from approximately 78,015 kilometers away. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
This view shows the bright, icy Mimas in front of Saturn's delicate rings. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

A crescent Dione was seen by Cassini on January 29, 2011 from approximately 767,922 kilometers away. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

See more of the latest raw images at the Cassini website.

Cassini Survives Close Encounter of the Death Star Kind!

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On February 13, 2010, Cassini flew by Saturn’s moon Mimas, coming as close as 9,500 km.

It passed directly over Herschel, a giant crater whose creation almost shattered the moon … and which, in its appearance in some earlier images, earned Mimas the nickname “Death Star”, after the iconic Star Wars prop.

The Cassini team has just released some “Raw Previews” of Cassini’s close encounter; time to feast your eyes.

35,000 km-distant Herschel, from Cassini (unprocessed image; credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

The Cassini Equinox Mission, of which the Mimas flyby is but a small part, is a joint United States and European endeavor. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team consists of scientists from the US, England, France, and Germany. The imaging operations center and team lead (Dr. C. Porco) are based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.
Herschel, from 16,000 km above (unprocessed image; credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute)

Source: CICLOPS (Cassini Imaging Central Laboratory for Operations)

On New Year’s Eve, Cassini Will Stare at the Death Star’s Superlaser

OK, it’s actually the Herschel crater on Mimas, a smallish moon of Saturn (and it’s the eve of Chinese New Year, February 13th, 2010), but it’s a cool headline, don’t you think?

Cassini will be very busy that day, which begins with a rare sunrise – the Sun goes behind Saturn (from Cassini’s perspective) – followed by a rare blackout, as the Earth goes behind Saturn. Then there’s three “Forward shields up!” moments, as Cassini tries to dodge a Klingon missile flies through regions of “increased ring particle concentration”, a couple of distant flybys (Epimetheus, Janus; ~100,000 km each), a ring-plane crossing, another “Shields up!” moment, and a 9,500 km close approach to Death Star Mimas. And the day ends with a distant (112,000 km) flyby of Tethys. Whew!

“Mimas bears the mark of a violent, giant impact from the past – the 140-kilometer-wide Herschel Crater – and scientists hope the encounter will help them explain why the moon was not blown to smithereens when the impact happened. They will also be trying to count smaller dings inside the basin of Herschel Crater so they can better estimate its age,” JPL’s Jia-Rui C. Cook said, “The Mimas flyby involves a significant amount of skill because the spacecraft will be passing through a dusty region to get there. Mission managers have planned for the Cassini spacecraft to lead with its high-gain antenna to provide a barrier of protection.”

To date, the best images of Mimas – and its Herschel crater – were obtained on August 2nd, 2005, during Cassin’s distant flyby.

Mimas is an inner moon of Saturn that averages 396 kilometers in diameter. The diameter of Herschel Crater is about one-third that of the entire moon. The walls of the crater are about 5 kilometers high, and parts of the floor are approximately 10 kilometers deep.

Map of Mimas (Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute )

Mimas would have beaten another of Saturn’s moons, Rhea, for the record of “most battered moon”, but for the fact that it was warmer – and so softer – for longer than Rhea (because it’s closer to Saturn), so many of the earliest craters were more degraded.

Have you heard of the “Mimas paradox”? Mimas’ orbit is more eccentric than Enceladus’, and is in resonance with Dione and Enceladus – so it should be heated, tidally, more than Enceladus – but its surface has not, apparently, changed for a very long time (while geysers on Enceladus show that it is still quite active). Further, the two moons seem to have similar compositions.

On this flyby, Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer will be working to determine the thermal signature of the moon, and other instruments will be making measurements to learn more about the surface composition. Perhaps that will shed some light on the Mimas paradox.

Sources: Cassini Set to Do Retinal Scan of Saturnian Eyeball, Mimas (NASA/JPL)