The reign of Jupiter, named after the father of the Olympian gods, has been long and sweet. Aside from being the largest planet in the Solar System, it was this gas giant that demonstrated in the 17th century that planets other than Earth can support a system of moons. Between its size, powerful magnetic field, and system of 79 moons, Jupiter looked set to remain the king of the planets indefinitely.
But it looks like Saturn, named after the father of Jupiter in Greco-Roman mythology, might have just knocked Jupiter off that pedestal. Thanks to a team led by famed astronomer Scott S. Sheppard 20 new moons have been discovered orbiting Saturn. That brings the total number of Saturnian (or Cronian) satellites to 82, putting it ahead of Jupiter’s 79. And the best part? You can help name them!
Saturn opposition season never disappoints. Slowly, one by one, the planets are returning to the dusk sky. In June, we had Jupiter reach opposition on June 10th. Now, although Mercury and Mars are fleeing the evening scene low to the west at dusk and Venus lingers low in the dawn, magnificent Saturn reaches opposition tonight on July 9th, rising to the east as the Sun sets to the west.
Hello all. I hope our readers don’t mind that I’m taking a bit of a diversion here today to engage in a little shameless self-promotion. Basically, I wanted to talk about my recently-published novel – The Jovian Manifesto. This book is the sequel to The Cronian Incident, which was published last year (and was a little shamelessly promoted at the time).
However, I also wanted to take this opportunity to talk about hard science fiction and how writing for a science publication helped me grow as a writer. By definition, hard sci-fi refers to stories where scientific accuracy is emphasized. This essentially means that the technology in the story conforms to established science and/or what is believed to be feasible in the future.
During the summer of 2018, the planets of Mars and Saturn (one after the other) have been in opposition. In astronomical terms, opposition refers to when a planet is on the opposite side of the Earth relative to the Sun. This not only means that the planet is closer to Earth in its respective orbit, but that is also fully lit by the Sun (as seen from Earth) and much more visible.
As a result, astronomers are able to observe these planets in greater detail. The Hubble Space Telescope took advantage of this situation to do what it has done best for the past twenty-eight years – capture some breathtaking images of both planets! Hubble made its observations of Saturn in June and Mars in July, and showed both planets close to their opposition.
Hubble’s high-resolution images of the planets and moons in our Solar System can only be surpassed by spacecraft that are either orbiting or conducting close flybys to them. However, Hubble has a major advantage over these types of missions, in that it can look at the Solar planets periodically and observe them over much longer periods of time than a passing spacecraft.
Hubble observed Saturn on June 6th, almost a month before it reached opposition on June 27th. At the time, the ringed gas giant was approximately 1.4 billion km (870 million mi) from Earth. Hubble was able to capture the planet’s magnificent ring system at a time when it was at its maximum tilt to Earth, which allowed for a spectacular view of the rings and the gaps between them.
Hubble’s new image of Saturn also managed to capture the hexagonal storm around the gas giant’s north pole. This stable and persistent jet stream was first observed by the Voyager 1 probe during its flyby of Saturn in 1981, and has been a mystery to astronomers ever since. On top of that, the new image also features six of Saturn’s 62 known moons – Dione, Enceladus, Tethys, Janus, Epimetheus, and Mimas.
Hubble’s new image of Mars was captured on July 18th, 13 days before it reached its closest approach to Earth. This year will see the Red Planet get as close as 57.6 million km from Earth, which is the closest approach made since 2003. On that occasion, Mars was just 55,757,930 km (34,647,420 mi) from Earth, which was the closest the planet had been to Earth in almost 60,000 years!
Mars is at opposition to Earth every two years, so Hubble has had many opportunities to capture detailed images of the planet’s surface. However, this new image is different in that it is dominated by a gigantic sandstorm that is currently encompassing the entire planet. This storm has been raging since May of 2018 and developed into a planet-wide dust storm within several weeks.
Dust storms are a common occurrence on Mars. They take place every year, usually stay contained to a local area, and normally last only about a few weeks. Larger dust storms that can grow to cover the entire planet are a rarer event, and can typically last for weeks or even months. These tend to happen during the spring and summer months in the southern hemisphere, which coincides with Mars being closer to the Sun in its elliptical orbit.
Due to increased temperatures, dust particles are lifted higher into the atmosphere, creating more wind. The resulting wind kicks up yet more dust, creating a feedback loop that NASA scientists are still trying to understand. While spacecraft orbiting Mars and rovers and lander can study storm behavior at lower altitudes or from the surface, Hubble observations allow astronomers to study changes in the higher atmosphere.
The combined observations will help planetary scientists to better understanding how these global storms arise. Despite the obscuring dust storm, Hubble still managed to capture several important Martian surface features like the polar ice caps, Terra Meridiani, the Schiaparelli Crater, and Hellas Basin – even though all of them appear slightly blurred in the image.
The Hellas Basin – an impact basin that measures 2200 km (1367 mi) across and is nearly 8 km (4.97 mi) deep – is visible at the lower right and appears as a large and bright oval area. The orange area in the upper center of the image is Arabia Terra, a large upland area in northern Mars. This region is characterized by many impact craters and heavy erosion, which indicates that it could be among the oldest terrains on the planet.
South of Arabia Terra are the dark streaks known as Sinus Sabaeus and Sinus Meridiani, features that stretch from east to west along the equator and are made of up dark bedrock and sand deposits from ancient lava flows. Because it was autumn in the northern hemisphere when the image was taken, it is covered in a bright blanket of clouds – and clouds can also be seen above the northern and southern polar ice caps. Last, but not least, Mars’ two small moons – Phobos and Deimos – appear in the lower half of the image.
Comparing these new images of Mars and Saturn with older data gathered by Hubble, other telescopes and the many probes that have taken images of them over the years will allow astronomers to study how cloud patterns and large-scale structures on the Solar planets change over time. These latest images also show that even after almost three decades of being in operation, Hubble is still able to pull its weight!
And be sure to enjoy this video about the images acquired by Hubble, courtesy of Hubblecast:
The 17th century was a very auspicious time for the sciences, with advancements being made in the fields of physics, mathematics, chemistry, and the natural sciences. But it was perhaps in the field of astronomy that the greatest achievements were made. In the space of a century, several planets and moons were observed for the first time, accurate models were made to predict the motions of the planets, and the law of universal gravitation was conceived.
In the midst of this, the name of Christiaan Huygens stands out among the rest. As one of the preeminent scientists of his time, he was pivotal in the development of clocks, mechanics and optics. And in the field of astronomy, he discovered Saturn’s Rings and its largest moon – Titan. Thanks to Huygens, subsequent generations of astronomers were inspired to explore the outer Solar System, leading to the discovery of other Cronian moons, Uranus, and Neptune in the following century.
Oh, to hitch a ride aboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft this week. The Saturn orbiting sentinel recently completed an amazing series of passes near the enigmatic ice-covered moon Enceladus, including a daredevil dive only 49 km (31 miles) above the southern pole of the moon and through an ice geyser. Images of the dramatic flyby were released by the Cassini team earlier this morning, revealing the moon in stunning detail.
“Cassini’s stunning images are providing us a quick look at Enceladus from this ultra-close flyby, but some of the most exciting science is yet to come,” says NASA mission project scientist Linda Spilker in today’s NASA/JPL press release.
Launched in 1997 from Cape Canaveral Florida in a dramatic night shot, Cassini arrived at the Saturnian system in 2004, and has delivered on some amazing planetary science ever since.
Discovered in 1789 by William Herschel, we got our very first views of Enceladus via the Voyager 1 spacecraft at 202,000 kilometers distant in 1980. Cassini has flown by the moon 21 times over the past decade, and ice geysers were seen sprouting from the surface of the moon by Cassini on subsequent flybys. one final flyby of Enceladus is planned for this coming December.
Mission planners are getting more daring with the spacecraft as its mission nears completion in 2017. The idea of reaching out and ‘tasting’ an icy plume emanating from Enceladus has been an enticing one, though a fast-moving good-sized ice pellet could spell disaster for the spacecraft.
NASA successfully established contact with the spacecraft on Wednesday night October 28th after the closest approach for the flyby at 11:22 AM EDT/ 15:22 UT (Universal Time) earlier in the day. Cassini is reported to be in good health, and we should see further images along with science data returns in the weeks to come.
A second, more distant flyby of Enceladus was completed by Cassini earlier this month as it passed 1,142 miles (1,839 kilometers) from the northern pole of Enceladus on October 14th, 2015 on its E-20 flyby.
But beyond just pretty post-cards from the outer solar system, Cassini’s successive passes by the mysterious moon will characterize just what might be occurring far down below.
Why Enceladus? Well, ever since ice geysers were spotted gushing from the fractured surface of the moon, it’s been on NASA’s short list of possible abodes for life in the solar system. Other contenders include Mars, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and Saturn’s giant moon, Titan. If the story of life on Earth is any indication, you need a place where an abundant level of chemical processes are occurring, and a subsurface ocean under the crust of Enceladus heated by tidal flexing may just fit the bill.
We’ll be adding further images and info to this post as more data comes in over the weekend, plus Cassini mission highlights, a look at the mission and final objectives and the last days of Cassini and more…
The end of Cassini in 2017 as it burns up in the atmosphere of Saturn will be a bittersweet affair, as our outer solar system eyes around the ringed planet fall silent. Cassini represents the most distant spacecraft inserted into orbit around a planet, and ESA’s Huygens lander on Titan marked the most remote landing on another world as well. Will we one day see a Titan Blimp or Ocean Explorer, or perhaps a dedicated life-finding mission to Enceladus? Final mission objectives for NASA’s Cassini spacecraft include a final flyby of Saturn’s large moon Titan, which will set the course for its final death plunge into the atmosphere of Saturn on September 15th, 2017.
Want to see Enceladus for yourself? The moon orbits Saturn once every 1.4 days, reaching a maximum elongation of 13″ from the ring tips of Saturn and a maximum brightness of magnitude +11.7. Enceladus is one of six major moons of Saturn visible in a backyard telescope, and one of 62 moons of the ring planet known overall. The other five moons within reach of an amateur telescope are: Titan, Mimas, Dione, Rhea, and Tethys, and the fainter moon Hyperion shining at magnitude +15 might just be within reach of skill observers with large light bucket instruments.
Enjoy the amazing views of Enceladus, courtesy of Cassini!
Caption: Geysers on Enceladus. Credit: NASA, JPL, Space Science Institute
One of the most exciting but unexpected discoveries of the Cassini mission is seeing the activity taking place on Saturn’s small moon Enceladus. Between the active geysers, the unusual “tiger stripes” and the surprisingly young surface near the moon’s south pole, Enceladus has surprised scientists with almost all the images and data the gathered by the spacecraft. But is the moon always active, or are we just in the right place at the right time, lucky to be catching it during an active phase? A recent paper outlines a model in which the kind of geologic eruptions now visible on Enceladus only occur every billion years or so.
“Cassini appears to have caught Enceladus in the middle of a burp,” said Francis Nimmo, a planetary scientist at the University of California Santa Cruz. “These tumultuous periods are rare and Cassini happens to have been watching the moon during one of these special epochs.”
Nimmo and co-author Craig O’Neill of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia propose that blobs of warm ice that periodically rise to the surface and churn the icy crust on Saturn’s moon Enceladus explain the quirky heat behavior and intriguing surface of the moon’s south polar region.
The most interesting features by far in the south polar region of Enceladus are the fissures known as “tiger stripes” that spray water vapor and other particles out from the moon. While Nimmo and O’Neill’s model doesn’t link the churning and resurfacing directly to the formation of fissures and jets, it does fill in some of the blanks in the region’s history.
“This episodic model helps to solve one of the most perplexing mysteries of Enceladus,” said Bob Pappalardo, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., of the research done by his colleagues. “Why is the south polar surface so young? How could this amount of heat be pumped out at the moon’s south pole? This idea assembles the pieces of the puzzle.”
But not everyone is convinced this model answers all the questions about Enceladus. Carolyn Porco, who leads the imaging team for Cassini said via Twitter regarding this paper, “Beware! Several different models out there say different things.”
About four years ago, Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer instrument detected a heat flow in the south polar region of at least 6 gigawatts, the equivalent of at least a dozen electric power plants. This is at least three times as much heat as an average region of Earth of similar area would produce, despite Enceladus’ small size. The region was also later found by Cassini’s ion and neutral mass spectrometer instrument to be swiftly expelling argon, which comes from rocks decaying radioactively and has a well-known rate of decay.
Calculations told scientists it would be impossible for Enceladus to have continually produced heat and gas at this rate. Tidal movement – the pull and push from Saturn as Enceladus moves around the planet – cannot explain the release of so much energy.
The surface ages of different regions of Enceladus also show great diversity. Heavily cratered plains in the northern part of the moon appear to be as old as 4.2 billion years, while a region near the equator known as Sarandib Planitia is between 170 million and 3.7 billion years old. The south polar area, however, appears to be less than 100 million years old, possibly as young as 500,000 years.
O’Neill had originally developed the model for the convection of Earth’s crust. For the model of Enceladus, which has a surface completely covered in cold ice that is fractured by the tug of Saturn’s gravitational pull, the scientists stiffened up the crust. They picked a strength somewhere between that of the malleable tectonic plates on Earth and the rigid plates of Venus, which are so strong, it appears they never get sucked down into the interior.
Their model showed that heat building up from the interior of Enceladus could be released in episodic bubbles of warm, light ice rising to the surface, akin to the rising blobs of heated wax in a lava lamp. The rise of the warm bubbles would send cold, heavier ice down into the interior. (Warm is, of course, relative. Nimmo said the bubbles are probably just below freezing, which is 273 degrees Kelvin or 32 degrees Fahrenheit, whereas the surface is a frigid 80 degrees Kelvin or -316 degrees Fahrenheit.)
The model fits the activity on Enceladus when the churning and resurfacing periods are assumed to last about 10 million years, and the quiet periods, when the surface ice is undisturbed, last about 100 million to two billion years. Their model suggests the active periods have occurred only 1 to 10 percent of the time that Enceladus has existed and have recycled 10 to 40 percent of the surface. The active area around Enceladus’s south pole is about 10 percent of its surface.