Titan’s Colorful Crescent

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Made from one of the most recent Cassini images, this is a color-composite showing a backlit Titan with its dense, multi-layered atmosphere scattering sunlight in different colors. Titan’s atmosphere is made up of methane and complex hydrocarbons and is ten times as thick as Earth’s. It is the only moon in our solar system known to have a substantial atmosphere.

Titan’s high-level hydrocarbon haze is nicely visible as a pale blue band encircling the moon.

Color image of Titan and sister moon Dione, seen by Cassini on Dec. 10. (NASA/JPL/SSI and J. Major)

At 3,200 (5,150 km) miles wide, Titan is one of the largest moons in the solar system – even larger than Mercury. Its thick atmosphere keeps a frigid and gloomy surface permanently hidden beneath opaque clouds of methane and hydrocarbons.

This image was made from three raw images acquired by Cassini on December 13. The raw images were in the red, green and blue visible light channels, and so the composited image you see here approximates true color.

This particular flyby of Titan (designated T-79) gave Cassini’s instruments a chance to examine Titan in many different wavelengths, as well as map its surface and measure its atmospheric temperature. Cassini passed by the giant moon at a distance of about 2,228 miles (3,586 kilometers) traveling 13,000 mph (5.8 km/sec). Read more on the flyby page here.

Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute. Edited by Jason Major.

See more color-composite images of Titan and other moons of Saturn on my Flickr set here.

Saturn’s Moon Plays Hide-and-Seek With Cassini

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Taken during the Cassini spacecraft’s October 1 flyby of Saturn’s ice-spewing moon, this image – released today – shows a crescent-lit Enceladus with southern geysers in action… and the much smaller Epimetheus peeking out from behind!

Epimetheus

The 70-mile (113-km) -wide Epimetheus is dwarfed by its larger sibling Enceladus, which is 313 miles (504 km) in diameter… about the width of the state of Arizona.

One of the most reflective objects in the solar system, Enceladus appears to be casting some reflected light onto Epimetheus as well. (Image processors at the Cassini Imaging Lab have brightened the moons by a factor of 1.8 relative to the rings in order to bring out detail.)

Some bright clumps of material can also be seen orbiting within Saturn’s rings at upper left, possibly stirred up by the movement of the shepherd moon Pan.

See this and more images at the CICLOPS site here.

Image credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute.

 

 

Forget Exoplanets. Let’s Talk Exomoons

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It wasn’t that long ago that astronomers began discovering the first planets around other stars. But as the field of exoplanetary astronomy explodes, astronomers have begun looking to the future and considering the possibility of detecting moons around these planets. Surprisingly, the potential for doing so may not be that far off.

Before exploring how we might detect satellites of distant planets, astronomers must first attempt to get an understanding of what they may be looking for. Fortunately, this question ties in well with the rapidly developing understanding of how solar systems form.

In general, there are three mechanisms by which planets may obtain satellites. The simplest is for them to simply form together from a single accretion disk. Another is that a massive impact may knock material off of a planet which forms into a satellite as astronomers believe happened with our own Moon. Some estimates have indicated that such impacts should be frequent and as many as 1 in 12 Earth like planets may have formed moons in this way. Lastly, a satellite may be a captured asteroid or comet as is likely for many of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn.

Each of these cases produces a different range of masses. Captured bodies are likely to be the smallest and therefor are unlikely to be detectable in the near future. Impact generated moons are expected to only be able to form bodies with 4% of the total mass of the planet and as such, are rather limited as well. The largest moons are thought to form in the disks around forming Jupiter like planets. These are the most likely to be detectable.

The first method by which astronomers may detect such moons is by the changes they would make in the wobble of the star that has been used to detect many extrasolar planets to date. Astronomers have already studied how a pair of binary stars may affect a binary star system may have on a third star it orbits. If the binary star is swapped out for a planet and a moon it turns out that the easiest systems to detect are massive moons that are distant from the planet, but close to the parent star. However, except in extreme cases, the amount of wobble that the pair could induce in the star is so small that it would be swamped by the convective motion of the star’s surface, making detection through this method nearly impossible.

Astronomers have begun detecting large numbers of exoplanets by transits, where the planet causes minor eclipses. Could astronomers also detect the presence of moons this way? In this case, the limit on detection would again be based on the size of the moon. Currently, the Kepler satellite is expected to detect planets similar in mass to Earth. If moons exist around a super-Jovian planet that are also similar in size to Earth, they too should be detected. However, forming moons this large is difficult. The largest moon in the solar system in Ganymede which is 40% of the diameter of Earth, putting it modestly below current detection thresholds, but potentially in reach of future exoplanet missions.

However, direct detection of the eclipses caused by transits isn’t the only way transits could be used to discover exomoons. In the past few years, astronomers have begun using the wobble of other planets on the ones they had already discovered to infer the existence of other planets in the system in the same way the gravitational tug of Neptune on Uranus allowed astronomers to predict Neptune’s existence before it was discovered. A sufficiently massive moon could cause detectable variations in when the transit of the planet would begin and end. Astronomers have already used this technique to place limits on the mass of potential moons around exoplanets HD 209458 and OGLE-TR-113b at 3 and 7 Earth masses respectively.

The first discovered exoplanet was discovered around a pulsar. The tug of this planet caused variation of the regular pulsation of the pulsar’s beat. Pulsars often beat hundreds to thousands of times per second and as such, are extremely sensitive indicators of the presence of planets. The pulsar PSR B1257+12 is known to harbor one planet that is a mere 0.04% the mass of Earth, which is well below the mass threshold of many moons. As such, variations in these systems, caused by moons would be potentially detectable with current technology. Astronomers have already used it to search for moons around the planet orbiting PSR B1620-26 and ruled out moons more than 12% the mass of Jupiter within half an Astronomical Unit (the distance between the Earth and Sun or 93 million miles) of the planet.

The last method by which astronomers have detected planets that could potentially be used for exomoons is direct observation. Since direct imaging of exoplanets has only become realized in the past few years, this option is likely still a ways off, but future missions like the Terrestrial Planet Finder Coronagraph may put it into the realm of possibility. Even if the moon is not fully resolved, the offset of the center of the dot of the pair may be detectable with current instruments.

Overall, if the explosion of knowledge on planetary systems continues, astronomers should be capable of detecting exomoons within the near future. The possibility already exists for some cases, like pulsar planets, but due to their rarity, the statistical likelihood of finding a planet with a sufficiently large moon is low. But as equipment continues to improve, making detection thresholds lower for various methods, the first exomoons should come into view. Undoubtedly, the first ones will be large. This will beg the question of what sorts of surfaces and potentially atmospheres they may have. In turn, this would inspire more questions about what life may exist.

Source:
The Detectability of Moons of Extra-Solar Planets – Karen M. Lewis

What’s That Very Bright Star – Is it the Planet Jupiter?

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Have you seen a very bright star rising in the East every night the past few months? If you’re a night owl, you may have noticed it moves across they sky from the East into the West, shining brightly throughout the night. However this object is not a star! It’s the planet Jupiter and it is the brightest object in the night sky at the moment, apart from the Moon.

At the end of October Jupiter will be at opposition. This means the mighty planet (the largest in our solar system) will be directly opposite the sun as seen from Earth and it will also be at its closest point to Earth in the two planets’ orbits around the Sun. This makes Jupiter or any other object at opposition appear brighter and larger. The opposition of Jupiter occurs on October 29, 2011.

But Jupiter has been gracing our night sky for several months, and will continue to shine brightly as it moves in and out of opposition. But enjoy the view now, as this will be the closest opposition until 2022!

Visually, even with the naked eye, Jupiter is stunning! A burning yellowish-white star-like object, many times brighter than any other stars.

But through a pair of ordinary binoculars or a small telescope, Jupiter comes to life. Not only is it possible to see the disc of the Planet, you can also see the four Galilean moons.

The Galilean moons, Callisto, Ganymede, Europa and Io were discovered by Galileo over 400 years ago and are amazing worlds in their own right.

Callisto is the outermost moon with a very ancient and heavily cratered surface. It is the second largest of the four moons, but does not interact tidally with an “orbital resonance” unlike the other three moons.

Callisto. Image credit: NASA/JPL

Ganymede is the largest of the four moons and is also the largest moon in the Solar system, being larger than the Planet Mercury. The bizarre surface is a mix of two types of terrain – highly cratered dark regions and younger, but still ancient regions with a large array of grooves and ridges. Ganymede is the only moon in the solar system to have its own magnetosphere.

Ganymede
Ganymede Credit: NASA

Europa is the second closest moon and is also the smallest. It has one of the smoothest and newest surfaces in the solar system, being covered purely with ice. Europa is likely a water world and it is believed that below its icy surface, lies a deep moon-wide ocean surrounding a warm mantle. It is one of the most likely places to harbour life in the solar system.

Europa from Galileo
Europa from Galileo

Io is the innermost of the four Galilean moons of Jupiter and third largest. It is the most geologically active body in the solar system with over 400 active volcanoes and an ever changing and hostile surface of sulphur and silicates.

Io Credit: NASA

When you look up tonight and stare at Jupiter, or you are looking at it through binoculars or a telescope, just think – Jupiter and the four Galilean moons are a very interesting place, almost a mini solar system with our larger solar system!

Occasionally you will see Jupiter’s “Great Red Spot” or the shadow of one of the moons on Jupiter’s surface. The Jupiter system is always changing.

If you want to find out what the positions are for the moons, use planetarium software such as Stellarium and then have a look yourself.

Good luck!

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.

Ride Along with Rhea

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Assembled from 29 raw images taken by the Cassini orbiter on Monday, April 25, this animation brings us along an orbital ride with Rhea as it crosses Saturn’s nighttime face, the planet’s shadow cast across the ringplane. Sister moons Dione and Tethys travel the opposite lane in the background, eventually appearing to sink into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Rhea's heavily cratered surface, imaged by Cassini on October 2010. NASA/JPL/SSI

The exposure varies slightly from frame to frame due to the fact that they are not all taken with the same color channel filter.

Rhea (1,528 kilometers, or 949 miles, wide), Dione (1,123 kilometers, or 698 miles wide) and Tethys (1,066 kilometers, or 662 miles wide) are all very similar in composition and appearance. The moons are composed mostly of water ice and rock, each covered in craters of all sizes and crisscrossed by gouges, scarps and chasms. All three are tidally locked with Saturn, showing the same face to their parent planet in the same way that the Moon does with Earth.

The Cassini spacecraft was 2,227,878 km (1,384,339 miles) from Rhea when the images were taken.

(The original images have not been validated or calibrated. Validated/calibrated images will be archived with the NASA Planetary Data System in 2012.)

Image credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute. Animation by Jason Major.

Mini Moons Are Buzzing Through Saturn’s Rings

Scientists for NASA’s Cassini mission noticed some weird-looking propeller-like shapes in the outer edge of Saturn’s A ring. What could be creating these unusual contours? A closer look revealed they were being formed by dozens of moving moonlets. Normally, these kilometer-sized moons would have been almost impossible to see, since they are embedded within the rings. “However, their presence is betrayed by the large tell-tale ‘propeller’ structures they generate in the ring material on either side of them,” said Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini imaging team, and co-author on a new paper on these propeller moons. In an email, Porco said similar features had been seen earlier in other locations in Saturn’s rings, but were “much smaller, harder to see, and so numerous that there was no hope of following any one of them. The new propellers, and the moonlets that create them, are some ten times larger and much easier to identify and follow from image to image and year to year.”

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The team said the ability to watch as the embedded moons’ orbits evolve over time could give scientists valuable new clues about how planets form and grow around stars in young solar systems.

“What is outstanding about these new findings is the insight they ultimately will provide into the early stages of solar system formation,” said Porco, “when growing planets become large enough to open gaps in the ring material around them and ultimately truncate their own growth.”

The scientists have tracked eleven of these moons since 2006. Most are between one and several kilometers in diameter, too small to be imaged directly by Cassini’s cameras, but are only distinguishable by the unique double-armed propeller features.

The area in the middle of Saturn’s outermost dense A ring is now known as the “propeller belts,” and the new moonlets have been given appropriate names.

“You may find it amusing that these large propellers have unofficially been named after famous aviators,” Porco said. “Those flight enthusiasts among you will recognize Bleriot, Earhart, Santos-Dumont, and others.”

Cassini caught sight of Blériot (named after a French aviator) more than 100 times, allowing the researchers to map its path in detail. The propeller shape it created is several thousand kilometers long, or half the distance across the continental United States.

“You would expect any object that’s just orbiting Saturn on its own should stay in a constant path,” said lead author Matthew Tiscareno from Cornell University. “What we actually see is that the orbits are changing.”

The most likely explanation, he said, is that the moons are actually interacting with the disk: exchanging angular momentum with the ring particles around them either through gravity or by direct collisions.

Still, other explanations, like resonant interactions with more distant moons, have not been ruled out as causes.

Scientists will be keeping an eye on these wandering little moons in order to figure out if the disk itself is driving the changes, similar to the interactions that occur in young solar systems. If it is, Tiscareno said, this would be the first time such a measurement has been made directly.

Read the team’s paper.

More images at CICLOPS

Sources: NASA, Cornell, Porco email

Largest Moon of Saturn

The largest moon of Saturn is Titan, measuring 5,150 km across. In fact, Titan is the second largest moon in the Solar System, after Jupiter’s Ganymede. Titan is so big that it’s even larger than planet Mercury, which is only 4,879 km across. And it’s much bigger than the Earth’s moon at 3,474 km.

Astronomers used to think that Titan was actually the largest moon in the Solar System, but when NASA’s Voyager spacecraft first arrived at the moon in the 1980s, they were able to make detailed observations of the moon at its atmosphere. They proved that Titan’s atmosphere extended out for dozens of kilometers, and so the physical moon itself was actually smaller than previously thought, making it smaller than Ganymede.

Titan orbits Saturn at an average distance of 1,221,870 km, completing an orbit every 15.945 days. It’s tidally locked to Saturn, so it always presents the same face to Saturn. So a day on Saturn is also the same amount of time it takes to orbit Saturn.

Titan is the only moon in the Solar System known to have a thick atmosphere. In fact, the pressure of the atmosphere on the surface of Saturn is 1.5 times greater than the atmospheric pressure here on Earth. Of course, the atmosphere of Titan is almost entirely nitrogen, and the temperature is -179° C. So it wouldn’t be a comfortable place to visit without a spacesuit.

We’ve written many articles about Titan for Universe Today. Here’s an article about seasonal changes on Titan, and here’s an article about how Titan’s haze acts like an ozone layer.

If you’d like more info on Titan, check out Hubblesite’s News Releases about Saturn. And here’s a link to the homepage of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which is orbiting Saturn.

We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast just about Saturn’s moons. Listen here, Episode 61: Saturn’s Moons.