Until We Get Another Mission at Saturn, We’re Going to Have to Make Do with these Pictures Taken by Hubble

This image of Saturn shows the planet and some of its moons in opposition. It's a composite image taken by the Hubble on June 6th, 2018. Image: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC) and the OPAL Team, and J. DePasquale (STScI); CC BY 4.0

We can’t seem to get enough of Saturn. It’s the most visually distinct object in our Solar System (other than the Sun, of course, but it’s kind of hard to gaze at). The Cassini mission to Saturn wrapped up about a year ago, and since then we’re relying on the venerable Hubble telescope to satisfy our appetite for images of the ringed planet.

Continue reading “Until We Get Another Mission at Saturn, We’re Going to Have to Make Do with these Pictures Taken by Hubble”

Cassini Data Has Revealed a Towering Hexagonal Storm at Saturn’s Northern Pole

A new study based on data from the Cassini mission is revealing something surprising in the atmosphere of Saturn. We’ve known about the storm at the gas giant’s north pole for decades, but now it appears that this massive hexagonal storm could be a towering behemoth hundreds of kilometers in height that has its base deep in Saturn’s atmosphere.

This grey-scale image of Saturn’s northern polar vortex was captured by the Cassini spacecraft. This image was captured from a distance of about 1.2 million km. A portion of Saturn’s rings are barely visible in the top right. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Continue reading “Cassini Data Has Revealed a Towering Hexagonal Storm at Saturn’s Northern Pole”

New Photos of Saturn and Mars from Hubble

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.

This composite image, taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope on June 6th, 2018, shows the ringed planet Saturn with six of its 62 known moons. Credit: NASA, ESA, A. Simon (GSFC) and the OPAL Team, and J. DePasquale (STScI)

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.

In mid-July the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope observed Mars, only 13 days before the planet made its closest approach to Earth in 2018. Credit: NASA, ESA, and STScI

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.

This annotated image of Mars shows features of the planet that were visible in summer 2018 despite a global dust storm. Credit: NASA, ESA, and STScI

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:

Further Reading: Hubble

Cassini’s “Grande Finale” Earns an Emmy Nomination!

An artist's illustration of the Cassini probe's Grand Finale. Image: NASA/JPL/CalTech

In 1997, the NASA/ESA Cassini-Huygens mission launched from Earth and began its long journey towards the Saturn system. In 2004, the Cassini orbiter arrived around Saturn and would spend the next thirteen years studying the gas giant, its rings, and its system of Moons. On September 15th, 2017, the mission ended when the probe entered Saturn’s upper atmosphere and burned up.

This was known as Cassini’s “Grand Finale“, which began with the probe plunging into the unexplored region that lies between Saturn’s atmosphere and its rings and culminated with live coverage of it entering the atmosphere. In honor of the mission and NASA’s outstanding coverage of its final months, NASA was recently nominated for an Emmy Award by The Academy of Television Arts & Sciences.

The award is in the category of Outstanding Original Interactive Program, which recognizes the JPL’s multi-month digital campaign that celebrated the mission’s science and engineering accomplishments – which included news, web, education, television and social media efforts. It is also a nod to the agency’s success in communicating why the spacecraft concluded its mission in the skies of Saturn.

Essentially, the spacecraft was intentionally destroyed in Saturn’s atmosphere to prevent the possibility of it contaminating any of Saturn’s moons. Throughout the thirteen years it spent studying the Saturn system, Cassini found compelling evidence for the possible existence of life on Titan and in Enceladus’ interior ocean. In addition, scientists have speculated that there may be interior oceans within Rhea and Dione.

In this respect, Cassini ended its mission the same way the Galileo probe did in 2003. After spending 8 years studying Jupiter and its system the moons, the probe crashed into the gas giant’s upper atmosphere in order to prevent any possible contamination of Europa or Ganymede, which are also thought to have an interior oceans that could support life.

The “Grand Finale” campaign began on April 26th, 2017, and continued until the craft entered Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15th, 2017, with the spacecraft sending back science to the very last second. The campaign utilized several different forms of media, was interactive, and was very comprehensive, providing regular updates and vital information about the mission.

As NASA indicated on their Cassini website:

“The multi-faceted campaign included regular updates on Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and the Cassini mission website; multiple live social, web and TV broadcasts during which reporter and public questions were answered; a dramatic short film to communicate the mission’s story and preview its endgame; multiple 360-degree videos, including NASA’s first 360-degree livestream of a mission event from inside JPL mission control; an interactive press kit; a steady drumbeat of articles to keep fans updated with news and features about the people behind the mission; state-standards aligned educational materials; a celebration of art by amateur space enthusiasts; and software to provide real-time tracking of the spacecraft, down to its final transmission to Earth.”

The short film, titled “For Your Consideration: The NASA Cassini Grand Finale“, showcases the missions many accomplishments, pays tribute to all those who made it happen and who helped inform the public and communicate the importance of the mission.

The Primetime Emmys will be awarded be on September 17th in Los Angeles. The Creative Arts Emmys, which includes interactive awards, will be presented during a separate ceremony on Saturday, Sept. 15th, at the Microsoft Theatre in Los Angeles. Other contenders include Back to the Moon, a Google Spotlight Stories App; Blade Runner 2049: Memory Lab, Coco VR, and Spiderman Homecoming, three Oculus VR experiences.

And be sure to check out the videos, FYC: NASA Cassini Grand Finale, below:

Further Reading: NASA

Weekly Space Hangout: June 27 2018: Space News Roundup

Hosts:
Fraser Cain (universetoday.com / @fcain)
Dr. Paul M. Sutter (pmsutter.com / @PaulMattSutter)
Dr. Kimberly Cartier (KimberlyCartier.org / @AstroKimCartier )
Dr. Morgan Rehnberg (MorganRehnberg.com / @MorganRehnberg & ChartYourWorld.org)

The Weekly Space Hangout will be on hiatus July and August. Join us when we return in September!

Announcements:
Astronomy Cast, the show Fraser cohosts with Dr. Pamela Gay, will be celebrating their 500th episode the weekend of Sept 15-16, 2018. Want to join us in Edwardsville, Il? Check out our AC500 site here to find out how!

If you would like to join the Weekly Space Hangout Crew, visit their site here and sign up. They’re a great team who can help you join our online discussions!

We record the Weekly Space Hangout every Wednesday at 5:00 pm Pacific / 8:00 pm Eastern. You can watch us live on Universe Today, or the Weekly Space Hangout YouTube page – Please subscribe!

Planets on Parade: Saturn at Opposition 2018

2018 planets
2018 planets
Saturn, Mars and Jupiter all beckon this summer. Image credit and copyright: Sharin Ahmad (@shahgazer).

We’re in the midst of a parade of planets crossing the evening sky. Jupiter reached opposition on May 9th, and sits high to the east at dusk. Mars heads towards a fine opposition on July 27th, nearly as favorable as the historic opposition of 2003. And Venus rules the dusk sky in the west after the setting Sun for most of 2018.

June is Saturn’s turn, as the planet reaches opposition this year on June 27th, rising opposite to the setting Sun at dusk.

In classical times, right up until just over two short centuries ago, Saturn represented the very outer limit of the solar system, the border lands where the realm of the planets came to an end. Sir William Herschel extended this view, when he spied Uranus—the first planet discovered in the telescopic era—slowly moving through the constellation Gemini just across the border of Taurus the Bull using a 7-foot reflector (in the olden days, telescopes specs were often quoted referring to their focal length versus aperture) while observing from his backyard garden in Bath, England on the night of March 13th, 1781.

vesta
Looking east tonight at sunset… note Vesta to the upper left. Credit: Stellarium.

Orbiting the Sun once every 29.5 years, Saturn is the slowest moving of the naked eye planets, fitting for a planet named after Father Time. Saturn slowly loops from one astronomical constellation along the zodiac to the next eastward, moving through one about every two years.

path of saturn
The path of Saturn through 2018. Image credit: Starry Night Education software.

2018 sees Saturn in the constellation Sagittarius the Archer, just above the ‘lid’ of the Teapot asterism, favoring the southern hemisphere for this apparition. Saturn won’t cross the celestial equator northward again until 2026. Not that that should discourage northern hemisphere viewers from going after this most glorious of planets. A low southerly declination also means that Saturn is also up in the evening in the summertime up north, a conducive time for observing. Taking 29-30 years to complete one lap around the ecliptic as seen from our Earthly vantage point, Saturn also makes a great timekeeper with respect to personal life milestones… where were you back in 1989, when Saturn occupied the same spot along the ecliptic?

Saturn also shows the least variation of all the planets in terms of brightness and size, owing to its immense distance 9.5 AU from the Sun, and consequently 8.5 to 10.5 AU from the Earth. Saturn actually just passed its most distant aphelion since 1959 on April 17th, 2018 at 10.066 AU from the Sun.

Saturn’s in 2018 Dates with Destiny

Saturn sits just 1.6 degrees south of the waning gibbous Moon tonight. The Moon will lap it again one lunation later on June 28th. Note that the brightest of the asteroids, +5.7 magnitude 4 Vesta is nearby in northern Sagittarius, also reaching opposition on June 19th. Can you spy Vesta with the naked eye from a dark sky site? 4 Vesta passes just 4 degrees from Saturn on September 23rd, and both flirt with the galactic plane and some famous deep sky targets, including the Trifid and Lagoon Nebulae.

Saturn reaches quadrature 90 degrees east of the Sun on September 25th, then ends its evening apparition when it reaches solar conjunction on New Year’s Day, 2019.

Saturn is well clear of the Moon’s path for most of this year, but stick around: starting on December 9th, 2018, the slow-moving planet will make a great target for the Moon, which will begin occulting it for every lunation through the end of 2019.

It’s ironic: Saturn mostly hides its beauty to unaided eye. Presenting a slight saffron color in appearance, it never strays much from magnitude -0.2 to +1.4 in brightness. One naked eye observation to watch for is a sudden spurt in brightness known as the opposition surge or Seeliger Effect. This is a retro reflector type effect, caused by all those tiny iceball moonlets in the rings reaching 100% illumination at once. Think of how the Full Moon is actually 3 to 4 times brighter than the 50% illuminated Quarter Moon… all those little peaks, ridges and crater rims no longer casting shadows do indeed add up.

Saturn
Saturn in all its glory (note the moons Enceladus and Tethys, too!). Image credit and copyright: Efrain Morales.

And this effect is more prominent in recent years for another reason: Saturn’s rings passed maximum tilt (26.7 degrees) with respect to our line of sight just last year, and are still relatively wide open in 2018. They’ll start slimming down again over the next few oppositions, reaching edge-on again in 2028.

Even using a pair of 7×50 hunting binoculars on Saturn, you can tell that something is amiss. You’re getting the same view that Galileo had through his spyglass, the pinnacle of early 17th century technology. He could tell that something about the planet was awry, and drew sketches showing an oblong world with coffee cup handles on the side. Crank up the magnification using even a small 60 mm refractor, and the rings easily jump into view. This is what makes Saturn a star party staple, an eye candy feast capable of drawing the aim of all the telescopes down the row.

If seeing and atmospheric conditions allow, crank up the magnification up to 150x or higher, and the dark groove of the Cassini division snaps into view. Can you see the shadow of the disk of Saturn, cast back onto the plane of the rings? The shadow of the planet hides behind it near opposition, then becomes most prominent towards quadrature, when we get to peek around its edge. Can you spy the limb of the planet itself, through the Cassini Gap?

Though the disk of Saturn is often featureless, tiny swirls of white storms do occasionally pop up. Astrophotographer Damian Peach noted just one such short-lived storm on the ringed planet this past April 2018.

Saturn’s retinue of moons are also interesting to follow in there own right. The first one you’ll note is +8.5 magnitude smog-shrouded Titan. Larger in diameter than Mercury, Titan would easily be a planet in its own right, were it liberated from its primary’s domain.

Though Saturn has 62 known moons, only six in addition to Titan are in range of a modest backyard telescope: Enceladus, Rhea, Dione, Mimas, Tethys and Iapetus. Two-faced Iapetus is especially interesting to follow, as it varies two full magnitudes in brightness during its 79 day orbit. Arthur C. Clarke originally placed the final monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey on this moon, its artificial coating a beacon to astronomers. Today, we know from flybys carried out by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft that the leading hemisphere of Iapetus is coated with dark in-falling material, originating from the dark Phoebe ring around Saturn.

iapetus
Two-faced Iapetus as imaged by Cassini. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

Owners of large light bucket telescopes may also want to try from two fainter +15th magnitude moons: Hyperion and Phoebe.

Fun fact: Saturn’s moons can also cast shadows back on the planet itself, much like the Galilean moons do on Jupiter… the catch, however, is that these events only occur around equinox season in the years around when Saturn’s rings are edge-on. This next occurs starting in 2026.

Cassini finished up its thrilling 20 year mission just last year, with a dramatic plunge into Saturn itself. It will be a while before we return again, perhaps in the next decade if NASA selects a nuclear-powered helicopter to explore Titan. Until then, be sure to explore Saturn this summer, from your Earthbound backyard.

Love to observe the planets? Check out our new forthcoming book, The Universe Today Ultimate Guide to Viewing the Cosmos – out on October 23rd, now up for pre-order.

Saturn Photobombs a Picture of the Martian Moon Phobos

The ESA’s Mars Express probe has been studying Mars and its Moons for many years. While there are several missions currently in orbit around Mars, Mars Express‘s near-polar elliptical orbit gives it some advantages over the others. For one, its orbital path takes it closer to Phobos than any other spacecraft, which allows it to periodically observe the moon from distances of around 150 km (93 mi).

Because of this, the probe is in an ideal position to study Mars’ moons and capture images of them. On occasion, this allows for some interesting photo opportunities. For example, in November of 2017, while taking pictures of Phobos and Deimos, the probe spotted Saturn in the background. This fortuitous event led to the creation of some beautiful images, which were put together to produce a video.

Since 2003, Mars Express has been studying Phobos and Deimos in the hopes of learning more about these mysterious objects. While it has learned much about their size, appearance and position, much remains unknown about their composition, how and where they formed, and what their surface conditions are like. To answer these questions, the probe has been conducting regular flybys of these moons and taking pictures of them.

Phobos and background star (circled in red). Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

The video that was recently released by the ESA combines 30 such images which show Phobos passing through the frame. In the background, Saturn is visible as a small ringed dot, despite being roughly 1 billion km away.  The images that were used to create this video were taken by the probes High Resolution Stereo Camera on November 26th, 2016, while the probe was traveling at a speed of about 3 km/s.

This photobomb was not unexpected, since the Mars Express repeatedly uses background reference stars and other bodies in the Solar System to confirm positions of the moons in the sky. In so doing, the probe is able to calculate the position of Phobos and Deimos with an accuracy of up to a few kilometers. The probes ideal position for capturing detailed images has also helped scientists to learn more about the surface features and structure of the two moons.

For instance, the pictures taken during the probe’s close flybys of Phobos showed its bumpy, irregular and dimpled surface in detail.The moon’s largest impact crater – the Stickney Crater – is also visible in one of the frames. Measuring 9 km ( mi) in diameter, this crater accounts for a third of the moon’s diameter, making it one the largest impact craters relative to body size in the Solar System.

In another image, taken on January 15th, 2018, Deimos is visible as an irregular and partially shadowed body in the foreground, while the delicate rings of Saturn are just visible encircling the small dot in the background (see below). In addition, Mars Express also obtained images of Phobos set against a reference star on January 8th, 2018 (see above) and close-up images of Phobos’ pockmarked surface on September 12th, 2017.

This image of Deimos and Saturn was taken by the Super Resolution Channel of Mars Express’ High Resolution Stereo Camera. Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin

In the future, the Mars Express probe is expected to reveal a great deal more about Mars’ system of moons. In addition to the enduring questions of their origins, formation and composition, there are also questions about where future missions could land in order to study the surface directly. In particular, Phobos has been considered for a possible landing and sample-return mission.

Because of its nearness to Mars and the fact that one side is always facing towards the planet, the moon could make for an ideal location for a permanent observation post. This post would allow for the long-term study of the Martian surface and atmosphere, could act as a communications relay for other spacecraft, and could even serve as a base for future missions to the surface.

If and when such a mission to Phobos becomes a reality, it is the Mars Express probe that will determine where the ideal landing site would be. In essence, by studying the Martian moons to learning more about them, Mars Express is helping to prepare future missions to the Red Planet.

Be sure to check out the time-lapse video of Phobos and Saturn, courtesy of the ESA:

Further Reading: ESA

This was Exactly Where Cassini Crashed into Saturn

On September 15th, 2017, after nearly 20 years in service, the Cassini spacecraft ended its mission by plunging into the atmosphere of Saturn. During the 13 years it spent in the Saturn system, this probe revealed a great deal about the gas giant, its rings, and its systems of moons. As such, it was a bittersweet moment for the mission team when the probe concluded its Grand Finale and began descending into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Even though the mission has concluded, scientists are still busy poring over the data sent back by the probe. These include a mosaic of the final images snapped by Cassini’s cameras, which show the location of where it would enter Saturn’s atmosphere just hours later. The exact spot (shown above) is indicated by a white oval, which was on Saturn’s night side at the time, but would later come around to be facing the Sun.

From the beginning, the Cassini mission was a game-changer. After reaching the Saturn system on July 1st, 2004, the probe began a series of orbits around Saturn that allowed it conduct close flybys of several of its moons. Foremost among these were Saturn’s largest moon Titan and its icy moon Enceladus, both of which proved to be a treasure trove of scientific data.

Artist’s impression of the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

On Titan, Cassini revealed evidence of methane lakes and seas, the existence of a methanogenic cycle (similar to Earth’s hydrological cycle), and the presence of organic molecules and prebiotic chemistry. On Enceladus, Cassini examined the mysterious plumes emanating from its southern pole, revealing that they extended all the way to the moon’s interior ocean and contained organic molecules and hydrated minerals.

These findings have inspired a number of proposals for future robotic missions to explore Titan and Enceladus more closely. So far, proposals range from exploring Titan’s surface and atmosphere using lightweight aerial platforms, balloons and landers, or a dual quadcopter. Other proposals include exploring its seas using a paddleboat or a even a submarine. And alongside Europa, there are scientists clamoring for a mission to Enceladus and other “Ocean Worlds” to explore its plumes and maybe even its interior ocean.

Beyond that, Cassini also revealed a great deal about Saturn’s atmosphere, which included the persistent hexagonal storm that exists around the planet’s north pole. During its Grand Finale, where it made 22 orbits between Saturn and its rings, the probe also revealed a great deal about the three-dimensional structure and dynamic behavior of the planet’s famous system of rings.

This montage of images, made from data obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, shows the location on Saturn where the NASA spacecraft entered Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona

It is only fitting then that the Cassini probe would also capture images of the very spot where its mission would end. The images were taken by Cassini’s wide-angle camera on Sept. 14th, 2017, when the probe was at a distance of about 634,000 km (394,000 mi) from Saturn. They were taken using red, green and blue spectral filters, which were then combined to show the scene in near-natural color.

The resulting image is not dissimilar from another mosaic that was released on September 15th, 2017, to mark the end of the Cassini mission. This mosaic was created using data obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer, which also showed the exact location where the spacecraft would enter the atmosphere – 9.4 degrees north latitude by 53 degrees west longitude.

The main difference, of course, is that this latest mosaic benefits from the addition of color, which provides a better sense of orientation. And for those who are missing the Cassini mission and its regular flow of scientific discoveries, its much more emotionally fitting! While we may never be able to find the wreckage buried inside Saturn’s atmosphere, it is good to know where its last known location was.

Further Reading: NASA

Just Like Earth, Titan Has a “Sea Level” for its Lakes and Seas

Thanks to the Cassini mission, we have learned some truly amazing things about Saturn and its largest moon, Titan. This includes information on its dense atmosphere, its geological features, its methane lakes, methane cycle, and organic chemistry. And even though Cassini recently ended its mission by crashing into Saturn’s atmosphere, scientists are still pouring over all of the data it obtained during its 13 years in the Saturn system.

And now, using Cassini data, two teams led by researchers from Cornell University have released two new studies that reveal even more interesting things about Titan. In one, the team created a complete topographic map of Titan using Cassini’s entire data set. In the second, the team revealed that Titan’s seas have a common elevation, much like how we have a “sea level” here on Earth.

The two studies recently appeared in the Geophysical Research Letters, titled “Titan’s Topography and Shape at the End of the Cassini Mission” and “Topographic Constraints on the Evolution and Connectivity of Titan’s Lacustrine Basins“. The studies were led by Professor Paul Corlies and Assistant Professor Alex Hayes of Cornell University, respectively, and included members from The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the US Geological Survey (USGS), Stanford University, and the Sapienza Universita di Roma.

This true-color image of Titan, taken by the Cassini spacecraft, shows the moon's thick, hazy atmosphere. Image: By NASA - http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA14602, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44822294
This true-color image of Titan, taken by the Cassini spacecraft, shows the moon’s thick, hazy atmosphere. Credit: NASA

In the first paper, the authors described how topographic data from multiple sources was combined to create a global map of Titan. Since only about 9% of Titan was observed with high-resolution topography (and 25-30% in lower resolution) the remainder of the moon was mapped with an interpolation algorithm. Combined with a global minimization process, this reduced errors that would arise from such things as spacecraft location.

The map revealed new features on Titan, as well as a global view of the highs and lows of the moon’s topography. For instance, the maps showed several new mountains which reach a maximum elevation of 700 meters (about 3000 ft). Using the map, scientists were also able to confirm that two locations in the equatorial regions are depressions that could be the result of ancient seas that have since dried up or cryovolcanic flows.

The map also suggests that Titan may be more oblate than previously thought, which could mean that the crust varies in thickness. The data set is available online, and the map which the team created from it is already proving its worth to the scientific community. As Professor Corlies explained in a Cornell press release:

“The main point of the work was to create a map for use by the scientific community… We’re measuring the elevation of a liquid surface on another body 10 astronomical units away from the sun to an accuracy of roughly 40 centimeters. Because we have such amazing accuracy we were able to see that between these two seas the elevation varied smoothly about 11 meters, relative to the center of mass of Titan, consistent with the expected change in the gravitational potential. We are measuring Titan’s geoid. This is the shape that the surface would take under the influence of gravity and rotation alone, which is the same shape that dominates Earth’s oceans.”

False-color mosaic of Titan’s northern lakes, made from infrared data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA

Looking ahead, this map will play an important role when it comes tr scientists seeking to model Titan’s climate, study its shape and gravity, and its surface morphology. In addition, it will be especially helpful for those looking to test interior models of Titan, which is fundamental to determining if the moon could harbor life. Much like Europa and Enceladus, it is believed that Titan has a liquid water ocean and hydrothermal vents at its core-mantle boundary.

The second study, which also employed the new topographical map, was based on Cassini radar data that was obtained up to just a few months before the spacecraft burned up in Saturn’s atmosphere. Using this data, Assistant Professor Hayes and his team determined that Titan’s seas follow a constant elevation relative to Titan’s gravitational pull. Basically, they found that Titan has a sea level, much like Earth. As Hayes explained:

“We’re measuring the elevation of a liquid surface on another body 10 astronomical units away from the sun to an accuracy of roughly 40 centimeters. Because we have such amazing accuracy we were able to see that between these two seas the elevation varied smoothly about 11 meters, relative to the center of mass of Titan, consistent with the expected change in the gravitational potential. We are measuring Titan’s geoid. This is the shape that the surface would take under the influence of gravity and rotation alone, which is the same shape that dominates Earth’s oceans.”

This common elevation is important because liquid bodies on Titan appear to be connected by something resembling an aquifer system. Much like how water flows underground through porous rock and gravel on Earth, hydrocarbons do the same thing under Titan’s icy surface. This ensures that there is transference between large bodies of water, and that they share a common sea level.

Artist concept of Cassini’s last moments at Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL.

“We don’t see any empty lakes that are below the local filled lakes because, if they did go below that level, they would be filled themselves,”  said Hayes. “This suggests that there’s flow in the subsurface and that they are communicating with each other. It’s also telling us that there is liquid hydrocarbon stored on the subsurface of Titan.”

Meanwhile, smaller lakes on Titan appear at elevations several hundred meters above Titan’s sea level. This is not dissimilar to what happens on Earth, where large lakes are often found at higher elevations. These are known as “Alpine Lakes”, and some well-known examples include Lake Titicaca in the Andes, Lakes Geneva in the Alps, and Paradise Lake in the Rockies.

Last, but not least, the study also revealed the vast majority of Titan’s lakes are found within sharp-edged depressions that are surrounded by high ridges, some of which are hundreds of meters high. Here too, there is a resemblance to features on Earth – such as the Florida Everglades – where underlying material dissolves and causes the surface to collapse, forming holes in the ground.

The shape of these lakes indicate that they may be expanding at a constant rate, a process known as uniform scarp retreat. In fact, the largest lake in the south – Ontario Lacus – resembles a series of smaller empty lakes that have coalesced to form a single feature. This process is apparently due to seasonal change, where autumn in the southern hemisphere leads to more evaporation.

While the Cassini mission is no longer exploring the Saturn system, the data it accumulated during its multi-year mission is still bearing fruit. Between these latest studies, and the many more that will follow, scientists are likely to reveal a great deal more about this mysterious moon and the forces that shape it!

Further Reading: NASA, Cornell University, Geophysical Research Letters

You Can Now Use Google Maps to Explore the Solar System

Chances are, at one time or another, we’ve all used Google Maps to find the shortest route from point A to point B. But if you are like some people, you’ve used this mapping tool to have a look at geographical features or places you hope to visit someday. In an age where digital technology is allowing for telecommuting and even telepresence, it’s nice to take virtual tours of the places we may never get to see in person.

But now, Google Maps is using its technology to enable the virtual exploration of something far grander: the Solar System! Thanks to images provided by the Cassini orbiter of the planets and moons it studied during its 20 year mission, Google is now allowing users to explore places like Venus, Mercury, Mars, Europa, Ganymede, Titan, and other far-off destinations that are impossible for us to visit right now.

Similar to how Google Earth uses satellite imagery to create 3D representations of our planet, this new Google Maps tool relies on the more than 500,000 images taken by Cassini as it made its way across the Solar System. This probe recently concluded its 20 year mission, 13 of which were spent orbiting Saturn and studying its system of moons, by crashing into the atmosphere of Saturn.

Artist rendition of the Cassini spacecraft over Saturn. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Kevin M. Gill.

After launching from Earth on October 15th, 1997, Cassini conducted a flyby of Venus in order to pick up a gravity-assist. It then flew by Earth, obtaining a second gravity-assist, while making its way towards the Asteroid Belt. Before reaching the Saturn System, where it would begin studying the gas giant and its moons, Cassini also conducted a flyby of Jupiter – snapping pictures of its moons, rings, and Great Red Spot.

When it reached Saturn in July of 2004, Cassini went to work studying the planet and its larger moons – particularly Titan and Enceladus. During the next 13 years and 76 days, the probe would provide breathtaking images and sensor data on Saturn’s rings, atmosphere and polar storms and reveal things about Titan’s surface that were never before seen (such as its methane lakes, hydrological cycle, and surface features).

It’s flybys of Enceladus also revealed some startling things about this icy moon. Aside from detecting a tenuous atmosphere of ionized water vapor and Enceladus’ mysterious “Tiger Stripes“, the probe also detected jets of water and organic molecules erupting from the moon’s southern polar region. These jets, it was later determined, were indicative of a warm water ocean deep in the moon’s interior, and possibly even life!

Interestingly enough, the original Cassini mission was only planned to last for four years once it reached Saturn – from June 2004 to May 2008. But by the end of this run, the mission was extended with the Cassini Equinox Mission, which was intended to run until September of 2010. It was extended a second time with the Cassini Solstice Mission, which lasted until September 15th, 2017, when the probe was crashed into Saturn’s atmosphere.

Artist’s impression of the Cassini orbiter entering Saturn’s atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL

Thanks to all the images taken by this long-lived mission, Google Maps is now able to offer exploratory tours of 16 celestial bodies in the Solar System – 12 of which are new to the site. These include Earth, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Pluto, Ceres, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Mimas, Enceladus, Dione, Rhea, Titan, Iapetus and (available as of July 2017) the International Space Station.

This latest development also builds on several extensions Google has released over the years. These include Google Moon, which was released on July 20th, 2005, to coincide with the 36th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. Then there was Google Sky (introduced in 2007), which used photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope to create a virtual map of the visible universe.

Then there was Google Mars, the result of a collaborative effort between Google and NASA scientists at the Mars Space Flight Facility released in 2011, one year before the Curiosity rover landed on the Red Planet. This tool relied on data collected by the Mars Global Surveyor and the Mars Odyssey missions to create high-resolution 3D terrain maps that included elevations.

In an age of high-speed internet and telecommunications, using the internet to virtually explore the many planets and bodies of the Solar System just makes sense. Especially when you consider that even the most ambitious plans to conduct tourism to Mars or the Moon (looking at you, Elon Musk and Richard Branson!) are not likely to bear fruit for many years, and cost an arm and a leg to boot!

In the future, similar technology could lead to all kinds of virtual exploration. This concept, which is often referred to as “telexploration”, would involve robotic missions traveling to other planets and even star systems. The information they gather would then be sent back to Earth to create virtual experiences, which would allow scientists and space-exploration enthusiasts to feel like they were seeing it firsthand.

In truth, this mapping tool is just the latest gift to be bestowed by the late Cassini mission. NASA scientists expect to be sifting through the volumes of data collected by the orbiter for years to come. Thanks to improvements made in software applications and the realms of virtual and augmented reality, this data (and that of present and future missions) is likely to be put to good use, enabling breathtaking and educational tours of our Universe!

Further Reading: Make Use Of