Saturn’s “Yin-Yang” Moon Iapetus

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

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

Discovery and Naming:

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

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

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

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

Size, Mass and Orbit:

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

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

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

Composition and Surface Features:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exploration:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturn’s “Death-Star” Moon Mimas

Much has been learned about Saturn’s system of moons in recent decades, thanks to the Voyager missions and the more recent surveys conducted by the Cassini spaceprobe. Between its estimated 150 moons and moonlets (only 53 of which have been identified and named) there is no shortage of scientific curiosities, and enough mysteries to keep astronomers here on Earth busy for decades.

Consider Mimas, which is often referred to as Saturn’s “Death Star Moon” on a count of its unusual appearance. Much like Saturn’s moons Tethys and Rhea, Mimas’ peculiar characteristics represents something of a mystery. Not only is it almost entirely composed ice, it’s coloration and surface features reveal a great deal about the history of the Saturnian (aka. Cronian) system. On top of that, it may even house an interior, liquid-water ocean.

Discovery and Naming:

Saturn’s moon Mimas was discovered by William Herschel in 1789, more than 100 years after Saturn’s larger moons were discovered by Christian Huygens and Giovanni Cassini. As with all the seven then-known satellites of Saturn, Mimas’ name was suggested by William Herschel’s son John in his 1847 publication Results of Astronomical Observations made at the Cape of Good Hope.

Mimas takes its name from one of the Titans of Greek mythology, who were the sons and daughters of Cronus (the Greek equivalent to Jupiter). Mimas was an offspring of Gaia, born from the blood of the castrated Uranus, who eventually died during the struggle with the Olympian Gods for control of the universe.

A replica of the telescope which William Herschel used to observe Uranus. Credit:
A replica of the telescope which William Herschel used to observe Uranus. Credit: Alun Salt/Wikimedia Commons

Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a mean radius of 198.2 ± 0.4 km and a mass of about 3.75 ×1019 kg, Mimas is equivalent in size to 0.0311 Earths and 0.0000063 times as massive. Orbiting Saturn at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 185,539 km, it is the innermost of Saturn’s larger moons, and the 8th moon orbiting Saturn. It’s orbit also has a minor eccentricity of 0.0196, ranging from 181,902 km at periapsis and 189,176 km at apoapsis.

With an estimated orbital velocity of 14.28 km/s, Mimas takes 0.942 days to complete a single orbit of Saturn. Like many of Saturn’s moons. Mimas rotation period is synchronous to its orbital period, which means it keeps one face constantly pointing towards the planet. Mimas is also in a 2:1 mean-motion resonance with the larger moon Tethys, and in a 2:3 resonance with the outer F Ring shepherd moonlet, Pandora.

Composition and Surface Features:

Mimas’ mean density of 1.1479 ± 0.007 g/cm³ is just slightly higher than that of water (1 g/cm³), which means that Mimas is mostly composed of water ice, with just a small amount of silicate rock. In this respect, Mimas is much like Tethys, Rhea, and Dione – moon’s of Saturn that are primarily composed of water ice.

Due to the tidal forces acting on it, Mimas is noticeably prolate – i.e. its longest axis is about 10% longer than the shortest, giving it its egg-shaped appearance. In fact, with a diameter of 396 km (246 mi), Mimas is just barely large and massive enough to achieve hydrostatic equilibrium (i.e. to become rounded in shape under the force of its own gravitation). Mimas is the smallest known astronomical body to have achieved this.

This mosaic, created from images taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft during its closest flyby of Saturn's moon Mimas, looks straight at the moon's huge Herschel Crater Credit: NASA/JPL
Mosaic image of Mimas, created from images taken by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, showing the Herschel crater in the center. Credit: NASA/JPL

Three types of geological features are officially recognized on Mimas: craters, chasmata (chasms) and catenae (crater chains). Of these, craters are the most common, and it is believed that many of them have existed since the beginning of the Solar System. Mimas surface is saturated with craters, with every part of the surface showing visible depressions, and newer impacts overwriting older ones.

Mimas’ most distinctive feature is the giant impact crater Herschel, named in honor of William Herschel (the discoverer of Uranus, its moons Oberon, and Titania, and the Cronian moons Enceladus and Mimas). This large crater gives Mimas the appearance of the “Death Star” from Star Wars. At 130 km (81 mi) in diameter, Herschel’s is almost a third of Mimas’ own diameter.

Its walls are approximately 5 km (3.1 mi) high, parts of its floor measure 10 km (6.2 mi) deep, and its central peak rises 6 km (3.7 mi) above the crater floor. If there were a crater of an equivalent scale on Earth, it would be over 4,000 km (2,500 mi) in diameter, which would make it wider than the continent of Australia.

The impact that made this crater must have nearly shattered Mimas, and is believed to have created the fractures on the opposite side of the moon by sending shock waves through Mimas’s body. In this respect, Mimas’ surface closely resembles that of Tethys, with its massive Odysseus crater on its western hemisphere and the concentric Ithaca chasma, which is believed to have formed as a result of the impact that created Odysseus.

Color map of Mimas, created using data provided by the Cassini spaceprobe. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute/Lunar and Planetary Institute
Color map of Mimas, created using data provided by the Cassini spaceprobe. Credit: NASA/JPL/Caltech/SSI/LPI

Mimas’ surface is also saturated with smaller impact craters, but no others are anywhere near the size of Herschel. The cratering is also not uniform, with most of the surface being covered with craters larger than 40 km (25 mi) in diameter. However, in the south polar region, there are generally no craters larger than 20 km (12 mi) in diameter.

Data obtained in 2014 from the Cassini spacecraft has also led to speculation about a possible interior ocean. Due to the planet’s libration (oscillation in its orbit), scientists believe that the planet’s interior is not uniform, which could be the result of a rocky interior or an interior ocean at the core-mantle boundary. This ocean would likely be maintained thanks to tidal flexing caused by Mimas’ orbital resonances with Tethys and Pandora.

A number of features in Saturn’s rings are also related to resonances with Mimas. Mimas is responsible for clearing the material from the Cassini Division, which is the gap between Saturn’s two widest rings – the A Ring and B Ring. The repeated pulls by Mimas on the Cassini Division particles, always in the same direction, forces them into new orbits outside the gap.

Particles in the Huygens Gap at the inner edge of the Cassini division are in a 2:1 resonance with Mimas. In other words, they orbit Saturn twice for each orbit competed by Mimas. The boundary between the C and B ring is meanwhile in a 3:1 resonance with Mimas; and recently, the G Ring was found to be in a 7:6 co-rotation eccentricity resonance with Mimas.

This figure illustrates the unexpected and bizarre pattern of daytime temperatures found on Saturn's small inner moon Mimas (396 kilometers, or 246 miles, in diameter). Credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC/SWRI/SSI
This figure illustrates the unexpected and bizarre pattern of daytime temperatures found on Saturn’s small inner moon Mimas. Credit: NASA/JPL/GSFC/SWRI/SSI

Exploration:

The first mission to study Mimas up close was Pioneer 11, which flew by Saturn in 1979 and made its closest approach on Sept. 1st, 1979, at a distance of 104,263 km. The Voyager 1 and 2 missions both flew by Mimas in 1980 and 1981, respectively, and snapped pictures of Saturn’s atmosphere, its rings, its system of moons. Images taken by Voyager 1 probe were the first ever of the Herschel crater.

Mimas has been imaged several times by the Cassini orbiter, which entered into orbit around Saturn in 2004. A close flyby occurred on February 13, 2010, when Cassini passed Mimas at a distance of 9,500 km (5,900 mi). In addition to providing multiple images of Mimas’ cratered surface, it also took measurements of Mimas’ orbit, which led to speculation about a possible interior ocean.

The Saturn system is truly a wonder. So many moons, so many mysteries, and so many chances to learn about the formation of the Solar System and how it came to be. One can only hope that future missions are able to probe some of the deeper ones, like what might be lurking beneath Mimas’ icy, imposing “Death Star” surface!

We’ve written many great articles about Mimas and Saturn’s moons here at Universe Today. Here’s one about the Herschel Crater, one about the first detailed look Cassini made, and one about it’s “Death Star” appearance.

Another great resource about Mimas is Solar Views, and you can get even more info from the Nine Planets.

We have recorded two episodes of Astronomy Cast just about Saturn. The first is Episode 59: Saturn, and the second is Episode 61: Saturn’s Moons.

Saturn’s Moon Rhea

The Cronian system (i.e. Saturn and its system of rings and moons) is breathtaking to behold and intriguing to study. Besides its vast and beautiful ring system, it also has the second-most satellites of any planet in the Solar System. In fact, Saturn has an estimated 150 moons and moonlets – and only 53 of them have been officially named – which makes it second only to Jupiter.

For the most part, these moons are small, icy bodies that are believed to house interior oceans. And in all cases, particularly Rhea, their interesting appearances and compositions make them a prime target for scientific research. In addition to being able to tell us much about the Cronian system and its formation, moons like Rhea can also tell us much about the history of our Solar System.

Discovery and Naming:

Rhea was discovered by Italian astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini on December 23rd, 1672. Together with the moons of Iapetus, Tethys and Dione, which he discovered between 1671 and 1672, he named them all Sidera Lodoicea (“the stars of Louis”) in honor of his patron, King Louis XIV of France. However, these names were not widely recognized outside of France.

In 1847, John Herschel (the son of famed astronomer William Herschel, who discovered Uranus, Enceladus and Mimas) suggested the name Rhea – which first appeared in his treatise Results of Astronomical Observations made at the Cape of Good Hope. Like all the other Cronian satellites, Rhea was named after a Titan from Greek mythology, the “mother of the gods” and one the sisters of Cronos (Saturn, in Roman mythology).

The moons of Saturn, from left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and irregularly shaped Hyperion (bottom). Some small moons are also shown. All to scale. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
The moons of Saturn, from left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan (background), Iapetus (top), and Hyperion (bottom). Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a mean radius of 763.8±1.0 km and a mass of 2.3065 ×1021 kg, Rhea is equivalent in size to 0.1199 Earths (and 0.44 Moons), and about 0.00039 times as massive (or 0.03139 Moons). It orbits Saturn at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 527,108 km, which places it outside the orbits of  Dione and Tethys, and has a nearly circular orbit with a very minor eccentricity (0.001).

With an orbital velocity of about 30,541 km/h, Rhea takes approximately 4.518 days to complete a single orbit of its parent planet. Like many of Saturn’s moons, its rotational period is synchronous with its orbit, meaning that the same face is always pointed towards it.

Composition and Surface Features:

With a mean density of about 1.236 g/cm³, Rhea is estimated to be composed of 75% water ice (with a density of roughly 0.93 g/cm³) and 25% of silicate rock (with a density of around 3.25 g/cm³). This low density means that although Rhea is the ninth-largest moon in the Solar System, it is also the tenth-most massive.

In terms of its interior, Rhea was originally suspected of being differentiated between a rocky core and an icy mantle. However, more recent measurements would seem to indicate that Rhea is either only partly differentiated, or has a homogeneous interior – likely consisting of both silicate rock and ice together (similar to Jupiter’s moon Callisto).

Views of Saturn's moon Rhea. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Views of Saturn’s moon Rhea, with false-color image showing elevation data at the right. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Models of Rhea’s interior also suggest that it may have an internal liquid-water ocean, similar to Enceladus and Titan. This liquid-water ocean, should it exist, would likely be located at the core-mantle boundary, and would be sustained by the heating caused by from decay of radioactive elements in its core.

Rhea’s surface features resemble those of Dione, with dissimilar appearances existing between their leading and trailing hemispheres – which suggests that the two moons have similar compositions and histories. Images taken of the surface have led astronomers to divide it into two regions – the heavily cratered and bright terrain, where craters are larger than 40 km (25 miles) in diameter; and the polar and equatorial regions where craters are noticeably smaller.

Another difference between Rhea’s leading and trailing hemisphere is their coloration. The leading hemisphere is heavily cratered and uniformly bright while the trailing hemisphere has networks of bright swaths on a dark background and few visible craters. It had been thought that these bright areas (aka. wispy terrain) might be material ejected from ice volcanoes early in Rhea’s history when its interior was still liquid.

However, observations of Dione, which has an even darker trailing hemisphere and similar but more prominent bright streaks, has cast this into doubt. It is now believed that the wispy terrain are tectonically-formed ice cliffs (chasmata) which resulted from extensive fracturing of the moon’s surface. Rhea also has a very faint “line” of material at its equator which was thought to be deposited by material deorbiting from its rings (see below).

Hemispheric color differences on Saturn's moon Rhea are apparent in this false-color view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. This image shows the side of the moon that always faces the planet. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
Hemispheric color differences on Saturn’s moon Rhea are apparent in this false-color view of the anti-Cronian side, from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Rhea has two particularly large impact basins, both of which are situated on Rhea’s anti-Cronian side (aka. the side facing away from Saturn). These are known as Tirawa and Mamaldi basins, which measure roughly 360 and 500 km (223.69 and 310.68 mi) across. The more northerly and less degraded basin of Tirawa overlaps Mamaldi – which lies to its southwest – and is roughly comparable to the Odysseus crater on Tethys (which gives it its “Death-Star” appearance).

Atmosphere:

Rhea has a tenuous atmosphere (exosphere) which consists of oxygen and carbon dioxide, which exists in a 5:2 ratio. The surface density of the exosphere is from 105 to 106 molecules per cubic centimeter, depending on local temperature. Surface temperatures on Rhea average 99 K (-174 °C/-281.2 °F) in direct sunlight, and between 73 K (-200 °C/-328 °F) and 53 K (-220 °C/-364 °F) when sunlight is absent.

The oxygen in the atmosphere is created by the interaction of surface water ice and ions supplied from Saturn’s magnetosphere (aka. radiolysis). These ions cause the water ice to break down into oxygen gas (O²) and elemental hydrogen (H), the former of which is retained while the latter escapes into space. The source of the carbon dioxide is less clear, and could be either the result of organics in the surface ice being oxidized, or from outgassing from the moon’s interior.

Saturn's second-largest moon Rhea, in front of the rings and a blurred Epimetheus (or Janus) whizzing behind. Acquired March 29, 2012.
Saturn’s second-largest moon Rhea, pictured by the Cassini probe on March 29, 2012. Credit: NASA/JPL

Rhea may also have a tenuous ring system, which was inferred based on observed changes in the flow of electrons trapped by Saturn’s magnetic field. The existence of a ring system was temporarily bolstered by the discovered presence of a set of small ultraviolet-bright spots distributed along Rhea’s equator (which were interpreted as the impact points of deorbiting ring material).

However, more recent observations made by the Cassini probe have cast doubt on this. After taking images of the planet from multiple angles, no evidence of ring material was found, suggesting that there must be another cause for the observed electron flow and UV bright spots on Rhea’s equator. If such a ring system were to exist, it would be the first instance where a ring system was found orbiting a moon.

Exploration:

The first images of Rhea were obtained by the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft while they studied the Cronian system, in 1980 and 1981, respectively. No subsequent missions were made until the arrival of the Cassini orbiter in 2005. After it’s arrival in the Cronian system, the orbiter made five close targeted fly-bys and took many images of Saturn from long to moderate distances. 

The Cronian system is definitely a fascinating place, and we’ve really only begun to scratch its surface in recent years. In time, more orbiters and perhaps landers will be traveling to the system, seeking to learn more about Saturn’s moons and what exists beneath their icy surfaces. One can only hope that any such mission includes a closer look at Rhea, and the other “Death Star Moon”, Dione.

We have many great articles on Rhea and Saturn’s system of moons here at Universe Today. Here is one about its possible ring system, its tectonic activity, it’s impact basins, and images provided by Cassini’s flyby.

Astronomy Cast also has an interesting interview with Dr. Kevin Grazier, who worked on the Cassini mission.

For more information, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Rhea.

Saturn’s Icy Moon Enceladus

In the ongoing drive to unlock the secrets of Saturn and its system of moons, some truly fascinating and awe-inspiring things have been discovered. In addition to things like methane lakes and propane-rich atmospheres (Titan) to moon’s that resemble the Death Star (Mimas), it is also becoming abundantly clear that planet’s beyond Earth may harbor interior oceans and even the extra-terrestrial organisms.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on Enceladus, Saturn’s sixth largest moon, which also possesses some of the most interesting characteristics in the outer Solar System. These include long veins of blue ice that resemble stripes, not to mention amazing plumes of water ice that have been spotted periodically blasting out of the moon’s southern pole. These, in turn, raise the possibility of liquid water beneath the surface, and possibly even life!

Discovery and Naming:

Discovered in 1789 by William Herschel, Enceladus is named after one of the giants in Greek mythology. In fact, all of the large moons of Saturn are named after the Titans, as suggested by William Herschel’s son, John Herschel. He chose these names because Saturn (known in Greek mythology as Kronos) was the father of the Titans.

In contrast, in accordance with the IAU naming conventions for Enceladus, features are named after characters and places from the classic story One Thousand and One Nights (aka. Arabian Nights). Impact craters are named after characters, whereas other feature types – such as fossae (long, narrow depressions), dorsa (ridges), planitia (plains), and sulci (long parallel grooves), are named after places.

iameter comparison of the Saturnian moon Enceladus, Moon, and Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Tom Reding
Size comparison between the Cronian moon Enceladus, the Moon, and Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Tom Reding

Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a mean radius of 252 km, Enceladus is equivalent in size to 0.0395 Earths (or 0.1451 Moons). But with a mass of 1.08 ×1020 kg, it is only 0.000018 as massive. The planet has a very minor eccentricity (0.0047) and orbits Saturn at an average distance (semi-major axis) of 237,948 km, between the orbits of Mimas and Tethys.

Enceladus takes 32.9 hours (1.37 days) to complete a single orbit around Saturn, and is currently in a 2:1 mean-motion orbital resonance with Dione; meaning that it completes two orbits of Saturn for every orbit completed by Dione. This forced resonance is what maintains Enceladus’s orbital eccentricity and results in tidal deformation, and the resulting heat dissipation is the main heating source for Enceladus’s geologic activity.

Like most of the larger natural satellites of Saturn, Enceladus rotates synchronously with its orbital period, keeping one face pointed toward Saturn. The planet also experiences forced libration, where it appears to oscillate relative to Saturn’s other moons – which may also provide Enceladus with an internal heat source.

Composition and Surface Features:

Enceladus has a density of 1.61 g/cm³, which is higher than Saturn’s other mid-sized, icy satellites, suggesting a composition that includes a greater percentage of silicates and iron. It is also believed to be largely differentiated between a geologically active core and an icy mantle, with a liquid water ocean nestled between.

Gravity measurements by NASA's Cassini spacecraft and Deep Space Network suggest that Saturn's moon Enceladus, which has jets of water vapor and ice gushing from its south pole, also harbors a large interior ocean beneath an ice shell, as this illustration depicts. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Gravity measurements by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and Deep Space Network suggest that Saturn’s moon Enceladus harbors a large interior ocean beneath it’s south pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The existence of this liquid water ocean has been the subject of scientific debate since 2005, when scientists first observed plumes containing water vapor spewing from Enceladus’s south polar surface. These jets are capable of dispensing 250 kg of water vapor every second at speeds of up to 2,189 km/h (1,360 mph), and reaching 500 km into space.

In 2006, it was determined that Enceladus’s plumes are the source of Saturn’s E Ring and actively replenish it. According to measurements made by the Cassini-Huygens probe, these emissions are composed mostly of water vapor, as well as minor components like molecular nitrogen, methane, and carbon dioxide. Further observations noted the presence of simple hydrocarbons such as methane, propane, acetylene and formaldehyde.

The combined analysis of imaging, mass spectrometry, and magnetospheric data suggests that the observed south polar plume emanates from pressurized subsurface chambers. The intensity of the eruptions varies significantly due to changes in Enceladus’s orbit. Basically, the plumes are about four times brighter when Enceladus is at apoapsis (farthest from Saturn), which is consistent with geophysical calculations that predict that the south polar fissures will be under less compression, thus opening them wider.

The existence of subsurface water was confirmed thanks to evidence provided by the Cassini mission in 2014. This included gravity measurements obtained during the flybys of 2010-2012, which confirmed the existence of a south polar subsurface ocean of liquid water within Enceladus with a thickness of around 10 km.

Artist's rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL

In addition, during the July 14, 2005 flyby, the Cassini probe also detected the presence of escaping internal heat in the southern polar region. These temperatures were too high to be attributed to solar heating, and combined with the geyser activity, seemed to indicate that the interior of the planet is still geologically active.

Further studies from measurements of Enceladus’s libration as it orbits Saturn strongly suggest that the entire icy crust is detached from the rocky core, which would mean that the ocean beneath its surface is planet-wide. The amount of libration implies that this global ocean is about 26 to 31 kilometers in depth (compared to Earth’s average ocean depth of 3.7 kilometers).

Observations of Enceladus’ surface has revealed five types of terrain – cratered terrain, smooth (young) terrain, ridged terrain (often bordering on smooth areas), linear cracks, scarps, troughs, and grooves. Surveys of the cratered terrain, smooth plains, and other features indicate a level of resurfacing that suggests that tectonics are an important factor in the geological history of Enceladus.

Recent observations by Cassini have provided a closer look at the crater distribution and size. These features have been named by the IAU after characters and places from Burton’s translation of The Book of One Thousand and One Nights – i.e. the Shahrazad crater, the Diyar plains, the Anbar depression.

Artist impression of the view of Saturn from its moon Enceladus (Michael Carroll)
Artist impression of the view of Saturn from Enceladus, with geysers erupting at the right in the foreground. Credit: Michael Carroll

The smooth plains are dominated by fresh clean ice, which gives Enceladus what is possibly the most reflective surface in the Solar System (with a visual geometric albedo of 1.38). These areas have few craters, which indicate that they are likely younger than a few hundred million years old. In addition, the relative youthfulness of these regions are an indication that cryovolcanism and other processes actively renew the surface.

The older terrain is not only cratered, but numerous fractures have also been observed – suggesting that the surface has been subject to extensive deformation since the craters formed. Some areas show regions with no craters, indicating major resurfacing events in the geologically recent past. The fissures, plains, corrugated terrain and other crustal deformations also indicate that Enceladus is geologically active.

One of the more dramatic types of tectonic features found on Enceladus are its rift canyons. These canyons can be up to 200 km long, 5–10 km wide, and 1 km deep. Such features are geologically young, because they cut across other tectonic features and have sharp topographic relief with prominent outcrops along the cliff faces.

Evidence of tectonics on Enceladus is also derived from grooved terrain, consisting of lanes of curved formations and ridges that often separate smooth plains from cratered regions. Deep fractures are another, which are often found in bands cutting across cratered terrain, and which were probably influenced by the formation of weakened regolith produced by impact craters.

Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Enceladus, showing the famous “Tiger Stripes” feature – a series of fractures bound on either side by colorful ice. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Linear grooves can also be seen cutting across other terrain types, like the groove and ridge belts. Like the deep rifts, they are among the youngest features on Enceladus. However, some linear grooves have been softened like the craters nearby, suggesting that they are older. Ridges have also been observed on Enceladus, though they are relatively limited in extent and are up to one kilometer tall.

Other interesting features include the “Tiger stripes“: a series of fractures bounded on either side by ridges in the southern polar region that are are surrounded by mint-green-colored, coarse-grained water ice. These fractures appear to be the youngest features in this region, and combined with a lack of impact craters in this area, are further evidence of geological activity.

Atmosphere:

Saturn’s moon Enceladus has an atmosphere greater than that of all others in the Solar System, with the exception of Titan. The source of the atmosphere is attributed to the periodic cryovolcanism, which leads to gases and vapor escaping from the surface or the interior. Evidence of a tenuous atmosphere came from magnetometer readings provided by the Cassini‘s probe in 2005.

This consisted of an increased detection in the power of ion cyclotron waves, which are produced by the interaction of ionized particles and magnetic fields. During the next two encounters, the magnetometer team determined that gases in Enceladus’s atmosphere are concentrated over the south polar region, with atmospheric density away from the pole being much lower.

Water vapour geysers erupting from Enceladus' south pole. Credit: NASA/JPL
Water vapour geysers erupting from Enceladus’ south pole. Credit: NASA/JPL

Much like the content of the jet plumes, this atmosphere is composed primarily of water vapor (91%), but also shows signs of minor components like molecular nitrogen (4%) and carbon dioxide (3.2%). There has also been evidence of simple hydrocarbons, which take the form of methane (1.7%) as well as trace amounts of propane, acetylene and formaldehyde.

Habitability:

Ever since the discovery of Enceladus’s geysers and evidence that suggested an interior ocean, scientists have speculated about the possibility of there being life on Enceladus. Because it reflects so much sunlight, the mean surface temperature at noon only reaches -198 °C, making it somewhat colder than other Cronian satellites. However, within the core, multiple indications of life exist.

It’s resonance with Dione excites its orbital eccentricity, which tidal forces damp, resulting in tidal heating of its interior. This offers a possible explanation for its geological activity, and also suggests that its interior oceans are warmer closer to the core. In addition, geological models have indicated that the large rocky core is porous, allowing water to flow through it to pick up heat.

A model of Enceladus’s ocean created by Christopher R. Glein et al. (2015) suggests that it has an alkaline pH of 11 to 12. This high pH (alkaline) is interpreted to be a consequence of serpentinization of chondritic rock, which leads to the generation of molecular hydrogen (). This geochemical source of energy can be metabolized by methanogen microbes to provide energy for life.

The presence of an internal salty ocean with an energy source and simple organic compounds are all strong indications that microbes may exist closer to the core, where the water is warm and the basic building blocks of life exist.

Exploration:

Although it was first discovered in the late 18th century, astronomers didn’t know much about this moon for many centuries. It was not until it was first visited in a series of flybys by NASA’s two Voyager spacecraft in the 1980’s that certain things began to become apparent about Enceladus.

Voyager 1 has traveled far past the realm of the gas or even ice giants and is now in uncharted territory where scientists are learning more and more about the dynamic environment at the far-flung edges of our solar system. Image Credit: NASA/JPL - Caltech
Artist’s impression of Voyager 1 reaching Saturn and its system of moons. Image Credit: NASA/JPL – Caltech

For starters, the Voyager missions showed that the planet has a diameter of only 500 km (310 miles), which makes it less than one-tenth the diameter of Saturn’s largest moon of Titan. They also noted that most of the surface is covered in fresh, clean ice; giving it a pure, snow-white appearance that also attracts close to 100% of the sunlight that strikes its surface.

The Voyager 1 mission also confirmed that Enceladus was embedded in the densest part of Saturn’s diffuse E-ring. Combined with the apparent youthful appearance of the surface, Voyager scientists suggested that the E-ring consisted of particles vented from Enceladus’s surface. The Voyager 2 mission provided better photographs than its predecessor, confirming the presence of a youthful surface, but also other features.

By 2005, the Cassini spacecraft began performing multiple close flybys of Enceladus, revealing its surface and environment in greater detail. In particular, Cassini discovered the water-rich plumes venting from the south polar region of Enceladus, which became the subject of much research and speculation.

Cassini has provided strong evidence that Enceladus has an ocean with an energy source, nutrients and organic molecules, making Enceladus one of the best places for the study of potentially habitable environments for extraterrestrial life. By contrast, the water thought to be on Jupiter’s moon Europa is located under a much thicker layer of ice.

Cassini-Huygens Mission
An artist illustration of the Cassini spacecraft. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Cassini’s latest flyby took place on October 14th, 2015, passing the moon at an altitude of 1,839 kilometers (1,142 miles) above the northern polar region. This was the first time that Cassini had been able to observe the northern polar region, due to the fact that on all previous occasions, the northern region was experiencing its winter cycle and was concealed by darkness.

Cassini’s instruments took pictures of multiple surface features, including craters (many of which look like they are melting), fractures and wrinkles. The latter features are believed to be an indication that the moon’s spin rate has changed, which may be another indication that the surface has undergone multiple episodes of geologic activity over the course of much of its lifetime.

The discoveries Cassini has made at Enceladus have prompted studies into follow-up mission concepts. In 2013, NASA proposed a possible sample-return mission to Enceladus that would involve a low-cost orbiter. This mission would launch during the 2020s and last 15 years.

Another proposal for a probe flyby, known as Journey to Enceladus and Titan (JET) would analyze plume contents in-situ. Proposed in response to NASA’s 2010 Discovery Announcement of Opportunity, the mission would involve an orbiter conducting high-resolution mass spectroscopy surveys of Enceladus and Titan, assessing them for biological potential.

The German Aerospace Center has also proposed studying the habitability of Enceladus’s subsurface ocean using an Enceladus Explorer, and two astrobiology-oriented mission concepts (the Enceladus Life Finder and Life Investigation For Enceladus). In 2007, the European Space Agency (ESA) proposed sending a probe to Enceladus in a mission to be combined with studies of Titan – known as TandEM (Titan and Enceladus Mission).

Additionally, there’s the Titan Saturn System Mission (TSSM), a joint NASA/ESA flagship-class proposal to explore Saturn’s moons (with a focus on Enceladus). TSSM was competing against the Europa Jupiter System Mission (EJSM) proposal for funding. In February 2009, it was announced that NASA/ESA had given the EJSM mission priority ahead of TSSM, although TSSM will continue to be studied and evaluated.

Enceladus is a tempting target for future research and exploration, and for good reason. For starters, it is one of the few Solar System bodies (alongside with Earth, Io, and Triton) to have confirmed contemporary volcanic activity. Second is the distinct possibility that life exists beneath its icy surface, much like Europa. But with Enceladus, getting to a place where we could study that life would be much easier.

As such, it is almost certain that any missions to Saturn and/or the outer Solar System in the coming years will likely involve a close flyby of Enceladus. Maybe we’ll even pop in a lander and an aquatic explorer to examine the surface and peak underneath it!

We’ve written many articles about Enceladus for Universe Today. Here’s an article about salt found in the plumes from Enceladus, and the possibility of a liquid ocean on Enceladus.

And here is a rundown of Cassini’s Most Interesting Discoveries.

If you’d like more information on Enceladus, check out NASA’s Solar System Exploration Guide, and here’s a link to a cool mosaic image of Enceladus.

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

Sources:

The Planet Saturn

The farthest planet from the Sun that can be observed with the naked eye, the existence of Saturn has been known for thousands of years. And much like all celestial bodies that can be observed with the aid of instruments – i.e. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and the Moon – it has played an important role in the mythology and astrological systems of many cultures.

Saturn is one of the four gas giants in our Solar System, also known as the Jovian planets, and the sixth planet from the Sun. It’s ring system, which is it famous for, is also the most observable – consisting of nine continuous main rings and three discontinuous arcs.

Saturn’s Size, Mass and Orbit:

With a polar radius of 54364±10 km and an equatorial radius of 60268±4 km, Saturn has a mean radius of 58232±6 km, which is approximately 9.13 Earth radii. At 5.6846×1026 kg, and a surface area, at 4.27×1010 km2, it is roughly 95.15 as massive as Earth and 83.703 times it’s size. However, since it is a gas giant, it has significantly greater volume – 8.2713×1014 km3, which is equivalent to 763.59 Earths.

The sixth most distant planet, Saturn orbits the Sun at an average distance of 9 AU (1.4 billion km; 869.9 million miles). Due to its slight eccentricity, the perihelion and aphelion distances are 9.022 (1,353.6 million km; 841.3 million mi) and 10.053 AU (1,513,325,783 km; 940.13 million mi), on average respectively.

Saturn Compared to Earth. Image credit: NASA/JPL
Saturn Compared to Earth. Image credit: NASA/JPL

With an average orbital speed of 9.69 km/s, it takes Saturn 10,759 Earth days to complete a single revolution of the Sun. In other words, a single Cronian year is the equivalent of about 29.5 Earth years. However, as with Jupiter, Saturn’s visible features rotate at different rates depending on latitude, and multiple rotation periods have been assigned to various regions.

The latest estimate of Saturn’s rotation as a whole are based on a compilation of various measurements from the Cassini, Voyager and Pioneer probes. Saturn’s rotation causes it to have the shape of an oblate spheroid; flattened at the poles but bulging at the equator.

Saturn’s Composition:

As a gas giant, Saturn is predominantly composed of hydrogen and helium gas. With a mean density of 0.687 g/cm3, Saturn is the only planet in the Solar System that is less dense than water; which means that it lacks a definite surface, but is believed to have a solid core. This is due to the fact that Saturn’s temperature, pressure, and density all rise steadily toward the core.

Standard planetary models suggest that the interior of Saturn is similar to that of Jupiter, having a small rocky core surrounded by hydrogen and helium with trace amounts of various volatiles. This core is similar in composition to the Earth, but more dense due to the presence of metallic hydrogen, which as a result of the extreme pressure.

Diagram of Saturn's interior. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikipedia Commons
Diagram of Saturn’s interior. Credit: Kelvinsong/Wikipedia Commons

Saturn has a hot interior, reaching 11,700 °C at its core, and it radiates 2.5 times more energy into space than it receives from the Sun. This is due in part to the Kelvin-Helmholtz mechanism of slow gravitational compression, but may also be attributable to droplets of helium rising from deep in Saturn’s interior out to the lower-density hydrogen. As these droplets rise, the process releases heat by friction and leaves Saturn’s outer layers depleted of helium. These descending droplets may have accumulated into a helium shell surrounding the core.

In 2004, French astronomers Didier Saumon and Tristan Guillot estimated that the core must 9-22 times the mass of Earth, which corresponds to a diameter of about 25,000 km. This is surrounded by a thicker liquid metallic hydrogen layer, followed by a liquid layer of helium-saturated molecular hydrogen that gradually transitions to a gas with increasing altitude. The outermost layer spans 1,000 km and consists of gas.

Saturn’s Atmosphere:

The outer atmosphere of Saturn contains 96.3% molecular hydrogen and 3.25% helium by volume. The gas giant is also known to contain heavier elements, though the proportions of these relative to hydrogen and helium is not known. It is assumed that they would match the primordial abundance from the formation of the Solar System.

Trace amounts of ammonia, acetylene, ethane, propane, phosphine and methane have been also detected in Saturn’s atmosphere. The upper clouds are composed of ammonia crystals, while the lower level clouds appear to consist of either ammonium hydrosulfide (NH4SH) or water. Ultraviolet radiation from the Sun causes methane photolysis in the upper atmosphere, leading to a series of hydrocarbon chemical reactions with the resulting products being carried downward by eddies and diffusion.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft captures a composite near-true-color view of the huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn's northern hemisphere. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captures a composite near-true-color view of the huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn’s northern hemisphere. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits a banded pattern similar to Jupiter’s, but Saturn’s bands are much fainter and wider near the equator. As with Jupiter’s cloud layers, they are divided into the upper and lower layers, which vary in composition based on depth and pressure. In the upper cloud layers, with temperatures in range of 100–160 K and pressures between 0.5–2 bar, the clouds consist of ammonia ice.

Water ice clouds begin at a level where the pressure is about 2.5 bar and extend down to 9.5 bar, where temperatures range from 185–270 K. Intermixed in this layer is a band of ammonium hydrosulfide ice, lying in the pressure range 3–6 bar with temperatures of 290–235 K. Finally, the lower layers, where pressures are between 10–20 bar and temperatures are 270–330 K, contains a region of water droplets with ammonia in an aqueous solution.

On occasion, Saturn’s atmosphere exhibits long-lived ovals, similar to what is commonly observed on Jupiter. Whereas Jupiter has the Great Red Spot, Saturn periodically has what’s known as the Great White Spot (aka. Great White Oval). This unique but short-lived phenomenon occurs once every Saturnian year, roughly every 30 Earth years, around the time of the northern hemisphere’s summer solstice.

These spots can be several thousands of kilometers wide, and have been observed in 1876, 1903, 1933, 1960, and 1990. Since 2010, a large band of white clouds called the Northern Electrostatic Disturbance have been observed enveloping Saturn, which was spotted by the Cassini space probe. If the periodic nature of these storms is maintained, another one will occur in about 2020.

 The huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn's northern hemisphere overtakes itself as it encircles the planet in this true-color view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
The huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn’s northern hemisphere overtakes itself as it encircles the planet in this true-color view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

The winds on Saturn are the second fastest among the Solar System’s planets, after Neptune’s. Voyager data indicate peak easterly winds of 500 m/s (1800 km/h). Saturn’s northern and southern poles have also shown evidence of stormy weather. At the north pole, this takes the form of a hexagonal wave pattern, whereas the south shows evidence of a massive jet stream.

The persisting hexagonal wave pattern around the north pole was first noted in the Voyager images. The sides of the hexagon are each about 13,800 km (8,600 mi) long (which is longer than the diameter of the Earth) and the structure rotates with a period of 10h 39m 24s, which is assumed to be equal to the period of rotation of Saturn’s interior.

The south pole vortex, meanwhile, was first observed using the Hubble Space Telescope. These images indicated the presence of a jet stream, but not a hexagonal standing wave. These storms are estimated to be generating winds of 550 km/h, are comparable in size to Earth, and believed to have been going on for billions of years. In 2006, the Cassini space probe observed a hurricane-like storm that had a clearly defined eye. Such storms had not been observed on any planet other than Earth – even on Jupiter.

Saturn’s Moons:

Saturn has at least 150 moons and moonlets, but only 53 of these moons have been given official names. Of these moons, 34 are less than 10 km in diameter and another 14 are between 10 and 50 km in diameter. However, some of its inner and outer moons are rather large, ranging from 250 to over 5000 km.

Images of several moons of Saturn. From left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and irregularly shaped Hyperion (bottom). Some small moons are also shown. All to scale. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Moons of Saturn (from left to right): Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and irregularly shaped Hyperion (bottom). Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Traditionally, most of Saturn’s moons have been named after the Titans of Greek mythology, and are grouped based on their size, orbits, and proximity to Saturn. The innermost moons and regular moons all have small orbital inclinations and eccentricities and prograde orbits. Meanwhile, the irregular moons in the outermost regions have orbital radii of millions of kilometers, orbital periods lasting several years, and move in retrograde orbits.

The Inner Large Moons, which orbit within the E Ring (see below), includes the larger satellites Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, and Dione. These moons are all composed primarily of water ice, and are believed to be differentiated into a rocky core and an icy mantle and crust. With a diameter of 396 km and a mass of 0.4×1020 kg, Mimas is the smallest and least massive of these moons. It is ovoid in shape and orbits Saturn at a distance of 185,539 km with an orbital period of 0.9 days.

Enceladus, meanwhile, has a diameter of 504 km, a mass of 1.1×1020 km and is spherical in shape. It orbits Saturn at a distance of 237,948 km and takes 1.4 days to complete a single orbit. Though it is one of the smaller spherical moons, it is the only Cronian moon that is endogenously active – and one of the smallest known bodies in the Solar System that is geologically active. This results in features like the famous “tiger stripes” – a series of continuous, ridged, slightly curved and roughly parallel faults within the moon’s southern polar latitudes.

Large geysers have also been observed in the southern polar region that periodically release plumes of water ice, gas and dust which replenish Saturn’s E ring. These jets are one of several indications that Enceladus has liquid water beneath it’s icy crust, where geothermal processes release enough heat to maintain a warm water ocean closer to its core. With a geometrical albedo of more than 140%, Enceladus is one of the brightest known objects in the Solar System.

Artist's rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s rendering of possible hydrothermal activity that may be taking place on and under the seafloor of Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

At 1066 km in diameter, Tethys is the second-largest of Saturn’s inner moons and the 16th-largest moon in the Solar System. The majority of its surface is made up of heavily cratered and hilly terrain and a smaller and smoother plains region. Its most prominent features are the large impact crater of Odysseus, which measures 400 km in diameter, and a vast canyon system named Ithaca Chasma – which is concentric with Odysseus and measures 100 km wide, 3 to 5 km deep and 2,000 km long.

With a diameter and mass of 1,123 km and 11×1020 kg, Dione is the largest inner moon of Saturn. The majority of Dione’s surface is heavily cratered old terrain, with craters that measure up to 250 km in diameter. However, the moon is also covered with an extensive network of troughs and lineaments which indicate that in the past it had global tectonic activity.

The Large Outer Moons, which orbit outside of the Saturn’s E Ring, are similar in composition to the Inner Moons – i.e. composed primarily of water ice and rock. Of these, Rhea is the second largest – measuring 1,527 km in diameter and 23 × 1020 kg in mass – and the ninth largest moon of the Solar System. With an orbital radius of 527,108 km, it is the fifth-most distant of the larger moons, and takes 4.5 days to complete an orbit.

Like other Cronian satellites, Rhea has a rather heavily cratered surface, and a few large fractures on its trailing hemisphere. Rhea also has two very large impact basins on its anti-Saturnian hemisphere – the Tirawa crater (similar to Odysseus on Tethys) and an as-yet unnamed crater – that measure 400 and 500 km across, respectively.

A composite image of Titan's atmosphere, created using blue, green and red spectral filters to create an enhanced-color view. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
A composite image of Titan’s atmosphere, created using blue, green and red spectral filters to create an enhanced-color view. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

At 5150 km in diameter, and 1,350×1020 kg in mass, Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and comprises more than 96% of the mass in orbit around the planet. Titan is also the only large moon to have its own atmosphere, which is cold, dense, and composed primarily of nitrogen with a small fraction of methane. Scientists have also noted the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the upper atmosphere, as well as methane ice crystals.

The surface of Titan, which is difficult to observe due to persistent atmospheric haze, shows only a few impact craters, evidence of cryo-volcanoes, and longitudinal dune fields that were apparently shaped by tidal winds. Titan is also the only body in the Solar System beside Earth with bodies of liquid on its surface, in the form of methane–ethane lakes in Titan’s north and south polar regions.

With an orbital distance of 1,221,870 km, it is the second-farthest large moon from Saturn, and completes a single orbit every 16 days. Like Europa and Ganymede, it is believed that Titan has a subsurface ocean made of water mixed with ammonia, which can erupt to the surface of the moon and lead to cryovolcanism.

Hyperion is Titan’s immediate neighbor. At an average diameter of about 270 km, it is smaller and lighter than Mimas. It is also irregularly shaped and quite odd in composition. Essentially, the moon is an ovoid, tan-colored body with an extremely porous surface (which resembles a sponge).  The surface of Hyperion is covered with numerous impact craters, most of which are 2 to 10 km in diameter. It also has a highly unpredictable rotation, with no well-defined poles or equator.

The two sides of Iapetus. Credit: NASA/JPL
The two sides of Iapetus, which is known as “Saturn’s yin yang moon” because of the contrast in its color composition. Credit: NASA/JPL

At 1,470 km in diameter and 18×1020 kg in mass, Iapetus is the third-largest of Saturn’s large moons. And at a distance of 3,560,820 km from Saturn, it is the most distant of the large moons, and takes 79 days to complete a single orbit. Due to its unusual color and composition – its leading hemisphere is dark and black whereas its trailing hemisphere is much brighter – it is often called the “yin and yang” of Saturn’s moons.

Beyond these larger moons are Saturn’s Irregular Moons. These satellites are small, have large-radii, are inclined, have mostly retrograde orbits, and are believed to have been acquired by Saturn’s gravity. These moons are made up of three basic groups – the Inuit Group, the Gallic Group, and the Norse Group.

The Inuit Group consists of five irregular moons that are all named from Inuit mythology – Ijiraq, Kiviuq, Paaliaq, Siarnaq, and Tarqeq. All have prograde orbits that range from 11.1 to 17.9 million km, and from 7 to 40 km in diameter. They are all similar in appearance (reddish in hue) and have orbital inclinations of between 45 and 50°.

The Gallic group are a group of four prograde outer moons named for characters in Gallic mythology -Albiorix, Bebhionn, Erriapus, and Tarvos. Here too, the moons are similar in appearance and have orbits that range from 16 to 19 million km. Their inclinations are in the 35°-40° range, their eccentricities around 0.53, and they range in size from 6 to 32 km.

Saturns rings and moons Credit: NASA
Saturns rings and moons, shown to scale. Credit: NASA

Last, there is the Norse group, which consists of 29 retrograde outer moons that take their names from Norse mythology. These satellites range in size from 6 to 18 km, their distances from 12 and 24 million km, their inclinations between 136° and 175°, and their eccentricities between 0.13 and 0.77. This group is also sometimes referred to as the Phoebe group, due to the presence of a single larger moon in the group – which measures 240 km in diameter. The second largest, Ymir, measures 18 km across.

Within the Inner and Outer Large Moons, there are also those belonging to Alkyonide group. These moons – Methone, Anthe, and Pallene – are named after the Alkyonides of Greek mythology, are located between the orbits of Mimas and Enceladus, and are among the smallest moons around Saturn.

Some of the larger moons even have moons of their own, which are known as Trojan moons. For instance, Tethys has two trojans – Telesto and Calypso, while Dione has Helene and Polydeuces.

Saturn’s Ring System:

Saturn’s rings are believed to be very old, perhaps even dating back to the formation of Saturn itself. There are two main theories as to how these rings formed, each of which have variations. One theory is that the rings were once a moon of Saturn whose orbit decayed until it came close enough to be ripped apart by tidal forces.

In version of this theory, the moon was struck by a large comet or asteroid – possible during the Late Heavy Bombardment – that pushed it beneath the Roche Limit. The second theory is that the rings were never part of a moon, but are instead left over from the original nebular material from which Saturn formed billions of years ago.

The structure is subdivided into seven smaller ring sets, each of which has a division (or gap) between it and its neighbor. The A and B Rings are the densest part of the Cronian ring system and are 14,600 and 25,500 km in diameter, respectively. They extend to a distance of 92,000 – 117,580 km (B Ring) and 122,170 – 136,775 km (A Ring) from Saturn’s center, and are separated by the 4,700 km wide Cassini Division.

Saturn's rings. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
Saturn’s rings. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

The C Ring, which is separated from the B Ring by the 64 km Maxwell Gap, is approximately 17,500 km in width and extends 74,658 – 92,000 from Saturn’s center. Together with the A and B Rings, they comprise the main rings, which are denser and contain larger particles than the “dusty rings”.

These tenuous rings are called “dusty” due to the small particles that make them up. They include the D Ring, a 7,500 km ring that extends inward to Saturn’s cloud tops (66,900 – 74,510 km from Saturn’s center) and is separated from the C Ring by the 150 km Colombo Gap. On the other end of the system, the G and E Rings are located, which are also “dusty” in composition.

The G Ring is 9000 km in width and extends 166,000 – 175,000 km from Saturn’s center. The E Ring, meanwhile, is the largest single ring section, measuring 300,000 km in width and extending 166,000 to 480,000 km from Saturn’s center. It is here where the majority of Saturn’s moons are located (see above).

The narrow F Ring, which sits on the outer edge of the A Ring, is more difficult to categorize. While some parts of it are very dense, it also contains a great deal of dust-size particles. For this reason, estimates on its width range from 30 to 500 km, and it extends roughly 140,180 km from Saturn’s center.

History of Observing Saturn:

Because it is visible to the naked eye in the night sky, human beings have been observing Saturn for thousands of years. In ancient times, it was considered the most distant of five known the planets, and thus was accorded special meaning in various mythologies. The earliest recorded observations come from the Babylonians, where astronomers systematically observed and recorded its movements through the zodiac.

From the stone plate of the 3rd—4th centuries CE, found in Rome.
Roman astrological calendar, from the stone plate of the 3rd—4th centuries CE, Rome. Credit: Museo della civiltà romana

To the ancient Greeks, this outermost planet was named Cronus (Kronos), after the Greek god of agriculture and youngest of the Titans. The Greek scientist Ptolemy made calculations of Saturn’s orbit based on observations of the planet while it was in opposition.The Romans followed in this tradition, identifying it with their equivalent of Cronos (named Saturnus).

In ancient Hebrew, Saturn is called ‘Shabbathai’, whereas in Ottoman Turkish, Urdu and Malay, its name is ‘Zuhal’, which derived is from the original Arabic. In Hindu astrology, there are nine astrological objects known as Navagrahas. Saturn, which is one of them, is known as “Shani”, who judges everyone based on the good and bad deeds performed in life. In ancient China and Japan, the planet was designated as the “earth star” – based on the Five Elements of earth, air, wind, water and fire.

However, the planet was not directly observed until 1610, when Galileo Galilee first discerned the presence of rings. At the time, he mistook them for two moons that were located on either side. It was not until Christiaan Huygens used a telescope with greater magnification that this was corrected. Huygens also discovered Saturn’s moon Titan, and Giovanni Domenico Cassini later discovered the moons of Iapetus, Rhea, Tethys and Dione.

No further discoveries of significance were made again until the 181th and 19th centuries. The first occurred in 1789 when William Herschel discovered the two distant moons of Mimas and Enceladus, and then in 1848 when a British team discovered the irregularly-shaped moon of Hyperion.

Robert Hooke noted the shadows (a and b) cast by both the globe and the rings on each other in this drawing of Saturn in 1666. Robert Hooke - Philosophical Transactions (Royal Society publication)
Drawing of Saturn by Robert Hook, taken from Philosophical Transactions (1666). Credit: Wikipedia Commons

In 1899 William Henry Pickering discovered Phoebe, noting that it had a highly irregular orbit that did not rotate synchronously with Saturn as the larger moons do. This was the first time any satellite had been found to move about a planet in retrograde orbit. And by 1944, research conducted throughout the early 20th century confirmed that Titan has a thick atmosphere – a feature unique among the Solar System’s moons.

Exploration of Saturn:

By the late 20th century, unmanned spacecraft began to conduct flybys of Saturn, gathering information on its composition, atmosphere, ring structure, and moons. The first flyby was conducted by NASA using the Pioneer 11 robotic space probe, which passed Saturn at a distance of 20,000 km in September of 1979.

Images were taken of the planet and a few of its moons, although their resolution was too low to discern surface detail. The spacecraft also studied Saturn’s rings, revealing the thin F Ring and the fact that dark gaps in the rings are bright when facing towards the Sun, meaning that they contain fine light-scattering material. In addition, Pioneer 11 measured the temperature of Titan.

The next flyby took place in November of 1980 when the Voyager 1 space probe passed through the Saturn system.  It sent back the first high-resolution images of the planet, its rings and satellites – which included features of various moons that had never before been seen.

These six narrow-angle color images were made from the first ever 'portrait' of the solar system taken by Voyager 1, which was more than 4 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system which shows six of the planets. Mercury is too close to the sun to be seen. Mars was not detectable by the Voyager cameras due to scattered sunlight in the optics, and Pluto was not included in the mosaic because of its small size and distance from the sun. These blown-up images, left to right and top to bottom are Venus, Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. The background features in the images are artifacts resulting from the magnification. The images were taken through three color filters -- violet, blue and green -- and recombined to produce the color images. Jupiter and Saturn were resolved by the camera but Uranus and Neptune appear larger than they really are because of image smear due to spacecraft motion during the long (15 second) exposure times. Earth appears to be in a band of light because it coincidentally lies right in the center of the scattered light rays resulting from taking the image so close to the sun. Earth was a crescent only 0.12 pixels in size. Venus was 0.11 pixel in diameter. The planetary images were taken with the narrow-angle camera (1500 mm focal length). Credit: NASA/JPL
These six narrow-angle color images were made from the first ever ‘portrait’ of the solar system taken by Voyager 1 in November 1980. Credit: NASA/JPL

In August 1981, Voyager 2 conducted its flyby and gathered more close-up images of Saturn’s moons, as well as evidence of changes in the atmosphere and the rings. The probes discovered and confirmed several new satellites orbiting near or within the planet’s rings, as well as the small Maxwell Gap and Keeler gap (a 42 km wide gap in the A Ring).

In June of 2004, the Cassini–Huygens space probe entered the Saturn system and conducted a close flyby of Phoebe, sending back high-resolution images and data. By July 1st, 2004, the probe entered orbit around Saturn, and by December, it had completed two flybys of Titan before releasing the Huygens probe. This lander reached the surface and began transmitting data on the atmospheric and surface by by Jan. 14th, 2005. Cassini has since conducted multiple flybys of Titan and other icy satellites.

In 2006, NASA reported that Cassini had found evidence of liquid water reservoirs that erupt in geysers on Saturn’s moon Enceladus. Over 100 geysers have since been identified, which are concentrated around the southern polar region. In May 2011, NASA scientists at an Enceladus Focus Group Conference reported that Enceladus’ interior ocean may be the most likely candidate in the search for extra-terrestrial life.

In addition, Cassini photographs have revealed a previously undiscovered planetary ring, eight new satellites, and evidence of hydrocarbon lakes and seas near Titan’s north pole. The probe was also responsible for sending back high-resolution images of the intense storm activity at Saturn’s northern and southern poles.

Cassini’s primary mission ended in 2008, but the probe’s mission has been extended twice since then – first to September 2010 and again to 2017. In the coming years, NASA hopes to use the probe to study a full period of Saturn’s seasons.

Cassini-Huygens Mission
Artist Illustration of the Cassini space probe to Saturn and Titan, a joint NASA, ESA mission. Credit: NASA/JPL

From being a very important part of the astrological systems of many cultures to becoming the subject of ongoing scientific fascination, Saturn continues to occupy a special place in our hearts and minds. Whether it’s Saturn’s fantastically large and beautiful ring system, its many many moons, its tempestuous weather, or its curious composition, this gas giant continues to fascinate and inspire.

In the coming years and decades, additional robotic explorer missions will likely to be sent to investigate Saturn, its rings and its system of moons in greater detail. What we find may constitute some of the most groundbreaking discoveries of all time, and will likely teach us more about the history of our Solar System.

Universe Today has articles on the density of Saturn, the Orbit of Saturn, and Interesting Facts about Saturn.

If you want to learn more about Saturn’s rings and moons, check out Where Did Saturn’s Rings Come From? and How Many Moons Does Saturn Have?

For more information, check out Saturn and all about Saturn, and NASA’s Solar System Exploration page on Saturn.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on the subject – Episode 59: Saturn.

A Guide to Saturn Through Opposition 2015

The month of May generally means the end of star party season here in Florida, as schools let out in early June, and humid days make for thunderstorm-laden nights.  This also meant that we weren’t about to miss the past rare clear weekend at Starkey Park. Jupiter and Venus rode high in the sky, and even fleeting Mercury and a fine pass of the Hubble Space Telescope over central Florida put in an appearance.

But the ‘star’ of the show was the planet Saturn as it appeared at nightfall low to the southeast. Currently rising about 9:00 PM local, Saturn is joining the evening skies as it approaches opposition next week.

This also means we’ve got every naked eye planet set for prime time evening viewing this week with the exception of Mars, which reaches solar conjunction on June 14, 2015. Mercury will be the first world to break this streak, as it descends into the twilight glare by mid-May.

Image credit: Starry Night Education software
The apparent path of Saturn from May to November 2015. Image credit: Starry Night Education software

Saturn reaches opposition for 2015 on May 23rd at 1:00 Universal Time (UT), which equates to 9:00 PM EDT the evening prior on May 22 at nearly 9 astronomical units (AU) distant. Oppositions of Saturn are getting slightly more distant to the tune of 10 million kilometers in 2015 versus last year as Saturn heads towards aphelion in 2018. Saturn crosses eastward from the astronomical constellation of Scorpius in the first week of May, and spends most of the remainder of 2015 in Libra before looping back into the Scorpion in mid-October. The first of June finds Saturn just over a degree southward of the +4th magnitude star Theta Librae. Saturn takes nearly 30 Earth years to complete one orbit, meaning that it was right around the same position in the sky in 1985, and will appear so again in 2045. Relatively speedy Jupiter also overtakes Saturn as seen from the Earth about once every 20 years, as it last did on 2000 and is set to do so again in 2020.

And though series of occultations of Saturn by the Moon wrapped up in 2014 and won’t resume again until  December 9, 2018, there’s also a good chance to spy Saturn two degrees away from the daytime Moon with binoculars on June 1st just 24 hours prior to Full:

Stellarium
Looking east on the evening of June 1st just before sunset. Image credit: Stellarium

The tilt of the rings of Saturn is also slowly widening from our Earthbound perspective. At opposition, Saturn’s rings subtend 43” across, and the ochre disk of Saturn itself spans 19”. Incidentally, on a good pass, the International Station has a visual span roughly equivalent to Saturn plus rings. In 2015, the rings are tilted 24 degrees wide and headed for a maximum approaching 27 degrees in 2017. The rings appeared edge on in 2009 and will do so again in 2025.

Getting wider... our evolving view of Saturn's rings. Image credit and copyright: Andrew Symes
Getting wider… our evolving view of Saturn’s rings. Image credit and copyright: Andrew Symes

Also, keep an eye out for the Seeliger effect. Also sometimes referred to as the ‘opposition surge,’ this is a retroreflector-style effect that causes an outer planet to brighten up substantially on the days approaching opposition.  In the case of Saturn and its rings, this effect can be especially dramatic. Not only is the disk of Saturn and the billions of icy snowballs casting shadows nearly straight back as seen from our vantage point near opposition, but a phenomenon  known as coherent backscatter serves to increase the collective brightness of Saturn as well. You see the same effect at work as you drive down the Interstate at night, and highway signs and retroreflector markers down the center of the road bounce your high-beams back at you.

Wikimedia Commons
Highway retroreflectors in action. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

We’ve seen some pretty nifty image comparisons demonstrating the Seeliger effect on Saturn, but as of yet, we haven’t seen an animation of the same. Certainly, such a feat is well within the capacities of amateur astronomers out there… hey, we’re just throwing that possibility out into the universe.

Stellarium
The changing face of Saturn. Image credit: Stellarium

Through a small telescope, the moons of Saturn become readily apparent. The brightest of them all is Titan at magnitude +9, orbiting Saturn once every 16 days. Discovered by Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens on March 25, 1655 using a 63 millimeter refractor with an amazing 337 centimeter focal length, Titan would easily be a planet in its own right were it directly orbiting the Sun. Titan also marks the most distant landing of a spacecraft ever carried out by our species, with the descent of the European Space Agency’s Huygens lander on January 14, 2005.  Huygens hitched a ride to Saturn aboard NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, which is slated to end its mission with a destructive reentry over the skies of Saturn in 2017. Saturn has 62 known moons in all, and Enceladus, Mimas, Tethys, Dione, Rhea and two-faced Iapetus  are all visible from a backyard telescope.

Image credit: Starry Night Education software
The scale of the orbits of Saturn’s moons. Image credit: Starry Night Education software

You can check out the current position of Saturn’s major moons (excluding Iapetus) here.

And speaking of Iapetus, the outer moon would make a fine Saturn-viewing vantage point, as it is the only major moon with an inclined orbit out of the ring plane of Saturn:

Expect our Saturn observing resort to open there one day soon.

Up for a challenge? Standard features to watch for include: the shadow of the rings on the planet, and the shadow of the planet across the rings, as well as the Cassini division between the A and B ring… but can you see the disk of the planet through the gap?  High magnification and steady seeing are your friends in this feat of visual athletics… catching sight of it definitely adds a three dimensional quality to the overall view.

Let ‘the season of Saturn 2015’ begin!

Pale White Dot: Saturn’s Moon Atlas Shines Between Gas Giant’s Rings

See that small pixel? That’s an entire moon you’re looking at! Peeking between the rings of Saturn is the tiny saucer-shaped moon Atlas, as viewed from the Cassini spacecraft. The image is pretty, but there’s also a scientific reason to watch the planet’s many moons while moving around the rings.

“Although the sunlight at Saturn’s distance is feeble compared to that at the Earth, objects cut off from the Sun within Saturn’s shadow cool off considerably,” NASA stated.

“Scientists study how the moons around Saturn cool and warm as they enter and leave Saturn’s shadow to better understand the physical properties of Saturn’s moons.”

And if you look at Atlas close-up, it looks a little like a flying saucer! The moon is only 20 miles (32 km) across, which is a bit shy of the length of a marathon. The Voyager 1 team spotted the moon in 1980 when the spacecraft zoomed through the system. You can learn more about Saturn’s moons here.

Cassini is still in excellent health (it arrived at Saturn in 2004, and has been in space since 1997), and scientists are eagerly getting ready for when Saturn gets to its summer solstice in 2017. Among the things being looked at is a hurricane at Saturn’s north pole.

Saturn's moon Atlas. Left image: viewed from the side, at a scale of 0.6 miles (1 km) per pixel. Right image: the mid-southern latitudes, at 820 feet (250 m) per pixel. The images are composite views from the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
Saturn’s moon Atlas. Left image: viewed from the side, at a scale of 0.6 miles (1 km) per pixel. Right image: the mid-southern latitudes, at 820 feet (250 m) per pixel. The images are composite views from the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

How Many Moons Does Saturn Have?

Saturn is well known for being a gas giant, and for its impressive ring system. But would it surprise you to know that this planet also has the second-most moons in the Solar System, second only to Jupiter? Yes, Saturn has at least 150 moons and moonlets in total, though only 62 have confirmed orbits and only 53 have been given official names.

Most of these moons are small, icy bodies that are little more than parts of its impressive ring system. In fact, 34 of the moons that have been named are less than 10 km in diameter while another 14 are 10 to 50 km in diameter. However, some of its inner and outer moons are among the largest and most dramatic in the Solar System, measuring between 250 and 5000 km in diameter and housing some of greatest mysteries in the Solar System.

Saturn’s moons have such a variety of environments between them that you’d be forgiven for wanting to spend an entire mission just looking at its satellites. From the orange and hazy Titan to the icy plumes emanating from Enceladus, studying Saturn’s system gives us plenty of things to think about. Not only that, the moon discoveries keep on coming. As of April 2014, there are 62 known satellites of Saturn (excluding its spectacular rings, of course). Fifty-three of those worlds are named.

The Cassini spacecraft observes three of Saturn's moons set against the darkened night side of the planet. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
The Cassini spacecraft observes three of Saturn’s moons set against the darkened night side of the planet. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Discovery and Naming:

Prior to the invention of telescopic photography,  eight of Saturn’s moons were observed using simple telescopes. The first to be discovered was Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, which was observed by Christiaan Huygens in 1655 using a telescope of his own design. Between 1671 and 1684, Giovanni Domenico Cassini discovered the moons of Tethys, Dione, Rhea and Iapetus – which he collectively named the “Sider Lodoicea” (Latin for “Louisian Stars”, after King Louis XIV of France).

n 1789, William Herschel discovered Mimas and Enceladus, while father-and-son astronomers W.C Bond and G.P. Bond discovered Hyperion in 1848 – which was independently discovered by William Lassell that same year. By the end of the 19th century, the invention of long-exposure photographic plates allowed for the discovery of more moons – the first of which Phoebe, observed in 1899 by W.H. Pickering.

In 1966, the tenth satellite of Saturn was discovered by French astronomer Audouin Dollfus, which was later named Janus. A few years later, it was realized that his observations could only be explained if another satellite had been present with an orbit similar to that of Janus. This eleventh moon was later named Epimetheus, which shares the same orbit with Janus and is the only known co-orbital in the Solar System.

Saturn and its moons. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI
Collage of Saturn and its largest moons. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

By 1980, three additional moons were discovered and later confirmed by the Voyager probes. They were the trojan moons (see below) of Helene (which orbits Dione) as well as Telesto and Calypso (which orbit Tethys).

The study of the outer planets has since been revolutionized by the use of unmanned space probes. This began with the arrival of the Voyager spacecraft to the Cronian system in 1980-81, which resulted in the discovery of three additional moons – Atlas, Prometheus, and Pandora – bringing the total to 17. By 1990, archived images also revealed the existence of Pan.

This was followed by the Cassini-Huygens mission, which arrived at Saturn in the summer of 2004. Initially, Cassini discovered three small inner moons, including Methone and Pallene between Mimas and Enceladus, as well as the second Lagrangian moon of Dione – Polydeuces. In November of 2004, Cassini scientists announced that several more moons must be orbiting within Saturn’s rings. From this data, multiple moonlets and the moons of Daphnis and Anthe have been confirmed.

The study of Saturn’s moons has also been aided by the introduction of digital charge-coupled devices, which replaced photographic plates by the end of the 20th century. Because of this, ground-based telescopes have begun to discovered several new irregular moons around Saturn. In 2000, three medium-sized telescopes found thirteen new moons with eccentric orbits that were of considerable distance from the planet.

The moons of Saturn, from left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and irregularly shaped Hyperion (bottom). Some small moons are also shown. All to scale. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
The moons of Saturn, from left to right: Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea; Titan in the background; Iapetus (top) and Hyperion (bottom). Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

In 2005, astronomers using the Mauna Kea Observatory announced the discovery of twelve more small outer moons. In 2006, astronomers using Japan’s Subaru Telescope at Mauna Kea reported the discovery of nine more irregular moons. In April of 2007, Tarqeq (S/2007 S 1) was announced, and in May of that same year, S/2007 S 2 and S/2007 S 3 were reported.

The modern names of Saturn’s moons were suggested by John Herschel (William Herschel’s son) in 1847. In keeping with the nomenclature of the other planets, he proposed they be named after mythological figures associated with the Roman god of agriculture and harvest – Saturn, the equivalent of the Greek Cronus. In particular, the seven known satellites were named after Titans, Titanesses and Giants – the brothers and sisters of Cronus.

In 1848, Lassell proposed that the eighth satellite of Saturn be named Hyperion after another Titan. When in the 20th century, the names of Titans were exhausted, the moons were named after different characters of the Greco-Roman mythology, or giants from other mythologies. All the irregular moons (except Phoebe) are named after Inuit and Gallic gods and Norse ice giants.

Saturn’s Inner Large Moons:

Saturn’s moons are grouped based on their size, orbits, and proximity to Saturn. The innermost moons and regular moons all have small orbital inclinations and eccentricities and prograde orbits. Meanwhile, the irregular moons in the outermost regions have orbital radii of millions of kilometers, orbital periods lasting several years, and move in retrograde orbits.

Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Saturn’s moon of Enceladus. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s Inner Large Moons, which orbit within the E Ring (see below), include the larger satellites Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, and Dione. These moons are all composed primarily of water ice, and are believed to be differentiated into a rocky core and an icy mantle and crust. With a diameter of 396 km and a mass of 0.4×1020 kg, Mimas is the smallest and least massive of these moons. It is ovoid in shape and orbits Saturn at a distance of 185,539 km with an orbital period of 0.9 days.

Some people jokingly call Mimas the “Death Star” moon because of the crater in its surface that resembles the machine from the Star Wars universe. The 140 km (88 mi) Herschel Crater is about a third the diameter of the moon itself, and could have created fractures (chasmata) on the moon’s opposing side. There are in fact craters throughout the moon’s small surface, making it among the most pockmarked in the Solar System.

Enceladus, meanwhile, has a diameter of 504 km, a mass of 1.1×1020 km and is spherical in shape. It orbits Saturn at a distance of 237,948 km and takes 1.4 days to complete a single orbit. Though it is one of the smaller spherical moons, it is the only Cronian moon that is endogenously active – and one of the smallest known bodies in the Solar System that is geologically active. This results in features like the famous “tiger stripes” – a series of continuous, ridged, slightly curved and roughly parallel faults within the moon’s southern polar latitudes.

Large geysers have also been observed in the southern polar region that periodically release plumes of water ice, gas and dust which replenish Saturn’s E ring. These jets are one of several indications that Enceladus has liquid water beneath it’s icy crust, where geothermal processes release enough heat to maintain a warm water ocean closer to its core.

Dione's trailing hemisphere, showing the patches of "whispy terrain". Credit: NASA/JPL
Dione’s trailing hemisphere, showing the patches of “whispy terrain”. Credit: NASA/JPL

The moon has at least five different kinds of terrain, a “young” geological surface of less than 100 million years. With a geometrical albedo of more than 140%, which is due to it being composed largely of water ice, Enceladus is one of the brightest known objects in the Solar System.

At 1066 km in diameter, Tethys is the second-largest of Saturn’s inner moons and the 16th-largest moon in the Solar System. The majority of its surface is made up of heavily cratered and hilly terrain and a smaller and smoother plains region. Its most prominent features are the large impact crater of Odysseus, which measures 400 km in diameter, and a vast canyon system named Ithaca Chasma – which is concentric with Odysseus and measures 100 km wide, 3 to 5 km deep and 2,000 km long.

With a diameter and mass of 1,123 km and 11×1020 kg, Dione is the largest inner moon of Saturn. The majority of Dione’s surface is heavily cratered old terrain, with craters that measure up to 250 km in diameter. However, the moon is also covered with an extensive network of troughs and lineaments which indicate that in the past it had global tectonic activity.

It’s covered in canyons, cracking and craters and is coated from dust in the E-ring that originally came from Enceladus. The location of this dust has led astronomers to theorize that the moon was spun about 180 degrees from its original disposition in the past, perhaps due to a large impact.

Saturn’s Large Outer Moons:

The Large Outer Moons, which orbit outside of the Saturn’s E Ring, are similar in composition to the Inner Moons – i.e. composed primarily of water ice and rock. Of these, Rhea is the second largest – measuring 1,527 km in diameter and 23×1020 kg in mass – and the ninth largest moon of the Solar System. With an orbital radius of 527,108 km, it is the fifth-most distant of the larger moons, and takes 4.5 days to complete an orbit.

Views of Saturn's moon Rhea. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute
Views of Saturn’s moon Rhea. Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Like other Cronian satellites, Rhea has a rather heavily cratered surface, and a few large fractures on its trailing hemisphere. Rhea also has two very large impact basins on its anti-Saturnian hemisphere – the Tirawa crater (similar to Odysseus on Tethys) and an as-yet unnamed crater – that measure 400 and 500 km across, respectively.

Rhea has at least two major sections, the first being bright craters with craters larger than 40 km (25 miles), and a second section with smaller craters. The difference in these features are believed to be evidence of a major resurfacing event at some time in Rhea’s past.

At 5150 km in diameter, and 1,350×1020 kg in mass, Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and comprises more than 96% of the mass in orbit around the planet. Titan is also the only large moon to have its own atmosphere, which is cold, dense, and composed primarily of nitrogen with a small fraction of methane. Scientists have also noted the presence of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons in the upper atmosphere, as well as methane ice crystals.

The surface of Titan, which is difficult to observe due to persistent atmospheric haze, shows only a few impact craters, evidence of cryovolcanoes, and longitudinal dune fields that were apparently shaped by tidal winds. Titan is also the only body in the Solar System beside Earth with bodies of liquid on its surface, in the form of methane–ethane lakes in Titan’s north and south polar regions.

ASA's Cassini spacecraft looks toward the night side of Saturn's largest moon and sees sunlight scattering through the periphery of Titan's atmosphere and forming a ring of color. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Image of Titan’s taken by the Cassini spacecraft, showing light passing through the periphery of the moon’s atmosphere. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Titan is also distinguished for being the only Cronian moon that has ever had a probe land on it. This was the Huygens lander, which was carried to the hazy world by the Cassini spacecraft. Titan’s “Earth-like processes” and thick atmosphere are among the things that make this world stand out to scientists, which include its ethane and methane rains from the atmsophere and flows on the surface.

With an orbital distance of 1,221,870 km, it is the second-farthest large moon from Saturn, and completes a single orbit every 16 days. Like Europa and Ganymede, it is believed that Titan has a subsurface ocean made of water mixed with ammonia, which can erupt to the surface of the moon and lead to cryovolcanism.

Hyperion is Titan’s immediate neighbor. At an average diameter of about 270 km, it is smaller and lighter than Mimas. It is also irregularly shaped and quite odd in composition. Essentially, the moon is an ovoid, tan-colored body with an extremely porous surface (which resembles a sponge).  The surface of Hyperion is covered with numerous impact craters, most of which are 2 to 10 km in diameter. It also has a highly unpredictable rotation, with no well-defined poles or equator.

At 1,470 km in diameter and 18×1020 kg in mass, Iapetus is the third-largest of Saturn’s large moons. And at a distance of 3,560,820 km from Saturn, it is the most distant of the large moons, and takes 79 days to complete a single orbit. Due to its unusual color and composition – its leading hemisphere is dark and black whereas its trailing hemisphere is much brighter – it is often called the “yin and yang” of Saturn’s moons.

The two sides of Iapetus. Credit: NASA/JPL
The two sides of Iapetus, Saturn’s “yin-yang moon”. Credit: NASA/JPL

Saturn’s Irregular Moons:

Beyond these larger moons are Saturn’s Irregular Moons. These satellites are small, have large-radii, are inclined, have mostly retrograde orbits, and are believed to have been acquired by Saturn’s gravity. These moons are made up of three basic groups – the Inuit Group, the Gallic Group, and the Norse Group.

The Inuit Group consists of five irregular moons that are all named from Inuit mythology – Ijiraq, Kiviuq, Paaliaq, Siarnaq, and Tarqeq. All have prograde orbits that range from 11.1 to 17.9 million km, and from 7 to 40 km in diameter. They are all similar in appearance (reddish in hue) and have orbital inclinations of between 45 and 50°.

The Gallic group are a group of four prograde outer moons named for characters in Gallic mythology -Albiorix, Bebhionn, Erriapus, and Tarvos. Here too, the moons are similar in appearance and have orbits that range from 16 to 19 million km. Their inclinations are in the 35°-40° range, their eccentricities around 0.53, and they range in size from 6 to 32 km.

Last, there is the Norse group, which consists of 29 retrograde outer moons that take their names from Norse mythology. These satellites range in size from 6 to 18 km, their distances from 12 and 24 million km, their inclinations between 136° and 175°, and their eccentricities between 0.13 and 0.77. This group is also sometimes referred to as the Phoebe group, due to the presence of a single larger moon in the group – which measures 240 km in diameter. The second largest, Ymir, measures 18 km across.

Saturns rings and moons Credit: NASA
Saturn’s rings and moons Credit: NASA

Within the Inner and Outer Large Moons, there are also those belonging to Alkyonide group. These moons – Methone, Anthe, and Pallene – are named after the Alkyonides of Greek mythology, are located between the orbits of Mimas and Enceladus, and are among the smallest moons around Saturn.  Some of the larger moons even have moons of their own, which are known as Trojan moons. For instance, Tethys has two trojans – Telesto and Calypso, while Dione has Helene and Polydeuces.

Moon Formation:

It is thought that Saturn’s moon of Titan, its mid-sized moons and rings developed in a way that is closer to the Galilean moons of Jupiter. In short, this would mean that the regular moons formed from a circumplanetary disc, a ring of accreting gas and solid debris similar to a protoplanetary disc. Meanwhile, the outer, irregular moons are believed to have been objects that were captured by Saturn’s gravity and remained in distant orbits.

However, there are some variations on this theory. In one alternative scenario, two Titan-sized moons were formed from an accretion disc around Saturn; the second one eventually breaking up to produce the rings and inner mid-sized moons. In another, two large moons fused together to form Titan, and the collision scattered icy debris that formed to create the mid-sized moons.

However, the mechanics of how the moon’s formed remains a mystery for the time being. With additional missions mounted to study the atmospheres, compositions and surfaces of these moons, we may begin to understand where they truly came from.

Much like Jupiter, and all the other gas giants, Saturn’s system of satellites is extensive as it is impressive. In addition to the larger moons that are believed to have formed from a massive debris field that once orbited it, it also has countless smaller satellites that were captured by its gravitational field over the course of billions of years. One can only imagine how many more remain to be found orbiting the ringed giant.

We have many great articles on Saturn and its moon’s here at Universe Today. For example, here’s How Many Moons Does Saturn Have? and Is Saturn Making a New Moon?

Here’s an article about the discovery of Saturn’s 60th moon, and another article about how Saturn’s moons could be creating new rings.

Want more information about Saturn’s moons? Check out NASA’s Cassini information on the moons of Saturn, and more from NASA’s Solar System Exploration site.

We have recorded two episodes of Astronomy Cast just about Saturn. The first is Episode 59: Saturn, and the second is Episode 61: Saturn’s Moons.

Sources:

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 Captures a Menagerie of Moons

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This stunning new Cassini image was captured on July 29, 2011, and shows a portion of Saturn’s rings along with several moons dotting the view. How many moons can you find, and can you name them?

See below for a color version of this image, put together by our own Jason Major!

Saturns moons and rings, in color. Credit: NASA / JPL / SSI. Edited by Jason Major. Click for larger version.

Jason shares on his Flickr page the process of how he edited the image. As Jason says, it’s a moon flash mob!

See the Cassini Solstice Mission raw images page for a larger view.

Hat tip to Stu Atkinson