NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has taken a breath of oxygen while passing over the icy surface of Saturn’s second-largest moon, marking the first time a spacecraft has directly sampled oxygen in the atmosphere of another body. Cruising just 60 miles above Rhea, one of more than 60 moons orbiting Saturn, Cassini found an extremely thin atmosphere of oxygen and carbon dioxide likely sustained by high-energy particles slamming into the moon’s frozen surface.
Scientists studying Titan’s atmosphere have learned it can create complex molecules, including amino acids and nucleotide bases, often called the building blocks of life. They are the first researchers to show it’s possible to create these molecules without water, suggesting Titan could harbor huge quantities of life’s precursors floating in its atmosphere. It’s a breakthrough that even has implications for the beginning of life on Earth.
Check out this latest image from Cassini, NASA’s orbiting Saturn outpost. It shows the small Saturnian moon Dione in crisp detail, in front of the hazy atmosphere of Titan.
Cassini takes pictures like this all the time, so it’s easy to forget how amazing it is: We have a foil-wrapped 22-foot-tall spacecraft whizzing around the rings and moons of the sixth planet, snapping stunning vistas of a place no human will likely ever visit. And each photo is more amazing than the last.
On June 21, NASA's Cassini spacecraft made its lowest dip ever into the atmosphere of Saturn's largest moon Titan. The spacecraft's 71st flyby of Titan took it to within 547 miles of Titan's surface in an effort to assess whether Titan has its own magnetic field, which is important to understanding the moon's interior and composition. The low-altitude flyby put Cassini in a region almost completely shielded from Saturn's magnetic field, which makes it possible to detect a magnetic signature coming from Titan itself.
Along with its main mission of scientific research, NASA's Cassini orbiter is one heck of a photographer.
NASA just released the striking image above, which shows the upper layers of Saturn's atmosphere illuminated by the eclipsed Sun. And that's far from the the only modernist photo Cassini has snapped over the years.
Cassini arrived in Saturn's neighborhood in 2004 for a four-year mission, but it performed so well and remained in such good shape, its mission was extended for two more years. In that time it's made countless discoveries, generated a wealth of scientific data and spawned well over 1,000 academic papers. It's also burned three quarters of its fuel.
For the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab mission designers tasked with extending Cassini's mission for an extra seven years, the project became a convoluted whirl of math and politics. Here, The New York Times explains the orbital mechanics of the new Cassini mission, which has to more than double the length of the mission using just a quarter of the craft's original propellant, all while appeasing opposing scientific interests.
NASA's Cassini spacecraft has repeatedly taken the plunge into the icy jets of Saturn's sixth-largest moon, and all in the name of science. Now the U.S. space agency has released the latest stunning image from Cassini's November 21 flyby. Can you count the 30 jets in this image?
Cassini's infrared vision allowed it to peer through the clouds and catch the sunlight sparkling on one of Titan's lakes.
NASA/JPL/University of Arizona/DLR
A haze of methane enshrouds Saturn's largest moon, Titan, and prevents scientists from seeing most sunlight reflections off the surface. But NASA's Cassini orbiter managed to snap a stunning image of sunlight glinting off a huge, liquid methane lake -- a smoking gun that confirms liquid in the northern hemisphere.
Saturn's north pole holds something even more strange than a globe-trotting Santa Claus -- a giant hexagon shape within the planet's atmosphere. Now NASA's Cassini spacecraft has imaged the whole hexagonal pattern in visible light for the first time.
On Saturday, the Cassini spacecraft conducted a flyby of Saturn's sixth-largest moon, Enceladus, snapping some rather breathtaking photos along the way. The flyby, whose purpose was to gather the highest-resolution photos ever of the moon's southern polar region and to thermally map the "tiger stripe" terrain there, gathered some stunning images including some of the geyser-like plumes Cassini discovered on the moon's surface during previous flybys.