Curiosity, you are such an amazing space mission that we will sacrifice a thousand blog posts, a million gallons of newsprint even, in your honor. But can you do this? NASA’s Cassini probe, not content to be forgotten in its faraway orbit around Saturn and its moons, has beamed back new natural-color images of the ringed planet that are absolutely breathtaking. Released yesterday, they show a very different planet than the one Cassini arrived at eight years ago.
Scientists scrutinizing Cassini imagery have stumbled on a strange find — evidence of half-mile-sized snowballs perforating one of Saturn’s rings, creating miniature contrail-like streams in the ring’s shape. The pictures answer a mysterious question about the F ring, Saturn’s oddest ring.
The Cassini spacecraft has been busy over this past week, making close flybys of both Enceladus and and Tethys, two of Saturn’s moons. And we’re not using “close” as a relative term here. Cassini skimmed Enceladus in such proximity that it was literally able to taste the plume of water ice, vapor, and other organic compounds spewing from the moon’s south polar region.
Aside from ancient Mars, the moons of Saturn might be one of the best places to look for life outside this planet. The methane lakes of Titan are promising places, but so are the spewing plumes of ice on Enceladus — and the latter would be an easy one to check, as it turns out.
The hits just keep on coming out of Austin this week as the 219th meeting of the American Astronomical Society rolls on. Researchers there have announced the discovery of the first Saturn-like ringed object outside our solar system, documented when researchers were trying to diagnose the cause of a strange eclipsing effect emanating from a nearby star.
Today in pretty space pics, Cassini proves once again that it’s the spacecraft that just keeps on giving. Its mission was supposed to end in 2008 but has twice been extended, most recently out to 2017. That’s fine with us, since it keeps sending back pics like these from its wide orbit around arguably the solar system’s second-coolest planet. Represented here: Saturn’s signature rings and five of its more than 60 natural satellites--Janus, Pandora, Enceladus, Mimas and Rhea (from left to right).
By Adam HadhazyPosted 08.17.2011 at 10:11 am 21 Comments
In 2006, while flying by Saturn's moon Titan, the radar on NASA's Cassini orbiter discovered seas of liquid ethane and methane on the moon's –300ºF surface, the only bodies of liquid we know of that exist anywhere but on Earth. Some of the oily seas appeared on Cassini's radar to be larger than Lake Superior, but visibility was poor because Titan's atmosphere is thick and hazy. Now NASA is considering sending a probe called the Titan Mare Explorer (TiME) to splash down on one of Titan's seas for a closer look.
Fourteen years ago, astronomers studying Saturn via ESA’s Infrared Space Observatory discovered a mysterious supply of gaseous water in Saturn’s upper atmosphere. Now, ESA’s Herschel observatory has figured out exactly where that water is coming from: Saturn’s moon Enceladus, which spews water onto its host planet via huge water jets emanating from its southern polar region.
Along with methane lakes and ice volcanoes, Titan's bizarre features could include a massive subsurface ocean similar to that of its cousin moon, Europa.
In an interesting twist, this could be one explanation for what's been replenishing the Saturnian moon's methane — maybe it's not life, but a vast ocean of hydrocarbons that occasionally burps to the surface.