Researchers have long suspected Saturn’s moon Titan might be hiding a volcanic surface beneath its dense atmosphere, and a new discovery by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has given them reason to believe they are right. Dubbed Sotra Facula, the feature captured by Cassini’s imaging instruments could be the largest in a string of ice and methane-belching volcanoes that may or may not still be active.
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.
A stinking, poisonous lake filled with carbon dioxide and hydrocarbons might not seem like the kind of place for living things to thrive, but researchers have discovered life in Trinidad's Pitch Lake, a hot asphalt lake teeming with all kinds of noxious gases and containing very little water. But the discovery isn't just of interest to biologists; Pitch Lake is thought to be the closest thing we have on Earth to the hydrocarbon lakes on Saturn's Titan moon.
A giant hexagon circling Saturn's north pole has puzzled scientists for decades. Now researchers have managed to recreate the pattern in the lab using little more than water and a spinning table, Science Now reports.
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?