Friday, October 31, 2014

Sunglint South of Titan's Kraken Mare

This near-infrared, color mosaic from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the sun glinting off of Titan's north polar seas. While Cassini has captured, separately, views of the polar seas (see PIA17470) and the sun glinting off of them (see PIA12481 and PIA18433) in the past, this is the first time both have been seen together in the same view.

The sunglint, also called a specular reflection, is the bright area near the 11 o'clock position at upper left. This mirror-like reflection, known as the specular point, is in the south of Titan's largest sea, Kraken Mare, just north of an island archipelago separating two separate parts of the sea.

This particular sunglint was so bright as to saturate the detector of Cassini's Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) instrument, which captures the view. It is also the sunglint seen with the highest observation elevation so far -- the sun was a full 40 degrees above the horizon as seen from Kraken Mare at this time -- much higher than the 22 degrees seen in PIA18433. Because it was so bright, this glint was visible through the haze at much lower wavelengths than before, down to 1.3 microns.

The southern portion of Kraken Mare (the area surrounding the specular feature toward upper left) displays a "bathtub ring" -- a bright margin of evaporate deposits -- which indicates that the sea was larger at some point in the past and has become smaller due to evaporation. The deposits are material left behind after the methane & ethane liquid evaporates, somewhat akin to the saline crust on a salt flat.

The highest resolution data from this flyby -- the area seen immediately to the right of the sunglint -- cover the labyrinth of channels that connect Kraken Mare to another large sea, Ligeia Mare. Ligeia Mare itself is partially covered in its northern reaches by a bright, arrow-shaped complex of clouds. The clouds are made of liquid methane droplets, and could be actively refilling the lakes with rainfall.

The view was acquired during Cassini's August 21, 2014, flyby of Titan, also referred to as "T104" by the Cassini team.

The view contains real color information, although it is not the natural color the human eye would see. Here, red in the image corresponds to 5.0 microns, green to 2.0 microns, and blue to 1.3 microns. These wavelengths correspond to atmospheric windows through which Titan's surface is visible. The unaided human eye would see nothing but haze, as in PIA12528.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

Note: For more information, see PIA18433: Sunglint on a Hydrocarbon Lake and Cassini Sees Sunny Seas on Titan.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Tethys and the A- and F-Rings

Like a drop of dew hanging on a leaf, Tethys appears to be stuck to the A and F rings from this perspective.

Tethys (660 miles, or 1,062 kilometers across), like the ring particles, is composed primarily of ice. The gap in the A ring through which Tethys is visible is the Keeler gap, which is kept clear by the small moon Daphnis (not visible here).

This view looks toward the Saturn-facing hemisphere of Tethys. North on Tethys is up and rotated 43 degrees to the right. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on July 14, 2014.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.1 million miles (1.8 million kilometers) from Tethys and at a Sun-Tethys-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 22 degrees. Image scale is 7 miles (11 kilometers) per pixel.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Saturn's North Polar Hexagon

Nature is often more complex and wonderful than it first appears. For example, although it looks like a simple hexagon, this feature surrounding Saturn's north pole is really a manifestation of a meandering polar jet stream. Scientists are still working to understand more about its origin and behavior.

For more on the hexagon, see PIA11682.

This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 33 degrees above the ringplane. The image was taken in red light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on July 24, 2013.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 605,000 miles (973,000 kilometers) from Saturn and at a Sun-Saturn-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 19 degrees. Image scale is 36 miles (58 kilometers) per pixel.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Titan's South Polar Vortex

These two views of Saturn's moon Titan show the southern polar vortex, a huge, swirling cloud that was first observed by NASA's Cassini spacecraft in 2012.

The view at left is a spectral map of Titan obtained with the Cassini Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) on November 29, 2012. The inset image is a natural-color close-up of the polar vortex taken by Cassini's wide-angle camera (part of the view previously released as PIA14925).

Three distinct components are evident in the VIMS image, represented by different colors: the surface of Titan (orange, near center), atmospheric haze along the limb (light green, at top) and the polar vortex (blue, at lower left).

To the VIMS instrument, the spectrum of the southern polar vortex shows a remarkable difference with respect to other portions of Titan's atmosphere: a signature of frozen hydrogen cyanide molecules (HCN). This discovery has suggested to researchers that the atmosphere of Titan's southern hemisphere is cooling much faster than expected. Observing seasonal shifts like this in the moon's climate is a major goal for Cassini's current extended mission.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/University of Arizona/SSI/Leiden Observatory and SRON

Note: For more information, see Titan's Swirling Polar Cloud is Cold and Toxic (ESA) and Swirling Cloud at Titan's Pole is Cold and Toxic (JPL).

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Unusual Changing Feature in Titan's Ligeia Mare

These three images, created from Cassini Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data, show the appearance and evolution of a mysterious feature in Ligeia Mare, one of the largest hydrocarbon seas on Saturn's moon Titan. The views, taken during three different Cassini flybys of Titan, show that this feature was not visible in earlier radar images of the same region and its appearance changed between 2013 and 2014.

In the images, the dark areas represent the sea, which is thought to be composed of mostly methane and ethane. Most of the bright areas represent land surface above or just beneath the water line. The mysterious bright feature appears off the coast below center in the middle and right images.

The mystery feature had not been seen in preceding SAR observations of the region from 2007 to 2009. After its first appearance in early July 2013, it was not visible in observations by Cassini's Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, obtained later in July and in September 2013. Low-resolution SAR images obtained in October 2013 also failed to recover the feature.

The SAR observation from Cassini's August 21, 2014 Titan flyby shows that the feature was still visible, although its appearance changed during the 11 months since it was last observed. The feature seems to have changed in size between the images from 2013 and 2014 -- doubling from about 30 square miles (about 75 square kilometers) to about 60 square miles (about 160 square kilometers). Ongoing analyses of these data may eliminate some of the explanations previously put forward, or reveal new clues as to what is happening in Titan's seas.

The Cassini radar team is investigating possible origins for the feature, including surface waves, rising bubbles, floating solids, solids that are suspended just below the surface or perhaps something more exotic. Researchers suspect that the appearance of this feature could be related to changing seasons on Titan, as summer draws near in the moon's northern hemisphere. Monitoring such changes is a major goal for Cassini's current extended mission.

The upper half of the middle image uses data from the April 26, 2007 Titan flyby. That area did not receive SAR coverage during the July 10, 2013 encounter, so the earlier data was used to fill-in the scene.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Saturn's many cloud patterns, swept along by high-speed winds, look as if they were painted on by some eager alien artist.

With no real surface features to slow them down, wind speeds on Saturn can top 1,100 mph (1,800 kph), more than four times the top speeds on Earth.

This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 29 degrees above the ringplane. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on April 4, 2014 using a spectral filter which preferentially admits wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 752 nanometers.

The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 1.1 million miles (1.8 million kilometers) from Saturn. Image scale is 68 miles (109 kilometers) per pixel.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tethys, Hyperion, Prometheus, and the Rings

The Cassini spacecraft captures a rare family photo of three of Saturn's moons that couldn't be more different from each other! As the largest of the three, Tethys (image center) is round and has a variety of terrains across its surface. Meanwhile, Hyperion (to the upper-left of Tethys) is the "wild one" with a chaotic spin and Prometheus (lower-left) is a tiny moon that busies itself sculpting the F ring.

To learn more about the surface of Tethys (660 miles, or 1,062 kilometers across), see PIA17164. More on the chaotic spin of Hyperion (168 miles, or 270 kilometers across) can be found at PIA07683. And discover more about the role of Prometheus (53 miles, or 86 kilometers across) in shaping the F ring in PIA12786.

This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 1 degree above the ringplane. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on July 14, 2014.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.2 million miles (1.9 million kilometers) from Tethys and at a Sun-Tethys-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 22 degrees. Image scale is 7 miles (11 kilometers) per pixel.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Saturn's North Polar Hexagon

The giant planet Saturn is mostly a gigantic ball of rotating gas, completely unlike our solid home planet. But Earth and Saturn do have something in common: weather, although the gas giant is home to some of the most bizarre weather in our Solar System, such as the swirling storm shown in this Cassini view.

Known as “the hexagon”, this weather feature is an intense, six-sided jet stream at Saturn’s north pole. Spanning some 30,000 km across, it hosts howling 320 km/h winds that spiral around a massive storm rotating anticlockwise at the heart of the region.

Numerous small vortices rotate in the opposite direction to the central storm and are dragged around with the jet stream, creating a terrifically turbulent region. While a hurricane on Earth may last a week or more, the hexagon has been raging for decades, and shows no signs of letting up.

This false-color image of the hexagon was made using ultraviolet, visible and infrared filters to highlight different regions.

The dark center of the image shows the large central storm and its eye, which is up to 50 times bigger than a terrestrial hurricane eye. The small vortices show up as pink-red clumps. Towards the lower right of the frame is a white-tinted oval storm that is bigger than any of the others — this is the largest of the vortices at some 3500 km across, twice the size of the largest hurricane ever recorded on Earth.

The darker blue region within the hexagon is filled with small haze particles, whereas the paler blue region is dominated by larger particles. This divide is caused by the hexagonal jet stream acting as a shepherding barrier — large particles cannot enter the hexagon from the outside.

These large particles are created when sunlight shines onto Saturn’s atmosphere, something that only started relatively recently in the northern hemisphere with the beginning of northern spring in August 2009.

Cassini will continue to track changes in the hexagon, monitoring its contents, shape and behavior as summer reaches Saturn’s northern hemisphere in 2017.

An animated version is available here.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Hampton University

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Crescent Mimas

A thin sliver of Mimas is illuminated, the long shadows showing off its many craters, indicators of the moon's violent history.

The most famous evidence of a collision on Mimas (246 miles, or 396 kilometers across) is the crater Herschel that gives Mimas its Death Star-like appearance. See PIA12568 for more on Herschel.

This view looks toward the anti-Saturn hemisphere of Mimas. North on Mimas is up and rotated 40 degrees to the right. The image was taken in visible light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on May 20, 2013.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 100,000 miles (200,000 kilometers) from Mimas and at a Sun-Mimas-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 130 degrees. Image scale is 4,000 feet (1 kilometer) per pixel.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Bright Clumps in Saturn Ring Now Mysteriously Scarce

A map of Saturn's F ring from 2006 shows one of the few bright, extended clumps (indicated by a green box) seen during six years of observation by Cassini.

Compared to the age of the solar system -- about four-and-a-half billion years -- a couple of decades are next to nothing. Some planetary locales change little over many millions of years, so for scientists who study the planets, any object that evolves on such a short interval makes for a tempting target for study. And so it is with the ever-changing rings of Saturn.

Case in point: Saturn's narrow, chaotic and clumpy F ring. A recent NASA-funded study compared the F ring's appearance in six years of observations by the Cassini mission to its appearance during the Saturn flybys of NASA's Voyager mission, 30 years earlier. The study team found that, while the overall number of clumps in the F ring remained the same, the number of exceptionally bright clumps of material plummeted during that time. While the Voyagers saw two or three bright clumps in any given observation, Cassini spied only two of the features during a six-year period. What physical processes, they wondered, could cause only the brightest of these features to decline sharply?

While a variety of features in Saturn's many rings display marked changes over multiple years, the F ring seems to change on a scale of days, and even hours. Trying to work out what is responsible for the ring's tumultuous behavior is a major goal for ring scientists working on Cassini.

"Saturn's F ring looks fundamentally different from the time of Voyager to the Cassini era," said Robert French of the SETI Institute in Mountain View, California, who led the study along with SETI Principal Investigator Mark Showalter. "It makes for an irresistible mystery for us to investigate."

The researchers hypothesize that the brightest clumps in the F ring are caused by repeated impacts into its core by small moonlets up to about 3 miles (5 kilometers) wide, whose paths around Saturn lie close to the ring and cross into it every orbit. They propose that the diminishing number of bright clumps results from a drop in the number of these little moonlets between the Voyager and Cassini eras.

As for what might have caused the moonlets to become scarce, the team has a suspect: Saturn's moon Prometheus. The F ring encircles the planet at a special location, near a place called the Roche limit -- get any closer to Saturn than this, and tidal forces from the planet's gravity tear apart smaller bodies. "Material at this distance from Saturn can't decide whether it wants to remain as a ring or coalesce to form a moon," French said. Prometheus orbits just inside the F ring, and adds to the pandemonium by stirring up the ring particles, sometimes leading to the creation of moonlets, and sometimes leading to their destruction.

Every 17 years, the orbit of Prometheus aligns with the orbit of the F ring in such a way that its influence is particularly strong. The study team thinks this periodic alignment might spur the creation of many new moonlets. The moonlets would then crash repeatedly through the F ring, like cars in a Hollywood high-speed chase, creating bright clumps as they smash across lanes of ring material. Fewer clumps would be created as time goes by, because the moonlets themselves are eventually destroyed by all the crashes.

As with any good scientific hypothesis, the researchers offer a way to test their ideas. It happens that the Voyager encounters with Saturn occurred a few years after the 1975 alignment between Prometheus and the F ring, and Cassini was present for the 2009 alignment. If the moon's periodic influence is indeed responsible for creating new moonlets, then the researchers expect that Cassini would see the F ring return to a Voyager-like number of bright clumps in the next couple of years.

"Cassini's continued presence at Saturn gives us an interesting opportunity to test this prediction," said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who was not involved in the study. "Whatever the result, we're certain to learn something valuable about how rings, as well as planets and moons, form and evolve."

The study by French and colleagues was published in the online edition of the Journal Icarus on July 15, 2014.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI