Tag: Saturn

Water, weather, new worlds: Cassini mission revealed Saturn’s secrets

Cassini is the most sophisticated space probe ever built. Launched in 1997 as a joint NASA/European Space Agency mission, it took seven years to journey to Saturn. It’s been orbiting the sixth planet from the sun ever since, sending back data of immense scientific value and images of magnificent beauty. The Conversation

Cassini now begins one last campaign. Dubbed the Grand Finale, it will end on Sept. 15, 2017 with the probe plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere, where it will burn up. Although Saturn was visited by three spacecraft in the 1970s and 1980s, my fellow scientists and I couldn’t have imagined what the Cassini space probe would discover during its sojourn at the ringed planet when it launched 20 years ago.

A huge storm churning across the face of Saturn. At the time this image was taken, 12 weeks after the storm began, it had completely wrapped around the planet.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI, CC BY

 

A planet of dynamic change

Massive storms periodically appear in Saturn’s cloud tops, known as Great White Spots, observable by Earthbound telescopes. Cassini has a front-row seat to these events. We have discovered that just like Earth’s thunderstorms, these storms contain lightning and hail.

Cassini has been orbiting Saturn long enough to observe seasonal changes that cause variations in its weather patterns, not unlike the seasons on Earth. Periodic storms often appear in late summer in Saturn’s northern hemisphere.

In 2010, during northern springtime, an unusually early and intense storm appeared in Saturn’s cloud tops. It was a storm of such immensity that it encircled the entire planet and lasted for almost a year. It was not until the storm ate its own tail that it eventually sputtered and faded. Studying storms such as this and comparing them to similar events on other planets (think Jupiter’s Great Red Spot) help scientists better understand weather patterns throughout the solar system, even here on Earth.

Having made hundreds of orbits around Saturn, Cassini was also able to deeply investigate other features only glimpsed from Earth or earlier probes. Close encounters with Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, have allowed navigators to use the moon’s gravity to reorient the probe’s orbit so that it could swing over Saturn’s poles. Because of Saturn’s strong magnetic field, the poles are home to beautiful Aurorae, just like those of Earth and Jupiter.

Saturn’s six-sided vortex at Saturn’s north pole known as ‘the hexagon.’ This is a superposition of images taken with different filters, with different wavelengths of light assigned colors.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Hampton University, CC BY

Cassini has also confirmed the existence of a bizarre hexagon-shaped polar vortex originally glimpsed by the Voyager mission in 1981. The vortex, a mass of whirling gas much like a hurricane, is larger than the Earth and has top wind speeds of 220 mph.

Home to dozens of diverse worlds

Cassini discovered that Saturn has 45 more moons than the 17 previously known – placing the total now at 62.

The largest, Titan, is bigger than the planet Mercury. It possesses a dense nitrogen-rich atmosphere with a surface pressure one and a half times that of Earth’s. Cassini was able to probe beneath this moon’s cloud cover, discovering rivers flowing into lakes and seas and being replenished by rain. But in this case, the liquid is not water, but rather liquid methane and ethane.

False-color image of Ligeia Mare, the second largest known body of liquid on Saturn’s moon Titan. It’s filled with liquid hydrocarbons.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell, CC BY

That’s not to say that water is not abundant there – but it’s so cold on Titan (with a surface temperature of -180℃) that water behaves like rock and sand. Although it has all the ingredients for life, Titan is essentially a “frozen Earth,” trapped at that moment in time before life could form.

The sixth-largest moon of Saturn, Enceladus, is an icy world about 300 miles in diameter. And for me, it’s the site of the Mission’s most spectacular finding.

The discovery started humbly, with a curious blip in magnetic field readings during the first flyby of Enceladus in 2004. As Cassini passed over the moon’s southern hemisphere, it detected strange fluctuations in Saturn’s magnetic field. From this, the Cassini magnetometer team inferred that Enceladus must be a source of ionized gas.

Intrigued, they instructed the Cassini navigators to make an even closer flyby in 2005. To our amazement, the two instruments designed to determine the composition of the gas that the spacecraft flies through, the Cassini Plasma Spectrometer (CAPS) and the Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS), determined that Cassini was unexpectedly passing through a cloud of ionized water. Emanating from cracks in the ice at Enceladus’ south pole, these water plumes gush into space at speeds up to 800 mph.

I am on the team that made the positive identification of water, and I have to say it was the most thrilling moment in my professional career. As far as Saturn’s moons were concerned, everyone thought all of the action would be at Titan. No one expected small, unassuming Enceladus to harbor any surprises.

Geologic activity happening in real time is quite rare in the solar system. Before Enceladus, the only known active world beyond Earth was Jupiter’s moon Io, which possesses erupting volcanoes. To find something akin to Old Faithful on a moon of Saturn was practically unimaginable. The fact that it all started with someone noticing an odd reading in the magnetic field data is a wonderful example of the serendipitous nature of discovery.

The geyser basin at the south pole of Enceladus, with its water plumes illuminated by scattered sunlight.
NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute, CC BY

The story of Enceladus only becomes more extraordinary. In 2009, the plumes were directly imaged for the first time. We now know that water from Enceladus comprises the largest component of Saturn’s magnetosphere (the area of space controlled by Saturn’s magnetic field), and the plumes are responsible for the very existence of Saturn’s vast E-ring, the second outermost ring of the planet.

More amazingly, we now know that beneath the crust of Enceladus is a global ocean of liquid saltwater and organic molecules, all being heated by hydrothermal vents on the seafloor. Detailed analysis of the plumes show they contain hydrocarbons. All this points to the possibility that Enceladus is an ocean world harboring life, right here in our solar system.

NASA at Saturn: Cassini’s Grand Finale.

When Cassini plunges into the cloud tops of Saturn later this year, it will mark the end of one of the most successful missions of discovery ever launched by humanity.

Scientists are now considering targeted missions to Titan, Enceladus or possibly both. One of the most valuable lessons one can take from Cassini is the need to continue exploring. As much as we learned from the first spacecraft to reach Saturn, nothing prepared us for what we would find with Cassini. Who knows what we will find next?

Dan Reisenfeld, Professor of Physics & Astronomy, The University of Montana

Photo Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.

You can follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.


Donate to The Systems Scientist

Buy Now Button

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

NASA’s Cassini Mission Prepares for ‘Grand Finale’ at Saturn

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft, in orbit around Saturn since 2004, is about to begin the final chapter of its remarkable story. On Wednesday, April 26, the spacecraft will make the first in a series of dives through the 1,500-mile-wide (2,400-kilometer) gap between Saturn and its rings as part of the mission’s grand finale.

“No spacecraft has ever gone through the unique region that we’ll attempt to boldly cross 22 times,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “What we learn from Cassini’s daring final orbits will further our understanding of how giant planets, and planetary systems everywhere, form and evolve. This is truly discovery in action to the very end.”

During its time at Saturn, Cassini has made numerous dramatic discoveries, including a global ocean that showed indications of hydrothermal activity within the icy moon Enceladus, and liquid methane seas on its moon Titan.

Now 20 years since launching from Earth, and after 13 years orbiting the ringed planet, Cassini is running low on fuel. In 2010, NASA decided to end the mission with a purposeful plunge into Saturn this year in order to protect and preserve the planet’s moons for future exploration – especially the potentially habitable Enceladus.

But the beginning of the end for Cassini is, in many ways, like a whole new mission. Using expertise gained over the mission’s many years, Cassini engineers designed a flight plan that will maximize the scientific value of sending the spacecraft toward its fateful plunge into the planet on Sept. 15. As it ticks off its terminal orbits during the next five months, the mission will rack up an impressive list of scientific achievements.

“This planned conclusion for Cassini’s journey was far and away the preferred choice for the mission’s scientists,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. “Cassini will make some of its most extraordinary observations at the end of its long life.”

The mission team hopes to gain powerful insights into the planet’s internal structure and the origins of the rings, obtain the first-ever sampling of Saturn’s atmosphere and particles coming from the main rings, and capture the closest-ever views of Saturn’s clouds and inner rings. The team currently is making final checks on the list of commands the robotic probe will follow to carry out its science observations, called a sequence, as it begins the finale. That sequence is scheduled to be uploaded to the spacecraft on Tuesday, April 11.

Cassini will transition to its grand finale orbits, with a last close flyby of Saturn’s giant moon Titan, on Saturday, April 22. As it has many times over the course of the mission, Titan’s gravity will bend Cassini’s flight path. Cassini’s orbit then will shrink so that instead of making its closest approach to Saturn just outside the rings, it will begin passing between the planet and the inner edge of its rings.

“Based on our best models, we expect the gap to be clear of particles large enough to damage the spacecraft. But we’re also being cautious by using our large antenna as a shield on the first pass, as we determine whether it’s safe to expose the science instruments to that environment on future passes,” said Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL. “Certainly there are some unknowns, but that’s one of the reasons we’re doing this kind of daring exploration at the end of the mission.”

In mid-September, following a distant encounter with Titan, the spacecraft’s path will be bent so that it dives into the planet. When Cassini makes its final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, it will send data from several instruments – most notably, data on the atmosphere’s composition – until its signal is lost.

“Cassini’s grand finale is so much more than a final plunge,” said Spilker. “It’s a thrilling final chapter for our intrepid spacecraft, and so scientifically rich that it was the clear and obvious choice for how to end the mission.”

Resources on Cassini’s grand finale, including images and video, are available at:

https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/mission/grand-finale/grand-finale-resources

An animated video about Cassini’s Grand Finale is available at:

https://youtu.be/xrGAQCq9BMU

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.

More information about Cassini is at:

http://www.nasa.gov/cassini

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

-end-

Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726 / 202-358-1077
dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov / laura.l.cantillo@nasa.gov

Preston Dyches
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-354-7013
preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

Editor: Karen Northon

 

Photo Credit: NASA

You can follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.


Donate to The Systems Scientist

Buy Now Button

NASA to Preview ‘Grand Finale’ of Cassini Saturn Mission

NASA will hold a news conference at 3 p.m. EDT Tuesday, April 4, at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, to preview the beginning of Cassini’s final mission segment, known as the Grand Finale, which begins in late April. The briefing will air live on NASA Television and the agency’s website.

Cassini has been orbiting Saturn since June 2004, studying the planet, its rings and its moons. A final close flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan on April 22 will reshape the Cassini spacecraft’s orbit so that it begins its final series of 22 weekly dives through the unexplored gap between the planet and its rings. The first of these dives is planned for April 26. Following these closer-than-ever encounters with the giant planet, Cassini will make a mission-ending plunge into Saturn’s upper atmosphere on Sept. 15.

The panelists for the briefing are:

  • Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division at the agency’s headquarters in Washington
  • Earl Maize, Cassini project manager at JPL
  • Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at JPL
  • Joan Stupik, Cassini guidance and control engineer at JPL

Media who would like to attend the event at JPL must arrange access in advance by contacting Gina Fontes in the JPL Media Relations Office at 818-354-9380 or georgina.d.fontes@jpl.nasa.gov. Media who arrange access must bring to the event valid media credentials, and for non-U.S. citizens, valid passports.

To participate by phone, media must email their name and affiliation to georgina.d.fontes@jpl.nasa.gov by 8 a.m. April 4.

Media and the public also may ask questions during the briefing on Twitter using the hashtag #askNASA.

Supporting graphics, video and background information about Cassini’s Grand Finale will be posted before the briefing at:

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/grandfinale

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.

For more information about Cassini, go to:

http://www.nasa.gov/cassini

and

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

Dwayne Brown / Laurie Cantillo
Headquarters, Washington
202-358-1726 / 202-358-1077
dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov / laura.l.cantillo@nasa.gov

Preston Dyches
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
818-394-7013
preston.dyches@jpl.nasa.gov

Editor: Karen Northon

 

Photo Credit: NASA

You can follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.


Donate to The Systems Scientist

Buy Now Button

North pole of Saturn

The north pole of Saturn sits at the center of its own domain. Around it swirl the clouds, driven by the fast winds of Saturn. Beyond that orbits Saturn’s retinue of moons and the countless small particles that form the ring.

Although the poles of Saturn are at the center of all of this motion, not everything travels around them in circles. Some of the jet-stream patterns, such as the hexagon-shaped pattern seen here, have wavy, uneven shapes. The moons as well have orbits that are elliptical, some quite far from circular.

This view looks toward the sunlit side of the rings from about 26 degrees above the ring plane. The image was taken with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Dec. 2, 2016 using a spectral filter which preferentially admits wavelengths of near-infrared light centered at 890 nanometers.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 619,000 miles (996,000 kilometers) from Saturn. Image scale is 37 miles (60 kilometers) per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov and http://www.nasa.gov/cassini. The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Editor: Tony Greicius

 

Photo Credit: NASA

You can follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.

Donate to The Systems Scientist

Buy Now Button

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Here’s Looking at You, Tethys

Tethys, one of Saturn’s larger icy moons, vaguely resembles an eyeball staring off into space in this view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. The resemblance is due to the enormous crater, Odysseus, and its complex of central peaks.

Like any solar system moon, Tethys (660 miles or 1,062 kilometers across) has suffered many impacts. These impacts are a prime shaper of the appearance of a moon’s surface , especially when the moon has no active geological processes. In this case, a large impact not only created a crater known as Odysseus, but the rebound of the impact caused the mountainous peaks, named Scheria Montes, to form in the center of the crater.

This view looks toward the leading side of Tethys. North on Tethys is up and rotated 1 degree to the left. The image was taken in green light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Nov. 10, 2016.

The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 228,000 miles (367,000 kilometers) from Tethys. Image scale is 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) per pixel.

The Cassini mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (the European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging operations center is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov and http://www.nasa.gov/cassini. The Cassini imaging team homepage is at http://ciclops.org.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Editor: Tony Greicius

 

Photo Credit: NASA

You can follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook.

Donate to The Systems Scientist
Buy Now Button