Saturn is one of the most iconic planets in our solar systems. Its rings are awe-inspiring. NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting the ringed planet since 2004. Lately, it’s been buzzing Enceladus. Scientists are using these close flybys to better understand what’s going on beneath the wet world.
In November, the Cassini imaging team released several incredible images. The new releases aimed for quality versus quantity and it shows. (Note: these images were not taken in November, but were released then)
Dune Fields of Titan
Titan. An intriguing world that has a lot of features we see on Earth. But there are key differences. Clouds, rain and lakes are all found on this moon orbiting Saturn. But, they’re not made of water. Instead, it’s methane and ethane. Water ice makes up the moon’s solid surface. And hydrocarbon sands create sweeping dune fields.
The dune fields can be seen in the dark regions in the above image. They cover about 13% of Titan. And they are huge. On average, the dune fields are about 1-2 km wide, hundreds of kilometers long and rise 100 meters in the air. Titan’s sand accumulates via hydrocarbons that precipitate out of the atmosphere.
Epimetheus Hanging Out Above the Rings
Looks can be deceiving. Epimetheus isn’t above the rings. The viewing angle only makes it look like it is. Epimetheus and Saturn’s rings both orbit in Saturn’s equatorial plane. Extensive cratering of the moon’s surface suggests it’s very old.
Epimetheus shares an orbit with another moon, Janus. Every four years, the two moons exchange momentum and swap orbits. The outer moon becomes the inner and vice versa.
Enceladus Photobombs Dione
Cassini, Dione and Enceladus lined up perfectly for this shot. Dione is the closest in the picture above with Enceladus appearing to move behind it.
Both moons are made up of pretty much the same stuff, yet they Enceladus has a brighter surface. The reason? Enceladus’ jets. The constantly active south polar jets rain material onto the moon’s surface. Without the jets resurfacing the moon, dust and radiation would make Enceladus’ surface look more like Dione’s.
Dione with Saturn’s majestic rings as a background
Saturn’s impressive rings set the background for this Dione image. This image was captured back in August during a flyby of Dione. The flyby’s main goal was to measure Dione’s gravity field. Cassini’s imaging team also managed to capture this fantastic image in the process.
The data from the August flyby will help scientists better understand what Dione’s interior looks like, and its past.
Enceladus and Saturn’s Rings
My favorite image was just released yesterday. A crescent Enceladus with its southern polar jets visible and Saturn’s rings. Enceladus isn’t spraying Saturn’s rings, but the angle makes for an epic image.
What’s going on beneath Enceladus’ surface? That’s a question Cassini’s team continues to gather info on. On December 19, Cassini will make one last flyby of the icy, wet moon. At an altitude of 3,106 miles above the moon’s surface, Cassini will gather more measurements of heat flow from the interior. Understanding the heat flow will help scientists better grasp what exactly is going on beneath the ice-spewing jets.