Gateway to the Ring-Grazing Orbits: Cassini conducts new flybys of Titan and Enceladus

Cassini conducted its next-to-last flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan yesterday, in preparation of the Ring-Grazing Orbits has of its mission. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Cassini conducted its next-to-last flyby of Saturn’s moon Titan yesterday, in preparation of the Ring-Grazing Orbits has of its mission. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

As reported earlier this week, the Cassini spacecraft is now preparing to make a series of very close passes by the edges of Saturn’s rings, known as Ring-Grazing Orbits. A couple days ago, Cassini conducted a close flyby of Saturn’s largest moon Titan; this is the second-to-last ever flyby of Titan before Cassini enters the Grand Finale phase of its mission, culminating in a deliberate plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017. During this flyby, Cassini focused on mapping the surface and surface temperatures and used Titan’s gravity to help place the spacecraft into the Ring-Grazing Orbits.

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Cassini spacecraft prepares for incredible ‘Ring-Grazing Orbits’ at Saturn

View from Cassini of Saturn and its main rings. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
View from Cassini of Saturn and its main rings. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The Cassini mission to Saturn has been one of the most successful planetary missions ever, revealing the ringed giant and its moons as never before. Sadly, that mission is scheduled to end Sept. 15, 2017, and in preparation the spacecraft will be making some never-done-before maneuvers as it gets ready to take the final plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere on that date, aka the Grand Finale. Next week, Cassini will perform one of these feats, flying just past the edge of Saturn’s main rings.

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Image Gallery: Alpha Centauri as Seen from Saturn

Photo Credit: NASA
Alpha Centauri as seen from Saturn. Click image for larger version. Photo Credit: NASA

This image shows the stars Alpha Centauri A and Alpha Centauri B just above the edge of the cloud tops in Saturn’s atmosphere, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. The two stars are part of the Alpha Centauri triple star system, which is the closest star system to our Solar System, but is still almost 30,000 times farther away from us than Saturn is.

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Cassini data may help locate ‘Planet Nine’ and reveals methane fog on Titan

Artist’s conception of the possible Planet Nine, orbiting much farther from the Sun than even Pluto. The Cassini spacecraft may be able to help find it. Image Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)
Artist’s conception of the possible Planet Nine, orbiting much farther from the Sun than even Pluto. The Cassini spacecraft may be able to help find it. Image Credit: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)

The Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn for many years now, studying the massive planet and its moons in unprecedented detail. Now, Cassini might be able to help shed light on another Solar System mystery: the possible existence of a ninth planet in the outer Solar System far past Pluto, or “Planet Nine” as it has been dubbed. There is also a new report, based on old data, that the Huygens lander observed methane ground fog as it descended to the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan in 2005.

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Image Gallery: Enceladus and its geysers

Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Michael Benson/Kinetikon Pictures
Enceladus and its geysers. Click image for larger version. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Michael Benson/Kinetikon Pictures

A beautiful image of Saturn’s moon Enceladus with its active water vapour geysers, taken by the Cassini spacecraft. The left side of the moon is lit by the Sun and the right side is illuminated by light reflected from Saturn, or “Saturnshine.” The geysers, over 100 known, originate from a subsurface global ocean and are known to contain water vapour, ice particles, salts and organics. The water vapour reaches the surface through cracks in the outer icy crust.

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Cassini completes epic flyby through geysers of Enceladus, sends back stunning new images

View of Enceladus and Saturn’s rings during the flyby on Oct. 28, 2015, at a distance of 106,000 miles (171,000 kilometers) from Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
View of Enceladus and Saturn’s rings during the flyby on Oct. 28, 2015, at a distance of 171,000 kilometres (106,000 miles) from Enceladus. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The Cassini spacecraft has successfully completed its deepest dive through the water vapour geysers of Enceladus and is now sending back some fantastic images of the event. These and subsequent images, as well as science data still to come, will help scientists better understand the incredible active geology occurring on this tiny, cold moon of Saturn.

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Sampling an alien ocean: Cassini prepares for deep dive through Enceladus’ geysers on Wednesday

Artist’s conception of Cassini making a close flyby of Enceladus and its water vapor plumes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Artist’s conception of Cassini making a close flyby of Enceladus and its water vapour plumes. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Today, Wednesday, Oct. 28, 2015, the Cassini spacecraft will make a historic close flyby (dubbed “E21”) of Saturn’s tiny icy moon Enceladus, not only passing very close to the surface, but also making the deepest dive yet through the water vapour geysers which erupt from the south pole. These plumes are connected to a global ocean of salty water deep below the surface ice, which may be a habitable environment for some form of life.

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New evidence from Cassini indicates Saturn’s moon Enceladus has global subsurface ocean

Diagram depicting the interior of Enceladus, with the global ocean between the ice crust above and the rocky core below. The jets of water vapor erupt from fissures at the south pole. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Diagram depicting the interior of Enceladus, with the global ocean between the ice crust above and the rocky core below. The jets of water vapour erupt from fissures at the south pole. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Along with Jupiter’s moon Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus is considered to be one of the best places to look for evidence of life elsewhere in the Solar System, since both moons are now known to have liquid water beneath their icy surfaces. Now, new evidence suggests that Enceladus may be an even better candidate than first thought: data from the Cassini orbiter shows that the moon harbors a global ocean of water beneath the ice crust, just like Europa, instead of a smaller sea beneath the south pole as previously believed.

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Saturn’s massive Phoebe ring even larger than previously thought

Image of the Phoebe ring taken in 2009, overlaid in tan colors. The ring is much larger than Saturn’s other more visible rings and is also tilted with respect to the other rings. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/U. Virginia
Image of the Phoebe ring taken in 2009, overlaid in tan colours. The ring is much larger than Saturn’s other more visible rings and is also tilted with respect to the other rings. Image Credit: NASA/JPL/U. Virginia

Saturn is truly the “Lord of the Rings” and one of the most majestic places in the Solar System. Its massive ring system is well-known, but in 2009 another previously unknown ring was discovered, much larger than the others but fainter, being composed of dark grains of dust thought to originate from the moon Phoebe. Now, new research indicates that the Phoebe ring is even larger than first thought.

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Just add water: scientists explain Saturn’s powerful thunderstorms

A giant storm in Saturn’s northern hemisphere, which now extends around the planet, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
A giant storm in Saturn’s northern hemisphere, which now extends around the planet, as seen by the Cassini spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Thunderstorms are a powerful force of nature, but the ones we experience on Earth are dwarfed by the ones on the gas giant planet Saturn. They are huge and can be larger than Earth itself, and now scientists think they know why they tend to appear most prominently every 20-30 years, encircling the entire planet with intense lightning and massive cloud disturbances.

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