Cassini finds alien version of ‘Nile River’ on Titan

Titan’s version of the Nile River stretches across this radar image; part of the Ligeia Mare sea is also visible on the right side of the image. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASI

Want to go river rafting on Titan? The largest moon of Saturn is the only other place in the solar system known to have rivers, lakes and seas on its surface. Appearance-wise, they are eerily similar to their earthly counterparts, but are composed of liquid methane instead of water, in Titan’s extremely cold environment. Now, the Cassini spacecraft has found the largest Titanian river system yet, similar to the Nile River on Earth, as announced on December 12, 2012.

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Stunning new views of swirling storms and hexagon at Saturn’s north pole

The dramatic, swirling storms at Saturn’s north pole. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute

Addendum: there is also now a beautiful colour version of one of Cassini’s hexagon photos here, thanks to Jason Major.

The Cassini spacecraft has been sending back amazing images of Saturn and its moons on a regular basis, and some new ones just taken yesterday are no exception.

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Did Saturn lay an egg?

Image of Saturn’s tiny egg-shaped moon Methone taken by the Cassini spacecraft.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Malin Space Science Institute

It might seem that way in this new photo released on November 5, 2012, taken by the orbiting Cassini spacecraft, but this is actually the tiny moon Methone. The oblong shape and smooth surface make Methone look more like a huge egg than a moon.

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Saturn and Titan pose for Cassini

Titan floats in front of Saturn as seen by Cassini. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Space Science Institute

The Cassini spacecraft has returned some beautiful new images of Saturn and its largest moon Titan. The photo above shows Titan passing in front of Saturn from Cassini’s viewpoint; Saturn’s rings are seen almost edge-on with their shadows below them arcing across Saturn’s atmosphere. Simply breathtaking…

Additional images are here and the image advisory is here.

Cassini finds new evidence for subsurface ocean on Titan

Artist’s conception of Titan’s interior based on the new findings. Credit: A. Tavani / NASA / JPL

Titan, the largest moon of Saturn and one of the most fascinating places in the solar system, is a world of rain, rivers, lakes and seas. Unlike Earth though, this alien hydrological cycle is composed of liquid methane rather than water, since the temperatures on Titan are far colder than even at the poles of our own planet.

It had long been theorized, however, that liquid water could actually exist on Titan – underground. Gravitational tugging from Saturn could create enough heat inside Titan to maintain a layer of water, similar to that on another Saturn moon, Enceladus and one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa (and possibly others as well). Literally, an underground ocean.

Now, new evidence from the Cassini orbiter has indicated that there most likely is indeed a Titanian ocean.

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Titan, Enceladus and Saturn’s rings

Titan and Enceladus pose for Cassini's cameras behind and in front of Saturn's rings. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI/Jason Major

Some of the most beautiful images of our solar system have come from the Cassini spacecraft orbiting Saturn. Here is another new one, taken on March 12, 2012. It shows two of Saturn’s fascinating moons, Titan (in the background) and Enceladus (in the foreground) along with Saturn’s rings, seen here very obliquely, almost edge-on.

This near-true-colour composite was made from the original raw filter images sent back by Cassini, thanks to Jason Major.

A world of methane rain, lakes and seas and another with water vapour geysers and probable subsurface ocean, together in one picture, amazing.

Saturn-like ring system discovered orbiting another star

Artist's conception of the Saturn-like ring system. Credit: Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester

For the first time, astronomers have found a ring system orbiting another star that seems to be similar to the rings of Saturn in our own solar system. It encircles a low-mass object which orbits the star, but it isn’t clear yet if that object is a planet, a very low-mass star or a brown dwarf star.

The scientists used data from the international SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets) and the All Sky Automated Survey (ASAS) project to study the light curves of young Sun-like stars in the Scorpius-Centaurus region of our galaxy.

This star, 1SWASP J140747.93-394542.6., is about 420 light-years away. It is similar in mass to the Sun, but is much younger, only about 16 million years old.

The ring appears to be a multi-ring system, with at least three or four rings and two or three gaps, another similarity to Saturn’s rings. These are much larger however; Saturn’s rings are a few hundred thousand kilometres across, while these ones are tens of millions of kilometres.

According to Eric Mamajek, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Rochester, “When I first saw the light curve, I knew we had found a very weird and unique object. After we ruled out the eclipse being due to a spherical star or a circumstellar disk passing in front of the star, I realized that the only plausible explanation was some sort of dust ring system orbiting a smaller companion—basically a ‘Saturn on steroids.’ We suspect this new star is being eclipsed by a low-mass object with an orbiting disk that has multiple thin rings of dust debris.”

He continued: “This marks the first time astronomers have detected an extrasolar ring system transiting a Sun-like star, and the first system of discrete, thin, dust rings detected around a very low-mass object outside of our solar system. But many questions remain about what exactly has been discovered.”

If the object is less than 13 MJ (Jupiter masses), it is most likely a planet. If however it is between 13 MJ and 75 MJ, than it is probably a brown dwarf star.

Mamajek says that more definite conclusions about these rings will take another couple of years or so of analysis. Finding other ones would of course also be helpful.

Saturn, with its majestic rings, is one of the most beautiful places in the solar system. Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune also all have rings, albeit not as striking as Saturn’s. As we continue to find exoplanets by the thousands, how many of those may also be graced by rings? There might be a wide variety of ringed planets out there, all beautifully unique.

The findings will be published in an upcoming issue of the Astronomical Journal.

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Enceladus and its water geysers pose again for Cassini

View of Enceladus' surface, image taken October 19, 2011. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus was the centre of attention for the Cassini spacecraft again last week, with beautiful new photos being released of the moon and its water vapour geysers erupting from the south pole. Some views show surface detail on the moon, some are of the geysers themselves and there is a very nice shot of Enceladus silhouetted against Saturn and its rings in the background. There is even a dual ultraviolet stellar occultation in which two of the stars in the belt of the constellation Orion are seen shining through the plumes! Even though these are still raw, unprocessed images, they again capture the beauty of Enceladus and the Saturnian system…

See Universe Today for the full article.

The rains of Titan

For the first time, the Cassini spacecraft has documented extensive rainstorms in the equatorial regions of Titan. The rains were already known to fill the many lakes near the moon’s north and south poles, but now also appear to occur at lower latitudes, in seasonal cycles reminiscent of those on Earth, except of course, that Titan’s rains are liquid methane instead of water. But the hydrological processes are remarkably similar.

Storm clouds near Titan's equator. Credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

There are also many riverbeds on the surface, and the Huygens probe had previously landed in or near one of them back in 2005 and found the surface soil still damp.

More images and animated video clips here.