Grand Finale part 3: Cassini completes third ring dive, sees bright clouds on Titan

Two versions of the image of Titan’s clouds, taken on May 7, 2017. The first is with stronger enhancement, and the second is with softer enhancement. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

NASA’s Cassini probe has now survived its third dive into Saturn’s rings, specifically the gap between the innermost rings and the planet itself. This is just the latest in a series of 22 such planned dives for the Grand Finale phase, before the mission ends on Sept. 15, 2017. This time, as well as obtaining more close-up views of the rings and Saturn’s atmosphere again, Cassini took a look at Saturn’s largest moon Titan from a distance, and saw some of the longest and brightest clouds in the hazy atmosphere that it has seen in the entire mission. Even though Cassini won’t be making any more close flybys of Titan, these new views are fantastic.

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Cassini completes last flyby of Titan and first dive between Saturn and rings in ‘Grand Finale’

Raw image from Cassini’s last-ever flyby of Titan, taken on April 21, 2017. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has now officially entered the last phase of its mission – the “Grand Finale,” with the last-ever close flyby of Titan and the first of 22 final orbits which will take the spacecraft closer to Saturn than ever before, passing between the inner rings and the planet itself. Cassini has today just completed the first of these passes (with results pending for a few hours as of this writing), which will culminate on Sept. 15 with the spacecraft plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere to meet its fiery end. It will be a sad but incredible ending to an incredible mission.

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Cassini enters ‘Grand Finale’ phase of mission and solves a ‘bubbling mystery’ on Titan’s seas

Artist’s conception of Cassini’s final flyby of Titan on April 21. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This week marks another important milestone in the Cassini mission at Saturn – as of today, the spacecraft is conducting the last Ring-Grazing Orbit of its mission as it prepares for the Grand Finale, which will culminate in the death of the probe on Sept. 15. On April 21, Cassini will do its very last close flyby of Saturn’s largest moon Titan. Speaking of Titan, Cassini has also apparently solved a perplexing mystery; the unusual “magic island” formations seen in one of the moon’s methane/ethane seas are now thought to be caused by nitrogen bubbles fizzing periodically on the sea’s surface.

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Titan’s lakes and seas may be fizzy with patches of nitrogen bubbles

Radar image from Cassini of the northern hemisphere methane/ethane lakes and seas on Titan, as seen on Feb. 17, 2017. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn’s moon Titan is the only other body in the Solar System besides Earth known to have liquids on its surface. In Titan’s case, they are rivers, lakes and seas of liquid hydrocarbons (methane/ethane) instead of water. There is even methane/ethane rain, which further mimics Earth’s hydrological cycle. For the most part, the lakes and seas are fairly smooth, with only small amounts of wave activity. But now, new research suggests that those lakes and seas might be quite fizzy at times – with periodic bursts of nitrogen bubbles.

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A very alien moon: NASA celebrates 12th anniversary of Huygens landing on Titan

Mosaic of images taken by Huygens during its descent to the surface of Titan, from an altitude of about 6 miles (10 kilometers). Riverbeds formed by liquid methane can be seen near the center of the image. Image Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Twelve years ago today, one of the most incredible space missions ever was accomplished: the first landing of a probe on an alien moon. And this wasn’t just any moon, but Titan, largest moon of Saturn and one of the most fascinating worlds in the Solar System. Although much colder than Earth, Titan mimics some of the processes found here such as its hydrological cycle, but with liquid methane/ethane instead of water. Titan had been observed extensively by telescopes and from Saturnian orbit, but this was the first time the surface could be seen up close.

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