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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Cassini sends back spectacular new images from first Ring-Grazing Orbit at Saturn

Saturn’s northern hemisphere up close: new image taken by Cassini on Dec. 3, 2016, showing small details in the turbulent atmosphere, including one corner of the “hexagon” with central cyclone. It was taken at a distance of about 240,000 miles (390,000 kilometers) from Saturn. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute
Saturn’s northern hemisphere up close: new image taken by Cassini on Dec. 3, 2016, showing small details in the turbulent atmosphere, including one corner of the “hexagon” with central cyclone. It was taken at a distance of about 390,000 kilometres (240,000 miles) from Saturn. Photo Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

The Cassini spacecraft has successfully completed its first close pass of Saturn’s ring system, part of the Ring-Grazing Orbits phase of its mission, NASA said yesterday. As might be expected, Cassini has sent back some spectacular new images; these first images show Saturn’s northern hemisphere in incredible detail, including the famous “hexagon” jet stream surrounding the north pole.

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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 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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Sinkholes on Titan: new study shows how hydrocarbon lakes may form by Earth-like erosion

Coloured mosaic of lakes near Titan’s north pole. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/USGS
Coloured mosaic of lakes near Titan’s north pole. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/USGS

Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, has seas and lakes of liquid methane and ethane dotting its surface, but one question scientists have been trying to figure out is how the hollows in the ground, which hold the lakes, form to begin with. Now, a new study offers a solution: The depressions in the surface are formed in a process similar to sinkholes on Earth.

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