Cassini finds evidence for hydrothermal activity on Saturn’s moon Enceladus

Cutaway view depicting the interior of Enceladus. Water, salts, organics, and methane make their way from the hydrothermal vents on the ocean bottom to the surface through cracks in the icy crust, erupting as geysers. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
Cutaway view depicting the interior of Enceladus. Water, salts, organics, and methane make their way from the hydrothermal vents on the ocean bottom to the surface through cracks in the icy crust, erupting as geysers. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

The deep oceans on Earth are teeming with life, despite the cold and darkness, thanks to hydrothermal vents which provide needed heat and nutrients in an otherwise rather uncomfortable environment. Now, the first evidence has been found for current hydrothermal activity elsewhere in the Solar System: on the ocean bottom of Saturn’s moon Enceladus.

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New technique provides better, clearer radar images of Titan’s amazing surface

Radar view of Ligeia Mare, a large hydrocarbon sea on Titan. The original version is on the left and the enhanced, “despeckled” version is on the right. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI
Radar view of Ligeia Mare, a large hydrocarbon sea on Titan. The original version is on the left and the enhanced, “despeckled” version is on the right. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI

Saturn’s largest moon Titan is a fascinating world, uniquely alien yet eerily Earth-like in many ways, with its rain, rivers, lakes, seas, and massive sand dunes. But in this extremely cold environment, it is liquid methane and ethane which act as “water,” mimicking the hydrological cycle on Earth. Also, due to the perpetual and global hazy cloud cover, the only way to see these features from orbit is by using radar, which is what the Cassini spacecraft has done on a regular basis for quite a few years now. As good as they are, though, the radar images contain electronic noise, which reduces sharpness and clarity. But now a new technique is letting planetary scientists see Titan’s surface more clearly than ever before.

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Cassini data indicates Enceladus’ ocean similar to soda lakes on Earth

The geysers of Enceladus, erupting through cracks in the ice at the south pole from a subsurface salty ocean or sea. Image Credit: NASA/JPL
The geysers of Enceladus, erupting through cracks in the ice at the south pole from a subsurface salty ocean or sea. Image Credit: NASA/JPL

Along with Jupiter’s infamous moon Europa, Saturn’s moon Enceladus is one of the most fascinating places in the Solar System, with its huge geysers of water vapour erupting from cracks in the surface at the south pole. The massive plumes are now thought to originate in a subsurface ocean or sea of salty liquid water, similar perhaps to Europa’s underground ocean. Now, new analysis is providing a more detailed look at the chemical makeup of this unique alien environment and its potential to support life.

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Cassini’s best-ever view of Saturn’s amazing hexagon

Still image from the movie sequence taken by Cassini of the colourful hexagon-shaped jet stream in Saturn’s atmosphere above the north pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Hampton University
Still image from the movie sequence taken by Cassini of the colourful hexagon-shaped jet stream in Saturn’s atmosphere above the north pole. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Hampton University

The solar system is full of many planets and moons, each with their own unique characteristics and features, some of which have never been seen anywhere else. One such oddity is found on Saturn – a giant hexagon-shaped jet stream surrounding the planet’s north pole. It is a natural feature in Saturn’s atmosphere, although the near-perfect six-sided formation might make you look twice. Now, the Cassini spacecraft has taken the best-ever images of this hexagon, it was announced yesterday.

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Stunning new image from Cassini of Saturn – and Mars, Earth and Venus too!

Beautiful panoramic view of Saturn, some of its moons, and even some of the inner planets including Earth, as imaged by Cassini on July 19, 2013 as part of The Day the Earth Smiled event. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI
Beautiful panoramic view of Saturn, some of its moons, and even some of the inner planets including Earth, as imaged by Cassini on July 19, 2013 as part of The Day the Earth Smiled event. Click on image for larger version. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

The Cassini spacecraft has taken another stunning new panoramic image, released yesterday, showing Saturn and its rings in all of their glory. It has done this before, including ones showing the Earth and Moon in the far distance, as tiny specks of light. But this new image is even better; not only does it again show Saturn and its rings beautifully backlit against the Sun in natural color, but this one also shows Mars and Venus, as well as the Earth and Moon!

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Amazing view of Saturn from above

Saturn as seen from above by the Cassini spacecraft. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech
Saturn as seen from above by the Cassini spacecraft. Click image for larger version.
Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / Gordan Ugarkovic

This stunning view of Saturn is one that can never be seen from Earth; it was taken by the Cassini spacecraft, still orbiting the huge ringed planet, from high above the equatorial plane on October 10, 2013. Only in such a view can the planet itself be seen as separate from the surrounding rings. This composite image was made from 36 individual images. Beautiful!

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Our home the Earth – as seen from Saturn and Mercury

Earth as seen by Cassini on July 19, 2013 - the tiny blue speck in the distance below Saturn's rings in this view. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SSI / Jason Major
Earth as seen by the Cassini spacecraft on July 19, 2013 – the tiny blue speck in the distance below Saturn’s rings in this view. Click for larger version. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SSI / Jason Major

Last Friday, a remarkable thing happened, which received a lot of publicity, especially for space fans: the Earth had its photo taken – from Saturn! The Cassini spacecraft took the images, which were used for The Day the Earth Smiled event, showing the Earth as a very tiny blue speck in the distance, with Saturn and its rings looming in the foreground. Zooming in closer, the Moon can also be seen. How cool is that? But that’s not all… although it didn’t seem to get as much attention, the Earth and Moon also had their picture taken from Mercury, by the MESSENGER  spacecraft, on the same day!

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The Day the Earth Smiled – July 19, 2013

Credit: The Day the Earth Smiled
Credit: The Day the Earth Smiled

Something remarkable is going to happen next Friday, July 19, 2013. On that day, the Earth is going to have its picture taken, but not just from an orbiting satellite, from Saturn. The Cassini spacecraft, still orbiting the ringed planet, will take images of Saturn and all of its rings during an eclipse of the Sun. This has been done twice before, but this time, the view will include another tiny, far-away blue speck – the Earth, in natural colour.

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Does Saturn’s moon Dione also have a subsurface ocean?

The cratered surface of Dione, as seen by Cassini. Did (or does) an ocean lurk beneath the surface? Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute
The cratered surface of Dione, as seen by Cassini. Did (or does) an ocean lurk beneath the surface? Credit: NASA / JPL / Space Science Institute

The outer solar system was once thought to be not much more than a frozen wasteland, at least in terms of the many moons orbiting the gas and ice giant planets. But with the intriguing discoveries made by robotic probes such as Voyager, Galileo and Cassini, we now know differently.

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