Cassini Marks Holidays With Dramatic Views of Rhea

PASADENA, Calif. – Newly released for the holidays, images of Saturn’s second largest moon Rhea obtained by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft show dramatic views of fractures cutting through craters on the moon’s surface, revealing a history of tectonic rumbling. The images are among the highest-resolution views ever obtained of Rhea.

Hemispheric color differences on Saturn's moon Rhea are apparent in this false-color view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

“These recent, high-resolution Cassini images help us put Saturn’s moon in the context of the moons’ geological family tree,” said Paul Helfenstein, Cassini imaging team associate, based at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y. “Since NASA’s Voyager mission visited Saturn, scientists have thought of Rhea and Dione as close cousins, with some differences in size and density. The new images show us they’re more like fraternal twins, where the resemblance is more than skin deep. This probably comes from their nearness to each other in orbit.”

Cassini scientists designed the March 2010 and November 2009 encounters in part to search for a ring thought to encircle the moon. During the March flyby, Cassini made its closest- approach to Rhea’s surface so far, swooping within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the moon. Based on these observations, however, scientists have since discounted the possibility that Rhea might currently have a faint ring above its equator.

Wispy fractures cut through cratered terrain on Saturn's moon Rhea in this high resolution, 3-D image from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

These flybys nonetheless yielded unique views of other features on the moon, including ones that are among the best ever obtained of the side of Rhea that always faces away from Saturn. Other views show a web of bright, “wispy” fractures resembling some that were first spotted on another part of Rhea by the two Voyager spacecraft in 1980 and 1981.

At that time, scientists thought the wispy markings on the trailing hemispheres – the sides of moons that face backward in the orbit around a planet – of Rhea and the neighboring moon Dione were possible cryovolcanic deposits, or the residue of icy material erupting. The low resolution of Voyager images prevented a closer inspection of these regions. Since July 2004, Cassini’s imaging cameras have captured pictures the trailing hemispheres of both satellites several times at much higher resolution. The images have shown that the wispy markings are actually exposures of bright ice along the steep walls of long scarps, or lines of cliffs, that indicate tectonic activity produced the features rather than cryovolcanism.

Icy fractures on Saturn's moon Rhea reflect sunlight brightly in this high-resolution mosaic created from images captured by NASA's Cassini spacecraft during its March 2, 2010, flyby. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

Data collected by Cassini’s imaging cameras in November 2009 showed the trailing hemisphere at unprecedented resolution. Scientists combined images taken about one hour apart to create a 3-D image of this terrain, revealing a set of closely spaced troughs that sometimes look linear and sometimes look sinuous. The 3-D image also shows uplifted blocks interspersed through the terrain that cut through older, densely cratered plains. While the densely cratered plains imply that Rhea has not experienced much internal activity since its early history that would have repaved the moon, these imaging data suggest that some regions have ruptured in response to tectonic stress more recently. Troughs and other fault topography cut through the two largest craters in the scene, which are not as scarred with smaller craters, indicating that these craters are comparatively young. In some places, material has moved downslope along the scarps and accumulated on the flatter floors.

A mosaic of the March flyby images shows bright, icy fractures cutting across the surface of the moon, sometimes at right angles to each other. A false-color view of the entire disk of the moon’s Saturn-facing side reveals a slightly bluer area, likely related to different surface compositions or to different sizes and fine-scale textures of the grains making up the moon’s icy soil.

This global digital map of Saturn's moon Rhea was created using data obtained by NASA's Cassini and Voyager spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL/SSI

The new images have also helped to enhance maps of Rhea, including the first cartographic atlas of features on the moon complete with names approved by the International Astronomical Union. Thanks to the recent mission extension, Cassini will continue to chart the terrain of this and other Saturnian moons with ever-improving resolution, especially for terrain at high northern latitudes, until 2017.

“The 11th of January 2011 will be especially exciting, when Cassini flies just 76 kilometers [47 miles] above the surface of Rhea,” said Thomas Roatsch, a Cassini imaging team scientist based at the German Aerospace Center Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin. “These will be by far the best images we’ve ever had of Rhea’s surface – details down to just a few meters will become recognizable.”

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

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Thin Air – Cassini Finds Ethereal Atmosphere at Saturn’s moon Rhea

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has detected a very tenuous atmosphere known as an exosphere, infused with oxygen and carbon dioxide around Saturn’s icy moon Rhea. This is the first time a spacecraft has directly captured molecules of an oxygen atmosphere – albeit a very thin one — at a world other than Earth.

The oxygen appears to arise when Saturn’s magnetic field rotates over Rhea. Energetic particles trapped in the planet’s magnetic field pepper the moon’s water-ice surface. They cause chemical reactions that decompose the surface and release oxygen. The source of the carbon dioxide is less certain.

Oxygen at Rhea’s surface is estimated to be about 5 trillion times less dense than what we have at Earth. But the new results show that surface decomposition could contribute abundant molecules of oxygen, leading to surface densities roughly 100 times greater than the exospheres of either Earth’s moon or Mercury. The formation of oxygen and carbon dioxide could possibly drive complex chemistry on the surfaces of many icy bodies in the universe.

The cratered plains of Saturn's moon Rhea are visible in this image obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft on Nov. 21, 2009. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

“The new results suggest that active, complex chemistry involving oxygen may be quite common throughout the solar system and even our universe,” said lead author Ben Teolis, a Cassini team scientist based at Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “Such chemistry could be a prerequisite for life. All evidence from Cassini indicates that Rhea is too cold and devoid of the liquid water necessary for life as we know it.”

Releasing oxygen through surface irradiation could help generate conditions favorable for life at an icy body other than Rhea that has liquid water under the surface, Teolis said. If the oxygen and carbon dioxide from the surface could somehow get transported down to a sub-surface ocean, that would provide a much more hospitable environment for more complex compounds and life to form. Scientists are keen to investigate whether life on icy moons with an ocean is possible, though they have not yet detected it.

The tenuous atmosphere with oxygen and carbon dioxide makes Rhea, Saturn’s second largest moon, unique in the Saturnian system. Titan has a thick nitrogen-methane atmosphere, but very little carbon dioxide and oxygen.

“Rhea is turning out to be much more interesting than we had imagined,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “The Cassini finding highlights the rich diversity of Saturn’s moons and gives us clues on how they formed and evolved.”

Scientists had suspected Rhea could have a thin atmosphere with oxygen and carbon dioxide, based on remote observations of Jupiter’s icy moons by NASA’s Galileo spacecraft and Hubble Space Telescope. Other Cassini observations detected oxygen escaping from icy Saturn ring particles after ultraviolet bombardment. But Cassini was able to detect oxygen and carbon dioxide in the exosphere directly because of how close it flew to Rhea – 101 kilometers, or 63 miles – and its special suite of instruments.

In the new study, scientists combined data from Cassini’s ion and neutral mass spectrometer and the Cassini plasma spectrometer during flybys on Nov. 26, 2005, Aug. 30, 2007, and March 2, 2010. The ion and neutral mass spectrometer “tasted” peak densities of oxygen of around 50 billion molecules per cubic meter (1 billion molecules per cubic foot). It detected peak densities of carbon dioxide of around 20 billion molecules per cubic meter (about 600 million molecules per cubic foot).

The plasma spectrometer saw clear signatures of flowing streams of positive and negative ions, with masses that corresponded to ions of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

“How exactly the carbon dioxide is released is still a puzzle,” said co-author Geraint Jones, a Cassini team scientist based at University College London in the U.K. “But with Cassini’s diverse suite of instruments observing Rhea from afar, as well as sniffing the gas surrounding it, we hope to solve the puzzle.”

The carbon dioxide may be the result of “dry ice” trapped from the primordial solar nebula, as is the case with comets, or it may be due to similar irradiation processes operating on the organic molecules trapped in the water ice of Rhea. The carbon dioxide could also come from carbon-rich materials deposited by tiny meteors that bombarded Rhea’s surface.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter was designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The ion and neutral mass spectrometer team and the Cassini plasma spectrometer team are based at Southwest Research Institute, San Antonio.

Cassini’s CIRS Reveals Saturn Is on a Cosmic Dimmer Switch

Like a cosmic light bulb on a dimmer switch, Saturn emitted gradually less energy each year from 2005 to 2009, according to observations by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. But unlike an ordinary bulb, Saturn’s southern hemisphere consistently emitted more energy than its northern one. On top of that, energy levels changed with the seasons and differed from the last time a spacecraft visited in the early 1980s. These never-before-seen trends came from an analysis of comprehensive data from the Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS), an instrument built by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., as well as a comparison with earlier data from NASA’s Voyager spacecraft. When combined with information about the energy coming to Saturn from the sun, the results could help scientists understand the nature of Saturn’s internal heat source.

Heat emitted from the interior of Saturn (red) shows up in this false-color image of Saturn, made from data taken in 2008 by Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer. Credit: NASA/JPL/ASI/University of Arizona

The findings were reported November 9 in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Planets by Liming Li of Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y. (now at the University of Houston), and colleagues from several institutions, including Goddard and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena Calif., which manages the Cassini mission. “The Cassini CIRS data are very valuable because they give us a nearly complete picture of Saturn,” says Li. “This is the only single data set that provides so much information about this planet, and it’s the first time that anybody has been able to study the power emitted by one of the giant planets in such detail.”

The planets in our solar system lose energy in the form of heat radiation in wavelengths that are invisible to the human eye. The CIRS instrument picks up wavelengths in the thermal infrared region, which is beyond red light, where the wavelengths correspond to heat emission.

“In planetary science, we tend to think of planets as losing power evenly in all directions and at a steady rate,” says Li. “Now we know Saturn is not doing that.” (Power is the amount of energy emitted per unit of time.)

Instead, Saturn’s flow of outgoing energy was lopsided, with its southern hemisphere giving off about one-sixth more energy than the northern one, Li explains. This effect matched Saturn’s seasons: during those five Earth years, it was summer in the southern hemisphere and winter in the northern one. (A season on Saturn lasts about seven Earth years.) Like Earth, Saturn has these seasons because the planet is tilted on its axis, so one hemisphere receives more energy from the sun and experiences summer while the other receives less energy and is shrouded in winter. Saturn’s equinox, when the sun was directly over the equator, occurred in August 2009.

From one Saturn year to the next, dramatic changes are seen in the emitted power and effective temperature on Saturn. Credit: Adapted from the Journal of Geophysical Research, Vol. 115, E11002, 2010, doi:10.1029/2010JE003631.

In the study, Saturn’s seasons looked Earth-like in another way: in each hemisphere, its effective temperature, which characterizes its thermal emission to space, started to warm up or cool down as a change of season approached. Because Saturn’s weather is variable and the atmosphere tends to retain heat (called heat inertia), the temperature changes in complicated ways throughout the atmosphere. “The effective temperature provides us a simple way to track the response of Saturn’s atmosphere, as a system, to the seasonal changes,” says Li. Cassini’s observations in the northern hemisphere revealed that the effective temperature gradually dropped from 2005 to 2008 and then started to warm up again by 2009. In Saturn’s southern hemisphere, the effective temperature cooled from 2005 to 2009, as the equinox started to approach.

The emitted energy for each hemisphere rose and fell along with the effective temperature. Even so, during this five-year period, the planet as a whole seemed to be slowly cooling down and emitting less energy.

To find out if similar changes were happening one Saturn year ago, the researchers looked at data collected by Voyager in 1980 and 1981. Like Cassini CIRS, Voyager recorded fluctuations in the energy emitted by the planet and in the effective temperature. But Voyager did not see the imbalance between the southern and northern hemispheres; instead, the two regions were much more consistent with each other.

Why wouldn’t Voyager have seen the same summer-versus-winter difference between the two hemispheres? The amount of energy coming from the sun (called solar radiance), which drives weather and atmospheric temperatures, could have fluctuated from one Saturn year to the next. The patterns in Saturn’s cloud cover and haze could have, too.

“It’s reasonable to think that the changes in Saturn’s emitted power are related to cloud cover,” says Amy Simon-Miller, who heads the Planetary Systems Laboratory at Goddard and is a co-author on the paper. “As the amount of cloud cover changes, the amount of radiation escaping into space also changes. This might vary during a single season and from one Saturn year to another. But to fully understand what is happening on Saturn, we will need the other half of the picture: the amount of power being absorbed by the planet.”

Li is finishing an analysis of the solar energy that came to Saturn, based on data sets collected by two other Cassini instruments, the imaging science subsystem and the visual and infrared mapping spectrometer. He agrees that this information is crucial because Saturn, like its fellow giant planets Jupiter and Neptune, is thought to have its own source of internal energy. (The fourth giant planet, Uranus, does not seem to have an internal source.) By studying the changes in Saturn’s outgoing energy along with the changes in incoming solar energy, scientists can learn about the nature of the planet’s internal energy source and whether it, too, changes over time.

“The differences between Saturn’s northern and southern hemisphere and that fact that Voyager did not see the same asymmetry raise a very important question: does Saturn’s internal heat vary with time?” says Li. “The answer will significantly deepen our understanding of the weather, internal structure and evolution of Saturn and the other giant planets.”

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency, and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The composite infrared spectrometer team is based at NASA Goddard, where the instrument was built.

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