Saturn And Moons Show Off For The Holidays
December 24, 2013

Cassini Captures Pre-Holiday Images Of Saturn’s ‘Snowball’ Moon

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Just in time for the holiday season, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has captured new images of Saturn and two of its moons – including Enceladus, a “white, glittering snowball of a moon,” the US space agency announced on Monday.

Featured in the collection of newly-released images (which can be viewed online) are two views of Enceladus that highlight the several ridges and features that highlight the surface of the icy moon. The satellite is well known for the nearly 100 geysers spread throughout its south polar region, NASA explained. Those geysers spout miniature ice particles into space, the majority of which return to the surface as snowfall.

However, a small percentage of those icy particles manage to escape the moon’s gravity, making their way into orbit around Saturn and forming the planet’s E ring, the agency said. Since scientists believe that the geysers are directly connected to a subsurface liquid-water reservoir that is salty and rich in organic material, this moon is believed to be home to one of the solar system’s most accessible extraterrestrial habitable zones.

Cassini also delivered images of Saturn’s north and south poles, which appear to be drastically different from one another, as the NASA images demonstrate in new natural-color views. The agency likens the planet’s globe to “a holiday ornament in a wide-angle image overlooking its north pole, bringing into view the hexagonal jet stream and rapidly spinning polar vortex that reside there. And the planet's south pole, now in winter, looking very different than the springtime north, displays brilliant blue hues, reminiscent of a frosty winter wonderland.”

Finally, Cassini also captured new natural-color images of Titan, the largest of Saturn’s moons. The new pictures look at two of Titan’s most noteworthy features: lakes and seas of liquid methane and ethane located in the polar regions, and a swirling high-altitude vortex located at the moon’s south pole. Titan is the only other place in the solar system known to have stable surface liquids, NASA said, and both its surface and atmospheric environments are said to be somewhat similar to those found during the earliest days of planet Earth.

Cassini, which launched in 1997 and is scheduled to continue operation through 2017, is marking its tenth holiday season exploring Saturn and its moons, according to imaging team leader Carolyn Porco of the Space Science Institute in Colorado. “We hope that these images from Cassini remind everyone the world over of the significance of our discoveries in exploring such a remote and beautiful planetary system. Happy holidays from all of us on Cassini.”

“Until Cassini arrived at Saturn, we didn't know about the hydrocarbon lakes of Titan, the active drama of Enceladus' jets, and the intricate patterns at Saturn's poles,” added Linda Spilker, the Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). “Spectacular images like these highlight that Cassini has given us the gift of knowledge, which we have been so excited to share with everyone.”