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Cassini Showcases Saturn Moon Dance

December 23, 2009

Like sugar plum fairies in “The Nutcracker,” the moons of Saturn performed a celestial ballet before the eyes of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. New movies frame the moons’ silent dance against the majestic sweep of the planet’s rings and show as many as four moons gliding around one another.

To celebrate the holidays, the Cassini imaging team has created a video collection of “mutual events,” which occur when one moon passes in front of another, as seen from the spacecraft. Imaging scientists use mutual event observations to refine their understanding of the dynamics of Saturn’s moons. Digital image processing has enabled scientists to turn these routine observations into breathtaking displays of celestial motion. The original images were captured between Aug. 27 and Nov. 8, 2009.

In one scene that synthesizes 12 images taken over the span of 19 minutes, Rhea skates in front of Janus, as Mimas and Pandora slide across the screen in the opposite direction. While the dance appears leisurely on screen, Rhea actually orbits Saturn at a speed of about 8 kilometers per second (18,000 mph). The other moons are hurtling around the planet even faster. Mimas averages about 14 kilometers per second (31,000 mph), and Janus and Pandora travel at about 16 kilometers per second (36,000 mph).

“As yet another year in Saturn orbit draws to a close, these wondrous movies of an alien place clear across the solar system remind us how fortunate we are to be engaged in this magnificent exploratory expedition,” said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

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 mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in 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, Boulder, Colo.

Image Caption: Saturn’s moons give Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet, “The Nutcracker,” a graceful new spin in this video compiled from some 61 images taken by the Cassini spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

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