Cassini Finds a Video Gamers’ Paradise at Saturn

Scientists with NASA’s Cassini mission have spotted two features shaped like the 1980s video game icon “Pac-Man” on moons of Saturn. One was observed on the moon Mimas in 2010 and the latest was observed on the moon Tethys. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC/SWRI

You could call this “Pac-Man, the Sequel.” Scientists with NASA’s Cassini mission have spotted a second feature shaped like the 1980s video game icon in the Saturn system, this time on the moon Tethys. (The first was found on Mimas in 2010). The pattern appears in thermal data obtained by Cassini’s composite infrared spectrometer, with warmer areas making up the Pac-Man shape.

“Finding a second Pac-Man in the Saturn system tells us that the processes creating these Pac-Men are more widespread than previously thought,” said Carly Howett, the lead author of a paper recently released online in the journal Icarus. “The Saturn system – and even the Jupiter system – could turn out to be a veritable arcade of these characters.”

Scientists theorize that the Pac-Man thermal shape on the Saturnian moons occurs because of the way high-energy electrons bombard low latitudes on the side of the moon that faces forward as it orbits around Saturn. The bombardment turns that part of the fluffy surface into hard-packed ice. As a result, the altered surface does not heat as rapidly in the sunshine or cool down as quickly at night as the rest of the surface, similar to how a boardwalk at the beach feels cooler during the day but warmer at night than the nearby sand. Finding another Pac-Man on Tethys confirms that high-energy electrons can dramatically alter the surface of an icy moon. Also, because the altered region on Tethys, unlike on Mimas, is also bombarded by icy particles from Enceladus’ plumes, it implies the surface alteration is occurring more quickly than its recoating by plume particles.

“Studies at infrared wavelengths give us a tremendous amount of information about the processes that shape planets and moons,” said Mike Flasar, the spectrometer’s principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “A result like this underscores just how powerful these observations are.”

Scientists saw the new Pac-Man on Tethys in data obtained on Sept. 14, 2011, where daytime temperatures inside the mouth of Pac-Man were seen to be cooler than their surroundings by 29 degrees Fahrenheit (15 kelvins). The warmest temperature recorded was a chilly minus 300 degrees Fahrenheit (90 kelvins), which is actually slightly cooler than the warmest temperature at Mimas (about minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit, or 95 kelvins). At Tethys, unlike Mimas, the Pac-Man pattern can also be seen subtly in visible-light images of the surface, as a dark lens-shaped region. This brightness variation was first noticed by NASA’s Voyager spacecraft in 1980.

“Finding a new Pac-Man demonstrates the diversity of processes at work in the Saturn system,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “Future Cassini observations may reveal other new phenomena that will surprise us and help us better understand the evolution of moons in the Saturn system and beyond.”

Read more:

Cassini Shows Why Jet Streams Cross-Cut Saturn

A particularly strong jet stream churns through Saturn’s northern hemisphere in this false-color view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI)

Turbulent jet streams, regions where winds blow faster than in other places, churn east and west across Saturn. Scientists have been trying to understand for years the mechanism that drives these wavy structures in Saturn’s atmosphere and the source from which the jets derive their energy.
In a new study appearing in the June edition of the journal Icarus, scientists used images collected over several years by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft to discover that the heat from within the planet powers the jet streams. Condensation of water from Saturn’s internal heating led to temperature differences in the atmosphere. The temperature differences created eddies, or disturbances that move air back and forth at the same latitude, and those eddies, in turn, accelerated the jet streams like rotating gears driving a conveyor belt.
A competing theory had assumed that the energy for the temperature differences came from the sun. That is how it works in Earth’s atmosphere.
“We know the atmospheres of planets such as Saturn and Jupiter can get their energy from only two places: the sun or the internal heating. The challenge has been coming up with ways to use the data so that we can tell the difference,” said Tony Del Genio of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, N.Y., the lead author of the paper and a member of the Cassini imaging team….
Read more:

Cassini Captures New Images of Icy Moon

NASA's Cassini spacecraft took this raw, unprocessed image of Saturn's moon Rhea on March 10, 2012. The camera was pointing toward Rhea at approximately 26,019 miles (41,873 kilometers) away.

These raw, unprocessed images of Saturn’s second largest moon, Rhea, were taken on March 10, 2012, by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft. This was a relatively distant flyby with a close-approach distance of 26,000 miles (42,000 kilometers), well suited for global geologic mapping.

March 10, 2012. The camera was pointing toward Rhea at approximately 26,157 miles (42,096 kilometers) away. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI

During the flyby, Cassini captured these distinctive views of the moon’s cratered surface, creating a 30-frame mosaic of Rhea’s leading hemisphere and the side of the moon that faces away from Saturn. The observations included the large Mamaldi (300 miles, or 480 kilometers, across) and Tirawa (220 miles, or 360 kilometers, across) impact basins and the 29-kilometer (47-kilometer) ray crater Inktomi, one of the youngest surface features on Rhea (about 950 miles, or 1,530 kilometers, across).

Rhea's Surface NASA's Cassini spacecraft took this raw, unprocessed image of Saturn's moon Rhea on March 10, 2012. The camera was pointing toward Rhea at approximately 26,257 miles (42,258 kilometers) away.

All of Cassini’s raw images can be seen at

Read more:

Rhea Before Titan

Craters appear well defined on icy Rhea in front of the hazy orb of the much larger moon Titan in this Cassini spacecraft view of these two Saturn moons.
Lit terrain seen here is on the leading hemispheres of Rhea and Titan. North on the moons is up and rotated 13 degrees to the left. The limb, or edge of the visible disk, of Rhea is slightly overexposed in this view.
The image was taken in visible green light with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on Dec. 10, 2011. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 1.2 million miles (2 million kilometers) from Titan and at a Sun-Titan-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 109 degrees. The view was acquired at a distance of approximately 810,000 miles (1.3 million kilometers) from Rhea and at a Sun-Rhea-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 109 degrees. Image scale is 8 miles (12 kilometers) per pixel on Titan and 5 miles (8 kilometers) per pixel on Rhea.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Saturn and Its Moon Dione

Dione on a Diagonal
Saturn and Dione appear askew in this Cassini spacecraft view, with the north poles rotated to the right, as if they were threaded along on the thin diagonal line of the planet’s rings.

This view looks toward the anti-Saturn side of Dione (698 miles, or 1,123 kilometers across). North on Dione is up and rotated 20 degrees to the right. This view looks toward the northern, sunlit side of the rings from less than one degree above the ring plane.

The image was taken in visible green light with the Cassini spacecraft wide-angle camera on Dec. 12, 2011. The view was obtained at a distance of approximately 35,000 miles (57,000 kilometers) from Dione and at a Sun-Dione-spacecraft, or phase, angle of 41 degrees.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

Enceladus weather: Snow flurries and perfect powder for skiing

Global signature of frost deposition on Enceladus revealed in colour mapping. The top map shows a colorized map of the predicted pattern of fallout from Enceladus’s icy plumes (bus represent thicker accumulations), with the global colour patterns observed by Cassini imaging camera. The bottom map is the global 3-color map of Enceladus showing areas that are relatively bluer. These areas correspond very well with areas predicted to have a deeper accumulation of plume-generated ice particles, or “snow”. The global colour map takes advantage of Cassini’s sensitivity at ultraviolet and near infrared wavelengths and shows an enhanced colour sensitivity compared to what our eyes might see. Plume deposition map from S. Kempf and J. Schmidt; global colour map from P. Schenk.

— Global and high resolution mapping of Enceladus confirms that the weather forecast for Saturn’s unique icy moon is set for ongoing snow flurries. The superfine ice crystals that coat Enceladus’s surface would make perfect powder for skiing, according to Dr Paul Schenk of the Lunar and Planetary Institute (Houston, Texas), who will present the results at the EPSC-DPS Joint Meeting 2011 in Nantes, France on Monday 3rd October….. Continue reading Enceladus weather: Snow flurries and perfect powder for skiing

Cassini Spacecraft Captures Images And Sounds Of Big Saturn Storm

The huge storm churning through the atmosphere in Saturn's northern hemisphere overtakes itself as it encircles the planet in this true-color view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft

Scientists analyzing data from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft now have the first-ever, up-close details of a Saturn storm that is eight times the surface area of Earth.
On Dec. 5, 2010, Cassini first detected the storm that has been raging ever since. It appears at approximately 35 degrees north latitude on Saturn. Pictures from Cassini’s imaging cameras show the storm wrapping around the entire planet covering approximately 1.5 billion square miles (4 billion square kilometers).
The storm is about 500 times larger than the biggest storm previously seen by Cassini during several months from 2009 to 2010. Scientists studied the sounds of the new storm’s lightning strikes and analyzed images taken between December 2010 and February 2011. Data from Cassini’s radio and plasma wave science instrument showed the lightning flash rate as much as 10 times more frequent than during other storms monitored since Cassini’s arrival to Saturn in 2004. The data appear in a paper published this week in the journal Nature….. Continue reading Cassini Spacecraft Captures Images And Sounds Of Big Saturn Storm

Cassini Captures Ocean-Like Spray at Saturn Moon

Dramatic plumes (cloudy, white areas), both large and small, spray water ice out from many locations along the famed "tiger stripes" near the south pole of Saturn's moon Enceladus.

PASADENA, Calif. – NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has discovered the best evidence yet for a large-scale saltwater reservoir beneath the icy crust of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The data came from the spacecraft’s direct analysis of salt-rich ice grains close to the jets ejected from the moon.

Data from Cassini’s cosmic dust analyzer show the grains expelled from fissures, known as tiger stripes, are relatively small and predominantly low in salt far away from the moon. But closer to the moon’s surface, Cassini found that relatively large grains rich with sodium and potassium dominate the plumes. The salt-rich particles have an “ocean-like” composition and indicate that most, if not all, of the expelled ice and water vapor comes from the evaporation of liquid salt water. The findings appear in this week’s issue of the journal Nature.

“There currently is no plausible way to produce a steady outflow of salt-rich grains from solid ice across all the tiger stripes other than salt water under Enceladus’s icy surface,” said Frank Postberg, a Cassini team scientist at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, and the lead author on the paper. When water freezes, the salt is squeezed out, leaving pure water ice behind. If the plumes emanated from ice, they should have very little salt in them….. Continue reading Cassini Captures Ocean-Like Spray at Saturn Moon