Cassini Watches Mysterious Feature Evolve in Titan Sea

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September 29, 2014

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is monitoring the evolution of a mysterious feature in a large hydrocarbon sea on Saturn’s moon Titan. The feature covers an area of about 100 square miles (260 square kilometers) in Ligeia Mare, one of the largest seas on Titan. It has now been observed twice by Cassini’s radar experiment, but its appearance changed between the two apparitions.

Images of the feature taken during the Cassini flybys are available at:

http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA18430

The mysterious feature, which appears bright in radar images against the dark background of the liquid sea, was first spotted during Cassini’s July 2013 Titan flyby. Previous observations showed no sign of bright features in that part of Ligeia Mare. Scientists were perplexed to find the feature had vanished when they looked again, over several months, with low-resolution radar and Cassini’s infrared imager. This led some team members to suggest it might have been a transient feature. But during Cassini’s flyby on August 21, 2014, the feature was again visible, and its appearance had changed during the 11 months since it was last seen.

Scientists on the radar team are confident that the feature is not an artifact, or flaw, in their data, which would have been one of the simplest explanations. They also do not see evidence that its appearance results from evaporation in the sea, as the overall shoreline of Ligeia Mare has not changed noticeably.

The team has suggested the feature could be surface waves, rising bubbles, floating solids, solids suspended just below the surface, or perhaps something more exotic.

The researchers suspect that the appearance of this feature could be related to changing seasons on Titan, as summer draws near in the moon’s northern hemisphere. Monitoring such changes is a major goal for Cassini’s current extended mission.

“Science loves a mystery, and with this enigmatic feature, we have a thrilling example of ongoing change on Titan,” said Stephen Wall, the deputy team lead of Cassini’s radar team, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to continue watching the changes unfold and gain insights about what’s going on in that alien sea.”

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and ASI, the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the United States and several European countries.

For more information about Cassini and its mission, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/cassini

http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov

Source: NASA news

NASA’s Cassini Spacecraft Obtains Best Views of Saturn Hexagon

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This colorful view from NASA’s Cassini mission is the highest-resolution view of the unique six-sided jet stream at Saturn’s north pole known as “the hexagon.” This movie, made from images obtained by Cassini’s imaging cameras, is the first to show the hexagon in color filters, and the first movie to show a complete view from the north pole down to about 70 degrees north latitude. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI/Hampton University
› Full image and caption
December 04, 2013

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has obtained the highest-resolution movie yet of a unique six-sided jet stream, known as the hexagon, around Saturn’s north pole.

This is the first hexagon movie of its kind, using color filters, and the first to show a complete view of the top of Saturn down to about 70 degrees latitude. Spanning about 20,000 miles (30,000 kilometers) across, the hexagon is a wavy jet stream of 200-mile-per-hour winds (about 322 kilometers per hour) with a massive, rotating storm at the center. There is no weather feature exactly, consistently like this anywhere else in the solar system.

“The hexagon is just a current of air, and weather features out there that share similarities to this are notoriously turbulent and unstable,” said Andrew Ingersoll, a Cassini imaging team member at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “A hurricane on Earth typically lasts a week, but this has been here for decades — and who knows — maybe centuries.”

Weather patterns on Earth are interrupted when they encounter friction from landforms or ice caps. Scientists suspect the stability of the hexagon has something to do with the lack of solid landforms on Saturn, which is essentially a giant ball of gas.

Better views of the hexagon are available now because the sun began to illuminate its interior in late 2012. Cassini captured images of the hexagon over a 10-hour time span with high-resolution cameras, giving scientists a good look at the motion of cloud structures within.

They saw the storm around the pole, as well as small vortices rotating in the opposite direction of the hexagon. Some of the vortices are swept along with the jet stream as if on a racetrack. The largest of these vortices spans about 2,200 miles (3,500 kilometers), or about twice the size of the largest hurricane recorded on Earth.

Scientists analyzed these images in false color, a rendering method that makes it easier to distinguish differences among the types of particles suspended in the atmosphere — relatively small particles that make up haze — inside and outside the hexagon.

“Inside the hexagon, there are fewer large haze particles and a concentration of small haze particles, while outside the hexagon, the opposite is true,” said Kunio Sayanagi, a Cassini imaging team associate at Hampton University in Virginia. “The hexagonal jet stream is acting like a barrier, which results in something like Earth’s Antarctic ozone hole.”

The Antarctic ozone hole forms within a region enclosed by a jet stream with similarities to the hexagon. Wintertime conditions enable ozone-destroying chemical processes to occur, and the jet stream prevents a resupply of ozone from the outside. At Saturn, large aerosols cannot cross into the hexagonal jet stream from outside, and large aerosol particles are created when sunlight shines on the atmosphere. Only recently, with the start of Saturn’s northern spring in August 2009, did sunlight begin bathing the planet’s northern hemisphere.

“As we approach Saturn’s summer solstice in 2017, lighting conditions over its north pole will improve, and we are excited to track the changes that occur both inside and outside the hexagon boundary,” said Scott Edgington, Cassini deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

A black-and-white version of the imaging camera movie and movies obtained by Cassini’s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer are also tools Cassini scientists can use to look at wind speeds and the mini-storms inside the jet stream.

Cassini launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn on July 1, 2004. Its mission is scheduled to end in September 2017. The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.

A Google+ Hangout to discuss these results and other Cassini images will take place today at 12:30 p.m. PST (3:30 p.m. EST): http://bit.ly/askcassini .

The event will be broadcast live on NASA Television and streamed on the agency’s website. For information on NASA TV, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/ntv .

The event will also be streamed live on Ustream with a moderated chat available at: http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl2 .

Questions can be asked on the Google Hangout event page, in the chat box on the Ustream site and via Twitter using the hashtag #askCassini.

More information about Cassini is available at: http://www.nasa.gov/cassini and http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov .

Jia-Rui C. Cook 818-354-0850
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
jccook@jpl.nasa.gov

Dwayne Brown 202-358-1726
NASA Headquarters, Washington
dwayne.c.brown@nasa.gov