Goodbye – Cassini’s Last Splendiferous Hurrah
avatar

        The English language is lacking in positive affirmations glowing enough to encompass the significance of the Cassini Mission to Saturn. Side winding its way into my mind in the effort to find the right words came a memory of an old TV variety show. In the show, the host announces the artists to perform by pronouncing very large words in rapid precision. Each word is preceded by a judgemental gavel blow. The hyperbolic introductions primed the audience to welcome the splendiferous offerings of the forthcoming show. The pulchritudinous (excellent) nature of the mission has produced an abundance of most noteworthy images. The collection can spectacularly stimulate our senses to levitate our minds and souls. Cassini therefore invites us to relish the beauty of Saturn and its many moons. NASA has magnanimously offered the images videos and gifs to all who wish to enjoy the resplendent wonder of this epic mission. If the same host was to … Continue reading

A Heartfelt Farewell to NASA’s Cassini Mission to Saturn
avatar

The Cassini mission to Saturn ranks right at the top of my list of favorite space missions; this morning, on NASA TV, I watched Cassini’s final moments as it plunged into the atmosphere of Saturn… and I had a good cry. It’s an odd juxtaposition of feelings: being overjoyed and incredibly sad at the same time. When Cassini launched in 1997, my daughters were aged 12 and 9; my wife likes to recall the story of my phoning my eldest in 2004, then in college, to tell her that Cassini was making its orbital insertion burn! She also claims that I can be “such a geek.” Yesterday, I heard a story on NPR with a NASA engineer that was at the very first Cassini planning meeting – 30 years ago! For several people, this mission has been their entire career! In an interview I heard this morning, one mission specialist said that most of what’s in recent science textbooks about … Continue reading

New Cassini Module in NASA Eyes App
avatar

The new Cassini Mission module is live in the NASA Eyes on the Solar System app! The module is JAM-PACKED with features, including a cinematic simulation the entire 20-year mission, images of Saturn, its rings and moons, an interactive timeline – where you can follow the spacecraft throughout its mission, and simulations of several Cassini Grand Finale events. NASA Eyes is a free app for the PC/MAC and a GREAT educational tool. With NASA Eyes, you can go to any planet in our solar system, many moons, asteroids, and comets. You can zoom to several different active space missions, and simulate what they are doing in real-time, or fast-forward or backward to any point in their mission; several missions have built-in tours – like Cassini. There’s a module about the 2017 eclipse, and the Eyes on the Earth module has several different visualizations of climate data. The Eyes on Exoplanets module lets you zoom to hundreds of different exoplanet systems, see what … Continue reading

Cosmic Lobster Pot
avatar

I have always visualised Cassini’s journey through the Saturnian system as a kind of orchestrated cosmic dance. Cassini moves silently at great speed in its petal shape overlapping orbits. This precisely executed dance brings Cassini frequently through the icy ring plane north to south and then back again on the opposite side of the planet, south to north. This robot ship continues on its unparalleled odyssey of exploration. On board, Cassini is the custodian of twelve science instruments all primed to seek, gather, and process the offerings of this unique planetary system. Collectively they are performing one of the most important scientific probing of Saturn and its many moons in the history of space exploration. One of these science instruments is the Cosmic Dust Analyser. The CDA looks a bit like a golden lobster pot,that is not a bad analogy. This apparatus is trawling the interplanetary ocean for particles of cosmic dust, tiny particles that are the messengers of the … Continue reading

Grand Finale – Painting inspired by the Cassini Mission to Saturn
avatar

Also in Exploring the Solar System Exploring the Solar System: The Mass of the Sun Marvellous Mars Drawing Workshop at Dunsink Observatory Dublin Astronomical Sketching – Education in action Stars Wonderful Stars at Wexford Town Library Ireland Get ready the Perseids are coming Space the final Frontier – World Space Week 2016 On the richness of the lunar surface Dark Sky Magic at Ballycroy National Park Mayo Ireland Grand Finale – Painting inspired by the Cassini Mission to Saturn Cosmic Lobster Pot A Slice of Solar Drawing in h-alpha View the entire series … Continue reading

Titan: Frozen Moon of Saturn
avatar

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 12 years since the Huygens probe touched down on the surface of Saturn’s moon Titan – the only moon in the solar system with a dense atmosphere and clouds. The probe returned images of rugged terrain as it descended, and revealed what appears to be drainage channels flowing down to a possible shoreline. The lander returned data for about 90 minutes after touchdown. Huygens is the most distant landing of any human-made craft. The Huygens lander was part of the Cassini mission to Saturn; the mission was so successful, it was extended in 2008, and again in 2010. The spacecraft has flown by numerous moons, and returned a treasure trove of scientific data; it has also returned some of the most spectacular imagery ever produced by a robotic probe. Cassini is now in its final months at Saturn, with the probe slated to burn up on Saturn’s atmosphere this September. From JPL Press Release 2017-006: 2005 Historic Descent … Continue reading

Spacecraft 3D: NASA’s Augmented Reality Smartphone App
avatar

NASA has an app for smartphones that lets you learn about and interact with several different spacecraft that explore our solar system, study the Earth, and observe the cosmos. You can hold a virtual Mars rover in the palm of your hand, or watch as a rocket’s boosters fall away, and its fairing separate! Seeing the Curiosity rover popup in my hand, and being able to rotate it, zoom, and deploy its mast – using my Android – just blew me away! I think students would LOVE this! If you have an iOS/Android phone,download Spacecraft 3D now and experience #AugmentedReality! https://t.co/gPQPe62z6k pic.twitter.com/8RuPfOZktS — : NASA_Eyes (@nasa_eyes) December 8, 2016 A photo target must be used for the app to generate the spacecraft model; the photo can be small enough to fit in your hand, or printed larger for use on a tabletop. The app can email you a link to the AR target (http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/apps/images/3dtarget.pdf) which includes some cool Mars pics … Continue reading

Cassini’s Final Months at Saturn
avatar

NASA’s Cassini mission to Saturn is in its final months. The spacecraft has been put into a polar orbit which brings it over Saturn’s poles, and very close to the main rings. Cassini has sent back spectacular views of  Saturn’s north polar region shortly before it made its first close pass by the outer edge of Saturn’s main rings. In late April, Cassini will again change its orbit, bringing the spacecraft between Saturn’s innermost ring, and its cloudtops. These orbits send tingles through my spine when I think about them; there is a chance that a ring particle might impact the spacecraft, rendering it nonfunctional. According to NASA Eyes on the Solar System, when Cassini passes through the ring plane from now through April, it will be travelling at 21 km/sec. When it changes orbit in late April, and gets closer to Saturn, it will be passing over the cloudtops at about 34 km/sec. If Cassini survives all its passes … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Friends in high places
avatar

This column first appeared in The Tablet in June, 2008 The Mars Phoenix mission landed successfully near the north pole of Mars [in 2008]. Even though I don’t study Mars myself, I feel a special connection because the mission is being run out of my old department at the University of Arizona. I know those guys on the TV, explaining how they’ll be digging for ice in the Martian soil. Mars wasn’t the only tourist attraction that summer. The scientists of the Cassini/Huygens Saturn probes held a team meeting in Rome in June, 2008, and two dozen of them came out to visit me at Castel Gandolfo. I showed them our telescopes and libraries and meteorite collection. Friends of mine on the team arranged the visit. Why do I have so many friends in high places? It’s just the nature of my field. There are only a few thousand professional planetary astronomers in the world. We go to the same annual meetings, we … Continue reading

Across the Universe: Reflections on a Mirror
avatar

This column first ran in The Tablet in March 2010 The International Astronomical Union’s committee on planetary surfaces nomenclature (on which I serve as their resident “Latin expert” which no doubt would shock my high school Latin teachers) has voted [in 2010] to give a smooth surface feature on Saturn’s moon Titan the name “Jingpo Lacus”, after Jingpo Lake in China. From the way they reflect radar waves, regions like these on Titan’s surface appear to be very, very smooth. Our best guess is that they’re pools of liquid hydrocarbons, something like lakes of liquid natural gas. Titan’s atmosphere, about twice that of Earth’s, has methane clouds and apparently conditions that allow for this methane to rain out and pool on the surface, much like water does on Earth. The surface temperature of Titan itself is hundreds of degrees below zero, so ordinary water there is frozen harder than rock. The rule is that we use the names of lakes … Continue reading

Enceladus, Ocean World
avatar

NASA’s Cassini mission scientists have determined that the slight wobble observed in Saturn’s moon Enceladus, as it orbits the ringed giant planet, is too large for the moon to be entirely frozen to its core. This wobble, referred to as a libration, reveals that the icy crust of Enceladus is disconnected from its rocky interior. In other words: Enceladus’ icy crust is sliding around on top of a global ocean of liquid water, and where there’s water, life may follow. This graphic (above) is an update to Enceladus: Possible Hydrothermal Activity (left), which showed only a regional sea beneath the south polar region of Enceladus. As Enceladus orbits Saturn, it is subject to tidal forces due to gravitation. These forces stretch the moon, causing friction, which heat up the moon’s interior. This is a process is called tidal heating. Jupiter’s moon Io is the most volcanically active body in the solar system, as a result of tidal heating. It was … Continue reading

Dione and Cassini
avatar

“This view from NASA’s Cassini spacecraft looks toward Saturn’s icy moon Dione, with giant Saturn and its rings in the background, just prior to the mission’s final close approach to the moon on August 17, 2015. At lower right is the large, multi-ringed impact basin named Evander, which is about 220 miles (350 kilometers) wide. The canyons of Padua Chasma, features that form part of Dione’s bright, wispy terrain, reach into the darkness at left. Imaging scientists combined nine visible light (clear spectral filter) images to create this mosaic view: eight from the narrow-angle camera and one from the wide-angle camera, which fills in an area at lower left. The scene is an orthographic projection centered on terrain at 0.2 degrees north latitude, 179 degrees west longitude on Dione. An orthographic view is most like the view seen by a distant observer looking through a telescope. North on Dione is up. The view was acquired at distances ranging from approximately … Continue reading