Saturn

The Cassini spacecraft is still orbiting Saturn and returning volumes of useful information. In case you weren’t keeping up on our changing understanding of the solar system, here’s a quick recap courtesy of NASA.

  • The Huygens probe landed on Titan and returned very cool information about its surface. Titan’s surface is remarkably Earth-like, with evidence of rain, erosion, drainage channels and a dry lake bed. Titan also seems to have a volcano, rain clouds, lakes, craters, and other puzzling terrain. True, the rain would be methane, but still – incredibly interesting.
  • The rings of Saturn aren’t uniform, but instead filled with clumps and waves.
  • Saturn’s moon Phoebe is an object from the outer solar system. Phoebe was not formed during planetary evolution but captured by Saturn much later during the object’s transit of the solar system and is likely older than Saturn itself.
  • Saturn’s surface changes dramatically over time – the northern hemipshere is now blue instead of tan (likely because the rings are shadowing the surface, changing its temprature.) This was highly unexpected because, of course, our view of Saturn has only been of the sunny side (the side that reflects light back to Earth.)
  • Saturn has a moon hiding it is rings! This tiny moon causes ripples in the rings as it moves by.
  • Saturn’s moon Enceladus has a thin water vapor atmosphere (no doubt along with other things.) It also has cracks in its icy surface (dubbed tiger stripes.) These are getting a lot of attention from planetologists because they aren’t exactly sure what is causing them, and if the area at the southern pole might in fact be in a liquid state instead of ice.

All this focus on Saturn’s moons is driven by the interest in discovering if any of them seem capable of supporting life. We have found life on Earth in some of the most inhospitable environments (from the bottom of the ocean near thermal vents to the inside of glaciers) and finding it here – even single celled bacteria – would be one of the most significant scientific discoveries of our lifetime.

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