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All posts for the month August, 2012

The True Colors of Saturn and its Moons

Titan appears with Saturn behind it in this natural color view from NASA's Cassini spacecraft. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI.

Is there anything more lovely in the solar system than the planet Saturn? Sure, there’s Mars and the great images we’re seeing from the Curiosity rover. And, of course, Earth sports some gorgeous places. But, for sheer jaw-dropping beauty, you can’t beat a great image of Saturn and its moons. They just grab your attention.

The Cassini mission folks released a set of color “portraits” of Saturn and its largest moon Titan. They show the pair through all the seasons of Saturn’s year. And they are stunning.

A view of the night side of Titan, with sunlight scattering through the top of the atmosphere. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI.

A wide-angle view shows Titan passing in front of Saturn, as well as the planet’s changing colors. Upon Cassini‘s arrival at Saturn eight years ago, Saturn’s northern winter hemisphere was an azure blue.

Now that winter is encroaching on the planet’s southern hemisphere and summer on the north, the color scheme is reversing. That lovely blue is now tinting the southern atmosphere.

Saturn's rings are front and center here, obscuring part of Titan. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI.

The other three images depict the newly discovered south polar vortex in the atmosphere of Titan.  It’s a mass of swirling gas hovering over the pole.

Cassini‘s visible-light cameras have seen a concentration of yellowish haze in the detached haze layer at the south pole of Titan since at least March 27. Cassini‘s visual and infrared mapping spectrometer spotted the massing of clouds around the south pole as early as May 22 in infrared wavelengths. After a June 27 flyby of the moon, Cassini released a dramatic image and movie showing the vortex rotating faster than the moon’s rotation period. The four images being released today were acquired in May, June and July of 2012.

See that vortex at the south pole of Titan? It just recently formed -- and planetary scientists are studying it to understand Titan's atmospheric dynamics. NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSI.

Some of these views, such as those of the polar vortex, are only possible because Cassini’s newly inclined — or tilted — orbital path now allows more direct viewing of the polar regions of Saturn and its moons.

Over the years, Cassini has explored Enceladus and its hissing geysers, its Huygens lander probed Titan, is cameras have shown us high-resolution scans of the rings, and revealed more about the surfaces of many of Saturn’s moons.  This system continues to surprise us with each new set of images and data that Cassini sends back.

I don’t know about you, but when it comes to return on investment, I’d have to say that we’re totally getting our money’s worth out of the Cassini mission. I suspect (but I haven’t calculated it directly) that this mission has probably cost the average taxpayer a few pennies.  And, for that, we’re getting some fantastic looks at the outer solar system.

 Uwingu Funds its First Project

Elements of the Allen Telescope Array. Courtesy SETI Institute.

Remember a few entries ago I told you about a cool crowd-sourcing project called Uwingu? It’s made up of a group of people who wanted to see good research being funded that hasn’t been getting funded in the current political climate.  Well, the appeal is going well and they have enough money to fund their first research project: Project SETI.  Here’s the announcement straight from Uwingu:

“UwinguTM, LLC and the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array (ATA) (which is designed to search out extraterrestrial life), announced that the SETI Institute’s Allen Telescope Array’s science team will be the first project funded by Uwingu, via its IndieGoGo campaign. Uwingu will donate half of all “bonus” funds above its $75K business launch target to the ATA. 

“We don’t have to wait to begin helping space research until we launch our first product, we’re starting now!” said Uwingu CEO, Dr. Alan Stern. “And I can’t overstate how proud Uwingu is to have the SETI Institute’s ATA as a beneficiary of our IndieGoGo crowd-funding campaign. SETI is one of the noblest and most important space research enterprises. We hope this will be a double-win—generating more funds available to launch our own commercial products, and more funds available to the ATA’s research teams.”

Added the ATA’s Dr. Jill Tarter, “Even without the looming specter of federal budget ‘sequestration’, available governmental budgets for space science, space research, and programs encouraging STEM education are shrinking fast. Our ideas and opportunities are bigger and better than ever, but they are all competing for a smaller resource pool.  Alternative funding in the form of entrepreneurship is an absolute necessity if we are to continue exploring and solving grand challenges.  All of us can participate in the IndieGoGo campaign and the launch of Uwingu, and purchase its products to generate revenues to fund the best ideas from scientists today and into tomorrow. Make it so!””

 If you’re at all interested in furthering science research, and you have a few extra dollars to spend, please consider supporting Uwingu.  They’re good people!  I’ve known Alan Stern for a long time and just met Jill Tarter at the SETIcon II meeting in June. It’s really nice to see some support flowing SETI’s way.  And, it’s not just about little green men at SETI.  If you check out their Web pages, you’ll find that SETI Institute scientists are involved in a huge number of research topics spread from astrobiology to planetary sciences.