The True Colors of Saturn and its Moons
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 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.
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.
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.