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Smooth Sailing by Rhea and Helene

Monday, March 8th, 2010
Amanda Hendrix
Amanda Hendrix

Cassini’s closest-ever flyby of Saturn’s moon Rhea went quite smoothly and teams are busy checking out their data! These flybys never fail to amaze me. And the raw images — which give us an unprocessed first look — are really cool!

Raw image N00152150 gives us a view of part of the bright, fractured terrain we refer to as “wispy terrain” from about 14,000 kilometers (8,900 miles) away. We know that Rhea’s albedo overall is quite high. (When I say “albedo,” I basically mean “brightness” or “reflectivity.” Studying the albedo can tell a lot about surface composition, geologic processes, and interactions with external environment.) But this image demonstrates how bright these cracks are since they are so shiny that the surrounding terrain looks quite dark. There are also some interesting apparent albedo variations seen in this image, which are really intriguing.

The camera was pointing toward RHEA.
The camera was pointing toward RHEA at approximately 38,532 kilometers away, and the image was taken using the CL1 and CL2 filters. This image has not been validated or calibrated. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
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The camera was pointing toward HELENE.
The camera was pointing toward HELENE, and the image was taken using the CL1 and CL2 filters. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
› Full image and caption

This raw image (N00152175) from Cassini’s narrow-angle camera image was taken about 40 minutes after closest approach. The image shows a region adjacent to the wispy terrain –craters, craters everywhere! And wow, are those crater rims bright compared to the surrounding terrain.

Cassini captured a full portrait of the serene moon with its wide-angle camera (raw image W00063107) on the outbound leg of the flyby, about 1.25 hours after closest approach. Keep in mind that the phase angle is quite low here (only about 2.5 degrees), meaning that the sun is almost directly behind Cassini and Rhea is nearly fully illuminated — so there are no shadows. Large-scale albedo variations are apparent across the surface.

The spacecraft also obtained a cool image of little Helene with raw image N00152211. We’re basically looking at the night side of the body — but it doesn’t appear very dark, because it’s illuminated by sunlight reflecting off Saturn. During the later image sequence of Helene, this small moon was transiting Saturn - so you can see Saturn in the background. Sometimes,pointing at these little guys can be very tricky, especially so close after a targeted flyby. It can be difficult (or impossible!) to get the positions of the spacecraft, the moon and the instruments all lined up — but boy are these close-up Helene images incredible! The detail on the surface is tremendous, and should go a long way to informing geologists about surface properties and processes.

As the imaging team is taking a closer look at images such as these, other instrument teams — including those for the radar instrument, composite infrared spectrometer, visual and infrared mapping spectrometer and the ultraviolet imaging spectrograph (the instrument I work on) — are also busy processing their data. At a science meeting Friday, we talked about a few of the preliminary results. Some of the magnetospheric and plasma science instruments teams reported that they’re seeing some really interesting and surprising results! So stay tuned to hear more about those!

Of course, after one successful flyby, we get right to work on another. Coming up next: Dione on April 7!


Road-Tripping to Rhea with Cassini

Monday, March 1st, 2010
Amanda Hendrix
Amanda Hendrix

Here in Cassini-land, we are really excited about Tuesday’s Rhea flyby! This will be the mission’s second targeted flyby of the moon in the mission, so it’s sometimes referred to as R-2 or Rhea-2.

The spacecraft will fly by Rhea at an altitude of about 100 kilometers (60 miles), the closest encounter yet with Saturn’s second largest moon. (Our first targeted flyby of Rhea in 2005 was at an altitude of 500 kilometers, or 300 miles, so this is way closer.)

We’ve been focusing a lot on the moon Enceladus because it is sort of the darling of the Saturn system — but Rhea is a good example of why the other moons are interesting too. We know a decent amount about this moon, but we still have more questions, especially about the debris that could make up a ring around the moon and the composition of its surface.

The first targeted flyby in 2005 was focused on a radio science experiment doing gravity measurements to understand Rhea’s interior structure. We also got some nice remote-sensing data from the cameras and spectrometers (see for example PIA07764) as well as radar measurements for surface and subsurface composition. We also did a much more distant flyby (5,000 kilometers or 3,000 miles) of Rhea in August 2007; that flyby was dedicated to remote sensing of the moon, including imaging (such as PIA08402). So we have a pretty good understanding of Rhea as being pretty heavily cratered with no super obvious signs of activity. It has this “wispy terrain” (see PIA08120), which is a lot like the type of feature seen on another Saturnian moon, Dione, and is basically a large series of fractures that are relatively bright compared to the surrounding regions.

Rhea's Wisps in Color
Bright, wispy markings stretch across a region of darker terrain on Saturn’s moon Rhea. In this extreme false-color view, the roughly north-south fractures occur within strips of material (which appear greenish here) that are a different color from the surrounding cratered landscape. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute.
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Rhea-2 Flyby Animation
On Tuesday, March 2, 2010, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft will make its closest encounter yet with Saturn’s second largest moon. Image credit: NASA/JPL
› Full animation and caption

One of the most interesting results to come out of the 2005 and 2007 flybys came from the fields and particles instruments: the mysterious signature of electron depletion around Rhea, suggestive of a debris ring. (Basically, solid material appears to be absorbing electrons in the vicinity of Rhea.) So Rhea could be a moon with its own ring! The ring has not been seen by any of the remote sensing instruments on Cassini, however. It can be difficult to get the viewing geometry just right in order to see this type of thing — recall that the Cassini cameras didn’t definitely see Enceladus’ plume until after being in orbit for more than one year!

Tuesday’s flyby should give us some clues about the suspected debris disk around the moon, but the slam-dunk experiment to “see” Rhea’s debris disk is what we call a stellar occultation through the ring plane - looking to see if debris particles or clumps block out light from stars. Unfortunately we won’t get to do such an occultation on this flyby. This is a tricky experiment to do because you have to get the timing and the geometry just right, but we’re hoping to do it at some point later in the mission.

Anyway, on to Tuesday’s flyby! To get a sense of what we’re going to do, check out the movie made by Cassini navigator Brent Buffington that shows each of the activities performed during the flyby.

We will approach Rhea on the night side, so the moon will be dark. This is an especially good opportunity for the radar instrument to make measurements. (The cameras and imaging spectrometers typically prefer to observe the dayside, not the nightside.) Radar will do synthetic aperture radar imaging scans similar to those at Titan and will also do measurements to understand the surface composition. Previous measurements had suggested an asymmetry in brightness (which could be due to compositional differences) between the leading and trailing hemispheres of the moon, so this flyby will help with investigating that.

At closest approach, the fields and particles instruments will take data that will help us understand the environment of Rhea — its interaction with Saturn’s magnetosphere, its debris disk, and its ejecta cloud density. Ejecta clouds are dust or material that is being ejected or sputtered or otherwise lost from Rhea and its environment and contributing to populations of neutral particles and plasma in the Saturn system. This material may also be contaminating Saturn’s rings.

Outbound, the remote sensing instruments will take over. They will make measurements — in wavelengths as short as the ultraviolet all the way to the far infrared — of Rhea’s surface terrains and composition, as well as its surface temperature. The cameras have seen some “bluish spots” that could be related to the debris ring material - so those regions will be investigated more during this encounter, as will the fractured “wispy” terrain. The visual and infrared mapping spectrometer and the ultraviolet imaging spectrograph will do imaging spectroscopy to search for and map out water ice grain sizes, carbon dioxide, ammonia and fine-grained iron particles, among other materials. The composite infrared spectrometer will map temperatures across portions of Rhea’s sunlit disk at high resolution. Ninety minutes after closest approach, Rhea will enter Saturn’s shadow, giving the composite infrared mapping spectrometer a good opportunity to measure the cooling of the surface, which will provide information about the texture of the uppermost surface layers.

But wait - there’s more! Not only do you get a Rhea flyby, but we’re going to throw in a close approach to the small moon Helene! Helene is one of the “co-orbitals” of Dione. That means it orbits Saturn at the same radial distance as Dione, but it happens to be 60 degrees ahead of Dione. Helene is only about 30 or 35 km across (19 or 22 miles) and it’s not spherical (see PIA10544). Cassini will approach Helene within about 1,825 kilometers (1,130 miles) — by FAR the closest we’ve ever gotten to Helene — allowing the cameras and imaging spectrometers to obtain information about individual regions across the surface.

So this promises to be an exciting period. Please stay tuned to see the great results!


Exciting Times for Cassini

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008
author
by Amanda Hendrix
Scientist

It’s an exciting time in Cassini-land these days! We are well into the Equinox Mission, an extension to Cassini’s mission that includes seven flybys of the Saturnian moon Enceladus, discovered in July 2005 to be geologically active. Prior to the prime mission, we knew that Enceladus was interesting and unique, and thus planned and executed three targeted flybys for the prime mission. With the tremendous discovery of water plumes at the south pole of this small icy moon (which happened on the second targeted flyby), we planned a more in-depth investigation for the Equinox Mission. And we are well into it! Our first Enceladus flyby of the Equinox Mission was in August, and we had two in October.

My job on Cassini is two-fold: I am on the science planning team, helping to plan out the science activities that occur during each icy moon encounter, and I am on the team for the ultraviolet imaging spectrograph instrument, studying ultraviolet data of the surfaces of these icy moons. So it’s really fantastic to be involved in planning each encounter, and then analyzing data to understand the moons.

saturn
Close-up view of Enceladus, taken on the Oct. 31 flyby. Image credit: NASA/JPL

In order to learn as much as we can about crazy Enceladus (it’s so small and icy — yet it’s got these geysers!), we want to let all of the instruments make measurements, and it isn’t possible to simultaneously get measurements from all instruments. (That’s just the way the spacecraft is built.) We know that the cameras will tell us a lot about the current and historical geology of the surface, the ultraviolet and infrared imagers will tell us about the surface composition, and the long-wavelength infrared instrument will reveal surface temperatures. These four “remote-sensing” instruments can take data simultaneously. But if we want to get the best data from the “in situ” instruments (like the ion and neutral mass spectrometer and cosmic dust analyzer), we need to orient the spacecraft such that it’s nearly impossible to get remote sensing data. So we divide up the flybys and allow many instruments the opportunity to get data. The period around the closest approach during the August flyby (called “E4″) was allocated to the remote-sensing instruments — and this resulted in the highest-resolution images of the active “tiger stripes” ever! (See one of these images here: http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA11113) The closest approach of the next Enceladus flyby - called “E5,” on October 9 — took the spacecraft deeper into the south polar plume than ever before. Here the priority was given to the in situ instruments, which obtained great, high-signal data of the plume, telling us about the composition of both the gaseous and particle components. And the October 31 flyby - called “E6″ — was again dedicated to remote-sensing, for a last look at the south pole before it heads mostly into seasonal darkness.

It’s so fortunate that Cassini has multiple opportunities to execute close encounters of an object as dynamic as Enceladus. The Voyager spacecraft had just one shot as they flew through the Saturn system, but Cassini, as an orbiter, gives us the chance to analyze our data, figure out what we’ve learned, and make thoughtful decisions on what experiments we need to make to follow up on those discoveries.

Things aren’t completely within our control, however! For instance, southern summer in the Saturn system is coming to a close, limiting the amount of sunlight illuminating the fascinating south polar region of Enceladus. But there’s plenty of important science to do in the dark with the in situ instruments, as well as the composite infrared spectrometer and radar, which is great. Who knows — we’ll see what the equinox season (and hopefully the following solstice) has in store for us! We may get some surprises!