December 13, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Cassini Passes Titan a Third Time

Raw images from Cassini’s Titan-b flyover from 750 miles (see animation) have been uploaded to the website: Cassini Raw Images (proceed from this link).  Improved, processed images are now being posted at saturn.jpl.nasa.gov, such as this high resolution of dark terrain.  Look also at JPL the and Cassini Imaging Team websites.  In addition, teams monitoring the infrared, ultraviolet, radio, plasma and magnetic field data will have their results soon.
    Scientists are still not sure what they are looking at on Titan.  Better interpretation of surface features will require overlap of radar altimetry with visible and infrared images over the next few months.  The dark and light areas are remarkable for their sharp boundaries and paucity of impact craters, indicating a young surface (see the global composite from October).  Something resurfaced this moon recently, and active geology is probably still going on.  When the infrared images from this encounter are published, they should show remarkable surface details in color (see infrared composite from October).  Scientists are also eagerly searching for evidence of changes since October 26, the previous close flyby at this range (see 10/28/2004 headline).
    On Dec. 14, Cassini flies by Dione at 50,000 miles to image the strange frosty streaks that puzzled Voyager scientists.  Also, Cassini recently obtained the best pictures to date of Iapetus, showing tantalizing detail visible on both the dark and light hemispheres.  Closer snapshots of Iapetus are coming January 1.  With a string of spectacular successes since June (see 07/01/2004 and 06/14/2004 headlines) and bigger adventures just ahead, the Cassini team is feeling their excitement rise to a crescendo.

Keep your eye on Titan; it’s the moon to watch over the next few weeks as the Huygens Probe mission climaxes on January 14 (see European Space Agency story).  Titan looked like a bland orange fuzzball when Voyager flew by 23 years ago, but now we can finally glimpse the surface under all that dense haze, and see that it is a planet-sized world beckoning a new generation of explorers.  This second-largest moon in the solar system, almost as big as Mercury and the only moon with a substantial atmosphere, is going to have amazing stories to tell – stories that are bound to rewrite theories of the origin of the moons and planets.
    If you were a kid during the Apollo moon missions, do you remember what you were doing when those famous Earthrise pictures came down on Christmas eve 36 years ago, as the opening words of Genesis 1 were read by the Apollo 8 astronauts?*  You probably remember the moon landings more than anything else that happened in 1968-69.  Maybe you have kids of your own now.  Don’t let them be bored with life, or waste their time on stupid computer games and Christmas toys that will soon break and be forgotten.  Use this true-life adventure as an opportunity to give them a gift that can last a lifetime: the wonder of new worlds, and the thrill of discovery.

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Categories: Solar System

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