Magazine article Science News

Titanic Images, Groovy Shots: Cassini Arrives at Saturn

Magazine article Science News

Titanic Images, Groovy Shots: Cassini Arrives at Saturn

Article excerpt

After a 7-year, 3.5-billion-mile journey, the Cassini spacecraft last week slipped through a gap between two of the icy rings circling Saturn and became the first spacecraft to orbit the distant planet. The probe, which will tour Saturn and many of its 31 known moons for at least 4 years, has already returned stunning images of the shimmering rings and recorded the sharpest images ever taken of smog-covered Titan, Saturn's largest moon.

"The images are mind-boggling," says Cassini imaging team leader Carolyn Porco of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo.

In Cassini's snapshots, striations within the rings resemble grooves in a vinyl phonograph record. Many of the images show wavelike features that form when the gravity of a passing moon perturbs icy particles in a ring.

Depending on the moon's orientation relative to the ring's plane, the interaction either forces icy ring particles to clump into bands or pulls them up and down into corrugations. Such features had already been spied in the early 1980s by the two Voyager spacecraft, which flew past Saturn, but the new Cassini images show the structures in far finer detail.

Although most of the rings are composed of virtually pure water ice, a spectrometer on Cassini found that particles in the F ring, the sixth ring discovered, as well as those in the rings' gaps, have a small dirt component with a composition resembling that of Saturn's outlying moon, Phoebe, notes Roger Clark of the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver. …

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