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Titan up close
Scientists reveal stunning pictures of Saturn's moon Titan and other results during this news conference from July 3. (38min 17sec file)
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Cassini's stunning close-up images of the rings around Saturn, taken just after the craft entered orbit Thursday morning, are presented with expert narration by Carolyn Porco, the mission imaging team leader. (8min 39sec file)
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Cassini discoveries shed light on Saturn and Titan
NASA ANNOUNCEMENT
Posted: August 5, 2004

The Cassini spacecraft, which began its tour of the Saturn system just over a month ago, has detected lightning and a new radiation belt at Saturn, and a glow around the planet's largest moon, Titan.


The magnetospheric imaging instrument onboard Cassini recently discovered a new radiation belt just above Saturn's cloud tops, up to the inner edge of the D-ring. Before this discovery, it was not anticipated that such a trapped ion population could be sustained inside the rings. Credit: NASA/JPL/APL
 
The spacecraft's radio and plasma wave science instrument detected radio waves generated by lightning. "We are detecting the same crackle and pop one hears when listening to an AM radio broadcast during a thunderstorm," said Dr. Bill Kurth, deputy principal investigator on the radio and plasma wave instrument, University of Iowa, Iowa City. "These storms are dramatically different than those observed 20 years ago."

Cassini finds radio bursts from this lightning are highly episodic. There are large variations in the occurrence of lightning from day to day, sometimes with little or no lightning, suggesting a number of different, possibly short- lived storms, at mid- to high latitudes. Voyager observed lightning from an extended storm system at low latitudes, which lasted for months and appeared highly regular from one day to the next.

The difference in storm characteristics may be related to very different shadowing conditions in the 1980s than they are now. During the Voyager time period when lightning was first observed, the rings cast a very deep shadow near Saturn's equator. As a result, the atmosphere in a narrow band was permanently in shadow -- making it cold -- and located right next to the hottest in Saturn's atmosphere. Turbulence between the hot and cold regions could have led to long-lived storms. However, during Cassini's approach and entry into Saturn's orbit, it is summer in the southern hemisphere and the ring shadow is distributed widely over a large portion of the northern hemisphere. This causes the hottest and coldest regions to be far apart.

A major finding of the magnetospheric imaging instrument is the discovery of a new radiation belt just above Saturn's cloud tops, up to the inner edge of the D-ring. This is the first time that a new Saturnian radiation belt has been discovered with remote sensing.

This new radiation belt extends around the planet. It was detected by the emission of fast neutral atoms created as its magnetically trapped ions interact with gas clouds located planetward of the D-ring. With this discovery, the radiation belts are shown to extend far closer to the planet than previously known.

"This new radiation belt had eluded detection by any of the spacecraft that previously visited Saturn. With its discovery we have seen something that we did not expect, that radiation belt particles can 'hop' over obstructions like Saturn's rings, without being absorbed by the rings in the process," said Dr. Donald G. Mitchell, instrument scientist for the magnetospheric imaging instrument at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.

Saturn's largest moon, Titan, is also shining for attention. Cassini's visual and infrared mapping spectrometer captured Titan glowing both day and night, powered by emissions from methane and carbon monoxide gases in the moon's extensive, thick atmosphere.


The glow of Titan's extensive atmosphere shines in false colors in this view of Saturn's gas-enshrouded moon acquired by the Cassini spacecraft visual and infrared mapping spectrometer during the July 2, 2004, flyby. This image is a combination of near-infrared colors, each of which probes different phenomena in the moon. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona
 
"Not only is Titan putting on a great light show but it is also teaching us more about its dense atmosphere," said Dr. Kevin Baines, science team member for the visual and infrared mapping spectrometer at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. "What is amazing is that the size of this glow or emission of gases is a sixth the diameter of the planet," he added.

The Sun-illuminated fluorescent glow of methane throughout Titan's upper atmosphere -- revealing the atmosphere's immense thickness and extending more than 700 kilometers (435 miles) above the surface, was expected. However, the nighttime glow, persistently shining over the night side of Titan, initially surprised scientists.

"These images are as if you were seeing Titan through alien eyes. Titan glows throughout the near-infrared spectrum. If you were an alien it would be hard to get a good night's sleep on Titan because the light would always be on," Baines said.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington.

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