Tag Archives: Saturn

Solar System Exploration – Saturn

saturn voy 3

Moving away from Jupiter, our next visitor is Saturn. Saturn is twice the distance from the sun than Jupiter is, so there is a long, cold gap between the two worlds. This isn’t surprising as the gravitational pull of these two planets would either capture or knock away any other object of any substantial mass. As much as Jupiter is the king of the solar system, Saturn is the queen. It’s iconic rings sitting like a crown around it in a way not seen on any planet in the solar system.

Facts about Saturn





Many of Saturn’s 62 moons are less than 20 km in diameter, there is evidence to suggest that there are many large moons in Saturn’s rings that are yet to be discovered. Looking in close detail at four of Saturn’s moons we find they are different world on a very cold theme.


saturn - titan

Titan was the largest of Saturn’s moons, it was discovered by Christiaan Hyguens in 1655 and was the first to be discovered. It wasn’t named until 1847 however when John Herschel (Son of William Herschel – who discovered Uranus) published an extract on Saturn’s moons.

With a diameter 5,150km  Titan is larger than Mercury, however not as massive. Titan is the only known moon in the solar system to have a thick atmosphere. Visual examinations of Titan have not yielded any information on Titan’s surface, only with radar scanning from the Cassini – Huygens probe in 2004 that any surface details were known. It’s atmosphere is a thick soup of 98% Hydrogen and 1.6% Methane. Information from the Cassini probe suggests that there are Methane lakes on Titan and  that the thick atmosphere could be a primordial soup that could harbour or create life if the conditions permit.



saturn - Rhea

Rhea was discovered in 1672 by Giovanni Domenico Cassini, however was not named until  1847 again by John Herschel . Rhea is an Icy world, made up from around 75% ice and 25% rock.

It is suggested that Rhea may have a ring system that isn’t easy observed. The data is unclear, but if it was so  Rhea would be the only known moon in the solar system to have a ring system.


saturn - Enclaedus

Enceladus was discovered in 1789 by William Herschel, little was know about this moon until the space age as it’s only 500km in diameter and observations were limited due to glare from Saturn. It was only until the space age that this small moon became far more interesting.

Enceladus is a world of frozen water, with a mix of new and old surfaces. The old oles marked with craters and the new surfaces smooth with huge cracks separating them.

Water volcanoes have been seen shooting water into space at immense speed, Cassini as been studying them and it’s now known that Saturn’s E ring had been created almost completely from the ejected matter from Enceladus.





Mimas had to be included in this little summary of Saturn’s moons. Yes, it is a moon and not a space station. That is all that needs to be said. A massive impact on Mimas in it’s history has created a feature that makes it look very much like the Death Star from Star Wars. It is however made from water and and rock and will not destroy planets.


Holst – Saturn

 Holst’s Saturn inspired musical piece for me definitely reflects a world that’s distant, cold and mighty. It has tunes that chill and inspire, it captures the sense of magnificence and beauty of Saturn



Recent Events

A number of probes have visited Saturn, Pioneer 10 was the first in 1979. In 1980 Voyager taking the first high definition pictures of the Saturn and some of its moons. Saturn’ s gravity flung the Voyager probe out of the plane of the solar system and out towards the stars.

Voyager 2 flew past in 1981 and made more measurements and took more pictures on its flyby, this time Saturn’s gravity was used to send Voyager 2 on towards Uranus.

Artist's Concept of Voyager
Artist’s concept of Voyager in flight.


In 2004 the Cassini-Huygens probe entered orbit around Saturn and began collecting data on Saturn and it’s moons. Titan was of particular interest and in December 2004 Cassini released the Huygens probe into Titans atmosphere.


It collected data on the atmosphere for several hours before it landed. It contained to send data for 90 minutes after it landed. Huygens is so far the most distant human object to have landed on another world.



Since 2004 Cassini has been passing by Saturn and its moons, finding out more and more about this mysterious world and it’s system of moons, how the rings were formed and what the moons are made of. One of the stark discoveries is that water seems to have been in good supply, the solar system seems in fact to have been soaked in water in it’s past. This is evident when examining Rhea and Enceladus in particular.


The Cassini mission came to an end in September 2017, after a series of dives within Saturn’s inner rings called the Grand Tour. The spacecraft was deorbited in order to prevent it contaminating  any of Saturn’s moons. This ended a 20 year era of space exploration, but the data from Cassini will be studied for many years to come.


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Cassini – The End of an Era of Exploration

Today is the end of era and a project that has lasted around 30 years, given us a spectacular insight into one of the most beautiful objects in the solar system. Today is when the Cassini mission finally ends by plummeting into Saturn’s atmosphere and will be destroyed by re-entry and the intense pressure of it’s atmosphere.

When Cassini was first devised and started development started Ronald Regan was still president of the United States, Voyager 2’s final calling had not yet taken place and the internet was not widely used. The world was a very different place. Launched in 1997 and passing by Venus and Jupiter on the way to Saturn it saw in the new millennium on the way to it’s destination. Arriving after a seven year journey in 2004.


It’s mission was bold, to launch and land a small probe – Huygens onto the surface of Saturn’s’ largest moon Titan and run experiments to see what it’s surface and atmosphere are like while the Cassini orbiter relayed all the data back to Earth. After a short time the Huygens probe would stop operating, leaving the lone Cassini orbiter to carry on gathering data on Saturn and it’s system. Initially this was to only be for a few years, but two extensions have seen it last until 2017. Now, becasue of the orbiter’s dwindling fuel supply  it will dive into Saturn’s atmosphere on September the 15th after a series of atmosphere skimming ring dives  between the planet and it’s rings dubbed ‘The Grand Finale’. Cassini will be burned up in Saturn’s atmosphere becoming part of the planet, destroyed to stop it contaminating any of Saturn’s potentially life harbouring moons. This will ensure they are preserved untouched for future missions.



cassini launch

On the 15th October 1997 under the veil of night, Cassini was launched on the start of a seven year journey to Saturn on a course that would take it past Venus and Jupiter before arriving at Saturn in 2004.



On the 1st July 2004 Cassini entered orbit around Saturn and immediately began sending back pictures and data. One of Cassini’s first jobs was to map out the terrain of Saturn’s moon Titan so that a suitable landing site could be found.




On the 25th of December 2004 the Huygens probe was released from Cassini and began it’s approach and descent into Titan’s atmosphere. Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and is the only moon in the solar system with a thick methane atmosphere. This discovery was made by the Voyager 1 flyby mission and since then the possibility of liquid methane lakes and the possibility of some kind of life being able to exist on Titan has fascinated scientists.

huygens probe
Artists impression of Huygens on Titan

Huygens landed on Titan on the 14th of January 2005 on it’s way down it spent about 90 minutes descending through Titan’s atmosphere. Taking pictures that were relayed back home via the Cassini spacecraft.

Titan 2
Titan as taken by Huygens on the its descent

Huygens is the first and currently only spacecraft to land on a world in the outer Solar System. Once the small craft had landed it took the first pictures of the surface of this mysterious world.

Titan 1
The surface of Titan


The Huygens probe was expected to only have enough battery life for a few minutes on Titan. As it turned out Huygens lasted about 90 minutes, took pictures and analysed the surface. The stone seen in the picture are made of water ice and the red film is an outer layer of Methane. It was anticipated that Huygens could encounter and indeed land in a lake of Methane and was designed to be able to survive this. As it turned out it found no evidence of this. Since then, data returned from Cassini suggests these Methane lakes do exist particularly at the poles of the moon.

The Huygens probe is the first and currently remains the only man made object to land on a world in the outer solar system.



The Cassini orbiter lasted much longer than the little Huygens probe, much longer than it was originally meant to. The original mission was to observe the planet during it’s Equinox which occurred in 2009. The mission was extended to observe the planet at it’s summer solstice in 2017 which gave the orbiter another 155 orbits of Saturn and further observations of Titan and Enceladus. In that time Cassini has made observations on aurora at it’s poles, much like we have here on Earth.


At the poles, the clouds were found to form a hexagonal shape. This alone has kept scientists busy finding an explanation.

Haxagonal clouds at Saturn’s north pole


Saturn’s Rings

The magnificent rings of Saturn have been observed ever more closely in the last months as Cassini carries out it’s last flyby’s.


The majestic beauty of them hides a highly complex structure, shaped and formed by Saturn and it’s orbiting moons.


saturns rings1

The size of the objects forming the rings sorted into a seemingly orderly fashion with larger like ice towers on the outer rings..

Close up of Saturn’s rings


Wave patterns on Saturn’s Rings

Gravity waves forming them into waves as you might find in water on Earth.

Close up of Saturn’s rings

The Moons

Cassini has observed many of it’s moons in closer detail than ever before, giving us a greater insight into how this planet and it’s system was formed.


saturn - Enclaedus

But the shining star of Saturn’s moons has been Enceladus. It’s surface showing signs of old and new activity and the greatest discovery being of it’s plume of water ice, shooting into space.



Keep an Eye on us

Despite the distance, Cassini has been keeping an eye on us too from time to time:

Earth and Saturn captured by Cassini

The tiny dot is all of us – once again put into perspective we are tiny, living on a spec in the cosmos. But Cassini has looked back at the planet from where it came for the last time…

Journey’s End

As space probes go – Cassini has had a good running, but Cassini is at Journey’s end:


In order to preserve the purity of Saturn’s moons and not contaminate them with bacteria Cassini takes it’s plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere today. It will forever become a part of the planet which it helped it’s creators to study. Saturn and it’s majesty has forever captured human fascination and will continue to do so. As the tool which has brought us that much closer to the ringed planet Cassini has also captured our imaginations and a little of our hearts.

While it may not be preserved for all eternity like the Voyagers, Cassini’s legacy will last, long after it’s demise and what it has brought us will forever be remembered. As it takes it’s plunge it will send us back data and images of Saturn, closer and more intimate than we have ever had before. It will go where no human can or maybe ever will go.

Clouds of Saturn in false colour

That’s a crowning achievement and a fitting last act for perhaps one of the most successful and awe inspiring spacecraft ever built.

Farewell Cassini, we know you’ll do us proud one last time.



More information on the Cassini mission can be found on NASA’s Cassini page:

NASA’s Cassini Mission Page

Grand Finale Overview and Countdown


Simon 🙂

©Simon Farnell 2017

No Ownership claimed on any of the images or materials. Credit to NASA and JPL.

NASA Finds Moon of Saturn Has Chemical That Could Form ‘Membranes’

NASA scientists have definitively detected the chemical acrylonitrile in the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, a place that has long intrigued scientists investigating the chemical precursors of life.

On Earth, acrylonitrile, also known as vinyl cyanide, is useful in the manufacture of plastics. Under the harsh conditions of Saturn’s largest moon, this chemical is thought to be capable of forming stable, flexible structures similar to cell membranes



via Saturn Moon Has Chemical That Could Form ‘Membranes’ | NASA

Simon 🙂

No ownership claimed on images or materials – Credit NASA

Countdown to Cassini’s Grand Finale

Cassini is now on it’s way towards it’s grand and ultimately destructive finale! Using Saturn’s largest Moon titan to fling it into a polar orbit between Saturn’s ring and it’s outer atmosphere it will complete 22 weekly obits of Saturn before plunging into Saturn’s atmosphere on September 15th

via Countdown to Cassini’s Grand Finale / Cassini-Huygens / Space Science / Our Activities / ESA

Titan on flyby to Cassini’s final orbit


Have a look at the links to see more.

Simon 🙂

No ownership claimed on images or materials – Credit ESA / NASA

Sliver of Saturn

sliver of saturn

Although only a sliver of Saturn’s sunlit face is visible in this view, the mighty gas giant planet still dominates the view.

From this vantage point just beneath the ring plane, the dense B ring becomes dark and essentially opaque, letting almost no light pass through. But some light reflected by the planet passes through the less dense A ring, which appears above the B ring in this photo. The C ring, silhouetted just below the B ring, lets almost all of Saturn’s reflected light pass right through it, as if it were barely there at all. The F ring appears as a bright arc in this image, which is visible against both the backdrop of Saturn and the dark sky.

via Sliver of Saturn | NASA

Simon 🙂

No ownership claimed on images or material – Credit NASA

NASA – Solar System: Things to Know This Week

I used to post these on a regular basis, but I’ve been leaving them lately. But the big news for this week is really about the last stages of Cassini’s Saturn mission.

The last maneuvers will be taking place soon, bringing Cassini between the planet’s outer atmosphere and it’s inner rings for a number of orbits before it’s final flight into the gas giant.

Read the full article here:

via NASA — Solar System: Things to Know This Week

Simon 🙂

NO ownership claimed on images or materials – Credit NASA

Images from the closest pass yet of Saturn’s RingS



The Cassini probe has been capturing the most detailed and amazing images yet of Saturn’s rings. The spacecraft is making it’s final passes before it is plunged into Saturn later on in the year.

Click for more:

via NASA just captured some of the most mind-blowing images of Saturn’s icy rings ever – ScienceAlert

Simon 🙂

No ownership claimed on images or materials – Credit ESA / NASA