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Monday, October 08, 2007

Cassini on the trail of a runaway mystery

Credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute (All Images)

Cassini captures the first high-resolution glimpse of the bright trailing hemisphere of Saturn's moon Iapetus.

This false-color mosaic shows the entire hemisphere of Iapetus (1,468 kilometers) visible from Cassini on the outbound leg of its encounter with the two-toned moon in September 2007. The central longitude of the trailing hemisphere is 24 degrees to the left of the mosaic's center.

Also shown here is the complicated transition region between the dark leading and bright trailing hemispheres. This region, visible along the right side of the image, was observed in many of the images acquired by Cassini near closest approach during the encounter.

Revealed here for the first time in detail are the geological structures that mark the trailing hemisphere. The region appears heavily cratered, particularly in the north and south polar regions. Near the top of the mosaic, numerous impact features visible in NASA Voyager 2 spacecraft images (acquired in 1981) are visible, including the craters Ogier and Charlemagne.

The most prominent topographic feature in this view, in the bottom half of the mosaic, is a 450-kilometer wide impact basin, one of at least nine such large basins on Iapetus. In fact, the basin overlaps an older, similar-sized impact basin to its southeast.

In many places, the dark material - thought to be composed of nitrogen-bearing organic compounds called cyanides, hydrated minerals and other carbonaceous minerals - appears to coat equator-facing slopes and crater floors. The distribution of this material and variations in the color of the bright material across the trailing hemisphere will be crucial clues to understanding the origin of Iapetus' peculiar bright-dark dual personality.

The view was acquired with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on 10 September 2007, at a distance of about 73,000 kilometers from Iapetus.

The color seen in this view represents an expansion of the wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum visible to human eyes. The intense reddish-brown hue of the dark material is far less pronounced in true color images. The use of enhanced color makes the reddish character of the dark material more visible than it would be to the naked eye.

This mosaic consists of 60 images covering 15 footprints across the surface of Iapetus. The view is an orthographic projection centered on 10.8° south, 246.5° west and has a resolution of 426 metres per pixel. An orthographic view is most like the view seen by a distant observer looking through a telescope.

At each footprint, a full resolution clear filter image was combined with half-resolution images taken with infrared, green and ultraviolet spectral filters (centered at 752, 568 and 338 nanometres, respectively) to create this full-resolution false color mosaic.

This high-resolution view shows a vast range of crater sizes in the dark terrain of the leading hemisphere of Saturn's moon Iapetus.

Across the scene, a few small bright spots indicate fresh, rayed craters where impactors have punched through the thin blanket of dark material to the cleaner ice beneath.

The slight elevation on the bottom half of the image is part of the giant equatorial ridge that spans a wide fraction of Iapetus' circumference. The numerous craters on top of the ridge indicate that it is an old surface feature.

The mosaic consists of three image footprints across the surface of Iapetus. The view is centered on terrain near 0.5° north and 141.6° west. Image scale is approximately 22 metres per pixel. Illumination is from the left.

The clear spectral filter images in this mosaic were obtained with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on 10 September 2007, at a distance of approximately 63 000 kilometers from Iapetus and at a sun-Iapetus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of about 125°.

Iapetus is 1468 kilometers across.

The slim crescent of Iapetus looms before the Cassini spacecraft as it approaches the mysterious moon.

Iapetus, 1468 kilometers across, seen here in false color, is unique in its dramatic variation in brightness between the northern polar region and the middle and low latitudes. Equally prominent is the moon's equatorial ridge of towering mountains.

The profile of the ridge against the darkness of space reveals that it is topped by a cratered plateau approximately 15 kilometers wide. Further west, the profile of the ridge changes from a long plateau to discrete peaks.

The mosaic consists of four image footprints across the surface of Iapetus and has a resolution of 489 metres per pixel.

A full-resolution clear filter image was combined with half-resolution images taken with infrared, green and ultraviolet spectral filters (centered at 752, 568 and 338 nanometres, respectively) to create this full-resolution false color mosaic.

The color seen in this view represents an expansion of the wavelength region of the electromagnetic spectrum visible to human eyes. The intense reddish-brown hue of the dark material is far less pronounced in true color images. The use of enhanced color makes the reddish character of the dark material more visible than it would be to the naked eye. In addition, the scene has been brightened to improve the visibility of surface features.

This view was acquired with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on 10 September 2007, at a distance of about 83 000 kilometers from Iapetus.

This mosaic of Cassini images shows the smallest details ever observed on Saturn's moon Iapetus.

Visible here are small craters as well as the base of a large mountain ridge located just south of the mosaic. At several places, bright spots about 20 to 50 metres across are visible. At these locations, more recent impactors have punched through the overlying blanket of dark material to reveal brighter, cleaner ice beneath.

Since the bright craters are relatively small and very shallow, it is likely that the dark blanket is rather thin in this area; it is assumed that its actual average thickness might be on the order of a foot.

The small crater at the upper left edge of the mosaic has a diameter of about 50 metres and shows a distinct ray pattern from excavated ice. This feature is so bright in comparison to the dark surrounding terrain that it had to be darkened manually so as not to look overexposed in this mosaic.

The mosaic consists of eight image footprints across the surface of Iapetus, presented here in simple cylindrical projection. The view is centered on terrain near 0° north and 164.9° west, within the dark leading hemisphere of Iapetus. Image scale is approximately 10 metres per pixel.

The clear spectral filter images in this mosaic were obtained with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on 10 September 2007, at distances ranging from 1627 to 2040 kilometres from Iapetus.

Iapetus is 1468 kilometers across.

Soaring above the alien, icy wastelands of Saturn's moon Iapetus, NASA's Cassini spacecraft captured a series of high-resolution images of the transition region from dark to bright terrain at southern middle latitudes that have been mosaicked together in this view.

An important characteristic of the terrain in the boundary region is that the isolated bright patches are mainly found on slopes facing toward the bright trailing hemisphere or toward the south pole. The same polarity is found within the bright terrain, where the dark material can be seen at the bottom of craters and on equator-facing slopes. These indicate that thermal effects are at play in painting the surface of Iapetus, 1468 kilometres across.

The mosaic consists of eight image footprints across the surface of Iapetus. The view is centered on terrain near 38.6° south latitude, 171.3° west longitude. Image scale is approximately 52 metres per pixel.

The clear spectral filter images in this mosaic were obtained with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on 10 September 2007, at a distance of approximately 5000 kilometres from Iapetus.