A Surprising Pan

You’d think I would have learned my lesson by now.  Every time I think I’ve seen it all, that I’ve seen every strange phenomenon in space, every unique planet, moon, star, galaxy, every variation, I’m proven wrong.  I expect that the order has been established and everything newly discovered will fall into a category with no more unique variation. But here we are again.  The close up view of Pan. Pan was photographed only a few days ago by the Cassini spacecraft as it carries out the final months of it’s mission to Saturn.  It was revealed to be a...

Titanic Methane Seas

Even after a decade of interloping among the Saturnian system, the Cassini spacecraft is still doing great science.  It helps that there are lots of places to visit, since Saturn has 62 moons and the largest ring system of the gas giants.  Arguably the best science has come from Saturn’s largest moon Titan, second largest moon in the solar system (behind Ganymede) and the only moon known to have an atmosphere. Since Cassini has been in orbit around Saturn and it’s system of moons, it’s been revealed that over 1.6 million square kilometers of Titan’s surface are covered in liquid...

Saturn Double Shot 2/2: Enceladus Eruptions Explained

One of the most surprising and intriguing finds during the decade-long Cassini mission has been the discovery of geysers on the Moon Enceladus.  Originally spotted in 2005, scientists have spent the last decade trying to understand how they work.  And now they finally have a working model. How does an eruption on a frigid Moon last so long?  Eruptions on Earth are not long-lived, and if they are, they are very spread out. For Enceladus to have a ton of localized geysers in the South polar region, you need some pretty specific scenarios. Aside from the fact that a constant stream of material could clog...

Saturn Double Shot 1/2: Less-Than-Ancient Moons

It’s always funny explaining astronomical time to a non-scientist.  I often get the craziest looks when I mention a million years as being a ‘blip on the radar.’  Perhaps there is some immortal alien race out there who would understand how nothing much happens on the scale of the universe in a million years.  To humanity and our ever-accelerating advancement, a million years is thrice the age of our entire species.  But I guess Einstein was right when he said that ‘it’s all relative.’ This brings us to Saturn, a planet as ancient as the solar system.  Moderately old in...

Searching for Nine

Planet nine from outer space has yet to be found, but the theory is sound, and the hunt has begun.  Since the announcement by Konstantin Batygin and Mike Brown on January 20th, astronomers have been finding ways to search for the theorized planet, using all the available data to zero in on it’s position.  It’s certainly big enough to find, at roughly 10 Earth masses, but with a huge swath of space to search, everything that excludes part of the search area is a step in the right direction. One of the ongoing goals of researchers is to carefully calculate...

Massive Ice Cloud on Titan

Titan is the most interesting body in the solar system from a weather standpoint.  It has a thick and robust atmosphere, a liquid cycle of methane and other hydrocarbons, and it has seasonal variations in these patterns.  It’s essentially a cold and oxygen-deficient version of Earth.  Because the seasons on Titan take 7.5 years to pass, we have few opportunities to study them up close with the Cassini spacecraft.  So as long as Cassini is operating, we are using our time wisely to see how Titan is changing.  The first major change is a giant ice cloud that has formed...

Cassini Dives into Enceladus Geysers

Since 2004, the Cassini spacecraft has been orbiting Saturn, giving us unprecedented views of the rings and Moons, and sending back data that has helped us to understand the dynamic nature of the Saturnian system.  The flexibility of such a craft allows for new science goals to be determined in an ongoing basis, since new discoveries often lead to new questions and new areas to focus our resources on.  Yesterday, October 28th, Cassini focused its resources on the geysers of Enceladus, flying lower than ever before over the surface of the icy moon, in an attempt to sample some of...

Enceladus’ Global Subsurface Ocean Confirmed

For years there has been talk of a subsurface ocean present within Saturn’s icy moon Enceladus.  Many have simply assumed it to be fact, but the reality is, something so complex on a world so far away is very difficult to prove conclusively.  But now, using data from over a decade of observations by the Cassini spacecraft, mission scientists have shown conclusively that Enceladus must have a global ocean beneath a surface of ice. Previous data analysis suggested that there was a lens-shaped liquid ocean beneath the south polar region of the planet, giving a source for the observed plumes...

Saturnian Symmetry

With more than a decade of observations, the Cassini spacecraft has redefined our understanding of the ringed giant Saturn and its diverse moons.  Continually working and returning new data, it has achieved significant scientific milestones, along with it’s partner probe Huygens, which dropped down through the thick clouds of mighty moon Titan’s atmosphere in early 2005.  Along with a new scientific understanding comes views never-before-seen by human eyes, revealing the artful dance between the gas giant, its moons, and its incredible ring system.  One of my favourite photos shows the incredibly beautiful symmetry of the rings. The rotational symmetry in...

Distances in Astronomy

How do we determine the size of the Universe? How do we know how far away the planets and stars are? How can we measure it without ever being there? The answer, as it always is in Astronomy, is light! More Photons = More Science! Here’s my video explaining the concepts of Parallax, spectroscopic parallax, and type 1a supernovae!   Space is big, and although we can figure out how big it is, its another challenge all together to understand and comprehend its sheer size.