Nothing to See Here: Titanian Clathrate Edition

NASA would like your attention long enough to explain a thing or two about how—

—absolutely cool the Cassini-Huygens mission really is.

The NASA and European Space Agency Cassini mission has revealed hundreds of lakes and seas spread across the north polar region of Saturn’s moon Titan. These lakes are filled not with water but with hydrocarbons, a form of organic compound that is also found naturally on Earth and includes methane. The vast majority of liquid in Titan’s lakes is thought to be replenished by rainfall from clouds in the moon’s atmosphere. But how liquids move and cycle through Titan’s crust and atmosphere is still relatively unknown.

A recent study led by Olivier Mousis, a Cassini research associate at the University of Franche-Comté, France, examined how Titan’s methane rainfall would interact with icy materials within underground reservoirs. They found that the formation of materials called clathrates changes the chemical composition of the rainfall runoff that charges these hydrocarbon “aquifers.” This process leads to the formation of reservoirs of propane and ethane that may feed into some rivers and lakes.

And it doesn’t stop there.

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Look Ahead: Cassini “Proximal” Mission

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First, there was Equinox. And then came Solstice. Ever faithful, the Cassini probe continues to defy even the wildest expectations at its launch in 1997. And now, NASA is asking for public participation in preparing the spacecraft for its final mission:

Starting in late 2016, the Cassini spacecraft will repeatedly climb high above Saturn’s north pole, flying just outside its narrow F ring. Cassini will probe the water-rich plume of the active geysers on the planet’s intriguing moon Enceladus, and then will hop the rings and dive between the planet and innermost ring 22 times.

JPL-CassiniProximalMission-1Because the spacecraft will be very close to Saturn, the team has been calling this phase “the proximal orbits.” But they think someone out there can conjure up a cooler name. Here’s where you come in: you can choose your faves from a list already assembled, or you can submit your own ideas (up to three). The big reveal for the final name will be in May 2014.

This naming contest is part of the 10-year anniversary celebration. The mission will mark a decade of exploring Saturn, its rings and moons on June 30 PDT (July 1 EDT).

The name game is already underway. And they’ve already released an awesome trailer in advance of Cassini’s astounding swan song.

No, really, watch the trailer.

This is going to be so cool.

Cassini’s last mission could well be the inspiration of our next generation of scientists. It really is all that.

Shine On, Cassini

Titan Layers (detail)

“Each flyby gives us a little more knowledge of Titan and its striking similarities to our world. Even with its cold surface temperatures of minus 290 degrees Fahrenheit (94 kelvins), Titan is like early Earth in a deep freeze.”

(Hill)

It’s a cosmic diamond jubilee, of sorts. The clock is running, with Cassini set to undertake it’s T-99 flyby of Titan tomorrow (March 6, 2014; 0725 PST). An additional flyby undertaken after the original schedule was settled makes this officially the spacecraft’s one-hundredth survey of Saturn’s largest moon.

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Just So We’re Clear ….

Science and WarSo … you know, not to belabor the point. But I just want to be clear, here: I said it’s important. Here, look at the weird colored stripes. Click on them to find out what they mean. Or maybe a hint:

Neil deGrass Tyson recently noted that the 2008 bank bailout was larger than the total 50 history of NASA’s budget. Inspired by that comparison, I decided to look at general science spending relative to the defense budget. How do we prioritize our tax dollars?

And remember, NASA is one of the few government agencies that routinely does its job correctly. Strangely, another is the National Institutes of Health. Actually, one might reasonably complain that their budget is low, but it does creep upward. And there is always discussion to be had about how far is too far, but come on. NASA knows very nearly exactly where to look for life in this Universe. They have a couple places in mind and know within about a thousand miles where to look. And given what might actually be there, they won’t need the thousand. They might need only ten. And the difference between getting there and landing, or just flying around in circles, taking ever-finer photos? Is it worth it?

Is it worth it to know?

Updates

The upside of being lazy is that you’re not doing anything unpleasant. The downside is that the unpleasantness stacks up at the far end. No, wait, that’s not right. But, you know, sometimes the art of playing catch-up … er … right. Enough about me.

There is plenty going on around the solar system.

First up, Yellowknife Bay, Mars, where our friendly neighborhood robotic space laboratory is still recovering from a memory glitch that forced Curiosity to switch over to its redundant B-side computer:

Pasadena? We Have an Uh-OhNASA’s Mars rover Curiosity continues to move forward with assessment and recovery from a memory glitch that affected the rover’s A-side computer. Curiosity has two computers that are redundant of one another. The rover is currently operating using the B-side computer, which is operating as expected.

Over the weekend, Curiosity’s mission operations team continued testing and assessing the A-side computer’s memory.

“These tests have provided us with a great deal of information about the rover’s A-side memory,” said Jim Erickson, deputy project manager for the Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. “We have been able to store new data in many of the memory locations previously affected and believe more runs will demonstrate more memory is available.”

Two software patches, targeting onboard memory allocation and vehicle safing procedures, are likely to be uplinked later this week. After the software patches are installed, the mission team will reassess when to resume full mission operations.

Meanwhile, somewhere near Saturn, faithful Cassini continues to dazzle as the data returns from the fourth and final Rhea flyby of the Solstice mission:

Rhea: Portrait of a LadyCassini flew by Rhea at an altitude of 620 miles (997 kilometers) on March 9, 2013. This flyby was designed primarily for the radio science sub-system to measure Rhea’s gravity field. During closest approach and while the radio science sub-system was measuring the icy satellite’s gravity field, the imaging team rode along and captured 12 images of Rhea’s rough and icy surface. Outbound from Rhea, Cassini’s cameras captured a set of global images from a distance of about 167,000 miles (269,000 kilometers).

Data from Cassini’s cosmic dust analyzer were also collected to try to detect any dusty debris flying off the surface from tiny meteoroid bombardments. These data will help scientists understand the rate at which “foreign” objects are raining into the Saturn system.

Cassini will visit Titan (T-90) at a range of 870 miles (1,400 km) on April 5, 2013.

In more earthly realms, Matt McGrath continues his coverage for BBC of the CITES meeting in Bangkok, Thailand:

BBC-HammerheadHuntThree types of critically endangered but commercially valuable shark have been given added protection at the Cites meeting in Bangkok.

The body, which regulates trade in flora and fauna, voted by a two-thirds majority to upgrade the sharks’ status ….

…. The decisions can still be overturned by a vote on the final day of this meeting later this week.

The oceanic whitetip, three varieties of hammerheads and the porbeagle are all said to be seriously threatened by overfishing.

And maybe a bonus Cassini note, because I so adore the photo:

Cassini - PIA14651The ghostly spokes in Saturn’s B ring continue to put on a show for the Cassini spacecraft cameras in this recent image. The spokes, believed to be a seasonal phenomenon, are expected to disappear as Saturn nears its northern hemisphere summer. Scientists continue to monitor the spokes to better understand their origin and evolution.

The small moon Atlas also appears here barely visible in between the A ring and the F ring, which is the thin ring located furthest from Saturn, as the fainter dot close to the A ring. Atlas is closer to the bottom of the image. A bright star also appears in the gap between the two rings, and there are six other stars visible (one through the C ring, near the planet).

Tomorrow, Titan

Mountains of Titan (PIA 16598)The countdown is on for the Cassini probe’s latest close encounter with Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Slated for 5:57 pm PST, February 16 (1:57 AM, February 17, UTC), Cassini will approach within 1,229 miles (1,978 km) from the surface of Titan at a blazing speed of 13,000 mph (5.8 km/s).

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains:

During the Solstice mission, a main science objective is to measure Titan’s gravitational field in order to confirm or deny the presence of an underground ocean. Additional radio science (RSS) gravity observations are needed both to answer this question and to help determine if Titan’s crust is thick and rigid, or thin.

The spacecraft is slated for only four encounters with Titan during the Solstice mission, and scientists hope to get the most out of each pass.

Raw images usually post fairly quickly, so we can expect new glimpses of Titan in the coming days.

Meanwhile, a trivial bit: Did you know that the International Astronomical Union names Titan’s mountains after Middle Earth, from J.R.R. Tolkein’s novels?