On Sunday evening, my eyes were glued to eight windows on my computer screen, watching data pop up every few seconds. NASA's Cassini spacecraft was making its lowest swing through the atmosphere of Saturn's moon Titan and I was on the edge of my seat. Trina Ray, a Titan orbiter science team co-chair, was keeping me company. Five other members of my team were also at JPL. Between us, we were keeping an eye on about 2,000 data channels.
One of the 34-meter antennas at the Deep Space Network's Goldstone complex, DSS-24, was pointed at Saturn and listening for the signal that was expected to be here in just a few minutes. The data would be arriving at my computer as quickly as they could be sent back to Earth, though there was an agonizing hour-and-18-minute delay because of the distance the data had to travel. (We call this flyby T70, but it is actually Cassini's 71st flyby of Titan.)
It was a nervous time for me -- the previous night we had been at JPL to send some other real-time commands to the spacecraft when an alarm came in indicating that the magnetometer, the prime instrument taking data for the T70 flyby, needed a reset. Fortunately, the controller on duty immediately called the magnetometer instrument operations team lead in England. Within 90 minutes, the commands were on their way to do a computer reset and clear the alarm. At 2 a.m. Pacific time on Sunday, we got the email indicating all was well and the magnetometer was ready for the Titan closest approach.
So here we were, past one hurdle, hoping nothing else would come up. We had run hundreds of simulations over the past three-and-a-half years, so I knew we had done everything we could think to do. We did more training for this event than anything else we had done since we dropped off the Huygens probe in January 2005 for a descent through the moon's hazy atmosphere.
Right on time, at 7:26 p.m., the Deep Space Network locked on the spacecraft downlink, a good start. I was focused on the data for spacecraft pointing. As long as we stayed within an eighth of a degree of the expected pointing, everything would be fine. At 7:45 p.m., we got the data from closest approach, a mere 880 kilometers (547 miles) in altitude. Over the vocabox, a cross between a telephone and walkie-talkie, the attitude control team reported that the thrusters were firing about twice as much as we expected. The Titan atmosphere appeared to be a little thicker than we expected, even though we had fed about 40 previous low Titan flybys by Cassini and the descent data from Huygens into our modeling.
But spacecraft control was right on the money, keeping the pointing within our predicted limits. Even with the extra thrusting, we stayed well within our safety margin.
At 7:53 p.m., the spacecraft turned away to go to the next observation. I let out a sigh of relief, happy that everything during closest approach had gone just as we planned. Five attitude control guys crowded into my office with smiles on their faces. Trina and I were marveling at what a wonderful spacecraft we have to work with. Another first for the Cassini mission!
Now, as Trina says, we have to finish the job by returning all the great science data. We have data playbacks today at two different Deep Space Network stations to make sure we have - as we say here - both belts and suspenders. Engineers will also go back to analyze the data with the scientists to see just how dense the Titan atmosphere turned out to be at our flyby altitude.
But last night, at least, my team and I went home happy!
This weekend, Cassini will embark on an exciting mission: trying to establish if Titan, Saturn's largest moon, possesses a magnetic field of its own. This is important for understanding the moon's interior and geochemical evolution.
For Titan scientists, this is one of the most anticipated flybys of the whole mission. We want to get as close to the surface with our magnetometer as possible for a one-of-a-kind scan of the moon. Magnetometer team scientists (including me) have a reputation for pushing the lower limits. In a world of infinite possibilities, we would have liked many flybys at 800 kilometers. But we went back and forth a lot with the engineers, who have to ensure the safety of the spacecraft and fuel reserves. We agreed on one flyby at 880 kilometers (547 miles) and both sides were happy.
Flying at this low altitude will mark the first time Cassini will be below the moon's ionosphere, a shell of electrons and other charged particles that make up the upper part of the atmosphere. As a result, the spacecraft will find itself in a region almost entirely shielded from Saturn's magnetic field and will be able to detect any magnetic signature originating from within Titan.
Titan orbits within the confines of the magnetic bubble around Saturn and is permanently exposed to the planet's magnetic disturbances. Previous measurements by NASA's Voyager spacecraft and Cassini at altitudes above 950 kilometers (590 miles) have shown that Titan does not possess an appreciable magnetic field capable of counterbalancing Saturn's. However, this does not imply that Titan's field is zero. We'd like to know what the internal field might be, no matter how small.
The internal structure of Titan can be probed remotely from its gravitational field or its magnetic properties. Planets with a magnetic field -- like Titan's parent Saturn or our Earth -- are believed to generate their global-scale magnetic fields from a mechanism called a dynamo. Dynamo magnetic fields are generated from currents in a molten core where charge-conducting materials such as metals are flowing around each other and also undergoing other stresses because of the planet's rotation.
We might not find a magnetic field at all. A positive detection of an internal magnetic field from Titan could imply one of the following:
a) Titan's interior still bears enough energy to sustain a dynamo.
b) Titan's interior is "cold" (and therefore has no dynamo), but its crust is magnetized in a similar way as Mars' crust. If this is the case, we should find out how this magnetization took place.
c) Something under the surface of Titan got charged temporarily by Saturn's magnetic field before this Cassini flyby. While I said earlier that the ionosphere shields the Titan atmosphere from Saturn's magnetic bubble, the ionosphere is only an active shield when the moon is exposed to sunlight. During part of its orbit around the planet, Titan is in the dark and magnetic field lines from Saturn can reach the Titan surface. A temporary magnetic field can be created if there is a conducting layer, like an ocean, on or below the moon's crust.
Once Cassini leaves Titan, the spacecraft will perform a series of rolls to fine-calibrate its magnetometer in order to assess T70 measurements with the highest precision. We're looking forward to poring through the data coming down, especially after all the negotiations we had to make for them!
Cassini's closest-ever flyby of Saturn's moon Rhea went quite smoothly and teams are busy checking out their data! These flybys never fail to amaze me. And the raw images -- which give us an unprocessed first look -- are really cool!
This raw image (N00152175) from Cassini's narrow-angle camera image was taken about 40 minutes after closest approach. The image shows a region adjacent to the wispy terrain --craters, craters everywhere! And wow, are those crater rims bright compared to the surrounding terrain.
Cassini captured a full portrait of the serene moon with its wide-angle camera (raw image W00063107) on the outbound leg of the flyby, about 1.25 hours after closest approach. Keep in mind that the phase angle is quite low here (only about 2.5 degrees), meaning that the sun is almost directly behind Cassini and Rhea is nearly fully illuminated -- so there are no shadows. Large-scale albedo variations are apparent across the surface.
The spacecraft also obtained a cool image of little Helene with raw image N00152211. We're basically looking at the night side of the body -- but it doesn't appear very dark, because it's illuminated by sunlight reflecting off Saturn. During the later image sequence of Helene, this small moon was transiting Saturn - so you can see Saturn in the background. Sometimes,pointing at these little guys can be very tricky, especially so close after a targeted flyby. It can be difficult (or impossible!) to get the positions of the spacecraft, the moon and the instruments all lined up -- but boy are these close-up Helene images incredible! The detail on the surface is tremendous, and should go a long way to informing geologists about surface properties and processes.
As the imaging team is taking a closer look at images such as these, other instrument teams -- including those for the radar instrument, composite infrared spectrometer, visual and infrared mapping spectrometer and the ultraviolet imaging spectrograph (the instrument I work on) -- are also busy processing their data. At a science meeting Friday, we talked about a few of the preliminary results. Some of the magnetospheric and plasma science instruments teams reported that they’re seeing some really interesting and surprising results! So stay tuned to hear more about those!
Of course, after one successful flyby, we get right to work on another. Coming up next: Dione on April 7!
Here in Cassini-land, we are really excited about Tuesday's Rhea flyby! This will be the mission's second targeted flyby of the moon in the mission, so it's sometimes referred to as R-2 or Rhea-2.
The spacecraft will fly by Rhea at an altitude of about 100 kilometers (60 miles), the closest encounter yet with Saturn's second largest moon. (Our first targeted flyby of Rhea in 2005 was at an altitude of 500 kilometers, or 300 miles, so this is way closer.)
We've been focusing a lot on the moon Enceladus because it is sort of the darling of the Saturn system -- but Rhea is a good example of why the other moons are interesting too. We know a decent amount about this moon, but we still have more questions, especially about the debris that could make up a ring around the moon and the composition of its surface.
The first targeted flyby in 2005 was focused on a radio science experiment doing gravity measurements to understand Rhea's interior structure. We also got some nice remote-sensing data from the cameras and spectrometers (see for example PIA07764) as well as radar measurements for surface and subsurface composition. We also did a much more distant flyby (5,000 kilometers or 3,000 miles) of Rhea in August 2007; that flyby was dedicated to remote sensing of the moon, including imaging (such as PIA08402). So we have a pretty good understanding of Rhea as being pretty heavily cratered with no super obvious signs of activity. It has this "wispy terrain" (see PIA08120), which is a lot like the type of feature seen on another Saturnian moon, Dione, and is basically a large series of fractures that are relatively bright compared to the surrounding regions.
One of the most interesting results to come out of the 2005 and 2007 flybys came from the fields and particles instruments: the mysterious signature of electron depletion around Rhea, suggestive of a debris ring. (Basically, solid material appears to be absorbing electrons in the vicinity of Rhea.) So Rhea could be a moon with its own ring! The ring has not been seen by any of the remote sensing instruments on Cassini, however. It can be difficult to get the viewing geometry just right in order to see this type of thing -- recall that the Cassini cameras didn't definitely see Enceladus' plume until after being in orbit for more than one year!
Tuesday's flyby should give us some clues about the suspected debris disk around the moon, but the slam-dunk experiment to "see" Rhea's debris disk is what we call a stellar occultation through the ring plane - looking to see if debris particles or clumps block out light from stars. Unfortunately we won't get to do such an occultation on this flyby. This is a tricky experiment to do because you have to get the timing and the geometry just right, but we're hoping to do it at some point later in the mission.
Anyway, on to Tuesday's flyby! To get a sense of what we're going to do, check out the movie made by Cassini navigator Brent Buffington that shows each of the activities performed during the flyby.
We will approach Rhea on the night side, so the moon will be dark. This is an especially good opportunity for the radar instrument to make measurements. (The cameras and imaging spectrometers typically prefer to observe the dayside, not the nightside.) Radar will do synthetic aperture radar imaging scans similar to those at Titan and will also do measurements to understand the surface composition. Previous measurements had suggested an asymmetry in brightness (which could be due to compositional differences) between the leading and trailing hemispheres of the moon, so this flyby will help with investigating that.
At closest approach, the fields and particles instruments will take data that will help us understand the environment of Rhea -- its interaction with Saturn's magnetosphere, its debris disk, and its ejecta cloud density. Ejecta clouds are dust or material that is being ejected or sputtered or otherwise lost from Rhea and its environment and contributing to populations of neutral particles and plasma in the Saturn system. This material may also be contaminating Saturn's rings.
Outbound, the remote sensing instruments will take over. They will make measurements -- in wavelengths as short as the ultraviolet all the way to the far infrared -- of Rhea's surface terrains and composition, as well as its surface temperature. The cameras have seen some "bluish spots" that could be related to the debris ring material - so those regions will be investigated more during this encounter, as will the fractured "wispy" terrain. The visual and infrared mapping spectrometer and the ultraviolet imaging spectrograph will do imaging spectroscopy to search for and map out water ice grain sizes, carbon dioxide, ammonia and fine-grained iron particles, among other materials. The composite infrared spectrometer will map temperatures across portions of Rhea's sunlit disk at high resolution. Ninety minutes after closest approach, Rhea will enter Saturn's shadow, giving the composite infrared mapping spectrometer a good opportunity to measure the cooling of the surface, which will provide information about the texture of the uppermost surface layers.
But wait - there's more! Not only do you get a Rhea flyby, but we're going to throw in a close approach to the small moon Helene! Helene is one of the "co-orbitals" of Dione. That means it orbits Saturn at the same radial distance as Dione, but it happens to be 60 degrees ahead of Dione. Helene is only about 30 or 35 km across (19 or 22 miles) and it's not spherical (see PIA10544). Cassini will approach Helene within about 1,825 kilometers (1,130 miles) -- by FAR the closest we've ever gotten to Helene -- allowing the cameras and imaging spectrometers to obtain information about individual regions across the surface.
So this promises to be an exciting period. Please stay tuned to see the great results!