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Voyeur Cassini Catches Titan Naked

Feb 04, 2015 10:50 PM EST
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(Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Astronomers are shamelessly drooling over a new set of naked photos, but it's not exactly what you think. The photos, snapped from an ideal vantage point by the Cassini spacecraft, have managed to reveal that Saturn's moon Titan looks far more like the surfaces of Venus or Mars than experts expected, at least when it's stripped down to its birthday suit by buffeting solar winds.

The images and data were collected during a rare moment back in December 2013, but only now were fully analyzed by astronomers. Normally, solar winds buffet planets and asteroids far more often than they will touch moons, largely because moons are often protected by the strong magnetic fields of the planets they orbit.

However, Titan lives up to its name, and would have been classified as a planet of its own - or at least a dwarf- or proto-planet like Pluto - were it orbiting the Sun rather than Saturn. Its immense size allows for it to occasionally peak out from Saturn's magnetic curtain, where five percent of its orbital path leaves it flailing in the wind, so to speak.

On that lucky December day, the solar wind - a fast-flowing gale of charged particles that continually streams outward from the Sun - slammed into Titan with such force that it physically wrenched Saturn's outlying magnetic field back. This made the moon's own field exceptionally visible to Cassini's magnetometer instrument. This also allowed researcher Cesar Bertucci, of the Institute of Astronomy and Space Physics in Buenos Aires, and his colleagues to study the moon's atmosphere and how it interacted with a solar shockwave for the first time ever. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : NASA/JPL-Caltech)

"We observed that Titan interacts with the solar wind very much like Mars, if you moved it to the distance of Saturn," the researcher excitedly explained in a statement. "We thought Titan in this state would look different. We certainly were surprised."

And while this lucky event gave astronomers and unexpected peek at Titan unshrouded by its host planet's influence, it also gave Bertucci an idea.

Instead of accounting for planetary influences when observing other moons, he and his colleagues propose that researchers look to other parts of the solar system for similar circumstances in an effort to predict where the next solar wind peep-show might occur.

"After nearly a decade in orbit, the Cassini mission has revealed once again that the Saturn system is full of surprises," added Michele Dougherty, principal investigator of the Cassini magnetometer at Imperial College, London. "After more than a hundred flybys, we have finally encountered Titan out in the solar wind, which will allow us to better understand how such moons maintain or lose their atmospheres."

The results were recently published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS.

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