Raw Images of Active Beauty

Planetary scientists long assumed that the moons of the outer planets were cold, dead, and airless worlds, heavily cratered but otherwise little changed from their original formation. In 1979, Voyager 1, looking back just after its flyby of Jupiter, discovered volcanic activity on Jupiter’s moon Io. Over a year later, Voyager 1 discovered that the atmosphere of Saturn’s moon Titan, first detected in 1944 by Gerard Kuiper, was thicker than the Earth’s, orange, and opaque. When Voyager 2 passed by Neptune’s moon Triton in 1989, it snapped images of geysers erupting despite the extreme cold.

After Galileo toured the Jovian system during the 1990s and early 2000s, planetary scientists views had been irreversibly changed. Gone was a bias for current geological activity only on Earth, replaced with a stunned awareness of just how dynamic our solar system remains after its formation 4.5 billion years ago. By the time Cassini-Huygens entered the Saturnian System in June 2004, expectations were high for new discoveries of current activity to rival those made by the Galileo spacecraft. A year and a half later, these expectations have been exceeded.

With the advanced remote sensing capabilities offered by Cassini, and the successful landing of the Huygens probe, Titan was revealed to be a world more Earth-like than any other yet discovered. Nearly all geological activities present on the Earth appear to have counterparts on Titan. On Titan are low-lying boundaries that look like shorelines, river channels cut out by the recent activity of liquid methane, snow made of clumps of hydrocarbons, and sand dunes that stretch for hundreds of kilometers. Other features look like volcanoes, lakes, and craters (so few that just like the Earth the surface of Titan must be very young.)

The overwhelming realization that Titan was very much like a planet in its own right could not prepare scientists for what came next.

There was another bias at work, one that seemed more like common sense. All the current geological activity discovered in the solar system to date had been on the largest moons, moons nearly as large or much larger than our own. Of these moons – the giants Ganymede, Callisto, Titan, or Luna-comparable Io, Europa, and Triton – only the Earth and Callisto appear to have ancient surfaces unchanged by current geological activity. Smaller moons, and there are many of them, simply do not have the internal energy or structure to support activity. More recent missions had confirmed what was simply common sense. They were the cold, dead, and airless bodies originally assumed by planetary scientists. Even if they were just large enough to be round, the history of activity could be traced to their early formation and rare impacts on their surfaces.

The Saturn moon Enceladus was observed by Cassini as part of its tour of the system. The tiny moon is only 512 kilometers (318 miles) in diameter, with just over the mass expected by theory to lead to roundness instead of irregularity. The first images revealed that the surface was not heavily cratered or ancient as expected by scientists. Instead, the surface appeared to be very young, especially near the south pole.

Other instruments observed Enceladus during these early flybys. Strange surface features labeled the “Tiger Stripes” were warmer than the surrounding terrain. The ice here was incredibly young, perhaps as young as yesterday. Just as surprising was the localized presence of a thin water vapor atmosphere, around a body that was simply too small to hold one.

All of these discoveries were leading somewhere. In images captured by Cassini in November 2005, revealed in a press release on December 6, 2005, were the smoking guns: the plumes of Enceladus. Stretching higher into space than the moon is wide, the plumes erupt with fine particles of water ice from the Tiger Stripes region of Enceladus. Some of these fall onto the surface of the moon, keeping it young, but the rest contribute something surprising to the Saturnian system: Saturn’s own E-ring.

Enceladus has become the first tiny moon to join the Earth, Io, and Triton as worlds known to have current and active volcanic activity. The exact process that drives this activity on Enceladus is still unclear. Scientists believe the tug of war between Titan and Saturn with Enceladus in the middle induce internal friction below the moon’s surface. They are unsure if this results in a partially melted mantle near Enceladus’ south pole, and whether or not this material erupts as liquid water that quickly freezes, or as already frozen water ice particles. What they can be certain of is that their preconceived notions about small moons were wrong.

Expecting one active moon, Cassini mission scientists discovered a second. New raw images returned by Cassini just last week reveal this activity with breathtaking beauty. The high haze layers of Titan seen through Saturn’s rings is a study in detail. And then there is tiny Enceladus, dwarfed by its parent planet and some of its sibling moons, but magnificent with is brilliant and angry plumes in the sunlight. There is certainly scientific data in these images to be categorized and analyzed by scientists when the raw images are cleaned up, but there is also artistic value to be enjoyed.

Walt Whitman wrote about a scientific lecture in a poem entitled “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” During the lecture, full of facts and data, Whitman writes:

“How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick;
Till rising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

There is a great deal that can, has, and will be said about these and other images from Cassini. First, however, these images may invoke in some Walt Whitman’s perfect silence, not through annoyance or boredom, but instead through great awe and wonder. This is a silence that means one cannot, for the moment, speak. One instead simply appreciates.

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Richard Leis

Richard Leis is a fiction writer and poet, with his first published poem forthcoming later in 2017 from Impossible Archetype. His essays about fairy tales and technology have been published on Tiny Donkey. Richard is also the Downlink Lead for the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) team at the University of Arizona. He monitors images of the Martian surface taken by the HiRISE camera located on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in orbit around Mars and helps ensure they process successfully and are validated for quick release to the science community and public. Once upon a time, Richard wrote and edited the science and technology news and commentary website Frontier Channel, hosted the RADIO Frontier Channel podcast, and organized transhumanist clubs. Follow Richard on his website (richardleis.com), on Goodreads (richardleis), his Micro.blog (@richardleis), Twitter (@richardleisjr), and Facebook (richardleisjr).