In Memory of Cassini

September 20, 2017

Last week, NASA’s Cassini Mission came to an end when the spacecraft crashed into the planet Saturn. This was, of course, a planned event: a way for the mission to end in a blaze of glory, collect a little extra data about Saturn’s atmosphere, and also protect Saturn’s potentially habitable moons (Titan, Enceladus, and possibly also Dione) from microorganisms that may have hitched a ride from Earth aboard the spacecraft.

Cassini’s last few days were an oddly emotional time, at least for me. Somehow knowing that the end was coming, that everything was proceeding according to schedule, made it a little harder to bear. When the words “data downlink ended” started appearing in my Twitter feed, I got a little misty eyes and had to walk away from the computer for a while.

This despite the fact that I never got to know Cassini all that well. I never really followed the Cassini Mission closely (especially compared the way I follow Juno). Looking back through my old posts, it seems Cassini only ever appeared on this blog twice. Once for that time it spotted sunlight glinting off the surface of Titan’s methane lakes…

… and once more for the time it used precise measurements of Enceladus’s librations to determine that Enceladus does indeed have an ocean of water beneath its crust.

So today I thought I’d turn the floor over to several of the moons of Saturn and also Saturn herself. They’re the ones who got to know Cassini well. Not me. It’s right that they get the chance to give Cassini’s eulogy.

The Titan Mission That Could’ve Been

July 31, 2017

This is a follow-up to my recent post about NASA’s next flagship-class mission. There seemed to be a lot of interest in the comments about a possible mission to Titan and/or Enceladus, Saturn’s most famous moons.

The competition for flagship mission funding can get pretty intense. The Titan Saturn System Mission (or T.S.S.M.) was a strong contender last time around, as was a proposed mission to Europa, the most watery moon of Jupiter.

According to Titan Unveiled by Ralph Lorenz and Jacqueline Mitton, things got a little nasty when the Europa team started calling Titan “Callisto with weather,” the implication being that Titan was geologically boring.

Callisto, by the way, is a large by often overlooked moon of Jupiter.

Ultimately Team Europa won. NASA deemed their proposal to be closer to launch-readiness. Now after a few years delay due to a certain global financial meltdown, the Europa Clipper Mission appears to be on track for a 2022 launch date (fingers crossed).

As excited as I am for Europa Clipper, the mission to Titan would’ve been really cool too. It actually would have included three—possibly four—spacecraft.

  • A lake-lander to explore Titan’s liquid methane lakes.
  • A hot air balloon to explore the organic chemical fog surrounding Titan.
  • A Titan orbiter to observe Titan from space and also relay data from the lander and balloon back to Earth.
  • And a possible Enceladus orbiter, built by the European Space Agency, which would have tagged along for the ride to Saturn.

It’s a shame T.S.S.M. didn’t get the green light from NASA. Just think: we would’ve had so many cool things going on at once in the Saturn System, enough to almost rival the activity we’ve got going on on Mars!

But now once Europa Clipper is safely on its way (again, fingers crossed), Team Titan will have another shot at getting their mission off the ground.

NASA’s Next Flagship Mission

July 19, 2017

Let’s imagine you’re NASA. You have two big flagship-class missions coming up: one to search for life on Mars (launcing in 2020) and another to search for life on Europa (launching in 2022). These flagship missions are big, expensive projects, so Congress only lets you do one or two per decade.

After 2022, the next flagship mission probably won’t launch until the late 2020’s or early 2030’s, but still… now is the time for you to start thinking about it. So after Mars and Europa, where do you want to go next? Here are a few ideas currently floating around:

  • Orbiting Enceladus: If you want to keep looking for life in the Solar System, Enceladus (a moon of Saturn) is a good pick. It’s got an ocean of liquid water beneath it surface, and thanks to the geysers in the southern hemisphere, Enceladus is rather conveniently spraying samples into space for your orbiter to collect.
  • Splash Down on Titan: If there’s life on Titan (another moon of Saturn), it’ll be very different from life we’re familiar with here on Earth. But the organic chemicals are there in abundance, and it would be interesting to splash down in one of Titan’s lakes of liquid methane. If we built a submersible probe, we could even go see if anything’s swimming around in the methane-y depths.
  • Another Mars Rover: Yes, we have multiple orbiters and rovers exploring Mars already, but some of that equipment is getting pretty old and will need to be replaced soon. If we’re serious about sending humans to Mars, it’s important to keep the current Mars program going so we know what we’re getting ourselves into.
  • Landing on Venus: Given the high temperature and pressure on Venus, this is a mission that won’t last long—a few days tops—but Venus is surprisingly similar to Earth in many ways. Comparing and contrasting the two planets taught us how important Earth’s ozone layer is and just what can happen if a global greenhouse effect get’s out of control. Who knows what else Venus might teach us about our home?
  • Orbiting Uranus: This was high on NASA’s list of priorities at the beginning of the 2010’s, and it’s expected to rank highly again in the 2020’s. We know next to nothing about Uranus or Neptune, the ice giants of our Solar System. Given how many ice giants we’ve discovered orbiting other stars, it would be nice if we could learn more about the ones in our backyard.
  • Orbiting Neptune: Uranus is significantly closer to Earth than Neptune, but there’s an upcoming planetary alignment in the 2030’s that could make Neptune a less expensive, more fuel-efficient choice. As an added bonus, we’d also get to visit Triton, a Pluto-like object that Neptune sort of kidnapped and made into a moon.

If it were up to me, I know which one of these missions I’d pick. But today we’re imagining that you are NASA. Realistically Congress will only agree to pay for one or two of these planetary science missions in the coming decade. So what would be your first and second choices?

Have I Been Drawing Enceladus Wrong?

June 13, 2017

Enceladus, one of Saturn’s moons, is becoming increasingly famous as one of those places in the Solar System where we’re most likely to find alien life. It certainly has the water for it. On this blog, I traditionally depict Enceladus like this:

It’s a nice, icy-looking world with a cheerful personality and active geysers in its south polar region. But have I been drawing Enceladus wrong this whole time? Would it make more sense to draw it like this?

Maybe. According to this article from Saturn Daily, Enceladus may have tipped sideways (by about 55°) at some point in its history. Apparently surface features reveal evidence of an old equator and old north and south poles.

The story is that one day, Enceladus was orbiting along, minding its own business, when it got whacked hard by an asteroid. Saturn Daily tells us that following the impact, Enceladus would have spent about a million years wobbling back and forth until it could reorient its rotation.

But Enceladus did manage to reorient itself. It has a new axis of rotation, a new north and south pole, and a new equator. It’s not a sideways moon, at least not anymore, which means by the logic of space cartoons, I’ve been drawing Enceladus correctly.

At least I think I have. What do you think? Does it make sense to draw Enceladus based on its current orientation or its (possible) original orientation?

Sciency Words: Libration (An A to Z Challenge Post)

April 14, 2017

Today’s post is a special A to Z Challenge edition of Sciency Words, an ongoing series here on Planet Pailly where we take a look at some interesting science or science related term so we can all expand our scientific vocabularies together. In today’s post, L is for:


The Moon is tidally locked to the Earth, meaning one side is always facing toward us and the other side is always facing away. Except this tidal locking isn’t perfect. The Moon rocks back and forth just a little bit.

The technical term for this is libration. It comes from a Latin word meaning balance. In the visual simulation above (courtesy of Wikipedia), we can see the phases of the Moon on fast-forward. We can also see that the Moon moves a little closer to us and then a little farther away, due to its elliptical orbit.

And if you watch closely, you can see the Moon rocking or swaying back and forth. If you’re having trouble seeing it, I recommend picking a surface feature—a crater, perhaps—and following it with your eyes.

Of course our Moon isn’t the only moon that librates. I first learned about libration from a paper about Enceladus, a moon of Saturn.

Thanks to the Cassini mission, we were able to get extremely precise measurements of Enceladus’s libration, and we discovered Enceladus librates a lot. Like, a whole lot.

Enceladus librates so much that it cannot be solid all the way through. Instead, there must be a vast ocean of liquid water sloshing around inside, with only a thin, icy crust floating on top.

That’s a big deal because with all that liquid water, there’s a chance that maybe—just maybe—Enceladus could support life.

Next time on Sciency Words: A to Z, we’ll talk about metal. Everyone knows what metal is. Everyone except astronomers.

Sciency Words: Frost Line

December 23, 2016

Welcome to a very special holiday edition of Sciency Words! Today’s science or science-related term is:


When a new star is forming, it’s typically surrounded by a swirling cloud of dust and gas called an accretion disk. Heat radiating from the baby star plus heat trapped in the disk itself vaporizes water and other volatile chemicals, which are then swept off into space by the solar wind.

But as you move farther away from the star, the temperature of the accretion disk tends to drop. Eventually, you reach a point where it’s cold enough for water to remain in its solid ice form. This is known as the frost line (or snow line, or ice line, or frost boundary).

Of course not all volatiles freeze or vaporize at the same temperature. When necessary, science writers will specify which frost line (or lines) they’re talking about. For example, a distinction might be made between the water frost line versus the nitrogen frost line versus the methane frost line, etc. But in general, if you see the term frost line by itself without any specifiers, I think you can safely assume it’s the water frost line.

Even though our Sun’s accretion disk is long gone, the frost line still loosely marks the boundary between the warmth of the inner Solar System and the coldness of the outer Solar System. The line is smack-dab in the middle of the asteroid belt, and it’s been observed that main belt asteroids tend to be rockier or icier depending on which side of the line they’re on.

It was easier for giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn to form beyond the frost line, since they had so much more solid matter to work with. And icy objects like Europa, Titan, and Pluto—places so cold that water is basically a kind of rock—only exist as they do because they formed beyond the frost line. This has led to the old saying:


Okay, maybe that’s not an old saying, but I really wanted this to be a holiday-themed post.

Meet a Moon: Dione

October 24, 2016

Regarding Greek mythology, it seems no one’s really sure who Dione was. Ancient sources contradict each other, and modern scholars think there may have actually been more than one mythical woman who went by that name. But I was able to find out this much: according to Wikipedia, at least one of these Diones was “sometimes associated with water or the sea.”

What that in mind, I’d like to introduce you to Dione, one of Saturn’s moons.


You sure are, Dione. In fact, I can’t think of a better description for you.

The Waters of Enceladus

Over the last decade or so, one of Saturn’s other moons has become famous for having an ocean of liquid water beneath its surface. That moon is called Enceladus. We know about Enceladus’s water for two reasons:

  • Geysers: Enceladus has a series of cracks (called tiger stripes) in its south polar region, and saltwater shoots out of these cracks at regular intervals.
  • Libration: Enceladus wobbles in place (librates) more than it should. This is best explained by the presence of a layer of liquid separating the moon’s crust from its core.

It’s still a mystery how Enceladus generates enough heat to keep its liquid water from freezing, but at this point, it’s pretty clear the water is there.

The Waters of Dione

Dione doesn’t librate the way Enceladus does, and we haven’t noticed any saltwater geysers, but a recent paper in Geophysical Research Letters says Dione might have a subsurface ocean too.

The authors of the paper created a new theoretical model for icy moons, a model which fits precisely with observations of Enceladus. Then they applied this new model to Dione and concluded that Dione should have a subsurface ocean.

This raises two questions that are fairly easily answered.

  • Where are Dione’s geysers?: Dione may not spew saltwater (anymore), but it does have cracks and fissures in its surface, suggesting that it may have had active “tiger stripe” geysers in the past.
  • What about Dione’s libration?: The new model suggests that Dione should librate, but not as much as Enceladus does. The Cassini spacecraft (currently orbiting Saturn) does not have instruments sensitive enough to detect the predicted libration.

So there you have it. According to at least one theoretical model, Dione should have a subsurface ocean, but we cannot yet confirm that it does. And it’ll probably be awhile before we can send a new spacecraft to Saturn to find out one way or another.

But hey, how appropriate is it that we named this moon, which might have a subsurface ocean, depending on your theoretical model, after a mythical figure that might sometimes have been associated with water, depending on which ancient sources your reading!