Space

April 30, 2012

NASA’s Cassini finds Saturn’s moon Phoebe has planet-like qualities

Data from NASA’s Cassini mission reveal Saturn’s moon Phoebe has more planet-like qualities than previously thought.

Scientists had their first close-up look at Phoebe when Cassini began exploring the Saturn system in 2004.

Using data from multiple spacecraft instruments and a computer model of the moon’s chemistry, geophysics and geology, scientists found Phoebe was a so-called planetesimal, or remnant planetary building block. The findings appear in the April issue of the Journal Icarus.

“Unlike primitive bodies such as comets, Phoebe appears to have actively evolved for a time before it stalled out,” said Julie Castillo-Rogez, a planetary scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “Objects like Phoebe are thought to have condensed very quickly. Hence, they represent building blocks of planets. They give scientists clues about what conditions were like around the time of the birth of giant planets and their moons”

Cassini images suggest Phoebe originated in the far-off Kuiper Belt, the region of ancient, icy, rocky bodies beyond Neptune’s orbit. Data show Phoebe was spherical and hot early in its history, and has denser rock-rich material concentrated near its center. Its average density is about the same as Pluto, another object in the Kuiper Belt. Phoebe likely was captured by Saturn’s gravity when it somehow got close to the giant planet.

Saturn is surrounded by a cloud of irregular moons that circle the planet in orbits tilted from Saturn’s orbit around the sun, the so-called equatorial plane. Phoebe is the largest of these irregular moons and also has the distinction of orbiting backward in relation to the other moons. By comparison, Saturn’s large moons appear to have formed from gas and dust around the planet’s equatorial plane and orbit in that same plane.

“By combining Cassini data with modeling techniques previously applied to other solar system bodies, we’ve been able to go back in time and clarify why Phoebe is so different from the rest of the Saturn system,” said Jonathan Lunine, a co-author on the study and a Cassini team member at Cornell University.

Analyses suggest that Phoebe was born within the first 3 million years of the birth of the solar system, which occurred 4.5 billion years ago. The moon originally may have been porous but appears to have collapsed in on itself as it warmed up. Phoebe developed a density 40 percent higher than the average inner Saturnian moon.

Objects of Phoebe’s size have long been thought to form as potato-shaped bodies and remain that way over their lifetimes. If such an object formed early enough in the solar system’s history, it could have harbored the kinds of radioactive material that would produce substantial heat over a short timescale. This would warm the interior and reshape the moon.

“From Cassini images and models, we were able to see that Phoebe started with a nearly spherical shape, rather than an irregular shape later smoothed into a sphere by impacts,” said co-author Peter Thomas, a Cassini team member at Cornell.

Phoebe likely stayed warm for tens of millions of years before freezing up. The study suggests the heat also would have enabled the moon to host liquid water at one time. This could explain the signature of water-rich material on Phoebe’s surface previously detected by Cassini.

The new study also is consistent with the idea that several hundred million years after Phoebe cooled, the moon drifted toward the inner solar system in a solar-system-wide rearrangement. Phoebe was large enough to survive this turbulence.

More than 60 moons are known to orbit Saturn, varying drastically in shape, size, surface age and origin. Scientists using both ground-based observatories and Cassini’s cameras continue to search for others.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. JPL manages the mission for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

 




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 

Headlines September 19, 2014

News: McKeon on broader military authorization: Anything can ‘fail or pass’ - Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said if Congress returns after the midterm elections to weigh a broader military authorization for the battle against Islamic State, it might not pass. Defense contractor gets 7 years for giving secrets...
 
 

News Briefs September 19, 2014

U.S. military deaths in Afghanistan at 2,203 As of Sept. 16, 2014, at least 2,203 members of the U.S. military had died in Afghanistan as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to an Associated Press count. At least 1,823 military service members have died in Afghanistan as a result...
 
 

Pratt & Whitney, U.S. Air Force complete qualification for F135 engine testing

Pratt & Whitney, a United Technologies Corp. , together with its U.S. Air Force partner at the F135 Heavy Maintenance Center at Tinker Air Force Base, Okla., celebrated another significant milestone qualification for F135 engine testing at the Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex. OC-ALC which in addition to engine testing is also qualified to perform...
 

 
Navy photograph

Triton has first cross-country flight from Palmdale

Northrop Grumman photograph The MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aircraft System takes off from Northrop Grummanís Palmdale, Calif., facility Sept. 17 for its first cross-country flight to Naval Air Station Patuxent, River, Md. PALMDALE,...
 
 
Air Force photograph by Michael J. Pausic

Future of NATO: Adapting to a new security environment

Air Force photograph by Michael J. Pausic Gen. Phillip Breedlove informs the assembled crowd about the results of the recent NATO Summit and the areas of instability that affect Europe that have regional implications. Seated in...
 
 
Air Force photograph by Scott M. Ash

AFRL commander describes Air Force’s technology vision

Air Force photograph by Scott M. Ash Maj. Gen. Thomas Masiello takes a question from an audience member after discussing Air Force Research Laboratory breakthrough technologies during the 2014 Air Force Association’s Air ...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>