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Saturn's Many Moons

The Huygens probe landed on the surface of Saturns moon Titan. While Saturn's main feature is the amazing rings circling the planet, there are also unique moons that astronomers wish to study in detail. There are dozens of moons orbiting the massive planet. Some of the moons are distant while some are found within the orbit of the icy rings. Moon sizes range from some small ones at a few kilometers to mighty Titan at over 5,000 kilometers across.

The smaller moons resemble asteroids. Some astronomers believe they may be asteroids that were trapped in the gravitational pull of Saturn (the second largest planet in our Solar System). The larger moons resemble our moon. They are spherical objects with a variety of surfaces and compositions. Some are barren and have no atmospheres and others are covered with ice and have tectonic activity.

Saturn's Moon Titan

When you study Saturn's moons, you should start with Titan. It is the largest of Saturn's moons and the only moon in the Solar System with a thick atmosphere. This thick atmosphere teased astronomers for decades until the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft entered Saturn's orbit. One of the goals of the mission was to release the Huygens probe that fell through Titan's layered atmosphere and capture images of the surface. The Cassini spacecraft will pass by Titan several times and use radar to map the moon's surface.

Images and instruments have confirmed a thick and layered atmosphere of hydrocarbons such as methane. Because of the temperature on Titan, you will find these hydrocarbons in gas, liquid and solid forms. On Earth, we have water in these three phases of matter. While not confirmed, some astronomers believe there could be complex organic molecules on the surface of liquid rivers and earthlike canyons and deltas.

Surprising Enceladus

While Cassini's primary mission was to study Titan, it has made some amazing discoveries on Enceladus. This icy moon (about the size of Spain) may contain liquid water below the surface. Liquid water always excites scientists because water is one of the components for the development of living things. Scientists were also excited about identifying water on Jupiter's moon Europa. While the mission to explore Jupiter's icy moons has been cancelled, astronomers hope to send a spacecraft to do more studies in the future.

Evidence for Enceladus' water came from two forms. Oxygen has been detected in Saturn's E-ring. This element could have come from the breakdown of water molecules. Cassini also photographed jet spray into space from the surface of the moon. This spray could have come from the heating of ice into liquid and gas forms of water. This spray would eventually lead to the oxygen found in the rings. As the mission continues, NASA will continue studying Enceladus.

Exploring Saturn's Moons

Over the years, several spacecraft have sped by the moons and rings of Saturn. Pioneer 11 first visited the planet in 1979. Voyager I and II followed Pioneer in 1980 and 1981. For fifteen years, astronomers studied the planet as well as possible with Earth-based (Keck) and Earth orbiting telescopes (Hubble). In late 2004, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft entered Saturn's orbit. For six years, the Cassini spacecraft will study Saturn's rings and dozens of moons.

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Keywords for Review

Kinetic Energy: The energy of an object related to the motion of the object. On a simple level, an object that is not moving has no kinetic energy. An object that is moving has some amount of kinetic energy. The more an object moves, the more kinetic energy it has. An object increases its kinetic energy if it accelerates and increases its velocity. For example, as you increase the temperature of a gas, the molecules become more energetic and the system has an overall increase in kinetic energy. Kinetic Energy=(0.5)* mass * (velocity)2

Exothermic: A chemical reaction that releases energy after the reaction is complete. The energy is usually released as heat, but it can also be released as light or sound. On a small scale, a burning candle releases light and heat because of exothermic reactions as the wax burns. On a large scale, an explosion might occur when blasting with sticks of dynamite (TNT).

Activation Energy: The least amount of energy needed for a chemical reaction to occur. Reactions often require some amount of energy to get moving. For example, placing hydrogen and oxygen gases in a container will not give you water. There is a certain amount of energy required to get the first reaction going. Catalysts are substances that help to lower activation energies so that reactions can proceed.

Viscosity: A term used to measure the fluidity of a liquid. As the attractions between the molecules increase, viscosity increases. Fluids with high viscosities don’t flow easily. Some substances such as honey or sap are very slow moving and have high viscosities. Other fluids such as water or mercury (Hg) have very low viscosities.

Volatile: Volatility is the likelihood that a substance will vaporize (become a gas). Volatility measurements are all about comparing two substances. Substances with a higher vapor pressure are more volatile. Alcohol is more volatile than water because it evaporates at a lower temperature.

Reference Materials

Encyclopædia Britannica: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/369668/matter
NYU.edu: http://www.nyu.edu/pages/mathmol/textbook/whatismatter.html
NASA: http://www.grc.nasa.gov/WWW/k-12/airplane/state.html
NASA: http://astroventure.arc.nasa.gov/teachers/pdf/AV-Astronolesson-Part2.pdf
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/States_of_matter


 
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