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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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Ice Volcanoes on Titan (NASA/JPL Video)
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Useful Reference Materials

Encyclopedia.com (Titan):
http://www.encyclopedia.com/topic/Titan.aspx
Wikipedia (Moons of Saturn):
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moons_of_Saturn
Encyclopædia Britannica (Saturn's Rings and Moons):
http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/525169/Saturn/54282/Saturns-rings-and-moons
NASA/JPL (Cassini-Solstice Mission):
http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/


 
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