On Feb. 17, 2005, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft was making the first-ever close pass over Saturn’s moon Enceladus as it worked through its detailed survey of the planet’s icy satellites. Exciting, to be sure, just for the thrill of exploration. But then Cassini’s magnetometer instrument noticed something odd.
Since NASA’s two Voyager spacecraft made their distant flybys of Enceladus about 20 years prior, scientists had anticipated the little moon would be an interesting place to visit with Cassini. Enceladus is bright white — the most reflective object in the solar system, in fact — and it orbits in the middle of a faint ring of dust-sized ice particles known as Saturn’s E ring. Scientists speculated ice dust was being kicked off its surface somehow. But they presumed it would be, essentially, a dead, airless ball of ice.
What Cassini saw didn’t look like a frozen, airless body. Instead, it looked something like a comet that was actively emitting gas. The magnetometer detected that Saturn’s magnetic field, which envelops Enceladus, was perturbed above the moon’s south pole in a way that didn’t make sense for an inactive world. Could it be that the moon was actively replenishing gases it was breathing into space?
Thus began a hunt for clues that has turned out to be Cassini’s most riveting detective story.
“Enceladus was so exciting that, instead of just three close flybys planned for our four-year primary mission, we added 20 more, including seven that went right through the geysers at the south pole,” said Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California.
By following the trail of scientific breadcrumbs, Cassini eventually found that Enceladus harbors a global ocean of salty water under its icy crust, possibly with hydrothermal vents on its seafloor. The trail of clues that began with a puzzling magnetometer reading led to an understanding that the moon — and perhaps many small, icy moons like it throughout the cosmos — could potentially have the ingredients needed for life.
“Half the excitement of doing science is that you sometimes find yourself going in a totally different direction than you expected, which can lead to amazing discoveries,” said Spilker. “That little anomaly in Cassini’s magnetometer signal was unusual enough that it eventually led us to an ocean world.”
Launched in 1997, the Cassini mission is currently in its final year of operations, performing weekly ring-grazing dives just past the outer edge of Saturn’s rings. In April, the spacecraft will begin its Grand Finale, plunging through the gap between the rings and the planet itself, leading up to a final plunge into Saturn on September 15.
Cassini has been touring the Saturn system since arriving in 2004 for an up-close study of the planet, its rings and moons, and its vast magnetosphere. Cassini has made numerous dramatic discoveries, besides the activity at Enceladus, including liquid methane seas on another moon, Titan.
The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the Italian Space Agency. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of Caltech in Pasadena, California, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. JPL designed, developed and assembled the Cassini orbiter.
NASA is inviting the public to help search for possible undiscovered worlds in the outer reaches of our solar system and in neighboring interstellar space. A new website, called Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, lets everyone participate in the search by viewing brief movies made from images captured by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) mission. The movies highlight objects that have gradually moved across the sky.
“There are just over four light-years between Neptune and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star, and much of this vast territory is unexplored,” said lead researcher Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Because there’s so little sunlight, even large objects in that region barely shine in visible light. But by looking in the infrared, WISE may have imaged objects we otherwise would have missed.”
WISE scanned the entire sky between 2010 and 2011, producing the most comprehensive survey at mid-infrared wavelengths currently available. With the completion of its primary mission, WISE was shut down in 2011. It was then reactivated in 2013 and given a new mission assisting NASA’s efforts to identify potentially hazardous near-Earth objects (NEOs), which are asteroids and comets on orbits that bring them into the vicinity of Earth’s orbit. The mission was renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (NEOWISE).
The new website uses the data to search for unknown objects in and beyond our own solar system. In 2016, astronomers at Caltech, in Pasadena, California, showed that several distant solar system objects possessed orbital features indicating they were affected by the gravity of an as-yet-undetected planet, which the researchers nicknamed “Planet Nine.” If Planet Nine — also known as Planet X — exists and is as bright as some predictions, it could show up in WISE data.
The search also may discover more-distant objects like brown dwarfs, sometimes called failed stars, in nearby interstellar space.
“Brown dwarfs form like stars but evolve like planets, and the coldest ones are much like Jupiter,” said team member Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “By using Backyard Worlds: Planet 9, the public can help us discover more of these strange rogue worlds.”
Unlike more distant objects, those in or closer to the solar system appear to move across the sky at different rates. The best way to discover them is through a systematic search of moving objects in WISE images. While parts of this search can be done by computers, machines are often overwhelmed by image artifacts, especially in crowded parts of the sky. These include brightness spikes associated with star images and blurry blobs caused by light scattered inside WISE’s instruments.
Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 relies on human eyes because we easily recognize the important moving objects while ignoring the artifacts. It’s a 21st-century version of the technique astronomer Clyde Tombaugh used to find Pluto in 1930, a discovery made 87 years ago this week.
On the website, people around the world can work their way through millions of “flipbooks,” which are brief animations showing how small patches of the sky changed over several years. Moving objects flagged by participants will be prioritized by the science team for follow-up observations by professional astronomers. Participants will share credit for their discoveries in any scientific publications that result from the project.
“Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 has the potential to unlock once-in-a-century discoveries, and it’s exciting to think they could be spotted first by a citizen scientist,” said team member Aaron Meisner, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, who specializes in analyzing WISE images.
Backyard Worlds: Planet 9 is a collaboration among NASA, UC Berkeley, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, Arizona State University in Tempe, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and Zooniverse, a collaboration of scientists, software developers and educators who collectively develop and manage citizen science projects on the internet.
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena manages and operates WISE for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The WISE mission was selected competitively under NASA’s Explorers Program managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The science instrument was built by the Space Dynamics Laboratory in Logan, Utah. The spacecraft was built by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. in Boulder, Colorado. Science operations and data processing take place at IPAC at Caltech, which manages JPL for NASA.
An Indian PSLV (Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle) rocket put 104 satellites into orbit yesterday. (See previous posting.) These include 88 smallsats for the earth observation company Planet, 8 smallsats for Spire, which is doing maritime tracking and weather measurements, and 1 for SpacePharma, which has a miniature laboratory on its satellite for carrying out microgravity experiments.
This video shows the launch and then provides some amazing views of the satellites being deployed into orbit:
The payload consists of one large Indian earth observation (EO) satellite – Cartosat -2 – and 103 smallsats, including 88 Doves for the earth observation company Planet, which will expand its constellation of small and large EO satellites to over 140. Once it has its full constellation in orbit, Planet will produce a complete image of the entire earth every day.
These videos give an overview of Planet’s plans and capabilities:
Planet has also had many Doves injected into lower inclination orbits via deployment from the International Space Station. This video shows a sampling of such deployments, which are arranged by the company NanoRacks;