Wednesday, December 22, 2010

NASA Cassini's Dramatic Views Of Rhea

Newly released for the holidays, images of Saturn's second largest moon Rhea obtained by NASA's Cassini spacecraft show dramatic views of fractures cutting through craters on the moon's surface, revealing a history of tectonic rumbling.

The images are among the highest-resolution views ever obtained of Rhea.

"These recent, high-resolution Cassini images help us put Saturn's moon in the context of the moons' geological family tree," said Paul Helfenstein, Cassini imaging team associate, based at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y.

"Since NASA's Voyager mission visited Saturn, scientists have thought of Rhea and Dione as close cousins, with some differences in size and density. The new images show us they're more like fraternal twins, where the resemblance is more than skin deep. This probably comes from their nearness to each other in orbit."

Cassini scientists designed the March 2010 and November 2009 encounters in part to search for a ring thought to encircle the moon. During the March flyby, Cassini made its closest- approach to Rhea's surface so far, swooping within 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the moon.

Based on these observations, however, scientists have since discounted the possibility that Rhea might currently have a faint ring above its equator.

These flybys nonetheless yielded unique views of other features on the moon, including ones that are among the best ever obtained of the side of Rhea that always faces away from Saturn.

Other views show a web of bright, "wispy" fractures resembling some that were first spotted on another part of Rhea by the two Voyager spacecraft in 1980 and 1981.

At that time, scientists thought the wispy markings on the trailing hemispheres - the sides of moons that face backward in the orbit around a planet - of Rhea and the neighboring moon Dione were possible cryovolcanic deposits, or the residue of icy material erupting. The low resolution of Voyager images prevented a closer inspection of these regions.

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