NASA releases amazing images of Titan's specular point and Saturn


Saturn is home to the only other body in the solar system aside from Earth to contain liquid on its surface: its moon, Titan. NASA lately released images of Titan, providing a glimpse at what the spacecraft Cassini sees out in space.

Titan has two seas located at the moon's north pole, the Kraken Mare and the Ligeia Mare. Cassini has been able to capture images of the seas reflecting sunlight before, but always separately. Now the spacecraft has managed to take a picture of both seas showing specular reflection, or a sunglint, with Kraken Mare featuring a specular point or a mirror-like reflection of the sun. This was captured by the Cassini orbiter last Aug. 21.

At the highest resolution of the view, it also shows the complex clouds hovering over Ligeia Mare. These clouds contain droplets of liquid methane and could be responsible for filling up the seas when it rains on Titan. The southern part of Kraken Mare was also observed to have a "bathtub ring," indicating the sea was bigger at some point. Now that it has become smaller because of evaporation, a margin of deposits is left, marking Kraken Mare's original size.

Another spectacular moment for Titan involves the moon and Saturn as crescents shining in deep space. Released Monday, this image was captured as Cassini was flying around 1.1 million miles from Saturn on Aug. 11.

"More than just pretty pictures, high-phase observations -- taken looking generally toward the Sun -- are very powerful scientifically since the way atmospheres and rings transmit sunlight is often diagnostic of compositions and physical states," explained NASA.

In the earlier image captured, Titan's crescent is seen nearly encircling its disk because of small haze particles found in the atmosphere. These haze particles scatter light coming from the sun, thus creating the effect.

Even before Cassini confirmed it, scientists have suspected that the moon Titan has open bodies of liquid. When the spacecraft arrived, it only found massive fields filled with sand dunes at lower latitudes and near the equator. Later on, though, it spotted seas and lakes close to the poles, especially in the north.

The Cassini spacecraft was launched in 1997, arriving at Saturn in 2004. Since then, it has been beaming back data about the ringed planet and will be continuing until 2017 at least. At the end of its life, Cassini will fall into Saturn's atmosphere to burn up harmlessly. It is a collaborative project involving NASA, the Italian Space Agency, and the European Space Agency.

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