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Christmas crackers from Cassini

Jenny Winder, News Writer
Dec 27, 2013, 8:00 UTC

Sen—New images from the Cassini spacecraft of Saturn and two of its most fascinating moons, Titan and Enceladus, have been assembled this Christmas by Cassini's imaging team.

"During this, our tenth holiday season at Saturn, we hope that these images from Cassini remind everyone the world over of the significance of our discoveries in exploring such a remote and beautiful planetary system," said Carolyn Porco, Cassini imaging team leader, based at the Space Science Institute. "Happy holidays from all of us on Cassini."

New views of Enceladus highlight the many fissures, fractures and ridges that decorate the icy moon's surface. Enceladus is famous for the nearly 100 geysers that are spread across its south polar region and spout tiny icy particles into space. Most of these particles fall back to the surface as snow. Some small fraction escapes the gravity of Enceladus and makes its way into orbit around Saturn, forming the planet's extensive and diffuse E ring. Because scientists believe these geysers are directly connected to a subsurface, salty, organic-rich, liquid-water reservoir, Enceladus is home to one of the most accessible extraterrestrial habitable zones in the solar system.

Enceladus, covered in snow and ice, resembles a perfectly packed snowball in this image from Cassini. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

A group of natural-colour images of Saturn's largest moon Titan highlight its most outstanding features. Peering through the moon's hazy, orange atmosphere, the Cassini narrow-angle camera spots the lakes and seas of liquid methane and ethane for which the moon is renowned. Titan is the only other place in the solar system that we know has stable liquids on its surface, though in Titan's case, the liquids are ethane and methane rather than water.

Using a special spectral filter, the high-resolution camera aboard Cassini was able to peer through the hazy atmosphere of Titan. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

Saturn's largest and second largest moons, Titan and Rhea, appear to be stacked on top of each other in another true-colour scene. The north polar hood can be seen on Titan (3,200 miles or 5,150 kilometers across) appearing as a detached layer at the top of the moon on the top right. This view looks toward the Saturn-facing side of Rhea. Image scale is 7 miles (11 kilometers) per pixel on Rhea and 9 miles (15 kilometers) on Titan.

Titan and Rhea, appear to be stacked on top of each other in this true-colour scene from Cassini. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

The north and south poles of Saturn, seen in new natural-colour views, appear drastically different from each other. The globe of Saturn resembles a holiday ornament in a wide-angle image overlooking its north pole, bringing into view the hexagonal jet stream and rapidly spinning polar vortex that reside there. And the planet's south pole, now in winter, looking very different than the springtime north, displays brilliant blue hues.

Winter is approaching in the southern hemisphere of Saturn. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute.

"Until Cassini arrived at Saturn, we didn't know about the hydrocarbon lakes of Titan, the active drama of Enceladus' jets, and the intricate patterns at Saturn's poles," said Linda Spilker, the Cassini project scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "Spectacular images like these highlight that Cassini has given us the gift of knowledge, which we have been so excited to share with everyone."