Publication archive

Publication archive

We have analyzed limb daytime observations of Titan's upper atmosphere at 3.3 micron, acquired by the visual-infrared mapping spectrometer (VIMS) on Cassini. They were previously studied by García-Comas et al. (2011) to derive CH4 densities. Here, we report an unidentified emission peaking around 3.28 micron, hidden under the methane R branch. This emission is very strong, with intensity comparable to the CH4 bands located in the same spectral region. It presents a maximum at about 950 km and extends from 600 km up to 1250 km. It is definitely pumped by solar radiation since it vanishes at night. Our analysis shows that neither methane nor the major hydrocarbon compounds already discovered in Titan's upper atmosphere are responsible for it. We have discarded many other potential candidates and suggest that the unidentified emission might be caused by aromatic compounds.
Published: 30 April 2013
Photochemically produced aerosols are common among the atmospheres of our solar system and beyond. Observations and models have shown that photochemical aerosols have direct consequences on atmospheric properties as well as important astrobiological ramifications, but the mechanisms involved in their formation remain unclear. Here we show that the formation of aerosols in Titan's upper atmosphere is directly related to ion processes, and we provide a complete interpretation of observed mass spectra by the Cassini instruments from small to large masses. Because all planetary atmospheres possess ionospheres, we anticipate that the mechanisms identified here will be efficient in other environments as well, modulated by the chemical complexity of each atmosphere.
Published: 19 February 2013
Electrons can be accelerated to ultrarelativistic energies at strong (high Mach number) collisionless shock waves that form when stellar debris rapidly expands after a supernova. Collisionless shock waves also form in the flow of particles from the Sun (the solar wind), and extensive spacecraft observations have established that electron acceleration at these shocks is effectively absent whenever the upstream magnetic field is roughly parallel to the shock-surface normal (quasi-parallel conditions). However, it is unclear whether this magnetic dependence of electron acceleration also applies to the far stronger shocks around young supernova remnants, where local magnetic conditions are poorly understood. Here we present Cassini spacecraft observations of an unusually strong solar system shock wave (Saturn's bow shock) where significant local electron acceleration has been confirmed under quasi-parallel magnetic conditions for the first time, contradicting the established magnetic dependence of electron acceleration at solar system shocks. Furthermore, the acceleration led to electrons at relativistic energies (about megaelectronvolt), comparable to the highest energies ever attributed to shock acceleration in the solar wind. These observations suggest that at high Mach numbers, such as those of young supernova remnant shocks, quasi-parallel shocks become considerably more effective electron accelerators.
Published: 17 February 2013
Saturn's moon Titan has a nitrogen atmosphere comparable to Earth's, with a surface pressure of 1.4 bar. Numerical models reproduce the tropospheric conditions very well but have trouble explaining the observed middle-atmosphere temperatures, composition and winds. The top of the middle-atmosphere circulation has been thought to lie at an altitude of 450 to 500 kilometres, where there is a layer of haze that appears to be separated from the main haze deck. This 'detached' haze was previously explained as being due to the co-location of peak haze production and the limit of dynamical transport by the circulation's upper branch. Here we report a build-up of trace gases over the south pole approximately two years after observing the 2009 post-equinox circulation reversal, from which we conclude that middle-atmosphere circulation must extend to an altitude of at least 600 kilometres. The primary drivers of this circulation are summer-hemisphere heating of haze by absorption of solar radiation and winter-hemisphere cooling due to infrared emission by haze and trace gases; our results therefore imply that these effects are important well into the thermosphere (altitudes higher than 500 kilometres). This requires both active upper-atmosphere chemistry, consistent with the detection of high-complexity molecules and ions at altitudes greater than 950 kilometres, and an alternative explanation for the detached haze, such as a transition in haze particle growth from monomers to fractal structures.
Published: 29 November 2012
Available online 31 August 2012

The planet-encircling springtime storm in Saturn's troposphere (December 2010-July 2011) produced dramatic perturbations to stratospheric temperatures, winds and composition at mbar pressures that persisted long after the tropospheric disturbance had abated. Thermal infrared (IR) spectroscopy from the Cassini Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS), supported by ground-based IR imaging from the VISIR instrument on the Very Large Telescope and the MIRSI instrument on NASA's IRTF, is used to track the evolution of a large, hot stratospheric anticyclone between January 2011 and March 2012. The evolutionary sequence can be divided into three phases: (I) the formation and intensification of two distinct warm airmasses near 0.5 mbar between 25 and 35°N (B1 and B2) between January-April 2011, moving westward with different zonal velocities, B1 residing directly above the convective tropospheric storm head; (II) the merging of the warm airmasses to form the large single 'stratospheric beacon' near 40°N (B0) between April and June 2011, disassociated from the storm head and at a higher pressure (2 mbar) than the original beacons, a downward shift of 1.4 scale heights (approximately 85 km) post-merger; and (III) the mature phase characterised by slow cooling (0.11 ± 0.01 K/day) and longitudinal shrinkage of the anticyclone since July 2011. Peak temperatures of 221.6 ± 1.4 K at 2 mbar were measured on May 5th 2011 immediately after the merger, some 80 K warmer than the quiescent surroundings. From July 2011 to the time of writing, B0 remained as a long-lived stable stratospheric phenomenon at 2 mbar, moving west with a near-constant velocity of 2.70 ± 0.04 deg/day (-24.5 ± 0.4 m/s at 40°N relative to System III longitudes). No perturbations to visible clouds and hazes were detected during this period. [Abstract abbreviated due to character limitations.]

Published: 01 September 2012
Available online 23 August 2012

While landing on Titan, several instruments onboard Huygens acquired measurements that indicate the probe did not immediately come to rest. Detailed knowledge of the probe's motion can provide insight into the nature of Titan's surface. Combining accelerometer data from the Huygens Atmospheric Structure Instrument (HASI) and the Surface Science Package (SSP) with photometry data from the Descent Imager/Spectral Radiometer (DISR) we develop a quantitative model to describe motion of the probe, and its interaction with the surface. The most likely scenario is the following. Upon impact, Huygens created a 12 cm deep hole in the surface of Titan. It bounced back, out of the hole onto the flat surface, after which it commenced a 30-40 cm long slide in the southward direction. The slide ended with the probe out of balance, tilted in the direction of DISR by around 10°. The probe then wobbled back and forth five times in the north-south direction, during which it probably encountered a 1-2 cm sized pebble. The SSP provides evidence for movement up to 10 s after impact. This scenario puts the following constraints on the physical properties of the surface ... [Abstract abbreviated due to character limitations.]

Published: 24 August 2012
In the last few years Cassini-VIMS, the Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer, returned to us a comprehensive view of the Saturn's icy satellites and rings. After having analyzed the satellites' spectral properties (Filacchione, G., Capaccioni, F., McCord, T.B., Coradini, A., Cerroni, P., Bellucci, G., Tosi, F., D'Aversa, E., Formisano, V., Brown, R.H., Baines, K.H., Bibring, J.P., Buratti, B.J., Clark, R.N., Combes, M., Cruikshank, D.P., Drossart, P., Jaumann, R., Langevin, Y., Matson, D.L., Mennella, V., Nelson, R.M., Nicholson, P.D., Sicardy, B., Sotin, C., Hansen, G., Hibbitts, K., Showalter, M., Newman, S. [2007]. Icarus 186, 259-290, paper I) and their distribution across the satellites' hemispheres (Filacchione, G., Capaccioni, F., Clark, R.N., Cuzzi, J.N., Cruikshank, D.P., Coradini, A., Cerroni, P., Nicholson, P.D., McCord, T.B., Brown, R.H., Buratti, B.J., Tosi, F., Nelson, R.M., Jaumann, R., Stephan, K. [2010]. Icarus 206, 507-523, paper II), we proceed in this paper to investigate the radial variability of icy satellites (principal and minor) and main rings average spectral properties. This analysis is done by using 2264 disk-integrated observations of the satellites and a 12×700 pixels-wide rings radial mosaic acquired with a spatial resolution of about 125 km/pixel. Using different VIS and IR spectral indicators, e.g. spectral slopes and band depths, we perform a comparative analysis of these data aimed to measure the distribution of water ice and red contaminant materials across Saturn's system. The average surface regolith grain sizes are estimated with different indicators through comparison with laboratory and synthetic spectra. [Abstract abbreviated due to character limitations.]
Published: 16 August 2012
Published online on 28 June 2012

We have detected in Cassini data the signature of the periodic tidal stresses within Titan driven by the eccentricity (e = 0.028) of its 16-day orbit around Saturn. Precise measurements of the acceleration of the Cassini spacecraft during six close flybys between 2006 and 2011 have revealed that Titan responds to the variable tidal field exerted by Saturn with periodic changes of its quadrupole gravity, at about 4% of the static value. Two independent determinations of the corresponding degree-2 Love number yield k2 = 0.589 ± 0.150 and k2 = 0.637 ± 0.224 (2-sigma). Such a large response to the tidal field requires that Titan's interior is deformable over time scales of the orbital period, in a way that is consistent with a global ocean at depth.

Published: 28 July 2012
We present radio and plasma wave science (RPWS) Langmuir probe (LP) observations that give evidence for a population of heavy, negative ions at altitudes below 900 km in Titan's ionosphere during the Cassini T70 flyby. The negative ion density in this region is comparable to, or higher than, the electron density of 760 cm-3. Both positive and negative ions are moving with a velocity of at least a few hundred m s-1 relative to Titan. We show two limiting cases where we have analysed RPWS/LP ion measurements. The data can be interpreted as either that a population of negative ions with density comparable to the electron density is present, moving at a very high (>2 km s-1) velocity, or that the ion population is moving at a few hundred m s-1, but with a density an order of magnitude larger than the electron density in the same region.
Published: 17 May 2012
Ontario Lacus is the largest lake of the whole southern hemisphere of Titan, Saturn's major moon. It has been imaged twice by each of the Cassini imaging systems (Imaging Science Subsystem (ISS) in 2004 and 2005, Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIMS) in 2007 and 2009 and RADAR in 2009 and 2010). We compile a geomorphological map and derive a "hydrogeological" interpretation of Ontario Lacus, based on a joint analysis of ISS, VIMS and RADAR SAR datasets, along with the T49 altimetric profile acquired in December 2008. The morphologies observed on Ontario Lacus are compared to landforms of a semi-arid terrestrial analog, which resembles Titan's lakes: the Etosha Pan, located in the Owambo Basin (Namibia). The Etosha Pan is a flat-floored depression formed by dissolution, under semi-arid conditions, of a surface evaporitic layer (calcretes) controlled by groundwater vertical motions. We infer that Ontario Lacus is an extremely flat and shallow depression lying in an alluvial plain surrounded by small mountain ranges under climatic conditions similar to those of terrestrial semi-arid regions. Channels are seen in the southern part of Ontario Lacus in VIMS and RADAR data, acquired at a 2-years time interval. Their constancy in location with time implies that the southern portion of the depression is probably not fully covered by a liquid layer at the time of the observations, and that they most probably run on the floor of the depression. A shallow layer of surface liquids, corresponding to the darkest portions of the RADAR images, would thus cover about 53% of the surface area of the depression, of which almost 70% is located in its northern part. These liquid-covered parts of the depression, where liquid ethane was previously identified, are interpreted as topographic lows where the "alkanofer" raises above the depression floor. [Abstract abbreviated due to character limitations.]
Published: 20 April 2012

We present in situ Cassini Radio Plasma Wave Science observations in the vicinity of Enceladus and in the E ring of Saturn that indicate the presence of dusty plasma. The four flybys of Enceladus in 2008 revealed the following cold plasma characteristics: (1) there is a large plasma density (both ions and electrons) within the Enceladus plume region, (2) no plasma wake effect behind Enceladus was detected, (3) electron densities are generally much lower than the ion densities in the E ring (ne/ni < 0.5) as well as in the plume (ne/ni < 0.01), and (4) the average bulk ion drift speed is significantly less than the corotation speed and is instead close to the Keplerian speed. These signatures result from half or more of the electrons being attached to dust grains and by the interaction between the surrounding cold plasma and the predominantly negatively charged submicrometer-sized dust grains. The dust and plasma properties estimated from the observations clearly show that the dust-plasma interaction is collective. This strong dust-plasma coupling appears not only in the Enceladus plume but also in the Enceladus torus, typically from about 20 RE (~5000 km) north and about 60 RE (~15,000 km) south of Enceladus. We also suggest that the dust-plasma interaction in the E ring is the cause of the planetary spin-modulated dynamics of Saturn's magnetosphere at large.

Published: 20 December 2011
Large expanses of linear dunes cover Titan's equatorial regions. As the Cassini mission continues, more dune fields are becoming unveiled and examined by the microwave radar in all its modes of operation (SAR, radiometry, scatterometry, altimetry) and with an increasing variety of observational geometries. In this paper, we report on Cassini's radar instrument observations of the dune fields mapped through May 2009 and present our key findings in terms of Titan's geology and climate. We estimate that dune fields cover ~12.5% of Titan's surface, which corresponds to an area of ~10 million km2, roughly the area of the United States. If dune sand-sized particles are mainly composed of solid organics as suggested by VIMS observations (Cassini Visual and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer) and atmospheric modeling and supported by radiometry data, dune fields are the largest known organic reservoir on Titan. Dune regions are, with the exception of the polar lakes and seas, the least reflective and most emissive features on this moon. Interestingly, we also find a latitudinal dependence in the dune field microwave properties: up to a latitude of ~11°, dune fields tend to become less emissive and brighter as one moves northward. Above ~11° this trend is reversed. The microwave signatures of the dune regions are thought to be primarily controlled by the interdune proportion (relative to that of the dune), roughness and degree of sand cover. In agreement with radiometry and scatterometry observations, SAR images suggest that the fraction of interdunes increases northward up to a latitude of ~14°.
Published: 08 April 2011
Dune fields dominate ~13% of Titan's surface and represent an important sink of carbon in the methane cycle. Herein, we discuss correlations in dune morphometry with altitude and latitude. These correlations, which have important implications in terms of geological processes and climate on Titan, are investigated through the microwave electromagnetic signatures of dune fields using Cassini radar and radiometry observations. The backscatter and emissivity from Titan's dune terrains are primarily controlled by the amount of interdune area within the radar footprint and are also expected to vary with the degree of the interdunal sand cover. Using SAR-derived topography, we find that Titan's main dune fields (Shangri-La, Fensal, Belet and Aztlan) tend to occupy the lowest elevation areas in Equatorial regions occurring at mean elevations between ~-400 and ~0 m (relative to the geoid). In elevated dune terrains, we show a definite trend towards a smaller dune to interdune ratio and possibly a thinner sand cover in the interdune areas. A similar correlation is observed with latitude, suggesting that the quantity of windblown sand in the dune fields tends to decrease as one moves farther north. The altitudinal trend among Titan's sand seas is consistent with the idea that sediment source zones most probably occur in lowlands, which would reduce the sand supply toward elevated regions. The latitudinal preference could result from a gradual increase in dampness with latitude due to the asymmetric seasonal forcing associated with Titan's current orbital configuration unless it is indicative of a latitudinal preference in the sand source distribution or wind transport capacity.
Published: 19 January 2012
We present Cassini magnetic field observations from the only two close flybys (16DI and 129DI) of Saturn's icy satellite Dione which have been carried out so far. Data from 16DI show a weak field perturbation in the upstream region, indicative of a tenuous atmosphere around the satellite. By applying an analytical model of the perturbations caused by subalfvénic atmosphere-magnetosphere interactions, we demonstrate that an atmospheric column density of approximately 1x1017 m-2 would be able to sustain the observed field signature. Magnetic field data from 16DI also contain hints that Dione's gas envelope might possess a slight asymmetry between the Saturn-facing and the Saturn-averted hemisphere. The detection of a thin atmosphere at Dione might be correlated to the occurrence of a transient radiation belt near the moon's L-shell at the time of the 16DI flyby, as reported by Roussos et al. (2008b). On the other hand, magnetic field observations from the subsequent downstream encounter 129DI show no clear evidence of an atmosphere, probably due to the flyby trajectory being unsuitable for the detection of the associated perturbations.
Published: 13 August 2011
A striking feature of the atmosphere of Titan is that no heavy noble gases other than argon were detected by the Gas Chromatograph Mass Spectrometer aboard the Huygens probe during its descent to Titan's surface in 2005 January. Here we provide an explanation of the mysterious absence or rarity of these noble gases in Titan's atmosphere: the thermodynamic conditions prevailing at the surface-atmosphere interface of the satellite allow the formation of multiple guest clathrates that preferentially store some species, including all heavy noble gases, over others. The clean water ice needed for the formation of these clathrates could be delivered by successive episodes of cryovolcanic lavas that have been hypothesized to regularly cover the surface of Titan. The formation of clathrates in the porous lavas and their propensity for trapping Ar, Kr, and Xe would progressively remove these species from the atmosphere of Titan over the course of its history. In some circumstances, a global clathrate crust with an average thickness not exceeding a few meters could be sufficient on Titan for a complete removal of the heavy noble gases from the atmosphere.
Published: 20 September 2011
Lightning discharges in Saturn's atmosphere emit radio waves with intensities about 10 000 times stronger than those of their terrestrial counterparts. These radio waves are the characteristic features of lightning from thunderstorms on Saturn, which last for days to months. Convective storms about 2000 kilometres in size have been observed in recent years at planetocentric latitude 35° south (corresponding to a planetographic latitude of 41° south). Here we report observations of a giant thunderstorm at planetocentric latitude 35° north that reached a latitudinal extension of 10 000 kilometres - comparable in size to a 'Great White Spot' - about three weeks after it started in early December 2010. The visible plume consists of high-altitude clouds that overshoot the outermost ammonia cloud layer owing to strong vertical convection, as is typical for thunderstorms. The flash rates of this storm are about an order of magnitude higher than previous ones, and peak rates larger than ten per second were recorded. This main storm developed an elongated eastward tail with additional but weaker storm cells that wrapped around the whole planet by February 2011. Unlike storms on Earth, the total power of this storm is comparable to Saturn's total emitted power. The appearance of such storms in the northern hemisphere could be related to the change of seasons, given that Saturn experienced vernal equinox in August 2009.
Published: 08 July 2011
Convective storms occur regularly in Saturn's atmosphere. Huge storms known as Great White Spots, which are ten times larger than the regular storms, are rarer and occur about once per Saturnian year (29.5 Earth years). Current models propose that the outbreak of a Great White Spot is due to moist convection induced by water. However, the generation of the global disturbance and its effect on Saturn's permanent winds have hitherto been unconstrained by data, because there was insufficient spatial resolution and temporal sampling to infer the dynamics of Saturn's weather layer (the layer in the troposphere where the cloud forms). Theoretically, it has been suggested that this phenomenon is seasonally controlled. Here we report observations of a storm at northern latitudes in the peak of a weak westward jet during the beginning of northern springtime, in accord with the seasonal cycle but earlier than expected. The storm head moved faster than the jet, was active during the two-month observation period, and triggered a planetary-scale disturbance that circled Saturn but did not significantly alter the ambient zonal winds. Numerical simulations of the phenomenon show that, as on Jupiter, Saturn's winds extend without decay deep down into the weather layer, at least to the water-cloud base at pressures of 10-12 bar, which is much deeper than solar radiation penetrates.
Published: 08 July 2011

Published online on 22 June 2011

The discovery of a plume of water vapour and ice particles emerging from warm fractures ('tiger stripes') in Saturn's small, icy moon Enceladus raised the question of whether the plume emerges from a subsurface liquid source or from the decomposition of ice. Previous compositional analyses of particles injected by the plume into Saturn's diffuse E ring have already indicated the presence of liquid water, but the mechanisms driving the plume emission are still debated. Here we report an analysis of the composition of freshly ejected particles close to the sources. Salt-rich ice particles are found to dominate the total mass flux of ejected solids (more than 99 per cent) but they are depleted in the population escaping into Saturn's E ring. Ice grains containing organic compounds are found to be more abundant in dense parts of the plume. Whereas previous Cassini observations were compatible with a variety of plume formation mechanisms, these data eliminate or severely constrain non-liquid models and strongly imply that a salt-water reservoir with a large evaporating surface provides nearly all of the matter in the plume.
Published: 01 July 2011
Saturn's slow seasonal evolution was disrupted in 2010-2011 by the eruption of a bright storm in its northern spring hemisphere. Thermal infrared spectroscopy showed that within a month, the resulting planetary-scale disturbance had generated intense perturbations of atmospheric temperatures, winds, and composition between 20° and 50°N over an entire hemisphere (140,000 kilometers). The tropospheric storm cell produced effects that penetrated hundreds of kilometers into Saturn's stratosphere (to the 1-millibar region). Stratospheric subsidence at the edges of the disturbance produced "beacons" of infrared emission and longitudinal temperature contrasts of 16 kelvin. The disturbance substantially altered atmospheric circulation, transporting material vertically over great distances, modifying stratospheric zonal jets, exciting wave activity and turbulence, and generating a new cold anticyclonic oval in the center of the disturbance at 41°N.
Published: 18 June 2011
In August 2009 the Sun illuminated Saturn's rings from almost exactly edge-on, revealing a subtle corrugation that extends across the entire C ring. This corrugation's amplitude is 2 to 20 meters and its wavelength is 30 to 80 kilometers. Radial trends in the corrugation's wavelength indicate that this structure - like a similar corrugation previously identified in the D ring - results from differential nodal regression within a ring that became tilted relative to Saturn's equator plane in 1983. We suggest that this initial tilt arose because interplanetary debris struck the rings. The corrugation's radial extent implies that the impacting material was a dispersed cloud of debris instead of a single object, and the corrugation's amplitude indicates that the debris' total mass was ~1011 to 1013 kilograms.
Published: 07 May 2011
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