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Tour the Saturnian circus

The wonders of Saturn and its rings may be the main event for the Cassini orbiter, but the planet's moons are far more than a sideshow. The imagery coming back from the three-ton, bus-sized probe is as varied as an honest-to-goodness three-ring circus.

Here's a small-scale sampling of the recent attractions, with links to larger pictures:

NASA / JPL / SSI
Cloud patterns swirl around
Saturn's southern hemisphere.
Click on image for a bigger version.


The planet's cloud patterns are featured in our first stop on the Saturnian magical mystery tour. In natural light, Saturn's clouds are the color of butterscotch, with only subtle variations in the cloud bands.

But this false-color view of the planet's southern hemisphere, snapped by Cassini's multispectral wide-angle camera in February, has been enhanced to bring out the differences and highlight all those sinuous whorls and ripples.

Such variations can be tracked over time, eventually turning Cassini's scientists into interplanetary meteorologists. They've already found weather phenomena seen nowhere else in the solar system, such as the eerie hexagon at Saturn's south pole.

NASA / JPL / SSI
Janus is just a speck against the
backdrop of Saturn's clouds. Click
on image for a bigger version.


The moon Janus looks like a pebble sailing over Saturn's clouds in a black-and-white image taken by Cassini's narrow-angle camera in April.

Janus is in the midrange of Saturn's 59 known moons, measuring just 113 miles across. It would fit handily between Seattle (my current metropolis) and Portland, Ore.

If you look closely at the full-resolution image, you can just make out the moon's craters. This earlier picture gives you an even closer view.

In the upper right corner of the April snapshot, you can see Saturn's (seemingly) pencil-thin F ring as well as a wedge of its A ring.

NASA / JPL / SSI
Light and dark features can be
made out in this image of Titan.
Click on image for a bigger version.


Titan is the mysterious star of the show when it comes to Saturn's moons. It's the only moon in the solar system to have an opaque atmosphere, which is composed of hydrocarbon smog.

Fortunately, Cassini is equipped with filters that can see through the smog to the surface below. The orbiter just completed a close flyby of Titan this week, and this view was one of the first raw images to be sent back afterward.

The light and dark areas point to variations in surface composition: Around the moon's equator, the light areas may be icy highlands, while the dark areas could represent sand dunes. Check out this archived article for more.

NASA / JPL / SSI
Fjords and islands can be made out
along a Titanian coastline. Click on
image for a bigger version.


Radar imagery of Titan is even more telling. This picture, from Cassini's radar mapper, shows a coastline and groups of islands that look as if they came from a map of Norway's fjords. In this case, the dark areas may well be seas of liquid methane or ethane, which scientists long suspected would exist on Titan. Cassini's scientists say the seas could be tens of yards (meters) deep. 

This image highlights the northern hydrocarbon seas as well as the equatorial "sand seas." For more on the northern seas, refer back to this report from March.

Has all this whetted your appetite for more? Add NASA's Cassini-Huygens Web site and the Internet home of the Cassini imaging team to your list of favorites - and don't miss our slide shows featuring Cassini highlights, accessible from the Space Gallery.