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Deep Impact arrives
NASA's Deep Impact comet spacecraft arrives at the Astrotech Space Operations Facility near Kennedy Space Center to begin final launch preparations for blastoff December 30 aboard a Boeing Delta 2 rocket. (2min 53sec file)
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Veterans Day
Aboard the International Space Station, commander Leroy Chiao offers his thoughts in this downlinked message in honor of Veterans Day.
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Delta rocket lofts GPS
The Boeing Delta 2 rocket lifts off Saturday morning with the GPS 2R-13 satellite from pad 17B at Cape Canaveral, Florida.
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Launch in full
This longer-length clip follows the Delta 2 rocket during its late-night ascent carrying the latest Global Positioning System satellite. (2min 25sec file)
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Swift preview
Mission scientists preview NASA's Swift gamma-ray burst detection satellite being readied for launch into Earth orbit. (39min 49sec file)
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Cassini science update
Radar imagery of Saturn's moon Titan and other new data from the Cassini spacecraft is presented during this JPL news conference on Thursday. (54min 48sec file)
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Post-flyby briefing
Scientists and mission officials discuss the initial pictures and data obtained during Cassini's flyby of Titan during this JPL news conference on Wednesday. (55min 18sec file)
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First pictures
The first pictures taken by Cassini during this close encounter with Titan are received at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to the delight of the mission's imaging leader. (2min 21sec file)
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Images flood in
A Cassini mission scientist provides analysis as the raw images taken of Titan's surface flood into the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (29min 29sec file)
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Flyby explained
Detailed animation illustrates Cassini's flyby of Titan and how the probe's instruments will study this moon of Saturn. Expert narration is provided by a project official. (3min 09sec file)
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Titan knowledge
Knowledge about the mysterious moon Titan prior to this first close encounter is described by the Cassini mission's imaging leader. (6min 46sec file)
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Moving clouds
Clouds near the south pole of Titan can be seen moving in this collection of pictures from Cassini as narrated by the mission's imaging leader. (2min 12sec file)
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Picture processing
How Cassini's raw pictures are processed by scientists is explained in this interview with the mission imaging leader. (5min 56sec file)
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Cassini sees objects, density waves in Saturn's rings
Posted: November 9, 2004

A University of Colorado at Boulder-built instrument riding on the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft is being used to resolve objects in Saturn's rings smaller than a football field, making them twice as sharp as any previous ring observations.

This false color image of two density waves in Saturn's A ring was made from the stellar occultation observed by Cassini's ultraviolet imaging spectrograph. Bright areas indicate the denser regions of the rings. The bright bands in the left part of the image are the "peaks" of a density wave caused by gravitational stirring of the rings by Saturn's moon, Janus. A smaller density wave in the right half of the image is produced by the moon Pandora. The ultraviolet imaging spectrograph observed the brightness of the star Xi Ceti as the rings passed in front of it, and the flickering of the starlight was converted into the ring density depicted by the image. The image represents a distance of about 724 kilometers (450 miles), and the smallest features are about one-half mile across. Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Colorado at Boulder
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Joshua Colwell of CU-Boulder's Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics said the observations were made with Ultraviolet Imaging Spectrograph, or UVIS, when Cassini was about 4.2 million miles, or 6.75 million kilometers, from Saturn in July. Saturn orbits the Sun roughly 1 billion miles distant from Earth.

Colwell and his colleagues used a technique known as stellar occultation to image the ring particles, pointing the instrument through the rings towards the star, Xi Ceti. The fluctuations of starlight passing through the rings provide information on the structure and dynamics of the particles within them, said Colwell, a UVIS science team member.

He likened the Saturn system to a mammoth phonograph record, with the planet in the middle and the rings stretching outward more than 40,000 miles, or 64,000 kilometers. The size of the ring particles varies from dust specks to mountains, with most ranging between the size of marbles and boulders, he said.

The Cassini observations show dramatic variations in the number of ring particles over very short distances, Colwell said. The particles in individual ringlets are bunched closely together, with the amount of material dropping abruptly at the ringlet edge.

"What we see with the new observations is that some of the ring edges are very sharp," said Colwell. The sharp edges of small ringlets are especially evident in the C ring and in the so-called Cassini Division on either side of the bright B ring, Saturn's largest ring.

The Cassini observations with UVIS show that the distance between the presence and absence of orbiting material at some ring edges can be as little as 160 feet, or 50 meters, about the length of a typical commercial jetliner, he said.

The sharp edges illustrate the dynamics that constrain the ring processes against their natural tendency to spread into nearby, empty space, said Colwell. "Nature abhors a vacuum, so it is likely gravity from a nearby small moon and ongoing meteoroid collisions confine the particles in the ring."

Colwell presented his findings at the 36th annual Division of Planetary Sciences Meeting held in Louisville, Ken. Nov. 8 to Nov 12.

The stellar occultation process using UVIS also shows very high-resolution views of several density waves visible in the rings, including a previously unstudied one, he said. Density waves are ripple-like features in the rings caused by the influence of Saturn's moons -- in this case, the small moon, Janus.

"Small moons near Saturn's rings stir the ring particles with their gravitational pull," Colwell said. At certain locations in the rings, known as resonances, the orbit of a particular moon matches up with the orbit of certain ring particles in a way that enhances the stirring process, he said.

The density waves, which resemble a tightly wound spiral much like the groove in a phonograph record, slowly propagate away from the resonance toward the perturbing moon, he said. "This can create a wave in the ring that looks like a ripple in a pond," said Colwell.

"The shapes of these wave peaks and troughs help scientists understand whether the ring particles are hard and bouncy, like a golf ball, or soft and less bouncy, like a snowball," Colwell said. He noted that a density wave analysis by scientists involved in NASA's Voyager 2 mission that visited Saturn in 1981 were used to determine the mass and thickness of the planet's rings.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C.

CU-Boulder Professor Larry Esposito of LASP is the principal investigator for the $12.5 million UVIS instrument, designed and built for JPL at CU-Boulder.

Cassini poster
Just in time for the Cassini spacecraft's arrival at Saturn, this new poster celebrates the mission to explore the ringed planet and its moons.

2005 Calendar
The 2005 edition of the Universe of the Hubble Space Telescope calendar is available from our U.S. store and will soon be available worldwide. This 12x12-inch calendar features spectacular images from the orbiting observatory.

Moon panorama
Taken by Apollo 14 commander Alan Shepard, this panoramic poster shows lunar module pilot Edgar Mitchell as a brilliant Sun glare reflects off the lunar module Antares.

Mars Rover mission patch
A mission patch featuring NASA's Mars Exploration Rover is now available from the Astronomy Now Store.