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“Magic Island” Appears And Disappears From Titan’s Lakes

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Titan lakeA few months after the donut-shaped Mars rock made its mysterious appearance (which we now know was thanks to being moved around by Opportunity Rover), scientists are pondering another great, and bigger, cosmic mystery — an object described as a “magic island” that suddenly appeared and then disappeared from one of Titan’s lakes.

NASA’s Cassini probe has been hanging out around Saturn’s largest moon for a while now, capturing image after remarkable image. Scientists examining those images found one that revealed a big object in the middle of one of Titan’s biggest bodies of water, Ligeia Mare, which is nearly 500 feet deep. Cassini snapped images of the sea in 2007, 2009, and 2013, and an image from July 10, 2013 shows a mysterious white blob, which scientists are calling the “magic island” until they know more. The island is approximately six miles wide and 12 miles long, and it doesn’t appear in images captured just two weeks later.

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Life Could Exist On Saturn’s Tiny Moon Enceladus

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enceladusThe Solar System’s most beautiful planet offers no end of discoveries, especially with Cassini on the job. But as dynamic as Saturn and its rings are, the planet’s moons are turning out to be the real revelation. Titan has oceans and probably moving waves, as well as salt flats, and is generally regarded as one of the best possibilities for harboring life in our neck of the woods. But focus has shifted to another of Saturn’s moons, Enceladus, which astronomers now think may be habitable due to the discovery of a hidden reservoir of liquid water under the surface.

Thanks to Cassini, scientists have known that Enceladus contains an ocean beneath its surface. Like with Jupiter’s moon Europa, the spacecraft captured images of water vapor coming from cracks in the southern pole. But the existence of plumes doesn’t necessarily mean the existence of liquid water. Scientists didn’t know if the vapor is a result of tectonic movement and friction. But now they know that there is indeed liquid water under the surface of the small, icy satellite.

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Scientists Think They’ve Spotted Waves In Titan’s Oceans

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TitanIf you watched Sunday’s episode of Cosmos, you know that Tyson and the Spaceship of the Imagination headed to Titan, Saturn’s gigantic moon that is thought to be one of the most likely spots for life beyond planet Earth in our solar system. As the ship cruised around, Tyson explained that the hydrocarbon lakes of Titan are the only bodies of surface liquid found outside of Earth. Just one day after that episode aired, scientists announced that they may have caught a glimpse of moving waves on the seas of Titan.

Of course, the hero in all this is the Cassini spacecraft, which continues to provide breathtaking and historical images of the solar system’s most picturesque planet. In 2012 and 2013, the spacecraft caught some reflective sunlight off the surface of a sea called Punga Mare, and scientists think it may have come from ripples — the kind only made on liquid. These aren’t big waves, we’re talking a few centimeters. But given that Punga Mare has always appeared to be completely flat, it’s still a major discovery.

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Cassini Offers A New Glimpse Of The Pale Blue Dot

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The Day the Earth SmiledGiven my fascination with the universe, my love for Carl Sagan, and my hopes that the reboot of Cosmos will take viewers by storm, it’s only appropriate that my last post of the year would be about space — and more specifically, about a planetary scientist who arranged a pretty awesome photo op of Earth from the Cassini spacecraft.

Carolyn Porco, leader of the Cassini Imaging Science team and professor of astrophysics and planetary scientists, is following in Carl Sagan’s footsteps, especially when it comes to appreciating the significance of Earth as the “pale blue dot.” The phrase refers to a photograph taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 probe on its way out of the Solar System, nearly four billion miles from Earth. At Sagan’s request, NASA had the probe turn around and take a photo of Earth, which Sagan then elegantly wrote about. While the photo provides some perspective on the enormity of the universe and the relative smallness of Earth, the original image wasn’t actually that good, and Porco has been wanting to update that image for a long time.

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Hubble Captures Water Vapor Plumes On Europa

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EuropaScientists consider Jupiter’s moon Europa one of the best candidates for harboring alien life in the solar system. Its atmosphere is mostly made up of oxygen and it has a smooth surface of ice (not to mention a rocky mantle and likely an iron core — sound familiar?). Based on data gathered by the Galileo spacecraft, which arrived at the Jovian moon in 1995, scientists theorize that under Europa’s icy surface exists an ocean of water, kept liquid by heat generated from tidal forces. Recent evidence published in the Science Express journal lends support to this theory, as data from the Hubble indicates plumes of water vapor at Europa’s south pole, suggesting that there is indeed liquid water under the surface.

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Saturn’s Hexagonal Hurricane In The Spotlight In New Cassini Footage

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Hexagon SaturnNASA’s Cassini spacecraft is the gift that keeps on giving. The photos it provides us of Saturn, the most picturesque planet around, continue to dazzle, particularly the recent big one. Cassini completed its first four-year mission back in 2008 and is now on the Cassini Solstice Mission, which will allow the spacecraft to examine Saturn during its other season. When Cassini first arrived, it was winter in the north and summer in the south, so Cassini’s sticking around to see what the seasonal reversals bring. Maybe summer in the north is the bomb, yo. Which it seems to be. Check it out.

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