June 20, 2019

17.04.10- The Case of the Vanishing Moon: Solved.

Since its discovery by Giovanni Cassini in 1671, Saturn’s moon Iapetus has confounded astronomers. Even early on, observers knew something curious was going on with this far off moon; Iapetus varies in brightness between +10 & +12th magnitude as it orbits the ringed planet, nearly vanishing from sight for half its orbit! Late last year, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and the Spitzer Space Infrared Telescope fingered the culprit; a tenuous outer ring of material now known as the Phoebe Ring that is raining down material on its surface. Like our own Moon, Iapetus is tidally locked in its 79 day orbit. As a consequence, the leading edge plows through this dusty stream of debris. This also causes sunlight to warm and sublimate icy material on the leading side, which streams and re-condenses on the trailing end. This nicely explains the sharply defined and complex boundary seen between the two hemispheres. Alas, no monolith as depicted in Clarke’s original 2001 novel adaptation. .. but perhaps a fine site one day for a cosmic ski resort!

Astro-Challenge: Spotting Two-Faced Iapetus.

As the majestic planet Saturn approaches opposition on March 21st, I’d like to turn your telescopic attention to one of the most bizarre moons in the solar system; Iapetus. It was way back when in the 17th century that Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini noted that he could only see Iapetus when it was to the west of the ringed planet, but never to the east. He correctly deduced that Iapetus must not only be tidally locked, that is, holding one face towards Saturn, but must be correspondingly dark on one hemisphere and brighter on the other. In fact, Iapetus is known to vary from magnitude +10 to magnitude +12 over its 79 day orbit, a variation of 6 times in terms of brightness. the Cassini space probe has confirmed the duality of Iapetus, showing us a dark leading hemisphere with an albedo of 5% (think fresh asphalt) and a trailing hemisphere with an albedo of about 50% (think dirty snow). The third largest of the Saturnian moons, Iapetus is a “walnut shaped” world, with a large ridge running the equator of this twisted moon. Discovered by Cassini on New Year’s Eve 2004, no satisfactory explanation for the ridge is known, but the little world must have had a tumultuous history.

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