August 21, 2019

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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