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The powerful gravity of a galaxy embedded in a massive cluster of galaxies in this Hubble Space Telescope image is producing multiple images of a single distant supernova far behind it. Both the galaxy and the galaxy cluster are acting like a giant cosmic lens, bending and magnifying light from the supernova behind them, an effect called gravitational lensing.

The image shows the galaxy's location within a hefty cluster of galaxies called MACS J1149.6+2223, located more than 5 billion light-years away. In the enlarged inset view of the galaxy, the arrows point to the multiple copies of the exploding star, dubbed Supernova Refsdal, located 9.3 billion light-years from Earth. The images are arranged around the galaxy in a cross-shaped pattern called an Einstein Cross. The blue streaks wrapping around the galaxy are the stretched images of the supernova's host spiral galaxy, which has been distorted by the warping of space.

The four images were spotted on Nov. 11, 2014. This Hubble image combines data from three months of observations taken in visible light by the Advanced Camera for Surveys and in near-infrared light by the Wide Field Camera 3.

Object Names: SN Refsdal, MACS J1149.6+2223


Credit: NASA, ESA, and S. Rodney (JHU) and the FrontierSN team; T. Treu (UCLA), P. Kelly (UC Berkeley), and the GLASS team; J. Lotz (STScI) and the Frontier Fields team; M. Postman (STScI) and the CLASH team; and Z. Levay (STScI)

Significant progress in dark matter studies: Hubble Sees Supernova Split into Four Images by Cosmic Lens

Some of astronomy’s biggest goals include the study of dark matter and dark energy. These two phenomena were indirectly observed in 20th century and the questions about their nature still puzzle us. Astronomers, cosmologists, particle physicists, theoretical physicists and researchers in other related areas are trying hard to find more and more clues about the nature of dark matter and dark energy which comprise of around 95% of our universe.

The powerful gravity of a galaxy embedded in a massive cluster of galaxies in this Hubble Space Telescope image is producing multiple images of a single distant supernova far behind it. Both the galaxy and the galaxy cluster are acting like a giant cosmic lens, bending and magnifying light from the supernova behind them, an effect called gravitational lensing. The image shows the galaxy’s location within a hefty cluster of galaxies called MACS J1149.6+2223, located more than 5 billion light-years away. In the enlarged inset view of the galaxy, the arrows point to the multiple copies of the exploding star, dubbed Supernova Refsdal, located 9.3 billion light-years from Earth.
The images are arranged around the galaxy in a cross-shaped pattern called an Einstein Cross. The blue streaks wrapping around the galaxy are the stretched images of the supernova’s host spiral galaxy, which has been distorted by the warping of space. The four images were spotted on Nov. 11, 2014. This Hubble image combines data from three months of observations taken in visible light by the Advanced Camera for Surveys and in near-infrared light by the Wide Field Camera 3.
Object Names: SN Refsdal, MACS J1149.6+2223
Credit: NASA, ESA, and S. Rodney (JHU) and the FrontierSN team; T. Treu (UCLA), P. Kelly (UC Berkeley), and the GLASS team; J. Lotz (STScI) and the Frontier Fields team; M. Postman (STScI) and the CLASH team; and Z. Levay (STScI)

Astronomers using NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope have spotted for the first time a distant supernova split into four images. The multiple images of the exploding star are caused by the powerful gravity of a foreground elliptical galaxy embedded in a massive cluster of galaxies.

This unique observation will help astronomers refine their estimates of the amount and distribution of dark matter in the lensing galaxy and cluster. Dark matter cannot be seen directly but is believed to make up most of the universe’s mass.

The gravity from both the elliptical galaxy and the galaxy cluster distorts and magnifies the light from the supernova behind them, an effect called gravitational lensing. First predicted by Albert Einstein, this effect is similar to a glass lens bending light to magnify and distort the image of an object behind it. The multiple images are arranged around the elliptical galaxy in a cross-shaped pattern called an Einstein Cross, a name originally given to a particular multiply imaged quasar, the bright core of an active galaxy.

The elliptical galaxy and its cluster, MACS J1149.6+2223, are 5 billion light-years from Earth. The supernova behind it is 9.3 billion light-years away.

Although astronomers have discovered dozens of multiply imaged galaxies and quasars, they have never seen a stellar explosion resolved into several images. “It really threw me for a loop when I spotted the four images surrounding the galaxy — it was a complete surprise,” said Patrick Kelly of the University of California, Berkeley, a member of the Grism Lens Amplified Survey from Space (GLASS) collaboration. The GLASS group is working with the Frontier Field Supernova (FrontierSN) team to analyze the exploding star. Kelly is also the lead author on the science paper, which will appear on March 6 in a special issue of the journal Science celebrating the centenary of Albert Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity.

When the four images fade away, astronomers predict they will have a rare opportunity to catch a rerun of the supernova. This is because the current four-image pattern is only one part of the lensing display. The supernova may have appeared as a single image some 20 years ago elsewhere in the cluster field, and it is expected to reappear once more within the next five years.

This prediction is based on computer models of the cluster, which describe the various paths the supernova light is taking through the maze of clumpy dark matter in the galactic grouping. Each image takes a different route through the cluster and arrives at a different time, due, in part, to differences in the length of the pathways the light follows to reach Earth. The four supernova images captured by Hubble, for example, appeared within a few days or weeks of each other.

The supernova’s various light paths are analogous to several trains that leave a station at the same time, all traveling at the same speed and bound for the same location. Each train, however, takes a different route, and the distance for each route is not the same. Some trains travel over hills. Others go through valleys, and still others chug around mountains. Because the trains travel over different track lengths across different terrain, they do not arrive at their destination at the same time. Similarly, the supernova images do not appear at the same time because some of the light is delayed by traveling around bends created by the gravity of dense dark matter in the intervening galaxy cluster.

“Our model for the dark matter in the cluster gives us the prediction of when the next image will appear because it tells us how long each train track is, which correlates with time,” said Steve Rodney of the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, leader of the FrontierSN team. “We already missed one that we think appeared about 20 years ago, and we found these four images after they had already appeared. The prediction of this future image is the one that is most exciting because we might be able to catch it. We hope to come back to this field with Hubble, and we’ll keep looking to see when that expected next image appears.”

Measuring the time delays between images offers clues to the type of warped-space terrain the supernova’s light had to cover and will help the astronomers fine-tune the models that map out the cluster’s mass. “We will measure the time delays, and we’ll go back to the models and compare them to the model predictions of the light paths,” Kelly said. “The lens modelers, such as Adi Zitrin (California Institute of Technology) from our team, will then be able to adjust their models to more accurately recreate the landscape of dark matter, which dictates the light travel time.”

While making a routine search of the GLASS team’s data, Kelly spotted the four images of the exploding star on Nov. 11, 2014. The FrontierSN and GLASS teams have been searching for such highly magnified explosions since 2013, and this object is their most spectacular discovery. The supernova appears about 20 times brighter than its natural brightness, due to the combined effects of two overlapping lenses. The dominant lensing effect is from the massive galaxy cluster, which focuses the supernova light along at least three separate paths. A secondary lensing effect occurs when one of those light paths happens to be precisely aligned with a specific elliptical galaxy within the cluster. “The dark matter of that individual galaxy then bends and refocuses the light into four more paths,” Rodney explained, “generating the rare Einstein Cross pattern we are currently observing.”

The two teams spent a week analyzing the object’s light, confirming it was the signature of a supernova. They then turned to the W.M. Keck Observatory on Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, to measure the distance to the supernova’s host galaxy.

The astronomers nicknamed the supernova Refsdal in honor of Norwegian astronomer Sjur Refsdal, who, in 1964, first proposed using time-delayed images from a lensed supernova to study the expansion of the universe. “Astronomers have been looking to find one ever since,” said Tommaso Treu of the University of California, Los Angeles, the GLASS project’s principal investigator. “The long wait is over!”

The Frontier Fields survey is a three-year program that uses Hubble and the gravitational-lensing effects of six massive galaxy clusters to probe not only what is inside the clusters but also what is beyond them. The three-year FrontierSN program studies supernovae that appear in and around the galaxy clusters of the Frontier Fields and GLASS surveys. The GLASS survey is using Hubble’s spectroscopic capabilities to study remote galaxies through the cosmic telescopes of 10 massive galaxy clusters, including the six in the Frontier Fields.

Supernova Refsdal and Galaxy Cluster MACS J1149.6+2223
Source: Hubblesite.org

Source: Hubble Site

Although NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has taken many breathtaking images of the universe, one snapshot stands out from the rest: the iconic view of the so-called "Pillars of Creation." The jaw-dropping photo, taken in 1995, revealed never-before-seen details of three giant columns of cold gas bathed in the scorching ultraviolet light from a cluster of young, massive stars in a small region of the Eagle Nebula, or M16.

Credit: Hubble Site

Hubble Goes High Def to Revisit the Iconic ‘Pillars of Creation’

Although NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has taken many breathtaking images of the universe, one snapshot stands out from the rest: the iconic view of the so-called “Pillars of Creation.” The jaw-dropping photo, taken in 1995, revealed never-before-seen details of three giant columns of cold gas bathed in the scorching ultraviolet light from a cluster of young, massive stars in a small region of the Eagle Nebula, or M16.

Though such butte-like features are common in star-forming regions, the M16 structures are by far the most photogenic and evocative. The Hubble image is so popular that it has appeared in movies and television shows, on tee-shirts and pillows, and even on a postage stamp.

And now, in celebration of its 25th anniversary, Hubble has revisited the famous pillars, providing astronomers with a sharper and wider view. As a bonus, the pillars have been photographed in near-infrared light, as well as visible light. The infrared view transforms the pillars into eerie, wispy silhouettes seen against a background of myriad stars. That’s because the infrared light penetrates much of the gas and dust, except for the densest regions of the pillars. Newborn stars can be seen hidden away inside the pillars. The new images are being unveiled at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle, Washington.

Although the original image was dubbed the Pillars of Creation, the new image hints that they are also pillars of destruction. “I’m impressed by how transitory these structures are. They are actively being ablated away before our very eyes. The ghostly bluish haze around the dense edges of the pillars is material getting heated up and evaporating away into space. We have caught these pillars at a very unique and short-lived moment in their evolution,” explained Paul Scowen of Arizona State University in Tempe, who, with astronomer Jeff Hester, formerly of Arizona State University, led the original Hubble observations of the Eagle Nebula.

The infrared image shows that the reason the pillars exist is because the very ends of them are dense, and they shadow the gas below them, creating the long, pillar-like structures. The gas in between the pillars has long since been blown away by the ionizing winds from the central star cluster located above the pillars.

At the top edge of the left-hand pillar, a gaseous fragment has been heated up and is flying away from the structure, underscoring the violent nature of star-forming regions. “These pillars represent a very dynamic, active process,” Scowen said. “The gas is not being passively heated up and gently wafting away into space. The gaseous pillars are actually getting ionized (a process by which electrons are stripped off of atoms) and heated up by radiation from the massive stars. And then they are being eroded by the stars’ strong winds (barrage of charged particles), which are sandblasting away the tops of these pillars.”

When Scowen and Hester used Hubble to make the initial observations of the Eagle Nebula in 1995, astronomers had seen the pillar-like structures in ground-based images, but not in detail. They knew that the physical processes are not unique to the Eagle Nebula because star birth takes place across the universe. But at a distance of just 6,500 light-years, M16 is the most dramatic nearby example, as the team soon realized.

As Scowen was piecing together the Hubble exposures of the Eagle, he was amazed at what he saw. “I called Jeff Hester on his phone and said, ‘You need to get here now,’” Scowen recalled. “We laid the pictures out on the table, and we were just gushing because of all the incredible detail that we were seeing for the very first time.”

The first features that jumped out at the team in 1995 were the streamers of gas seemingly floating away from the columns. Astronomers had previously debated what effect nearby massive stars would have on the surrounding gas in stellar nurseries. “There is only one thing that can light up a neighborhood like this: massive stars kicking out enough horsepower in ultraviolet light to ionize the gas clouds and make them glow,” Scowen said. “Nebulous star-forming regions like M16 are the interstellar neon signs that say, ‘We just made a bunch of massive stars here.’ This was the first time we had directly seen observational evidence that the erosionary process, not only the radiation but the mechanical stripping away of the gas from the columns, was actually being seen.”

By comparing the 1995 and 2014 pictures, astronomers also noticed a lengthening of a narrow jet-like feature that may have been ejected from a newly forming star. The jet looks like a stream of water from a garden hose. Over the intervening 19 years, this jet has stretched farther into space, across an additional 60 billion miles, at an estimated speed of about 450,000 miles per hour.

Although NASA's Hubble Space Telescope has taken many breathtaking images of the universe, one snapshot stands out from the rest: the iconic view of the so-called "Pillars of Creation." The jaw-dropping photo, taken in 1995, revealed never-before-seen details of three giant columns of cold gas bathed in the scorching ultraviolet light from a cluster of young, massive stars in a small region of the Eagle Nebula, or M16. Credit: Hubble Site
Although NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope has taken many breathtaking images of the universe, one snapshot stands out from the rest: the iconic view of the so-called “Pillars of Creation.” The jaw-dropping photo, taken in 1995, revealed never-before-seen details of three giant columns of cold gas bathed in the scorching ultraviolet light from a cluster of young, massive stars in a small region of the Eagle Nebula, or M16.
Credit: Hubble Site

Our Sun probably formed in a similar turbulent star-forming region. There is evidence that the forming solar system was seasoned with radioactive shrapnel from a nearby supernova. That means that our Sun was formed as part of a cluster that included stars massive enough to produce powerful ionizing radiation, such as is seen in the Eagle Nebula. “That’s the only way the nebula from which the Sun was born could have been exposed to a supernova that quickly, in the short period of time that represents, because supernovae only come from massive stars, and those stars only live a few tens of millions of years,” Scowen explained. “What that means is when you look at the environment of the Eagle Nebula or other star-forming regions, you’re looking at exactly the kind of nascent environment that our Sun formed in.”
Hubble Revisits the Famous
Source: Hubblesite.org
Source: Hubble Site

More Related Images: http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2015/02/image/a/

Hubble’s High-Definition Panoramic View of the Andromeda Galaxy

The largest NASA Hubble Space Telescope image ever assembled, this sweeping view of a portion of the Andromeda galaxy (M31) is the sharpest large composite image ever taken of our galactic neighbor. Though the galaxy is over 2 million light-years away, the Hubble telescope is powerful enough to resolve individual stars in a 61,000-light-year-long section of the galaxy’s pancake-shaped disk. It’s like photographing a beach and resolving individual grains of sand. And, there are lots of stars in this sweeping view — over 100 million, with some of them in thousands of star clusters seen embedded in the disk. This ambitious photographic cartography of the Andromeda galaxy represents a new benchmark for precision studies of large spiral galaxies which dominate the universe’s population of over 100 billion galaxies. Never before have astronomers been able to see individual stars over a major portion of an external spiral galaxy. Most of the stars in the universe live inside such majestic star cities, and this is the first data that reveal populations of stars in context to their home galaxy.

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The panorama is the product of the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury (PHAT) program. Images were obtained from viewing the galaxy in near-ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared wavelengths, using the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Wide Field Camera 3 aboard Hubble. This view shows the galaxy in its natural visible-light color, as photographed with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys in red and blue filters July 2010 through October 2013.

DETAILS ABOUT THIS IMAGE:

The largest NASA Hubble Space Telescope image ever assembled, this sweeping bird’s-eye view of a portion of the Andromeda galaxy (M31) is the sharpest large composite image ever taken of our galactic next-door neighbor. Though the galaxy is over 2 million light-years away, the Hubble telescope is powerful enough to resolve individual stars in a 61,000-light-year-long stretch of the galaxy’s pancake-shaped disk. It’s like photographing a beach and resolving individual grains of sand. And, there are lots of stars in this sweeping view — over 100 million, with some of them in thousands of star clusters seen embedded in the disk.

This ambitious photographic cartography of the Andromeda galaxy represents a new benchmark for precision studies of large spiral galaxies that dominate the universe’s population of over 100 billion galaxies. Never before have astronomers been able to see individual stars inside an external spiral galaxy over such a large contiguous area. Most of the stars in the universe live inside such majestic star cities, and this is the first data that reveal populations of stars in context to their home galaxy.

Hubble traces densely packed stars extending from the innermost hub of the galaxy, seen at left. Moving out from this central galactic bulge, the panorama sweeps from the galaxy’s central bulge across lanes of stars and dust to the sparser outer disk. Large groups of young blue stars indicate the locations of star clusters and star-forming regions. The stars bunch up in the blue ring-like feature toward the right side of the image. The dark silhouettes trace out complex dust structures. Underlying the entire galaxy is a smooth distribution of cooler red stars that trace Andromeda’s evolution over billions of years.

Because the galaxy is only 2.5 million light-years from Earth, it is a much bigger target in the sky than the myriad galaxies Hubble routinely photographs that are billions of light-years away. This means that the Hubble survey is assembled together into a mosaic image using 7,398 exposures taken over 411 individual pointings.

The panorama is the product of the Panchromatic Hubble Andromeda Treasury (PHAT) program. Images were obtained from viewing the galaxy in near-ultraviolet, visible, and near-infrared wavelengths, using the Advanced Camera for Surveys and the Wide Field Camera 3 aboard Hubble. This cropped view shows a 48,000-light-year-long stretch of the galaxy in its natural visible-light color, as photographed with Hubble’s Advanced Camera for Surveys in red and blue filters July 2010 through October 2013.

The panorama is being presented at the 225th Meeting of the Astronomical Society in Seattle, Washington.

Source: Hubble Site

A combined Hubble/ALMA image of NGC 1266. The zoom-in section shows the molecular gas being propelled by the black hole's jets (red and blue), the central ALMA data (yellow) indicate the dense molecular gas. Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble; ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)

‘Perfect Storm’ Suffocating Star Formation around a Supermassive Black Hole

High-energy jets powered by supermassive black holes can blast away a galaxy’s star-forming fuel — resulting in so-called “red and dead” galaxies: those brimming with ancient red stars yet little or no hydrogen gas available to create new ones.

Now astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have discovered that black holes don’t have to be nearly so powerful to shut down star formation. By observing the dust and gas at the center NGC 1266, a nearby lenticular galaxy with a relatively modest central black hole, the astronomers have detected a “perfect storm” of turbulence that is squelching star formation in a region that would otherwise be an ideal star factory.
This turbulence is stirred up by jets from the galaxy’s central black hole slamming into an incredibly dense envelope of gas. This dense region, which may be the result of a recent merger with another smaller galaxy, blocks nearly 98 percent of material propelled by the jets from escaping the galactic center.

 Artist illustration of the central region of NGC 1266 near its central black hole with jet and gas motions indicated (yellow and white arrows, respectively). The large-scale gas motions induce turbulence on smaller scales, preventing star formation. Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)
Artist illustration of the central region of NGC 1266 near its central black hole with jet and gas motions indicated (yellow and white arrows, respectively). The large-scale gas motions induce turbulence on smaller scales, preventing star formation. Credit: B. Saxton (NRAO/AUI/NSF)

“Like an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, the molecules in these jets meet so much resistance when they hit the surrounding dense gas that they are almost completely stopped in their tracks,” said Katherine Alatalo, an astronomer with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and lead author on a paper published in the Astrophysical Journal. This energetic collision produces powerful turbulence in the surrounding gas, disrupting the first critical stage of star formation. “So what we see is the most intense suppression of star formation ever observed,” noted Alatalo.

Previous observations of NGC 1266 revealed a broad outflow of gas from the galactic center traveling up to 400 kilometers per second. Alatalo and her colleagues estimate that this outflow is as forceful as the simultaneous supernova explosion of 10,000 stars. The jets, though powerful enough to stir the gas, are not powerful enough to give it the velocity it needs to escape from the system.
“Another way of looking at it is that the jets are injecting turbulence into the gas, preventing it from settling down, collapsing, and forming stars,” said National Radio Astronomy Observatory astronomer and co-author Mark Lacy.

The region observed by ALMA contains about 400 million times the mass of our Sun in star-forming gas, which is 100 times more than is found in giant star-forming molecular clouds in our own Milky Way. Normally, gas this concentrated should be producing stars at a rate at least 50 times faster than the astronomers observed in this galaxy.

Previously, astronomers believed that only extremely powerful quasars and radio galaxies contained black holes that were powerful enough to serve as a star-forming “on/off” switch.

A combined Hubble/ALMA image of NGC 1266. The zoom-in section shows the molecular gas being propelled by the black hole's jets (red and blue), the central ALMA data (yellow) indicate the dense molecular gas. Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble; ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)
A combined Hubble/ALMA image of NGC 1266. The zoom-in section shows the molecular gas being propelled by the black hole’s jets (red and blue), the central ALMA data (yellow) indicate the dense molecular gas. Credit: NASA/ESA Hubble; ALMA (NRAO/ESO/NAOJ)

“The usual assumption in the past has been that the jets needed to be powerful enough to eject the gas from the galaxy completely in order to be effective at stopping start formation,” said Lacy.

To make this discovery, the astronomers first pinpointed the location of the far-infrared light being emitted by the galaxy. Normally, this light is associated with star formation and enables astronomers to detect regions where new stars are forming. In the case of NGC 1266, however, this light was coming from an extremely confined region of the galaxy. “This very small area was almost too small for the infrared light to be coming from star formation,” noted Alatalo.

With ALMA’s exquisite sensitivity and resolution, and along with observations from CARMA (the Combined Array for Research in Millimeter-wave Astronomy), the astronomers were then able to trace the location of the very dense molecular gas at the galactic center. They found that the gas is surrounding this compact source of the far-infrared light.

Under normal conditions, gas this dense would be forming stars at a very high rate. The dust embedded within this gas would then be heated by young stars and seen as a bright and extended source of infrared light. The small size and faintness of the infrared source in this galaxy suggests that NGC 1266 is instead choking on its own fuel, seemingly in defiance of the rules of star formation.

The astronomers also speculate that there is a feedback mechanism at work in this region. Eventually, the black hole will calm down and the turbulence will subside so star-formation can begin anew. With this renewed star formation, however, comes greater motion in the dense gas, which then falls in on the black hole and reestablishes the jets, shutting down star formation once again.

NGC 1266 is located approximately 100 million light-years away in the constellation Eridanus. Leticular galaxies are spiral galaxies, like our own Milky Way, but they have little interstellar gas available to form new stars.

More Information

The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA), an international astronomy facility, is a partnership of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO), the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Natural Sciences (NINS) of Japan in cooperation with the Republic of Chile. ALMA is funded by ESO on behalf of its Member States, by NSF in cooperation with the National Research Council of Canada (NRC) and the National Science Council of Taiwan (NSC) and by NINS in cooperation with the Academia Sinica (AS) in Taiwan and the Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute (KASI).

ALMA construction and operations are led by ESO on behalf of its Member States; by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO), managed by Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI), on behalf of North America; and by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ) on behalf of East Asia. The Joint ALMA Observatory (JAO) provides the unified leadership and management of the construction, commissioning and operation of ALMA.

 

Source: ALMA Observatory

These three images, created from Cassini Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data, show the appearance and evolution of a mysterious feature in Ligeia Mare, one of the largest hydrocarbon seas on Saturn's moon Titan.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

Cassini Watches Mysterious Feature Evolve in Titan Sea

By Preston Dyches


 

NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is monitoring the evolution of a mysterious feature in a large hydrocarbon sea on Saturn’s moon Titan. The feature covers an area of about 100 square miles (260 square kilometers) in Ligeia Mare, one of the largest seas on Titan. It has now been observed twice by Cassini’s radar experiment, but its appearance changed between the two apparitions.

Images of the feature taken during the Cassini flybys are available at:

http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA18430

The mysterious feature, which appears bright in radar images against the dark background of the liquid sea, was first spotted during Cassini’s July 2013 Titan flyby. Previous observations showed no sign of bright features in that part of Ligeia Mare. Scientists were perplexed to find the feature had vanished when they looked again, over several months, with low-resolution radar and Cassini’s infrared imager. This led some team members to suggest it might have been a transient feature. But during Cassini’s flyby on August 21, 2014, the feature was again visible, and its appearance had changed during the 11 months since it was last seen.

Scientists on the radar team are confident that the feature is not an artifact, or flaw, in their data, which would have been one of the simplest explanations. They also do not see evidence that its appearance results from evaporation in the sea, as the overall shoreline of Ligeia Mare has not changed noticeably.

The team has suggested the feature could be surface waves, rising bubbles, floating solids, solids suspended just below the surface, or perhaps something more exotic.

The researchers suspect that the appearance of this feature could be related to changing seasons on Titan, as summer draws near in the moon’s northern hemisphere. Monitoring such changes is a major goal for Cassini’s current extended mission.

“Science loves a mystery, and with this enigmatic feature, we have a thrilling example of ongoing change on Titan,” said Stephen Wall, the deputy team lead of Cassini’s radar team, based at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to continue watching the changes unfold and gain insights about what’s going on in that alien sea.”

These three images, created from Cassini Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data, show the appearance and evolution of a mysterious feature in Ligeia Mare, one of the largest hydrocarbon seas on Saturn's moon Titan. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell
These three images, created from Cassini Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) data, show the appearance and evolution of a mysterious feature in Ligeia Mare, one of the largest hydrocarbon seas on Saturn’s moon Titan.
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASI/Cornell

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and ASI, the Italian Space Agency. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the mission for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Washington. The radar instrument was built by JPL and the Italian Space Agency, working with team members from the United States and several European countries.

Source: NASA