A new photograph taken by NASA’s Cassini space probe reveals bands of ragged methane clouds that ring Titan, the largest of 18 moons orbiting Saturn.
Cassini took the photo when it was about 316,000 miles from the surface of the moon, according to NASA officials.
The photo was taken as Cassini raced around Saturn, preparing for a dramatic drive between the gas giant’s rings and the outer reaches of its atmosphere. The spacecraft will complete 22 dives before its mission ends with a plunge into Saturn’s atmosphere in September.
At 3,200 miles wide, Titan is the solar system’s second-largest moon after Ganymede, which orbits Jupiter. Scientists say Titan has a thick nitrogen atmosphere and a weather system feature methane rain that falls from the sky and forms lakes on the moon’s surface.
Astronomers say that among all of the planets and moons studied in the solar system and beyond, only Titan is known to have stable lakes and seas of liquid.
The Cassini mission – a $3.2 billion cooperative effort of NASA, the Italian Space Agency, and the European Space Agency – was launched in October 1997. The probe didn’t reach Saturn until July of 2004.
In 2005, Cassini launched a spacecraft – the Huygens – that landed on the surface of Titan. The Huygens was the first craft to land on a moon in the outer solar system. Cassini continued to orbit Saturn, sending scientists data about the planet, its rings, and its moons.
The Cassini mission is slated to end on September 15 when the spacecraft dives directly into Saturn’s atmosphere, beaming back scientific data as long as it is able.