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Cassini closes in on Iapetus

Fly-by of an odd-ball moon

The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Saturn watchers on the Cassini mission are preparing for another fly-by, this time of the oddly shaped moon Iapetus.

Two views of Iapetus, ultraviolet and visible light. Credit: NASA

The Cassini probe is set to pass within 1,600 kilometres of the moon, roughly 100 times closer than the last encounter in 2004. It is also the last time the probe is scheduled to fly past the moon, and mission scientists are keen to capture as much data as they can.

Iapetus has long been a puzzle to scientists. It has a two-tone appearance, where the leading edge is far brighter than the trailing hemisphere. The difference is similar to the contrast between fresh snow and black tar.

Several possible explanations have been put forward, but no consensus has yet been found: could the dark matter, which has a slightly red tinge, be residue from another moon? Could it come from inside the moon? Is it comet debris, or the result of meteoroid impacts?

JPL scientist Amanda Hendrix, of Cassini's ultraviolet imaging spectrograph team, speculates that an event that disrupted the moon Hyperion, which has a similarly dark red tint, could be responsible for depositing the material on Iapetus.

Meanwhile, Dale Cruikshank, at NASA's Ames Research Center, suggests that the dark matter could be pre-biotic organic compounds: the raw stuff of life.

The moon also has a ridge of high mountains running exactly around its equator. The origin of these peaks remains mysterious, too.

The scientists involved with the mission hope this fly by will help clear up some of these mysteries. They are planning to turn Cassini's Synthetic Aperture Radar towards the little world to collect data on the size of various surface features. They also plan to study the chemical composition of the surface, search for any evidence of an atmosphere or erupting gas plumes; and map the night-time temperature of the surface.

The probe will make its closest approach on September 10th. ®

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