Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Hyperion's An Oddball

There's a short little tidbit at New Scientist, by Kelly Young, about Saturn's moon Hyperion that's worth checking out just for the picture. When I went to have a look, I did not see what thought I'd see. Now, I haven't done a lot of flying about the solar system, so my actual visual experience with heavenly bodies is limited. (If I were male this would be the ideal place to insert the name of whatever flavor-of-the-month girl is currently popular. Not being male, I will spare you the name, although I couldn't resist the reference.) However, I have come to have certain expectations when I hear the word "moon."

I know that moons orbit planets. They reflect the light of the sun, so they are visible when magnified, and Saturn and Jupiter have many of them, of varying size. Moons are smaller than the planets they orbit, but some are bigger than other bodies that we call planets in our solar system. Ganymede, for example, one of Jupiter's moons, is actually bigger than the planet Mercury. Saturn's moon Titan apparently has some lovely lakeside property. That is close to the sum of all knowledge that I have gleaned over the years about moons, although I'm beginning to realize that I've also gathered a misconception or two. Our one little satellite is the only one I've ever actually seen, and judging from the photo at New Scientist I've drawn some inaccurate conclusions based on its properties. The key one being that I tend to thinks of moons as being round. Most planets are round, aren't they? Suns are all round, as far as I know. My expectations default to the "major astronomical bodies are round" setting. Well, my default setting is wrong, and I have just undergone reprogramming.

NASA's Cassini spacecraft is continuing its jaunt around Saturn, and is snapping photos left and right to send back to the curious here on Earth:

Hyperion is 280 kilometres (174 miles) across, making it the largest irregularly shaped moon observed to date. Cassini snapped the pictures used for the image on 28 June from a distance of 294,000 km.

Previous images of the moon show a fractured, cratered surface (see Cassini flyby of Hyperion reveals tortured world).

You just have to go see the moon (the picture that is) for yourself to see why it weirded me out. (I don't know, maybe I'm just easily amazed.) I think all this space photography we're seeing these days is so darn cool. I was really excited to read in Young's article that Cassini, which is in the middle of its four year mission touring the neighborhood of Saturn, is going to come really close to Titan soon, within about 620 miles, and I'm looking forward to seeing what's going to amaze me next.

Hat tip: Futurismic