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More Earth-like views of Mars

A Piece of Mars: In a recent post (Dunes in a Colorful Hole), I showed some dunes crawling over layered terrain, with a view that looked a lot like some desert regions of Earth. Here’s another spot on Mars (0.95×1.1 km, 0.59×0.68 mi) showing yet more beautiful layers with dunes filling up the valleys. Part of what makes it seem Earth-like is the lack of craters, although if you go looking you’ll see there are some there. It’s hard to tell from here, but this whole scene is inside an old fluvial channel. The layers are thought to be lake deposits from when the river dammed up, ages ago. Since then the wind has taken over, taking apart the layers one grain at a time, and then building up dunes with some of those grains. (HiRISE PSP_010329_1525, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Windblown or not? Probably…

A Piece of Mars: This 0.95×0.95 km (0.59×0.59 mi) scene shows an eroding surface punctured by some old craters. Long, thin lines seem to form in the wake of many brighter knobs. Are those thin lines windblown in origin? They look like erosional features – things that are left behind when other stuff erodes away around it (not like sand dunes, which are things that pile up over time). If so, they don’t look like typical yardangs, which are streamlined bedrock, formed as sand wears down the rock. But this isn’t typical bedrock – it is easily erodible material. The bright knobs and crater rims are what’s left of a once-higher surface. The darker material may be a lag deposit that has built up as that brighter layer eroded down, leaving behind coarser grains that the wind has a harder time transporting (a similar process has occurred in Meridiani Planum, where the Opportunity rover drove through many kilometers of ripples, which now help protect the surface from erosion). If so, these long thin lines are a very unusual sort of yardang. (HiRISE ESP_016843_1590, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

The Three Discoveries of Pan


Recent closeup of Pan, imaged by the Cassini spacecraft

This morning, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft obtained the first closeup images of Saturn’s innermost moon, Pan. The images show a peculiar body shaped like a “flying saucer”. Pan occupies a unique position in the rings, at the center of the 300-km wide Encke Gap. As best we can tell, Pan probably started its life as a more spherical moon, but it subsequently swept up a thick equatorial belt of ring-dust. A smattering of crevasses and craters across the surface add to our view of a moon that has endured a long and dynamic history. Yesterday, Pan was just a “tiny ring-moon”; today, it has been revealed as a world in its own right.

Seeing these images has brought back vivid memories of the day way back in June, 1990 when I became the first person to see Pan. That story is worth retelling, because Pan’s discovery story has almost as many twists and turns as Pan’s battered and bruised geology. For example, most planetary bodies have just a single discovery paper; Pan has three.

The story starts when the twin Voyager spacecraft flew by Saturn in 1980 and 1981. My colleague and mentor Jeff Cuzzi, of NASA’s Ames Research Center, was a member of the Imaging Team at the time, studying some of the newly revealed properties of the ring system. In those days, “image analysis” most often meant staring at photographic prints. Jeff had a stack of prints with him one day while waiting at the Albuquerque airport. By bending one particular print and looking along it lengthwise, he noticed something very strange–the Encke Gap had a wavy edge.


A sideways look at a Voyager image of the Encke Gap. By taking a print and sighting along the gap as shown, the wavy pattern at the inner (right) edge becomes visible.

Jeff realized that a small moon must be orbiting within this gap. As each particle at the gap edge passes the moon, it receives a gravitational tug that sets up this pattern. Once Jeff got home, he and his colleague Jeff Scargle set about examining all the other Voyager images of the Encke Gap. By assembling all of that data, they pinned down the moon–for now, let’s just call it “TBD”–into a 30-degree sector of longitude where no high-resolution images were available. They published their work in 1985 under the title, Wavy Edges Suggest Moonlet in Encke’s Gap. This is “discovery” paper #1.

Meanwhile, scientists were examining other ring data from the Voyager flyby. Two instruments had obtained “occultation profiles”–measurements of ring opacity at fine resolution across the rings. Both of the occultations showed periodic bright-dark variations near the Encke Gap, but at different locations and with different wavelengths. Jeff and I realized that these were slices through spiral patterns, which could be understood as another aspect of TBD’s influence on the ring. We called the phenomenon a “moonlet wake”. These patterns provided enough information that we were then able to pin down the precise orbit of still-unseen TBD. We published that paper in 1986, Satellite “wakes” and the orbit of the Encke Gap moonlet. “Discovery” paper #2.

After that, our interest in the topic subsided because it seemed, due to bad luck, that the Voyagers simply had not imaged the moon. (Also, meanwhile, we had the Voyager flybys of Uranus and Neptune to deal with.)

This brings us to June 1990, and one fundamental change. The Voyager images were finally available on that brand new, high-capacity storage medium, the CD-ROM. One morning it dawned on me that I had everything I needed to perform a truly comprehensive search for TBD. I had all 30,000 Voyager images of Saturn at my fingertips. I knew when they were taken and where they were pointed. Also, from paper #2, I knew exactly where TBD ought to be along its orbital path at each image time. I left for work that morning telling my husband that my plans for the day were to discover a moon of Saturn.


The discovery image of Pan. It occupies just a single bright pixel in the middle of the dark gap.

By early afternoon my program had printed out a table of every Voyager image that ought to contain TBD, along with where in the image to look. Scrolling down that list, I quickly identified the most promising image, loaded up the CDROM, and checked out the predicted location. Just there, I saw a single bright pixel in the middle of the Encke Gap! A single pixel could be a glitch, but I quickly examined the half-dozen next-best images, and they all showed a bright pixel at the predicted location. Nailed it!

“Eureka” moments don’t come along very often in a research career. That was mine.

Shortly thereafter, I published Visual Detection of 1981S13, Saturn’s Eighteenth Satellite, and its Role in the Encke Gap, discovery paper #3. However, in astronomy as in life, it’s seeing the thing that makes it real.

The Author

The Author, a very long time ago.

Two postscripts. First I am often asked how I chose the name. It was a no-brainer. The name of the process whereby a moon can open up a gap in rings is known as “shepherding.” Moons of Saturn are named after Greek gods. The god of shepherds in Greek mythology was that flute-playing satyr, Pan. Happily, the International Astronomical Union liked my reasoning and approved the name. Conveniently, the name is also short enough to fit on my license plate.

Second postscript. I proudly submitted my manuscript to the journal Nature. It was nearly rejected, however because the reviewer said, “we already knew the moon was there, so seeing it for the first time is no big deal.” Luckily for me, the editor was of the “seeing is believing” school of thought, and Nature published the paper anyway.



Hills made by wind and ice

A Piece of Mars: A fluid is something that fills a container it’s put into, and it includes both gas and liquids. This 0.7×0.5 km (0.43×0.31 mi) scene shows hills of sediment left behind by two different fluids (wind and ice). The hill on the left is a rippled sand dune, which has been piled up by the wind as it drops its sandy load. On the right is a layered sinuous hill, leftover from when ice flowed down a slope offscreen to the right. The dune is slowly encroaching on the hill, and will eventually be disrupted by it. (HiRISE ESP_048913_1330, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Dunes in a colorful hole

A Piece of Mars: Gray dunes have migrated over reddish rock, moving toward a narrowing cleft surrounded by tall tan cliffs. Bright lines on the dunes are exposed internal layers (bones of the dunes, really) that show you where the lee-side slopes once were (so you can tell they’ve moved to the left). The cliffs are made of layered rocks (extra points if you can find the fault), suggesting these are sedimentary layers, laid down long ago in Mars’ geologic past. The whole HiRISE image is worth a long look, it’s really amazing. (HiRISE ESP_049009_1520, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Wonderful Potentially Habitable Worlds Around TRAPPIST-1

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Abstract Concept of TRAPPIST-1 System credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

In May 2016, Michael Gillon and his team announced the discovery of three Earth-sized exoplanets around TRAPPIST-1, an ultra cool M-dwarf star, using the small TRAPPIST telescope at ESO-La Silla, Chile. It was an exciting discovery—yet on that day no one could possibly have imagined that less than a year later they would make another significant discovery involving the same system. But here we are: today, they announced in Nature the discovery of seven potentially habitable Earth-like worlds.

The star, named TRAPPIST-1, is a fairly inconspicuous star in our Milky Way. Small (8% the mass of the sun) and cold (half the temperature of the sun), it is a member of an ultra-cool dwarf population that represents 15% of the star population of our galaxy. In 2016, Gillon and his team detected the transit (i.e., the shadow of a planet passing between its host star and us) of three exoplanets at the inner edge of the habitable zone of their star.


Who wins in the fight of wind vs. ice?

A Piece of Mars: This is the crest of one of the largest dunes on Mars (0.5×0.5 km or 0.31×0.31 mi). The wind mostly blows from the right, slowly pushing sand up the windward slope. But frost accumulates on (and probably in) the sand during winter, and sometimes it gets too heavy and slides down the steepest slope (toward the left), carving out big gullies in the sand. And then the wind blows some more, trying to erase the gullies by 1) making ripples, 2) burying the gullies (the featureless blue patches are grainfall, which is a fancy term for sand that fell as airfall), and 3) forming dust devils that leave faint but wide tracks. Who wins this fight, wind or ice? Neither: gravity wins (it usually does). (HiRISE ESP_020876_1330, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Mars’ yin-yangs

A Piece of Mars: Is this 480×270 m (0.3×0.17 mi) scene showing a 150 m (492 ft) wide yin-yang symbol on Mars? Sort of, maybe, if you blur your eyes and lend me artistic license, but it’s not doing so intentionally. One side of the crater is dark and the other is light. Both have their tone because of windblown material blown from the same direction, but the different materials collected where they did for different reasons. The dark material is probably mafic sand (iron and magnesium-rich, like what’s found near many volcanoes), which was bounced along the ground from the lower right, and collected in the lee of the crater rim. The bright material is much finer-grained, dust carried aloft, and it probably settled down on the far side of the crater, and outside as well, as the crater rim poked into the wind and provided enough shelter to let some of the bright material settle out as airfall. (HiRISE ESP_016496_2000, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

The two-faced dunes of Mars

A Piece of Mars: The focus of this 0.96×0.96 km (0.6×0.6 mi) scene is one of many two-faced dunes on Mars. The bright sunlit slope is one face, formed recently by wind blowing from the upper right. The dark shaded slope is the other face – it’s a little older, formed by wind blowing from the left. Together these two winds alternate, probably in different seasons, forcing the sand into a needle-shaped point that carries sand in a direction that is, give or take, the sum of those two winds. Two-faced dunes like this are rare on Earth, as winds here typically quickly erase older crestlines. (HiRISE ESP_021716_1685, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)

Dunes + Craters = Mars

A Piece of Mars: How do you tell when a planetary landscape shows Mars, instead of Mercury or the Moon or Europa? The easiest way to tell is to look for both craters and dunes, like what’s shown here in this 640×360 m (0.4×0.22 mi) scene. Not all martian landscapes have either feature, and there are some other worlds that do have both (Earth, Titan, maybe Pluto, and probably Venus but we need better data…), but it’s a pretty good bet that if you see both features together, you’re looking at Mars. Anyway, in this lovely view, the dark gray terrain (you’ll see boulders if you look closely enough!) is being eroded away slowly, revealing a much older, brighter surface beneath it. Unfortunately for those who would study ancient terrains on Mars, much of that older, lower surface is covered in dunes. But I like the dunes – they give us information about surface erosion rates and wind patterns. One person’s signal is another person’s noise. (HiRISE ESP_047762_1585, NASA/JPL/Univ. of Arizona)