February 17, 2011
NASA’s Cassini spacecraft is set to skim close to Saturn’s moon Titan on Friday, Feb. 18, to learn about the interaction between Titan and Saturn’s magnetosphere, the magnetic bubble around the planet.
The closest approach will take place at 8:04 a.m. PST (4:04 p.m. UTC) and bring Cassini within about 3,650 kilometers (2,270 miles) of Titan’s surface.
As Titan makes a complete 360-degree orbit around Saturn, the relative influence of the sun’s illumination and the hot ionized gas trapped in the magnetic bubble changes. These factors are important for understanding the relationship between Titan and Saturn’s magnetosphere. It is important to make measurements at a variety of locations in the Saturn magnetosphere, so this flyby will occur in a part of the magnetosphere that has been poorly sampled so far.
Previous flybys have shown the magnetic environment near Titan to be rather variable and unpredictable. For 12 hours before and after closest approach, the Cassini plasma spectrometer instrument will be pointing in a direction to capture ionized gas in the region.
At the same time, Cassini’s radio science subsystem will be gathering sensitive gravity data from Titan to improve understanding of the structure of the interior. Collecting data like these will eventually enable scientists to determine whether Titan has an ocean under its crust.