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Published on Sep 16, 2007
Scientists on the Cassini mission to Saturn are poring through hundreds of images returned from the 10th September 2007 flyby of Saturn's two-toned moon Iapetus. Pictures show a white hemisphere resembling snow, and the other as black as tar.
Images show a surface that is heavily cratered, along with the mountain ridge that runs along the moon's equator. Many of the close-up observations focused on studying the strange 20-kilometer high (12 mile) mountain ridge that gives the moon a walnut-shaped appearance.
This flyby was nearly 100 times closer to Iapetus than Cassini's 2004 flyby, bringing the spacecraft to about 1,640 kilometers (1,000 miles) from the surface. The moon's irregular walnut shape, the mountain ridge that lies almost directly on the equator and Iapetus' brightness contrast are among the key mysteries scientists are trying to solve.
The return of images and other data was delayed due to a galactic cosmic ray hit which put the spacecraft into a precautionary state called safe mode. This occurred after the spacecraft had placed all of the flyby data on its data recorders and during the first few minutes after it began sending the data home. The data flow resumed later that day and concluded on Wednesday. The spacecraft is operating normally and its instruments are expected to return to normal operations in a few days.
Cassini's multiple observations of Iapetus will help to characterize the chemical composition of the surface; look for evidence of a faint atmosphere or erupting gas plumes; and map the nighttime temperature of the surface. These and other results will be analyzed in the weeks to come.