Oxygen Atmosphere Detected on Saturn's Moon Dione
Cassini detects hint of fresh air at Dione
At the Dione surface, this atmosphere would only be as dense as Earth’s atmosphere 300 miles (480 kilometers) above the surface. The detection of this faint atmosphere, known as an exosphere, is described in a recent issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
“We now know that Dione, in addition to Saturn’s rings and the moon Rhea, is a source of oxygen molecules,” said Robert Tokar, a Cassini team member based at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, N.M., and the lead author of the paper. “This shows that molecular oxygen is actually common in the Saturn system and reinforces that it can come from a process that doesn’t involve life.”
Dione’s oxygen appears to derive from either solar photons or energetic particles from space bombarding the moon’s water ice surface and liberating oxygen molecules, Tokar said. But scientists will be looking for other processes, including geological ones, that could also explain the oxygen.
“Scientists weren’t even sure Dione would be big enough to hang on to an exosphere, but this new research shows that Dione is even more interesting than we previously thought,” said Amanda Hendrix, Cassini deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif., who was not directly involved in the study. “Scientists are now digging through Cassini data on Dione to look at this moon in more detail.”
Tokar said scientists suspected molecular oxygen would exist at Dione because NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope detected ozone. But they didn’t know for sure until Cassini was able to measure ionized molecular oxygen on its second flyby of Dione on April 7, 2010, with the Cassini plasma spectrometer. On that flyby, the spacecraft flew within about 313 miles (503 kilometers) of the moon’s surface.
Cassini scientists are also analyzing data from Cassini’s ion and neutral mass spectrometer from a very close flyby on Dec. 12, 2011. The ion and neutral mass spectrometer made the detection of Rhea’s thin atmosphere, so scientists will be able to compare Cassini data from the two moons and see if there are other molecules in Dione’s exosphere.