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The Bruce Murray Space Image Library

Warm spots on Iapetus

Filed under pretty pictures, Cassini, Iapetus, explaining science, Saturn's moons, ice worlds

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Warm spots on Iapetus Here, a CIRS measurement cuts across light, dark, and transitional terrains on Iapetus. The temperatures in the dark areas are, at 128 Kelvin (minus 229 degrees Fahrenheit), considerably warmer than the temperatures in the bright areas (113 Kelvin or minus 256 degrees Fahrenheit).


Cassini's Composite Infrared Spectrometer (CIRS) maps the thermal radiation emitted by cold surfaces in the Saturn system. By examining the shape of the emitted spectrum at relatively long wavelengths of 9 to 16 microns (roughly 20 times longer-wavelength than the human eye can see), the CIRS team can determine the temperature on the surface.

Both light and dark material are very cold, but ice is much more likely to sublimate at temperatures of 128 Kelvin than 113 Kelvin. In fact, over a period of a billion years, about 20 meters of ice is expected to sublimate at those temperatures. The cooler bright regions would only lose about 0.1 meters of ice in the same period. Ice sublimating from warmer, dark areas would re-condense to the surface all over the moon, but would be trapped" on the cooler brighter regions a process called thermal segregation. This process is most likely responsible for the presently extreme segregation of bright and dark areas on Iapetus but it doesn't explain how the dark part of Iapetus was darkened in the first place.

Original image data dated on or about September 10, 2007.

Most NASA images are in the public domain. Reuse of this image is governed by NASA's image use policy.


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