Emily LakdawallaMay 18, 2010

Dione and Telesto, close on camera but far apart in fact

This image, released today by Cassini's imaging team, is pretty cool; it shows one of Saturn's larger moons together with one of its smaller ones. I probably noticed the nice photo of Dione when it appeared on the Cassini raw images page two months ago, but I know I didn't notice the little speck below and to the left of the bigger moon. That speck is a small moon, Telesto.

Dione and Telesto
Dione and Telesto Dione, Saturn's third largest moon at 1,123 kilometers in diameter, shares the frame with Telesto, a tiny "rock," about 35 kilometers across, that orbits Saturn in the leading Lagrangian point of Tethys' orbit.Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SSI

As it turns out, the contrast in size between the two moons is not as great as this photo makes it appear. For two moons to appear in one Cassini photo, they both have to lie along the same line of sight. But that doesn't mean they need to be physically close in space. Dione orbits Saturn at a distance of not quite 400,000 kilometers from the center of the planet. Telesto is on a different orbit; it shares the orbit of Tethys which is just shy of 300,000 kilometers from Saturn's center. So the two moons can never approach each other to a distance closer than 100,000 kilometers.

But they're actually much farther apart than that. I used the PDS Rings Node Saturn viewer tool to figure out that for Cassini to see Dione and Telesto in the same frame, the photo had to be taken at about 5:40 on March 4, 2010. Then I plugged that time into JPL's Solar System Simulator to see the relative positions of Cassini and Saturn's moons at the time. Cassini was about half a million kilometers away from Dione, and both were on the same side of Saturn. Tethys, on the other hand, was on the far side of Saturn, and Telesto, which travels 60 degrees of longitude ahead of Tethys in its orbit, was also on the far side of Saturn. So Telesto was more than a million kilometers from Cassini when this photo was snapped. As a result, Telesto looks less than half the size it would appear if it were actually lying at the same distance from Cassini that Dione is in this picture.

Here's what Telesto looks like up close.

Telesto, 27 August 2009
Telesto, 27 August 2009 Cassini captured this view of the leading hemisphere of Telesto on 27 August 2009. Telesto is a small moon, 34 x 28 x 36 kilometers in diameter, that occupies a Lagrange point behind Tethys in its orbit around Saturn. This is an approximately natural color view composed of raw images.Image: NASA / JPL-Caltech / SSI / color composite by Gordan Ugarkovic

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