Hubble captures new images of Saturn and Mars

Oppositions provide unique opportunities to obtain detailed images of both planets.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Nov 22, 2018
To commemorate the oppositions of both Mars and Saturn to the Earth this summer, the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) has taken new, high-resolution photographs of both planets.

Celestial objects are in opposition to the Earth when they are on the other side of the Sun as the Earth is. As viewed from Earth, they rise at sunset, stay visible all night, during which time they are fully lit by the Sun, and set at sunrise. Planetary oppositions offer astronomers the opportunity to view planets in greater detail than usual and are therefore ideal times for studying these objects.

This year, the oppositions of Saturn and Mars occur just one month apart, with Saturn's opposition having occurred on June 27 and Mars's occurring on July 27.

While space probes can photograph planets up close, Hubble has the advantage of being able to observe them over much longer periods of time.

On June 6, Hubble imaged Saturn from a distance of 1.4 billion miles, capturing its ring system at almost maximum tilt toward Earth. This perspective reveals the stunning rings, which extend as far as eight times Saturn's radius, and also shows the gaps between the many rings.

Along with the ring system, the space telescope also photographed six of the ringed planet's 62 known moons--Dione, Enceladus, Tethys, Janus, Epimetheus, and Mimas. Enceladus, which is has a global subsurface ocean, is considered one of the most likely solar system worlds beyond Earth to potentially harbor microbial life.

Some researchers believe Saturn's ring system was created about 200 million years ago by the destruction of a small orbiting moon.

Visible near the planet's north pole is a hexagonal storm that has been observed for more than three decades since its 1981 discovery by NASA's Voyager 1 probe. A line of bright clouds that can be seen to the south of the hexagonal storm constitutes the remnant of another storm that is breaking apart.

All images of the Saturn system were taken the Outer Planet Atmospheres Legacy (OPAL) project, which focuses on the atmospheres of the solar system's gas giant planets.

Hubble's commemorative photographs of Mars was taken on July 18 while the planet was enveloped in a global dust storm that still continues. Because of the dust storm, surface features on the Red Planet are less detailed in these images than in previous ones.

In spite of the dust, Mars's white polar caps, and several features, including the Schiaparelli Crater, the Hellas Basin, and Terra Meridiani are all visible in the photographs though all are slightly blurred.

Mars will make its closest approach to Earth since 2003 on July 31, when it will come within 57.6 million kilometers of our planet.

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