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Views of Iapetus from Cassini.

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Voyager spacecraft.
NASA's Voyager spacecraft.

NASA released Cassini's photos of Iapetus this week, taken when the spacecraft was within 1.1 million km (684,000 miles) of Saturn's moon. The 1,436 km (892 mile) Moon is famous for its two faces: one hemisphere and the poles are snowy white, while the other side is very dark. You can see many impact craters in the bright areas, and in the transition between the two hemispheres. The string of dots are mountains that may rival some of the tallest mountains on Earth, Io, and maybe even Mars.

These spectacular Cassini images of Saturn’s Moon Iapetus show an enticing world of contrasts.

These are the sharpest views of Iapetus from Cassini so far, and they represent better resolution than the best images of this Moon achieved by NASA's Voyager spacecraft. Images obtained using ultraviolet (centered at 338 nanometers), green (568 nanometers) and Infrared (930 nanometers) filters were combined to produce the enhanced color views at left and center; the image at the right was obtained in visible white light. The images on the bottom row are identical to those on top, with the addition of an overlying coordinate grid.

These views show parts of the moon’s anti-Saturn side – the side that faces away from the ringed planet - which will not be imaged again by Cassini until Sept., 2007. In the central view, part of the moon’s eastern edge was not imaged and appears to be cut off.

With a diameter of 1,436 kilometers (892 miles), Iapetus is Saturn's third largest moon. It is famous for the dramatic contrasts in brightness on its surface – the leading hemisphere is as dark as a freshly-tarred street, and the trailing hemisphere and poles almost as bright as snow.

Many impact craters can be seen in the bright terrain and in the transition zone between bright and dark, and for the first time in parts of the dark terrain. Also visible is a line of mountains that appear as a string of bright dots in the two color images at left, and on the eastern limb in the image at right. These mountains were originally detected in Voyager images, and might compete in height with the tallest mountains on Earth, Jupiter's Moon Io and possibly even Mars. Further observations will be required to precisely determine their heights. Interestingly, the line of peaks is aligned remarkably close to the equator of Iapetus.

The large circular feature rotating into view in the southern hemisphere is probably an impact structure with a diameter of more than 400 kilometers (250 miles), and was first seen in low-resolution Cassini images just two months earlier.

These images were taken with the Cassini spacecraft narrow angle camera between Oct, 15 and 20, 2004, at distances of 1.2, 1.1 and 1.3 million kilometers (746,000, 684,000 and 808,000 miles) from Iapetus, respectively. The Sun-Iapetus-spacecraft, or phase, angle changes from 88 to 144 degrees across the three images. The image scale is approximately 7 kilometers (4.5 miles) per pixel.

The Cassini-Huygens mission is a cooperative project of NASA, the European Space Agency and the Italian Space Agency. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages the Cassini-Huygens mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Washington, D.C. The Cassini orbiter and its two onboard cameras were designed, developed and assembled at JPL. The imaging team is based at the Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colo.

For more information about the Cassini-Huygens mission, visit http://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov and the Cassini imaging team home page, http://ciclops.org.

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