NASA’s Cassini spacecraft has “sniffed” molecular oxygen ions around Saturn’s icy moon Dione for the first time, confirming the presence of a very tenuous atmosphere. The oxygen ions are quite sparse – one for every 0.67 cubic inches of space (one for every 11 cubic centimeters of space) or about 2,550 per cubic foot (90,000 per cubic meter) – show that Dione has an extremely thin neutral atmosphere.
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. … (Cassini)