Scientists are on the trail of Iapetus' mysterious dark side, which seems to be home to a bizarre 'runaway' process that is transporting vaporised water ice from the dark areas to the white areas of the Saturnian moon.

This 'thermal segregation' model may explain many details of the moon's strange and dramatically two-toned appearance, which have been revealed in exquisite detail in images collected during Cassini’s recent close fly-by of Iapetus.

Infrared observations from the fly-by confirm that the dark material is warm enough (approximately -146°C or 127 Kelvin) for very slow release of water vapour from water ice, and this process is probably a major factor in determining the distinct brightness boundaries.

transition region from dark to bright terrain at southern middle latitudes that have been mosaicked together in this view. An important characteristic of the terrain in the boundary region is that the isolated bright patches are mainly found on slopes facing toward the bright trailing hemisphere or toward the south pole. The same polarity is found within the bright terrain, where the dark material can be seen at the bottom of craters and on equator-facing slopes. These indicate that thermal effects are at play in painting the surface of Iapetus, 1468 kilometres across. The mosaic consists of eight image footprints across the surface of Iapetus. The view is centered on terrain near 38.6° south latitude, 171.3° west longitude. Image scale is approximately 52 metres per pixel. The clear spectral filter images in this mosaic were obtained with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on 10 September 2007, at a distance of approximately 5000 kilometres from Iapetus. Credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

"The side of Iapetus that faces forward in its orbit around Saturn is being darkened by some mysterious process," said John Spencer, Cassini scientist with the composite infrared spectrometer team from the Southwest Research Institute, USA.

Using multiple instruments on Cassini, scientists are piecing together a complex story to explain the countenance of Iapetus. But yet to be fully understood is where the black material is coming from. Is it native or from outside the moon? It has long been hypothesised that this material did not originate from within Iapetus but was derived from other moons orbiting at a much greater distance from Saturn in a direction opposite to Iapetus.

Scientists are now converging on the notion that the darkening process in fact began in this manner, and that thermal effects subsequently enhanced the contrast to what we see today.

This high-resolution view shows a vast range of crater sizes in the dark terrain of the leading hemisphere of Saturn's moon Iapetus. Across the scene, a few small bright spots indicate fresh, rayed craters where impactors have punched through the thin blanket of dark material to the cleaner ice beneath. The slight elevation on the bottom half of the image is part of the giant equatorial ridge that spans a wide fraction of Iapetus' circumference. The numerous craters on top of the ridge indicate that it is an old surface feature. The mosaic consists of three image footprints across the surface of Iapetus. The view is centered on terrain near 0.5° north and 141.6° west. Image scale is approximately 22 metres per pixel. Illumination is from the left. The clear spectral filter images in this mosaic were obtained with the Cassini spacecraft narrow-angle camera on 10 September 2007, at a distance of approximately 63 000 kilometers from Iapetus and at a sun-Iapetus-spacecraft, or phase, angle of about 125°.

Iapetus is 1468 kilometers across. Credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

"It's interesting to ponder that a more than 30 year-old idea might still help explain the brightness difference on Iapetus," said Tilmann Denk, Cassini imaging scientist at the Free University in Berlin, Germany. "Dusty material spiraling in from outer moons hits Iapetus head-on, and causes the forward-facing side of Iapetus to look slightly different than the rest of the moon," said Denk.

Once the leading side is even slightly dark, thermal segregation proceeds rapidly. A dark surface will absorb more sunlight and warm up, explains Spencer, so the water ice on the surface evaporates. The water vapour then condenses on the nearest cold spot, which could be Iapetus’s poles, and possibly bright icy areas at lower latitudes on the side of the moon facing in the opposite direction of its orbit. So the dark stuff loses its surface ice and gets darker, and the bright stuff accumulates ice and gets brighter, in a runaway process.

Scientists say the result is that there are virtually no shades of grey on Iapetus. There is only very black, and white. Ultraviolet data show there is also a non-ice component in the bright, white regions of Iapetus. Spectroscopic analysis will reveal whether the composition of the material on the dark hemisphere is the same as the dark material that is present within the bright terrain.

"The ultraviolet data tells us a lot about where the water ice is and where the non-water ice stuff is. At first glance, the two populations do not appear to be present in the pattern we expected, which is very interesting," said Amanda Hendrix, Cassini scientist on the ultraviolet imaging spectrograph team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, USA.

Cassini captures the first high-resolution glimpse of the bright trailing hemisphere of Saturn's moon Iapetus. This false-color mosaic shows the entire hemisphere of Iapetus (1,468 kilometers) visible from Cassini on the outbound leg of its encounter with the two-toned moon in September 2007. The central longitude of the trailing hemisphere is 24 degrees to the left of the mosaic's center. Also shown here is the complicated transition region between the dark leading and bright trailing hemispheres. This region, visible along the right side of the image, was observed in many of the images acquired by Cassini near closest approach during the encounter. Revealed here for the first time in detail are the geological structures that mark the trailing hemisphere. The region appears heavily cratered, particularly in the north and south polar regions. Near the top of the mosaic, numerous impact features visible in NASA Voyager 2 spacecraft images (acquired in 1981) are visible, including the craters Ogier and Charlemagne. Credits: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

Because of the presence of very small craters which excavate the bright ice beneath, scientists also believe that the dark material is thin, a result consistent with previous Cassini radar results. But some local areas may be thicker. The dark material seems to lie on top of the bright region, consistent with the idea that it is a residual left behind by the sublimated water ice.

Solutions to other mysteries are coming together. There is more data on Iapetus' signature mountain ridge that gives the moon its 'walnut-like' appearance. In some places it appears subdued. One big question that remains is why it does not go all the way around. Was it partially destroyed after it formed, or did it never extend all the way around the moon? Scientists have ruled out that it is a youthful feature because it is pitted with craters, indicating it is old. And the ridge looks too solid and competent to be the result of an equatorial ring around the moon collapsing onto its surface. The ring theory cannot explain what look like tectonic structures in the new high resolution images.

Over the next few months scientists hope to learn more about Iapetus' mysteries by further analysing available data.