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Rhea: Overview
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Rhea
The trailing hemisphere of Saturn's moon Rhea seen here in natural color, displays bright, wispy terrain that is similar in appearance to that of Dione, another one of Saturn's moon.

Rhea [pronounced REE-uh; adjective: Rhean] is the second largest moon of Saturn, but with a diameter of 1,528 km (949 miles) it is less than a third the size of Saturn's largest moon, Titan. Rhea is a small, cold, airless body that is very similar to sister moons Dione and Tethys. As with the other two moons, Rhea is tidally locked in phase with its parent -- one side always faces toward Saturn. Rhea's surface temperatures are also similar to Dione and Tethys, being roughly as warm as -281degrees Fahrenheit (-174 degrees Celsius) in sunlit areas and ranging down to -364 degrees Fahrenheit (-220 degrees Celsius) in shaded areas. Also like Dione and Tethys, Rhea has a high reflectivity (or geometric albedo) suggesting a composition largely of water ice, which behaves like rock in Rhea's temperature range.

Rhea's density of 1.233 times that of liquid water suggests that Rhea is three quarters ice and one quarter rock. Cassini spacecraft measurements from a close encounter showed a moment of inertia about its axis (a measure of how difficult it is to change its angular motion) of a higher value than what would be expected if Rhea has a rocky core. Thus, it is thought that Rhea is composed of a homogenous mixture of ice and rock -- a frozen dirty snowball.

Rhea, at a distance of 527,040 km (327,490 miles), is farther away from Saturn than Dione and Tethys, and because of this Rhea does not receive ample tidal attraction from Saturn to cause internal heating. This has an important effect. Both Dione and Tethys have more areas of smooth plains than Rhea. Such plains are probably areas where liquid water reached the surface and ponded in depressions such as craters, forming flat surfaces before refreezing and thus erasing existing craters. The lesser internal warmth at Rhea could have resulted in fewer erasures, or there could have been more bombardment on Rhea. Whatever the reason, Rhea is more heavily cratered than Dione and Tethys.

Rhea appeared as a tiny dot to astronomers until the Voyager (1 and 2) encounters in 1980 and 1981. The Voyager images showed that Rhea's features could be divided into two regions: the first being heavily cratered (bright) terrain with craters larger than 40 km (25 miles) across and a second type of area in parts of the polar and equatorial region with craters less than 40 km across. This difference may indicate there was a major resurfacing event some time in Rhea's history. However, it would have been long ago because there are few young craters with rays extending away from them (as on Earth's Moon), and the average age of the plains is thought to be around four billion years old.

This image of Rhea was acquired by the Voyager 2 spacecraft on August 25, 1981.
This image of Rhea was acquired by the Voyager 2 spacecraft on 25 Aug. 1981.

The Voyager images also showed mysterious linear "wispy" lines with lengths of tens to hundreds of kilometers, often cutting through plains and craters. In 2006, Cassini spacecraft images showed that the wispy areas are subsidence fractures that make canyons (some of them several hundred meters high). The walls of those canyons are bright because darker material falls off them, exposing fresh bright water ice. These fracture cliffs show Rhea may have been tectonically active in its past. This type of surface feature also occurs on Dione and Tethys.

Discovery:
Giovanni Cassini discovered Rhea on 23 December 1672.

How Rhea Got its Name:
The name Rhea comes from the Greek goddess (or Titan) Rhea, who was the daughter of Uranus and Gaea. Her husband was Kronus (the Roman Saturn). Rhea was also called the mother of the gods because she gave birth to several of the gods of Mount Olympus, including Zeus (the Roman Jupiter).

Cassini referred to Rhea as one of the four Sidera Lodoicea (Stars of Louis) after King Louis XIV (the other three were Tethys, Dione and Iapetus). Astronomers also refer to Rhea as Saturn V denoting the fifth moon in distance from Saturn. Geological features on Rhea generally get their names from people and places from creation myths. The International Astronomical Union now controls the naming of astronomical bodies.

Just the Facts
Orbit Size (semi-major axis):  327,505 miles
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Last Updated: 12 Aug 2013