In the 17th century, Giovanni Cassini observed that he could see Iapetus only on the west side of Saturn and never on the east. He correctly deduced that Iapetus is locked in synchronous rotation about Saturn and that one side of Iapetus is darker than the other, conclusions later confirmed by larger telescopes.
The difference in colouring between the two Iapetian hemispheres is striking. The leading hemisphere and sides are dark (albedo 0.03–0.05) with a slight reddish-brown coloring, while most of the trailing hemisphere and poles are bright (albedo 0.5–0.6, almost as bright as Europa). Thus, the apparent magnitude of the trailing hemisphere is around 10.2, whereas that of the leading hemisphere is around 11.9 – beyond the capacity of the best telescopes in the 17th century. The pattern of coloration is analogous to a spherical yin-yang symbol or the two sections of a tennis ball. The dark region is named Cassini Regio, and the bright region is divided into Roncevaux Terra north of the equator, and Saragossa Terra south of it. The original dark material is believed to have come from outside Iapetus, but now it consists principally of lag from the sublimation of ice from the warmer areas of Iapetus's surface. It contains organic compounds similar to the substances found in primitive meteorites or on the surfaces of comets; Earth-based observations have shown it to be carbonaceous, and it probably includes cyano-compounds such as frozen hydrogen cyanide polymers.
On September 10, 2007 the Cassini orbiter passed within 1,640 kilometres (1,020 mi) of Iapetus and demonstrated that both hemispheres are heavily cratered. The color dichotomy of scattered patches of light and dark material in the transition zone between Cassini Regio and the bright areas exists at very small scales, down to the imaging resolution of 30 meters. There is dark material filling in low-lying regions, and light material on the weakly illuminated pole-facing slopes of craters, but no shades of grey. The dark material is a very thin layer, only a few tens of centimeters (approx. one foot) thick at least in some areas, according to Cassini radar imaging and the fact that very small meteor impacts have punched through to the ice underneath.
NASA scientists now believe that the dark material is lag (residue) from the sublimation (evaporation) of water ice on the surface of Iapetus, possibly darkened further upon exposure to sunlight. Because of its slow rotation of 79 days (equal to its revolution and the longest in the Saturnian system), Iapetus would have had the warmest daytime surface temperature and coldest nighttime temperature in the Saturnian system even before the development of the color contrast; near the equator, heat absorption by the dark material results in a daytime temperatures of 129 K in the dark Cassini Regio compared to 113 K in the bright regions. The difference in temperature means that ice preferentially sublimates from Cassini, and deposits in the bright areas and especially at the even colder poles. Over geologic time scales, this would further darken Cassini Regio and brighten the rest of Iapetus, creating a positive feedback thermal runaway process of ever greater contrast in albedo, ending with all exposed ice being lost from Cassini. It is estimated that over a period of one billion years at current temperatures, dark areas of Iapetus would lose about 20 meters of ice to sublimation, while the bright regions would lose only 10 centimeters, not considering the ice transferred from the dark regions. This model explains the distribution of light and dark areas, the absence of shades of grey, and the thinness of the dark material covering Cassini. The redistribution of ice is facilitated by Iapetus's weak gravity, which means that at ambient temperatures a water molecule can migrate from one hemisphere to the other in just a few hops.
However, a separate process of color segregation would be required to get the thermal feedback started. The initial dark material is thought to have been debris blasted by meteors off small outer moons in retrograde orbits and swept up by the leading hemisphere of Iapetus. The core of this model is some 30 years old, and was revived by the September 2007 flyby.
Light debris outside of Iapetus's orbit, either knocked free from the surface of a moon by micrometeoroid impacts or created in a collision, would spiral in as its orbit decays. It would have been darkened by exposure to sunlight. A portion of any such material that crossed Iapetus's orbit would have been swept up by its leading hemisphere, coating it; once this process created a modest contrast in albedo, and so a contrast in temperature, the thermal feedback described above would have come into play and exaggerated the contrast. In support of the hypothesis, simple numerical models of the exogenic deposition and thermal water redistribution processes can closely predict the two-toned appearance of Iapetus. A subtle color dichotomy between Iapetus's leading and trailing hemispheres, with the former being more reddish, can in fact be observed in comparisons between both bright and dark areas of the two hemispheres. In contrast to the elliptical shape of Cassini Regio, the color contrast closely follows the hemisphere boundaries; the gradation between the differently colored regions is gradual, on a scale of hundreds of km. The next moon inward from Iapetus, chaotically rotating Hyperion, also has an unusual reddish color.
The largest reservoir of such infalling material is Phoebe, the largest of the outer moons. Although Phoebe's composition is closer to that of the bright hemisphere of Iapetus than the dark one, dust from Phoebe would only be needed to establish a contrast in albedo, and presumably would have been largely obscured by later sublimation. The discovery of a tenuous disk of material in the plane of and just inside Phoebe's orbit was announced on 6 October 2009, supporting the model. The disk extends from 128 to 207 times the radius of Saturn, while Phoebe orbits at an average distance of 215 Saturn radii. It was detected with the Spitzer Space Telescope,
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