Iapetus īăp´ĭtəs [key], in astronomy, one of the named moons, or natural satellites, of Saturn. Also known as Saturn VIII (or S8), Iapetus is 907 mi (1460 km) in diameter, orbits Saturn at a mean distance of 2,212,885 mi (3,561,300 km), and has equal orbital and rotational periods of 79.33 earth days. Saturn's third largest moon, it was discovered in 1671 by the Italian-French astronomer Gian Domenico Cassini. With a density of only 1.1, Iapetus is believed to consist almost completely of water ice. A notable surface feature is a ridge that encircles it along its equator and rises as high as 12 mi (20 km). The reflectivity and surface features of Iapetus's leading and trailing hemispheres are noticeably different. The leading hemisphere is remarkably dark, while the trailing hemisphere is light—the asymmetry is so marked that Cassini wrote that he could see Iapetus on one side of Saturn but not on the other. The difference in reflectivity is due in part to the accumulation of dust on the leading hemisphere; this dust is believed to come from the enormous but faint ring of Saturn discovered in 2009. Much of the difference in reflectivity, however, is believed to be due to residue left behind by the sublimation of ice. The trailing hemisphere is also heavily cratered, while the leading hemisphere is not. Unlike all the other moons but Phoebe, Iapetus's orbit is inclined to the plane of Saturn's equator.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
See more Encyclopedia articles on: Astronomy: General