Sunday, April 06, 2008

Nova: So proud of us

Sun shining through Titan's atmosphere with the rings behind

Thoughts inspired by this week's Nova.

Cassini went to Saturn by way of Venus (twice), Earth, and Jupiter. How fantastic is that?

Seven years on the way, flawlessly executing its flight plan, the probe made it to the ringed planet. It passed so close to Phoebe, Saturn's outermost moon, that in the crisply clear photos that came back from almost a billion miles we could see objects 30 meters across. Thirty meters.

The rings are only 300 yards thick. But the particles - some as small as a grain of sand, some as large as a house, are moving at 10 kilometers a second. So JPL steers Cassini through a gap in the rings. From all the way back on Earth they steer it - perfectly.

And then the pictures start to come.

If you're a regular here, you know I post them. And you can go to the Cassini-Huygens site for all. These pictures are breathtakingly beautiful, stunning, gorgeous - pick your adjective. Who could imagine such a system: rings, shepherd moons, moons that switch orbits, groups of retrograde moons, a moon that erupts icy crystals high above its surface, and serene "proper" moons of enormous size - one half as large as Earth? Who could possibly have imagined what we can see?

From Earth, JPL puts Cassini in a parking orbit and send Huygens to Titan, Saturn's largest moon - one of only four solid bodies in the solar system which have an atmosphere. Huygens is navigated by remote-control to Titan, where it goes onto automatic, the hours-long delay from Earth unsuited to control. It is to use Cassini as its relay as it drops through the thick, organics-laden atmosphere to the surface - and it sends back its own signal all the way back home, too weak for data but strong enough to say it's working. And then Cassini relays everything back - from Huygens on Titan to Cassini in orbit around Saturn to us on Earth - picture after picture of the surface of another world, cliffs of ice and rivers of methane, and the bizarre cryo-volcanoes erupting ammonia-laden super-chilled water.

"To know that we can know so much about our solar system and about our cosmos for me makes life very meaningful," says Carolyn Porco, one of the project scientists.

And to know that we can know that through our own efforts - through our minds and hands, through our hard work and dreams - it sends shivers down my spine. I'm just so proud of us, our species.

This is what we can do when we have the blinkers off. When we don't see any reason not to try.

This is what we can do. This. We can see our planet from a vantage point almost a billion miles away.

Earth from beyond Saturn

Doesn't that make you proud, too?

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At 11:28 AM, April 20, 2008 Anonymous Anonymous had this to say...

Nice post. I've always been fascinated with our research in space: how we can calculate the positions of celestial bodies and arrange for our traveling vehicles to meet them as planned, estimate the fuel required, etc. It just boggles my mind. Apollo 13 is one of my favorite movies (setting aside the schmaltz factor) because of its behind the scenes look at how some overwhelming difficulties were resolved successfully, simply by sheer hard work and human ingenuity.


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