Sometimes, in the middle of an age of wonders, we fail to notice them as they happen around us. True, we don’t yet have flying cars, but we all have smart phones in our pockets that are very nearly magical in themselves.1 But WC wants to focus on this age of exploratory satellites, and the visions they are giving us of places unimaginably far away.
We’ll start with Rosetta, which is orbiting Comet 67/P. We’ve been able to watch a comet in action, as the comet circled through perihelion – the point nearest the sun – we got to watch the comet’s tail happen. Comet 67/P turned out to look completely different than out expectations. Far from the assumed icy ball, it’s a a vaguely duck-shapped, sharply rocky mass.
The surface is astonishing, and opens dozens of new questions.
Science had assumed that a comet’s head, passing close to the sun and the dense solar wind at very high speed, would be polished smooth. Instead, we see this. How and why remain to be answered. Very nearly real time photos from a comet as it circles the sun. Amazing.
While all that was going on, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft was exploring the moons of Saturn, most recently Dione.
That line behind the upper third of Dione is the rings of Saturn. Imagine the view of Saturn and its rings from the surface of Dione. Amazing.
And then there is New Horizons, NASA’s nine year long, 3 billion mile satellite expedition to Pluto and its moon, Charon. New Horizons is so far away from the Sun that it barely gets any solar power. It is very slowly spooling extraordinary photos back to Earth. Including photos of Pluto’s moon, Charon.
Again, what created the long scarp extending half the width of Charon? Why is Charon asymmetrical?
Or what about Pluto’s 11,000 foot tall ice mountains and nitrogen glaciers?
The sheer variety across our solar system beggars description. And as huge and as varied as our solar system is, it is just one of billions of planetary systems in millions of galaxies. We cannot begin to imagine what else remains to be seen and studied.
In this single calendar year we have seen closeup photos of a comet, photos of all of Saturn’s major moons, and viewed pictures of our furthest dwarf planet and its moon. And confirmed the presence of liquid water on Mars.
If that doesn’t appeal to your sense of wonder, if that doesn’t give you a sense of perspective as we deal with the workaday problems on our tiny little planet, well, you may be reading the wrong blog.
- It doesn’t stop being magical even when you know how it is done. – Terry Pratchett ↩