Archive for January, 2007
A few decades ago, about 12 men walked upon the surface of another celestial body for the first time in history. At one point, Neil Armstrong looked up at Earth and blotted it out with his thumb and thought the significance of that simple act. “That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam”. While these were not Armstrong’s words, but instead Carl Sagan’s, it is clear that it is along these similar lines he was thinking.
It is easy to forget how incredible those moments were as they happened so long ago, and the first of these was some months before I even existed as a person. We have grown accustomed to these images of men walking on the moon, in no small part because a follow up is so long overdue that they seem antiquated or quaint. So it seemed to me that out of 50 wallpapers uploaded it might be appropriate to include man’s first exploration of any of these places as part of the collection.
As of this time, Triton (a moon of Neptune) has the coldest temperature ever recorded in human history on any terrestrial surface… -235 C, -391 F. At these temperatures, nobody would have expected anything other than a huge frozen solid ice ball. Instead, Triton is littered with what we now call cryo-volcanos… or cold volcanos. They erupt or eject materials other than molten rock, such as water, ammonia or methane. As we are seeing in places like Titan (who is also suspected of having cryo-volcanos) many characteristics of Earth geology and weather are simulated elsewhere in the Solar System with different materials. On Earth it rains water, but on Titan it rains methane, and likewise on Triton it erupts probably liquid nitrogen instead of magma as it does here on Earth.
Only two active cryo-volcanos have been confirmed on Triton, but it is generally assumed that each one of those black smudges visible in this image are the remnants of recently active cryo-volcanos. There are quite a few…
Speaking of stars or wars… here is the next tactic in The Planetary Society’s “Save our Science” campaign, click here for the article. it’s a nice try, but I’m pretty sure he can’t read.
With all the news recently of renewed manned moon missions and the “intention” to send astronauts eventually from there on to Mars, I was thinking of the time frames on these goals. In just proposing going back to the moon, NASA has suggested this goal might take 10 years. Interesting considering that in the 1960’s we announced that goal (absent nearly all the technology to actually do it) and we actually set foot on the moon in 9 years. How it is our technology is nearly 50 years more advanced and yet it will still somehow take us one additional year more to do something we had already done 6 times previous in the 1960’s is beyond me.
Looking past the Moon to Mars I’m guessing will take, optimistically, at least another 5 years beyond that. More realistically… allowing for accidents, budget delays, etc… a manned Mars mission may not take place for 20 years from now. I am 37 right now, which makes me 57 when someone first takes a step onto Martian soil. If at that point, around 2025, we drop off from planetary exploration like we did as a reaction to the Apollo program, well… essentially… I will likely have seen as far into the cosmos as man will have traveled in my lifetime. Unless the atmosphere for this kind of exploration changes considerably in the next 20 years (which could happen) it is hard to imagine that before I shuffle off this mortal coil, that NASA (or anybody) would be willing to tackle a manned mission to places as exotic as Jupiter or Saturn inside of an additional 20 years.
All of these goals listed above would also cost a considerable amount of cash. The budget for a Moon base for instance would likely eat up all resources alloted to NASA and then moving on to Mars anytime thereafter would surely dwarf the kinds of numbers we saw for Apollo – even considering for inflation. I know some books have been written by very reliable people that suggest a manned mission to Mars could be done for 1/10 the cost that NASA tosses about regularly, but everyone knows that government agencies could not (safely) cut corners on these missions. Many would also be unwilling to politically risk the personal responsibility of some colossal failure on such a high profile event in human history. A manned mission to Mars will not be done on the cheap… trust me… there will be no New Horizons economical version on a manned mission to any place other than Starbucks Coffee.
So, considering the available band-width available to the human exploration of space… how do we get to become a space faring species like we see in popular science fiction? How might humanity ever muster up enough resources and dedication to potentially populate the Moon, populate Mars, build cities in Earth orbit, explore the moons of Jupiter and send teams of inquisitive scientists to study the lakes of Titan? The only way I could see any of that happening in such a way that it becomes a part of the everyday human experience, would be for human kind to figure out a way to do away with war.
To even approach some of the more reasonable science fiction visions of humanity’s future would cost not only a whole lot, but would actually require a lion’s share of the full available budget as national defense currently does. It is not hard to imagine that a real human reach beyond terra-fir-ma would actually be more expensive than current or even reagan-era military spending was. So much of human effort, technology and riches are either spent using or developing the machines of war in order to insure each nation’s own national security or ambitions. If you examine much else of what we human’s spend our time and resources on, you will discover that pretty much the only one of those which could theoretically be nullified is the cost of war. No matter the progress of technology, we human’s will still need to pay for social programs, health care, infrastructure… the list goes on. The only major cost of any nation – that is not directly related to some kind of progress or maintenance which is the natural result of actually having a nation or civilization to uphold – is the cost of making or protecting one’s self from an act of war.
So until we figure out how to avoid these conflicts, as well as come up with a system which can guarantee all nations protection from any rogue powers bent on invasion, we will have to keep our larger dreams of a space-faring society to tiny, little, very long and time-consuming steps. The human race has to figure out some way to stop spending a majority of its energy making war and and divert that energy into the greater goals of all sciences. Only then can the fantastic vision of the future that we have had for generations be within the reach of a single lifetime.
The above image was returned to the team assigned the task of selecting a landing spot for this summer’s launch of the Phoenix lander. This has been considered for years and once the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter was placed in orbit around Mars, one of it’s highest priority tasks was the image this proposed area. As you can see, what was previously thought to be a fairly flat safe place to put down a lander has turned out instead to be littered with boulders that compare in size to the lander itself. Many missions to Mars in human history have ended in failure, especially when including the many Russian probes which were lost to various problems. Attempting to touch down in this area could certainly have spelled doom for the Phoenix lander and we would never have known without the high resolution eyes of the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Maybe NASA would have gotten lucky again, but this looks to many as a disaster avoided.
Saturn’s moon Dione seen at almost full disk. Recently the “wispy” markings have been revealed to be giant ice cliffs as seen by the Cassini spacecraft after coming close to 500km from the surface. The cliffs reach as high as several hundred meters high and are thought to be the result of ancient tectonic fractures.
One of the expectations of ramming a space probe into a comet was to be able to see the resulting crater. The Deep Impact collider was released and the Deep Impact probe continued on from a distance to record the impact. What it saw was a blast much larger than expected and was so large that direct visual observance of the resulting crater became impossible. However, the same thing which kept us from seeing some of these results is the same plume of ejected material that has told us that more about this comet’s composition and how the surface materials are held together quite weakly.
In my surfing for the best possible images from interplanetary probes, I stumbled upon this site from kinetikon pictures which had been set up to support a book which I was not even aware had existed. Today, so much of my work and interests are so completely ruled by the internet that I suppose I miss what might be great moments in the world of print. The book runs predictably from the inner solar system to the outer, but much like what I am trying to do here… it’s central objective is to simply show beautiful imagery. These images range from old 1960’s Lunar Orbiter missions to the Moon to the 1990’s mission to Jupiter and Galileo (notably missing from the book are images from today’s Cassini mission at Saturn). As it is with the freelance image processors linked on the main page in the right column (or from the previous post), this book is also reworking old and new data with today’s superior technology and filling in some gaps. Going back to old files and reprocessing them provides a nice pay-off for everyone concerned with space exploration and this book prooves it. Some of the images are just made better and are familiar views, others have just been over-looked, and others are whole new image composites not previously entertained with lesser technologies. This means that some of these new composite images have been stitched together from different orbits and some images even contain composites which include data from different missions in one take. The latter approach to making composite images really would have been impossible before today’s available computing technologies. if you are somewhat familiar with images from the last 40 years of robotic space exploration, this book is an exciting fresh look at these historic missions anew. If you think you have seen it all… look again.