Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

The book of worlds is being rewritten

The latest photo from the dwarf planet Pluto shows something no one could have imagined: Pluto is red.

There has been plenty of talk about “the whale” and “the heart,” and no doubt we’ll find other patterns on Pluto as the days until the close encounter dwindle and the New Horizons probe starts to send back its data and pictures, but this is a magic time. We’re seeing Pluto like we’ve never seen it before.

No more speculation or artists conceptions, showing hills, craters and mountains, and endless guessing on what the surface looks like. After a voyage that has taken more than nine years and 85 years since the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh, the world of mysteries and its moons will be revealed to us.

I have heard it said that Pluto is the favorite “planet” of many people. Maybe that’s because it was little more than a dot of light, indistinct from a distant star, in so many photos. You’d see those photos, usually taken a few days apart, with markers showing you that something had moved. That was Pluto.

And that was all we knew.

As a child growing up, we learned the planets and I can recall in elementary school at Our Lady of Hope the fun we had when the teacher went to the “A/V room” and brought out the filmstrip projector. Instead of a boring lecture, we would get a filmstrip. In religion class, we’d see “The Good News of Christ” or “The Story of Jacob and Esau.” My favorite was in science class, when we saw “The Planets.”

Incidentally, one incident I recall from one of the religious filmstrips was that there was always the kid who got to run the projected, and during the soundtrack, every so often you’d hear an audio indicator to tell you to advance to the next frame. One afternoon, I guess the projector guy fell asleep because we saw the same frame for 10 minutes.

At the time of the planets filmstrip, the best photos of the planets were those taken from Earthbound telescopes. There might have been pictures from the Mariner probes, but the really detailed surface photos from the Viking landers didn’t come until 1976. Jupiter and Saturn looked nice and big, but Uranus and Neptune were small circles. And Pluto was, of course, a dot.

The final frame had the roundup of the numbers: 9 planets, 31 moons and thousands of “asteroids.” (today, they’re called minor planets, and we’ve seen closeup photos of two: Ceres and Vesta.).

Also lots of comets. Again, we’re gotten close a couple of times since then and have a lander that might or might not be active on one comet while its mothership orbits the comet.

Pluto stayed a mystery, though occasionally we learned something new. In 1978, a photo showed that Pluto had a bulge that turned out to be a moon, Charon. Since then, we’ve found four other moons and learned that Pluto and Charon are some kind of weird double-planet in orbit around a center that’s far above the surface of Pluto. In the movies we’ve seen from New Horizons, they dance around each other. The other moons seem to be tumbling in chaos.

In a way, July 15 is going to be like Christmas Day when, after weeks of anticipation you finally see what’s beneath the wrapping that’s hidden those boxes for so long.

Whole books about Pluto will become obsolete, and new books will be written. We’ll never think of Pluto the same way again.

In his series “Cosmos,” Carl Sagan told of the “Travellers’ Tales” of voyages that took place before the world was fully mapped, and how they were like the ones that in his time went to Jupiter and Saturn.

“We are outward bound on our mission to explore the outer solar system.
Ten thousand years from now Voyager will plunge onward to the stars.
We have made the ships that sail the sea of space.
We travel past Jupiter three quarters of a billion kilometers from the sun Saturn, one and a half billion, Uranus, three billion and Neptune, four and a half billion kilometers away.
In our ship of the mind we retrace the itinerary of the two Voyager spacecraft on their journeys to Saturn and beyond.
Saturn was first glimpsed through the telescope by Galileo.
Its rings first understood by Huygens.
But only now do we begin to penetrate its deeper mysteries.
Saturn is the second largest planet in the solar system.
Like Jupiter, it is cloud-covered, and rotates once every 10 hours.
It has a weaker magnetic field, a weaker radiation belt and a grand, magnificent exquisite system of rings.
The rings are composed of billions of tiny moons each circling Saturn in its own orbit.
The biggest gap in the rings is called the Cassini Division after the colleague of Huygens who first discovered it.
There are many other gaps each produced by the periodic gravitational tugs of one of the larger outer moons.
From just beneath the ring plane we see a sky full of moons.
Within the rings, the individual moons become visible.
They are orbiting chunks of snow and ice each perhaps a meter across.
In young parts of the ring system, there hasn’t been enough time for collisions to round the edges of these fragments the snowballs of Saturn.
Far from the rings, bathed in its red light we encounter Saturn’s immense cloud-covered moon Titan.
It has an atmosphere denser than that of Mars and a thick layer of red clouds which are probably composed of complex organic molecules produced by solar ultraviolet light and other energy sources from the methane-rich air.
No ship from Earth has ever penetrated those clouds and viewed, close-up, the surface of this tantalizing world.
It seems likely that the ground is covered, encrusted with organic molecules raining from the sky.
There may be volcanoes and valleys of ice and, just perhaps hiding in the warm places, some very different kind of life.
Near an ice cliff of Titan through a rare break in the clouds of organic molecules we can see, looming and lovely, the ringed planet, Saturn.
It is a view that will still be appreciated centuries from now by our descendants, who will know it well.
As well as we have come to know Hudson’s Bay and the Barents Sea Indonesia, and Australia and New York.
They will look back to when Titan was first seen by Voyager spaceships on their epic journeys past the giant planets out of the solar system to the great dark between the stars.”

How I wish Sagan were alive to see this mission to Pluto.


July 9, 2015 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, Observations with Vinny | , , , , , , , ,

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