Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Wonders of science no longer reserved for a select few

On Saturday night, Dec. 5, I took out the 14-inch for some driveway observing.

It was not the most propitious night to gaze at the universe. No planets are visible in the evening sky right now – you’re better off looking east before sunrise – and there were pesky clouds to contend with, but the night went off well.

The folks across the street from me are moving soon to a new house that they’ll own, and perhaps I’ll have new neighbors across the street in a month or so. They came by for a last look through my telescope, and we talked about the latest discoveries in space.

There’s so much going on out there. The Cassini probe – in orbit around Saturn since the mid-2000s, soon will send back its last pictures and then begin its final death plunge into the planet. Entire libraries of books on Saturn are now quaint museum pieces thanks to the discoveries made of Saturn, its wondrous rings and its amazing moons. In a photo that almost brings tears to my eyes, a crescent Enceladus seems to hover above the rings.

It’s sad to say that Cassini must die eventually. It’s running out of reaction control fuel. A mission that began at first proposal in 1982; launch on Oct. 15, 1997, atop a Titan IVB-Centaur rocket; gravity assists around Venus in 1998 and 1999; and the Saturn insertion burn on July 1, 2004, will end as follows, according to Wikipedia:

“The chosen mission ending involves a series of close Saturn passes, approaching within the rings, then an entry into Saturn’s atmosphere on Sept. 15, 2017, to destroy the spacecraft. This method was chosen because it is imperative to ensure protection and prevent biological contamination to any of the moons of Saturn thought to offer potential habitability.”

I hope that, like the Galileo probe that went to its death in Jupiter, the Cassini will tell us even more about Saturn as it plunges to its fate. We will miss Cassini.

The year of Pluto
I was telling a neighbor, “All our lives, Pluto was a dot of light with an arrow next to it. Now, it’s a world of wonders. And we’re seeing it as it’s never been seen before.”

On the night of July 14, people around the world watched as NASA TV broadcast live the wait for the first signal from New Horizons. For years, since the Jan. 19, 2006, launch, we had waited for the spacecraft to make its long, long journey to Pluto.

The Atlas V rocket accelerated New Horizons to an amazing speed, and after a Jupiter encounter in September 2006, the probe went to sleep – with periodic awakenings – until it was time to get to work.

From a dot, Pluto and its moons grew in size. On July 14, we received the greatest signal in the history of space science. New Horizons had survived its close fly-by of Pluto and had acquired all the data it was expected to acquire, and now would begin the long, long process of transmitting it all back to Earth.

The other day, we got the best pictures we’ll ever get of Pluto. What a wonder it is.

And now, New Horizons is heading out for a Jan. 1, 2019, flyby of a Kuiper Belt object called 2014 MU69. If funding is achieved, we’ll be seeing a world so distant as more than a dot again.

Ceres and Vesta
The Dawn probe has achieved some amazing results around to minor planets in what used to be called the asteroid belt. As with the above missions, the data is put out to the public on the Internet, and we have a chance to see pictures of worlds we could only just imagine a few decades ago.

Abandon exploration?
Some say we need to focus on Earth, where we have plenty of problems that need solving. While we in the “West” wonder at the discoveries that are being made, others are in thrall to their favorite deities and obey the commands of self-appointed representatives, who seem to be ordering mass death and destruction.

Fighting them is a tall order, but we should not abandon our efforts to learn and discover. We have plenty of resources to fight and learn.

What Vesta is made of might not help us beat ISIS, but it shows that we’re able to focus on the cosmic issues.

Let’s close with a reading from the book of Sagan. “Cosmos,” episode 8, “Journeys in Space and Time”:

“Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours and every one of them is a succession of incidents, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time. And our small planet at this moment, here we face a critical branch point in history, what we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants, it is well within our power to destroy our civilization and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate to superstition or greed or stupidity we could plunge our world into a time of darkness deeper than the time between the collapse of classical civilization and the Italian Renaissance. But we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet.”

 

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December 6, 2015 - Posted by | Living in the modern age, Observations with Vinny, Uncategorized | , , , , ,

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