February 4th, 2010

Sy Liebergot

Cool Stuff: Space

Titan

A little while back, the Cassini spacecraft captured a great photo that's worth sharing. The spacecraft has been tooling around the Saturn system for some time now -- since mid 2004.

Titan is the largest of the Saturnian moons. We've known for some time that pools of liquid methane (possibly with some other hydrocarbons) dotted the surface. In fact, it's the only solar system body outside of the Earth on which a stable liquid is visible. (Europa may have water locked beneath an ice crust; this has yet to be proven.)

But then just recently Cassini snapped this photo:



That's sun glinting off a lake as it comes up over Titan's horizon! That's something that captures the mind. More than anything, this photo demonstrates to me the difference between knowing something intellectually and knowing something emotionally. Sure, we had concluded that there was a liquid cycle with lakes but seeing something like this that connects to our experience puts it into a different perspective.

Pluto

My favorite ("dwarf") planet. It's distant. It's mysterious. We've never visited it with a probe. Yet.

After four years of imaging and processing, photos of Pluto have been assembled basically for the first time.



Yes, that's the best image technology can provide. Pluto is far enough and small enough that most telescopes can't resolve any detail at all. This view is assembled from Hubble image data.

But what it suggests! Pluto isn't a small, featureless iceball. The variations here suggest that we will have something interesting to discover when New Horizons passes it in 2015.

Your random Pluto fact: the Disney character was named after the planet. The then-planet was officially named in 1930, the same year Pluto the dog was created.

Robert Anton Wilson, in his "Illuminatus" trilogy, suggested we might proceed the other way to reciprocate. His books suggested that tenth and eleventh planets would be discovered and named Mickey and Goofy in turn. (However, the next dwarf planet was named Eris, which probably would've also pleased Mr. Wilson.)