Friday, December 31, 2004

To Boldy Go

This January 14th, I'm going to be taking a break from the usual Benedict Arnold birthday festivities so I can watch the news for something just as important - the best chance we have to learn about how common extraterrestrial life is, for at least a decade.

To elaborate: in fifteen days, the laws of orbital mechanics will reach their inexorable conclusion, and the freefalling Huygens probe will enter the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Titan's pretty much unique in the solar system, in that it's the only planetary body possessing an atmosphere at near-Earth pressures (although mean molecular density is several times greater there, very low temperatures bring surface air pressure to about 1.5 atms), with large quantities of inert nitrogen gas and smaller amounts of CO2 and methane. Complicated atmospheric chemistry simulations (of which I'm proud to have worked on, in small part, last summer) have predicted the possibility of sizable ethane oceans underneath the thick organic fog which shrouds Titan, along with a constant precipitation of methane and other hydrocarbons.

There certainly are differences, but Titan today resembles the Earth of three billion years ago in a lot of key ways. And we know next to nothing about it. Methane clouds prevent astronomers from making any but the most basic observations of the moon, and its remoteness means that this is the first robotic probe which will actually enter Titan's atmosphere. If Huygens succeeds at penetrating into the stratosphere, our understanding of how we fit into the universe may well be affected. The data that Huygens is designed to return could give astronomers back on Earth a way to make educated guesses about the question every human being has wondered about, at some time or another: how rare is life?

I'm looking forward to it.


At 6:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OMG politics AND science. Throw in some junk about art and you'll really be Renaissance men. (Sorry for being sarcastic, I love you guys.)

I was just thinking about how unnecessary a manned space program seems sometimes. We get all this awesome science from robotic probes - the Mars rovers/ satellites, Cassini, LANDSAT, Galileo. Hubble, OMG. And there's so much to look forward to - Huygens, Deep Impact, Mars Sample Return, Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter.

What are we getting out of the International Space Station right now? Not much; it has a skeleton caretaker crew focused largely on physical maintenance. Manned space flight is expensive and dangerous.

I'm not saying we should not have gone to the moon. Getting rock samples from that planet have taught us a lot about how Earth and the rest of the Solar System formed, and we wouldn't have that science without the manned missions.

But you heard what everyone called the Mars Exploration Rovers - "Robotic Geologists." How long will it be before we can make a real robotic geologist? One that, if remotely operated by a human, has the same utility as that human? It won't be long - I mean, Google Honda's ASIMO. I think that people who say that some science can't be done by robots will, sooner rather than later, be full of shit.

That doesn't mean I'm against returning the Shuttle to flight. We need to refurbish the Hubble, and a robotic mission probably isn't feasible before it needs maintenance (2007). But I think that we're going to have to hang up the shuttles soon.

As long as we don't forget about colonizing Mars, terraforming it, and then flying to Alpha Centauri. We need to get off this rock. And, um, live on some other rocks.

-Josh Stern the pimp


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