Space Probe Makes Science Fiction Wonders of Childhood
LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS
Published: January 25, 2005
small probe stranded
on a far-away and hostile world operates for two precious hours at a
temperature of 300 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, desperately
transmitting information to its mother ship before that spacecraft
disappears below the horizon, leaving the small explorer alone on the
spongy ground of its new alien home, slowly losing power and slated to
eternally rest on a frozen moon 750 million miles from Earth.
I could be accused of anthropomorphizing, but the plight
of the small Cassini-Huygens probe resting by a hydrocarbon-coated ice
and methane plain on Saturn's largest moon, Titan, captured my
imagination far more than anything the astronauts in the International
Space Station might be doing now.
What really did it for me was the orange sky. It showed
with striking clarity that the science fiction wonders that I dreamed
of as a child are being revealed by our unmanned space probes in a way
that is both more enthralling and informative than anything likely to
come from spending all of NASA's funds on a few more astronauts on the
Moon, or, eventually, Mars.
I admit to having already been hooked on Internet images
like those from Martian Rovers on a planet that that looks suspiciously
like a smoggy sunset seen from Los Angeles. But until now, the worlds
that were stunningly brought to my desktop were closer to what I might
see exploring an earthly desert than to those exotic places that had so
captured my imagination as a child reading science fiction stories, or
looking at artists' renderings of imaginary planetary surfaces.
But there, as I clicked on the Cassini-Huygens probe Web
site, the dark pebbles of dirty hydrocarbon-coated ice on the surface
of Titan jumped out through an orange glow of an atmosphere unlike
anything I had ever seen.
I was instead reminded of old science fiction stories.
On the Web I found a recent example of the kind of thing I used to
savor. This was an award-winning short story, "Slow Life" by Michael
Swanwick, about human explorers seeking life on Titan.
"People talked a lot about the 'murky orange atmosphere'
of Titan, but your eyes adjusted. Turn up the gain on your helmet, and
the white mountains of ice were dazzling! The methane streams carved
cryptic runes into the heights. Then, at the tholin-line, white turned
to a rich palette of oranges, reds and yellows."
So the water-ice is dirtier and the surface darker. But
the landscape of Titan is eerily similar to the one Mr. Swanwick
imagined so vividly. Except that the truth is even stranger and more
entrancing than his fiction.
I learned from a news conference carried out on Friday
by the Cassini-Hugyens probe science team that there is evidence of
active volcanoes on Titan's surface based on argon 40 in the
atmosphere. But these do not spew molten lava. Instead, like the ones I
concocted with my childhood chemistry set, these release flumes of
water and ammonia.
There are indeed clouds and methane and hydrocarbon
rainstorms, but the reality of a turbulent atmosphere of methane winds
was brought home to me in a way that no writing could. With brilliant
foresight, the Huygens science includes a microphone on the probe. As
it fell through the clouds, beginning about 100 miles above the
surface, I could listen as well as see the approaching surface as the
craft sent out a stream of photos during its descent. Sitting at my
computer in the middle of the night, listening to gusts of alien winds
on a remote moon of Saturn was both eerie and moving.
I consider myself fortunate to be living at a time when
humans are as close as they may ever come to seeing such a truly alien
world with methane slush and new colors in the sky. That is probably
what drew me to science in the first place. While literature has the
power to lift us from the tedium of everyday existence, science at its
best has the power to transport us to totally different worlds, both
literal and metaphorical, to take us where our imaginations may never
have otherwise traveled.