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“More atmospheric images taken on the way down to the rings ...”

There will be loads of Cassini images of Saturn coming out between now and the Grand Finale in September. 

If you want to keep up to date, follow the Cassini Imaging lead Carolyn Porco on twitter. She’s one of my favourite astronomers and is incredibly passionate about all things science. 

Image Credit: Carolyn Porco; Nasa; JPL/Caltech

Today, the European Space Agency released an image taken by the Rosetta spacecraft on its very close (8.7 km altitude) flyby of Comet 67P. This mind-blowing scene shows details as small as ¾ meter. You could discern astronauts in an image like this! It reveals a portion of the comet 1.3 km, or ~¾ mile, across….an easy 15 minute walk here on Earth and a trivial (but scary) hop on Comet 67P.

Even as someone who has seen, and even been responsible for, a lot of glorious images of the worlds in our solar system, I am stunned by these pictures. Our pre-exploration imaginings of what the surface of a comet might be like were so lacking.

Now, look at all there is to see and learn in this place where complicated processes have obviously worked the surface. Hats off to the Rosetta folks for a magnificently successful expedition.

Enjoy!

I was asked by the National Academy of Science’s Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science to present to them the significance of Cassini’s findings at Enceladus, and make the case for a return mission to focus on the search there for evidence of life.

At no other place in the solar system does an extraterrestrial sub-surface ocean of salty, organics-laced liquid water present itself so handsomely, with samples shooting into space, readily accessible to any passing spacecraft.

Earlier this month, I stood before the Committee and made my case (see attached photo).

Fingers crossed that we won’t have to wait too long before we set sail once again for the Saturnian system, this time to probe more deeply and with greater facility the secrets of the ocean we now know lies hidden beneath the surface of the small icy world of Enceladus.

2

A Letter to My Friend and Colleague, Carl Sagan, on the Occasion of His 80th Birthday

November 9, 2014

Dear Carl,

It’s so lovely to be beaming this message to you on your 80th birthday.
As you may be aware, the world hasn’t changed much since you left. It’s still a great mess. It’s still looking like we may destroy our civilization after all. Political gridlock is as bad as anyone can remember, and there’s no end yet in sight to the damage we are doing to our environment and our future. Regrettably, in the hallways where power congregates, they are still not listening to you..

But I gotta tell ya… Titan was even more wonderful than even you could have imagined. Seas of liquid hydrocarbons are strewn around the poles. Methane clouds that change seasonally float aloft. And a wide belt of miles and miles and thousands of miles of dunes encircle the globe. Who expected that?! So much like Earth and yet so not.

And you wouldn’t believe what we found on Enceladus! A hundred and one geysers gushing from the surface, laced with organic compounds and erupting from a deep salty sea. It just might be the very place you wished with all your might we could find. Someday, hopefully soon, we may know if…well…you know. Fingers crossed.

And now we’re on the eve of exploring the Kuiper Belt, starting w/ a most historic rendezvous with Pluto, and in only a few days we’ll be landing on a comet. We’ve made great strides in our efforts to know how and where we are. I know all this would have made you smile and would have given you great hope. Just wish you were still here to cheer us on.

Oh, and didn’t Annie do a great job with Cosmos II? You would have been so proud.

Well, wherever you are right now, undoubtedly out there somewhere in the cosmos, having a blast, the happiest of Happy Birthdays to you!

We miss you.

Your friend and colleague,
Carolyn

PS. Sending along some pictures from happy days … at Voyager’s encounter with Neptune in 1989, and your 60th birthday party twenty years ago. How time flies.

7

Twenty-five years ago today, Voyager 2 flew within 5,000 km of the cloud tops of Neptune, capping the most glorious and ambitious exploration humankind has ever engineered. We could not claim to know the contents of our cosmic neighborhood without Voyager’s tour through the planetary portion of our solar system. For many of us, including myself, it was a defining, life-shaping experience.

Here are some pictures from that oh-so-memorable time … a time of discovery and peaceful conquest that set the stage for the return expeditions to Jupiter and Saturn, which came to be called Galileo and Cassini. The pictures include artwork, a close-up of the high methane clouds on Neptune, preparations for TV interviews by MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour and CNN, the final press conference in which I gave the summary of our findings on Neptune’s rings, and a pic of Chuck Berry and Carl Sagan, speaking to the Voyager team members already giddy in their celebration of the successful conclusion of Voyager’s historic, 12-year odyssey.

Enjoy the memories!