It has been quite a day for a falling sky. As murmurs rippled around the world that the end may be near, and astronomers worked to reassure everyone that asteroid 2012 DA14 would not strike the Earth today, despite its historic pass inside our satellite orbital ring, an unrelated meteorite chose to scare people in Russia this morning.
The countdown is on for the Cassini probe’s latest close encounter with Saturn’s largest moon, Titan. Slated for 5:57 pm PST, February 16 (1:57 AM, February 17, UTC), Cassini will approach within 1,229 miles (1,978 km) from the surface of Titan at a blazing speed of 13,000 mph (5.8 km/s).
NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory explains:
During the Solstice mission, a main science objective is to measure Titan’s gravitational field in order to confirm or deny the presence of an underground ocean. Additional radio science (RSS) gravity observations are needed both to answer this question and to help determine if Titan’s crust is thick and rigid, or thin.
The spacecraft is slated for only four encounters with Titan during the Solstice mission, and scientists hope to get the most out of each pass.
Raw images usually post fairly quickly, so we can expect new glimpses of Titan in the coming days.
Meanwhile, a trivial bit: Did you know that the International Astronomical Union names Titan’s mountains after Middle Earth, from J.R.R. Tolkein’s novels?
Welcome to novus advocatus scientiae.
I thought of the scores of millions of human beings to whom the passage of an unconstipated elephant seems a godsend, a stroke of enormous good luck. The thought depressed me. Why are we here, men and women … on this remarkable and perhaps unique planet? To what end? Is it to go about looking for dung—cow dung, horse dung, the enormous and princely excrement of elephants? Evidently it is—for a good many of us at any rate. It seemed an inadequate reason, I thought, for our being here—immortal souls, first cousins of the angels, own brothers of Buddha and Mozart and Sir Isaac Newton.
But a little while later I saw that I was wrong to let the consideration depress me. If it depressed me, that was only because I looked at the whole matter from the wrong end, so to speak. In painting my mental picture of the dung-searchers I had filled my foreground with the figures of Sir Isaac Newton and the rest of them. These, I perceived, should have been relegated to the remote background and the foreground should have been filled with cows and elephants. The picture so arranged, I should have been able to form a more philosophical and proportionable estimate of the dung-searchers. For I should have seen at a glance how vastly superior were their activities to those of the animal producers of dung in the foreground. The philosophical Martian would admire the dung-searchers for having discovered a use for dung; no other animal, he would point out, has had the wit to do more than manufacture it.
We are not Martians and our training makes us reluctant to think of ourselves as animals. Nobody inquires why cows and elephants inhabit the world. There is little reason why we should be here, eating, drinking, sleeping, and in the intervals reading metaphysics, saying prayers, or collecting dung. We are here, that is all; and like other animals we do what our native capacities and our environment permit of our doing. Our achievement, when we compare it with that of cows and elephants, is remarkable. They automatically make dung; we collect it and turn it into fuel. It is not something to be depressed about; it is something to be proud of. Still, in spite of the consolations of philosophy, I remained pensive.