July 27, 2004 | David F. Coppedge

Solar System Update

What’s happening at Mars and Saturn?  In this golden age of planetary science, the extraordinary has become commonplace.  Let’s check in and see what the spacecraft have found lately.
Mars.  The Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity are still going strong, well past their nominal mission.  Despite a few minor problems (and decreasing sunlight as winter sets in), they both are in exciting locations that are giving the scientists new thrills.  The latest major announcement (see New Scientist) is that water not only appears to have existed in the past, but persisted for some time.  Spirit is now climbing the Columbia Hills in Gusev Crater, while Opportunity a hemisphere away is tantalizing scientists with geological layers in the crater named Endurance.  The MER website now posts interesting slide shows of each week’s activities so that earthlings can follow the adventures.
    Fascination with rovers should not make us forget the three Mars orbiters that continue to send back more fascinating imagery than a human mind can process.  The venerable Mars Global Surveyor posts its latest images here, and the stalwart 2001 Mars Odyssey, well past its 10,000th orbit, posts its latest infrared images here.  Not to be outdone, the European Mars Express continues to churn out high-resolution, color stereo images from orbit, including this latest shot of a fractured crater near Vallis Marineris.
Saturn.  Since its arrival at Saturn July 1, Cassini is healthy on its first long, elliptical orbit.  Though the next close encounter isn’t till October 26, when it flies past Titan at only 750 miles, the spacecraft is not idle.  New images of the moons Mimas, Enceladus, Iapetus, Tethys, Dione and Rhea have trickled in, though not as yet better than Voyager’s 1981 images because of the distance.  Much, much better ones are in the mission plan.  The nicest color image recently was this color composite of the rings.  At full resolution it would make nice wallpaper.  The Huygens Probe operations team had a successful risk review and probe checkout in preparation for their nail-biting January 14 parachuted descent to the surface of Titan.  Meanwhile, the instrument teams (magnetometer, plasma wave, cosmic dust, ultraviolet and infrared, radio science and, of course, visible light imaging) are all busily taking data about Saturn’s winds and magnetic field, rings, moons and space environment.  Some of it is surprising and should be announced soon.  Note: NASA headquarters maintains its own Cassini website.
Mercury.  A new mission to Mercury named MESSENGER – the first since Mariner 10 in 1975 – is due to launch next month, August 2.  The mission designed by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory will take a long time to get results, though; the complex gravity-assist trajectory requires seven years before orbit insertion in 2011.  Only about half of the planet was seen by Mariner 10 so there is a great deal more to learn about the innermost planet.
Earth.  Other planets are interesting, but we have to (better, get to) live on this one.  The AURA mission just launched successfully on July 15 to study the upper atmosphere, especially the dynamics of the ozone layer that protects us from dangerous ultraviolet radiation.

Interpreting this wealth of data from these exotic places will take years, but the new observations are certain to help answer old questions while stimulating new ones.  Meanwhile, we need to keep the Darwin Party in line.  Help your local Darwinist break his or her bad habit of equating water with life, a non-sequitur if there ever was one (e.g., from New Scientist, “The actual time span has not been estimated, but it reveals enough time to strengthen the possibilities that life could have evolved on Mars.”)  A worse habit is thinking the discovery of life in space means the death of God.  Apparently, they do not understand just how big God is; some creationists think life might be found on Mars or beyond.  And who knows?  Maybe the first incoming SETI message will be John 3:16 in Vulcan.  For now, don’t let the Darwinese hype bother you.  Raw data belongs to everyone.  Just because a fat spectator is belching hot air and making himself a nuisance doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the game.

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